By Erin Bunch
Two weeks ago, my cat unexpectedly passed away. Over the years, she’d become a real-deal dear friend, and in the midst of being isolated during the pandemic, my connection to her only grew stronger. Perhaps that’s part of why I’ve taken it harder than I ever imagined I would; grieving the loss of a pet under these circumstances feels not dissimilar to how I’ve felt after losing humans in the past. But despite commonalities in emotional experience, there are no rituals in place for how to proceed when it’s a pet you’re grieving, and that’s left me feeling lost.
According to Jillian Blueford, PhD, a Denver-based therapist who specializes in grief, what I’m feeling is extremely common. For starters, she assures me that it’s natural to feel pain when a pet dies. “Grief comes down to the loss of someone or something that was significant to us, where there was some attachment to it, and so it makes a lot of sense that the death of a pet can invoke a similar grief response [to the death of a person],” she says. “A lot of us consider our pets part of our family, so it can be impactful when they pass.”
And since pets tend to provide their owners with unconditional comfort and emotional support, their passing can leave a significant hole in our lives. Add this factor to the reality that many are spending more time at home with their pets than ever before due to COVID-19 safety measures, and the exacerbated sense of loss for those whose pets have died during the pandemic is much clearer.
While the only way out of grief may indeed be through it, Dr. Blueford has several suggestions to offer those grieving the loss of a pet during the pandemic who may feel even more alone and isolated as a result.
Below, a grief specialist offers 9 ideas for grieving the loss of a pet during the pandemic.
1. Create a ritual
While there are no standard rituals in place to mark the passing of a pet, burials are still common, says Dr. Blueford. And even if your pet’s body isn’t actually interred in your backyard, you can still hold a funeral ceremony or wake for them wherever makes sense for you.
2. Collect mementos
Some may find it therapeutic to collecting photos, toys, or other things that remind them of the good times they experienced with their pet. For example, I bought an iPhone Polaroid printer so I could print photos of my cat, which are now taped to my computer and fridge (the two places I gaze upon the most, LOL).
3. Get rid of reminders if they trigger sadness
On the flip side, Dr. Blueford notes that some people may find donating their pet’s things to be more healing because doing so gets those items out of sight (and potentially aids in the happiness of another pet). “There’s no timeline for getting rid of that stuff,” she adds. “It’s just about doing what feels right for you.”
4. Sharing stories
Dr. Blueford recommends sharing pictures and stories with others, just as you would do if you were grieving the death of a beloved person. If this makes you feel weird—as it does me—she says to consider why and work to get through those feelings. “Oftentimes we feel like we would be a burden on people for sharing our grief and memories of our pet, but oftentimes people do want to listen,” she says. “It’s just about finding the right person to share with, especially when an anniversary or special date comes up where you know your grief will be more challenging. You can say, ‘I know I’ve already talked to you about my pet, but they’re really on my mind today’.”
You can, of course, share on social media, too. “If you’re active and comfortable, that can be the audience you’re sharing to,” Dr. Blueford says.
5. Write to your pet
You can also journal letters to your pet, Dr. Blueford suggests. “It may feel odd, but we communicate with our pets all the time, and they communicate with us,” she says. “So just like we might do with someone who has died, we can write to our pets to tell them how much we miss them, and about the things that are going on that they’d normally be a part of.”
6. Consider adopting a pet
Dr. Blueford says her clients often struggle with the choice of whether or not to get a new pet—and if so, when. But, she assures, there’s no right or wrong way to go about this. “If you do decide you don’t want a pet ever again, that’s okay,” she says. “And if you decide you’re missing that companionship and would like another pet, that’s okay, too.”
If you choose the latter, she does make clear that the new pet won’t erase the grief you feel for the pet you’ve lost. “We don’t like to be in that pain, so it’s easy after the death of a pet to say, ‘I’ll go get another pet and this will help me avoid the loneliness and grief I’m feeling right now’,” she says. “But that’s not always the case. Even if you do decide to get another pet, the grief will be there, so sometimes it’s best for you to experience a little bit of time before deciding if you want to bring another pet into the home.”
7. Feel your grief
“I will always promote feeling the grief and whatever ugliness and joy comes out of it,” Dr. Blueford says. “As much as we try to push down any type of grief, it will eventually resurface to the point where we can’t avoid it.”
So in addition to memorializing and honoring your pet, try not to fix your feelings. “Honor the grieving and whatever feelings or thoughts come up—pain, anger, confusion, guilt, or even reminiscing on more joyous memories and laughing,” she says. “And hopefully the next time [the grief surfaces] will be more manageable.”
It’s important to note, she says, that like with all forms of grief, grieving the loss of a pet can be an unpredictable process, especially in the beginning. “That early, more acute grief can feel exhausting and like a roller coaster—maybe one minute you’re okay and the next minute you’re not, and you can’t predict when grief is going to hit you,” she says. This unpredictability is the part we dislike most, Dr. Blueford says, which is why many might try to suppress it. Doing so only likely postpones grief, however, so you may as well let yourself feel it when it first arises.
8. Look for support groups
9. Allow yourself to feel joy
When I tell Dr. Blueford that I’m experiencing guilt related to my pet loss amid moments when I feel joy, she assures me this is also a common feature of grief. “We have to give ourselves permission to have good days and know that that doesn’t mean we’ll forget our pet or the loss,” she says. “Grief is a unique aspect of our life because it doesn’t go away fully, and we have to learn how to integrate it into the new normal, knowing that means both good and bad days.”
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