The Heartbreak of Pet Loss

I want to write about the emotional complexity of pet loss. Not only do we have intense feelings about losing our pets, but then we also worry and judge ourselves about having those feelings.

I hear over and over again from people who are feeling bad or confused about their emotional response to losing their pet. They think that they “shouldn’t” feel so distraught over the loss of their pet. This mirrors the hurtful responses we often get from people who don’t understand our loss and say dismissive things like “it was just a dog/cat”. Or people feel completely bowled over by the depth of the grief and overwhelmed by an intensity that is different than they have ever felt, even over the loss of some people in their life.

If this is you, I just want to say that of course you should, and would, feel this distraught. And you are not the only one who feels this way.

You just said goodbye to a creature that had your whole heart. You cared for your pet on a daily basis for months and years, they were with you through your everyday routines and rhythms, and they saw you through the ups and downs of your life and you saw them through theirs. They gave you a love and connection that was so desperately precious precisely because they are an animal. There is just a pure magic in having a bond so deep with a being that we don’t share words with, but we are still so connected to.

The bond we have with our pets is such a unique connection. We are caretaker, provider, protector, and decider. Every choice we make is with their wellbeing in mind and it is on us to make every choice. When it comes to end of life decisions, this is an incredible burden to bear. And the bond goes the other way as well. They are our companion, family, friend, and support. Even though they rely on us for so much, we turn to them for just as much and they give it to us with such full-heartedness.

We share an intimacy with our pets that is different than with any human. They became an integral part of our daily rituals – we’re aware of their presence in the room with us while we get ready in the morning, we mark time by when we need to be home to feed or take them out, we’re greeted when we walk in the door with such joy and excitement, and we all head to bed together as the day winds down, just to start it all over again in the morning. And there is the tactile-ness of our pets – the feel of their fur, the energy of their play, the sounds they make from their paws padding on the floor and the way they bark or howl or purr.

Because of all of that, there is a deep emptiness and gigantic silence when they are gone. Home becomes a place of memories of their presence, and now their absence. Those markers are not just daily or hourly, but minute by minute as we move through our day and feel that they are not right there next to us like they always had been.

This just breaks your heart wide open, again and again and again. And this is why the grief is so deep and overwhelming. Plus, we are not prepared for the intensity of it. All of this in the midst of a world that often doesn’t acknowledge it, so we think something is wrong with us. And that just adds to suffering on top of the pain.

There is a path through the pain, and there are resources out there – pet loss support groups, books, online chat forums, poems, others who understand and can offer support. And part of the healing is creating space for the pain – the depth of our love is the depth of our grief, so of course we are distraught and disheveled, of course our world is turned upside down. Of course you are feeling the way you do. And sometimes the pain of pet loss can trigger or get tangled up with distress other than just grief itself, like feelings of anxiety or depression. Find the supports you need, be it friends and family, a hotline or support group, a therapist, a book, a walk outside. Take good care of your broken heart as you find soft places for healing.

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.