Please note the term companion animals in this resource is inclusive of fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians or insects.
Grief is grief, and no matter what we are grieving, our reactions can be very similar, even when a loved animal or pet passes (no matter what species). Our head knows the ‘who’ or the ‘what’, and our hearts simply knows that we hurt.
Grief is the natural and inevitable response to loss, and it can affect every part of our life, including our thoughts, behaviours, beliefs, feelings, physical health and our relationships with others. When a companion animal dies, the bereavement experience may not be any different to what we experience following the death of a human being.
The grief experienced following the loss of an animal is real. For some people, an animal may be their most central and vital relationship. It may be the reason for getting up each day and perhaps their only experience of love. Attachments formed with animals can be as significant as those created with humans. It can be very distressing, particularly if there are feelings of guilt concerning decisions made about euthanasia.
Animals provide companionship that reduces loneliness and depression and eases anxiety. Animals may also provide us with an influx of ‘feel-good’ hormones, which helps promoting relaxation and social bonding. They support our emotional well-beings and can instil our actions with meaning. Animals need to be cared for and with that comes nurturing and responsibility. Dogs need walking, fish need to be fed, and horses need riding and brushing down. This is why, in addition to emotional pain, after a companion animal or a pet dies, we may feel aimless, lost and lacking purpose in our daily life.
What to expect when an a family pet or companion animal dies
Recovering from a loss, as in all forms of grief, requires us to recognise life changes and find ways to manage these changes. These adaptations may include increasing self-care (ten tips for self care here) and seeking social support from people who are compassionate and understand the significance of the relationship without judgment.
Sometimes grief experienced from companion animal or pet loss can feel 'disenfranchised’. This means that the loss is not acknowledged or validated by others. You may think that you have ‘less right’ to grieve the loss of an animal rather than another human being. Your grief, however, is unique to you, and as long as you are not causing harm to yourself or those around you, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to grieve. Grief is not something that should be placed on a hierarchy.
Learn more: when you feel your grief is not acknowledged
Common grief responses
After a death, we may experience a range of intense feelings, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, disbelief, panic, relief, irritability, guilt or numbness. Grief can also affect our thinking. We may think we will never get over this, or that we are going crazy. It can affect our beliefs and the way we view the world. Sometimes grief can also cause difficulty in sleeping and physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, aches and pains. If physical symptoms persist, check with your GP to exclude other causes.
Read more: about grief
What can you do?
When grieving, it can be all too easy to neglect our own needs. Taking the time to look after yourself can make a big difference in your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, and in the longer term. Below are suggestions for how to get through the difficult times.
Create a memorial by doing or making something to honour your companion animal.
Develop meaningful rituals, such as lighting a candle whilst listening to special music.
Allow yourself to express your thoughts and feelings by writing a letter, a poem, collecting photos. Allow yourself to cry if you need to.
Consider what activities may be helpful for children to express their grief, such as playing games, drawing, reading books, craft, singing or dancing.
Regular exercise such as walking, housework or gardening is helpful to use pent-up energy and enables better sleep patterns.
Draw on your religious or spiritual beliefs and practices.
Explore other people’s grief experiences through books, movies, or articles.
Do things that you find relaxing and soothing.
Eat food with nutritional value, limit alcohol and caffeine and try to maintain a routine, especially around bedtime.
Sharing and talking with other compassionate people can reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness that comes with grief.
Allow people to help you. Don’t be embarrassed to accept their help. You will be able to help someone else at another time. It is your turn now.
Consider joining a companion animal loss support group to share with others who have had similar experiences. Some animal clinics and veterinary practices offer these.
Sometimes people tend to offer unasked-for advice, usually along the lines of ‘you can always get another pet’. That may be true, but it may be best to grieve your companion animal first before trying to fill the empty space.
Talk to children about the death of a companion animal using age-appropriate language. Use terms like ‘He has died’ rather than ‘he has gone’ which can be difficult for children to understand.
When to seek further help
Don’t be afraid to seek professional support from a bereavement counsellor, psychologist, general practitioner or other health professionals. Many practitioners offer telephone and online help.
We would like to thank the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement for creating this resource.
You can visit their website for other helpful resources.