Pet Loss: Strategies for Grief and Mourning

There are so many strategies that can help as you move through the grief of losing a pet. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

1. Journaling:

Writing about what you are feeling, writing a letter to your pet (or many letters), imagining what your pet would say if they could write a letter to you, using a pet loss journal as a guide.

2. Creating memorials:

Creating a spot where you can honor your pet and their memory. This may be a place (or multiple places) in your home, or may be a larger memorial event with friends and family.

3. Honoring the changes in your daily routines:

One of the hardest things is how we feel their absence in so many little ways throughout the day. Finding ways to name and honor this can help. This could be something such as: putting a picture of your cat in the place on your dresser where she sat every morning as you got ready, saying out loud to your dog’s picture what you would say every time you left for the day, telling them how much you miss them every time you walk in the door now that they are not there anymore.

4. Remembering the good times:

Sometimes we are left with the last images of their decline and death. It can help to try to soften those last images with other memories of their (full and wonderful!) life. This can be painful too, so take care of your heart and trust your pacing. Looking through old pictures and videos and remembering and sharing stories, can be a way to both honor their memory and remind you of all you hold in your heart of them.

5. Crying, a lot:

I think it is worth noting because it can really surprise people and even worry them! I often hear people say how they’ve never before cried this hard, this much, this wailing-like. Find soft places to curl up when the tears come, rehydrate yourself (truly), and know that you are not alone in the buckets of tears that flow.

6. Give yourself a break:

The “dual process model” talks about how moving through grieving is both about moving into the pain (loss-oriented) and also stepping out of it at times (restoration-oriented). It is a lot of emotional, mental, and physical work to be grieving. And sometimes we need a break – some respite – so we can go back into it. These breaks are actually helping us as well. I hear people often describe this as finding a “distraction” – it may be going to work, watching a mindless TV show, or anything that takes your mind away even for a moment or two. It’s not denying the pain, that will still be there and pop back up. It’s almost like finding ways to come back up for air and into daily life, before you dive back down into the heartache.

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.

The Pain of Pet Loss: What Can Help?

The intense emotional pain that comes with losing a pet can be an overwhelming experience, to say the least. If you’re navigating the grief process, the ideas below can help you find your way:

1. Know that what you are experiencing makes sense:

You are not crazy. You feel like something has been cut out of your heart. You are wailing in a way you have never cried before. Of course you are feeling the way you do (more about the emotional pain of pet loss in this previous post on “The Heartbreak of Pet Loss“. Learning about the grief process and how to move through it can help you get your bearings. So can reaching out for support.

2. Learn a little bit about pet loss:

Most of us never want to think about the day when our pet won’t be with us. So when it happens, we find ourselves in new territory right as our hearts are breaking wide open. Just knowing that pet loss and grief is a real thing, that there is information about it, and a path through it can be helpful. (Check out the earlier post on “Finding Pet Loss Support” with information about how to find support and resources.)

3. Find support:

You don’t have to be alone in your experience. Reaching out for the support that you need can really help. There is something about grief, and particularly the loss of a pet, where knowing that others experience it too is a comfort. It doesn’t necessarily make the pain any less but in some ways it can make it just a little more bearable, when you know that you are on a journey that others are on too.

4. Take care of your basic needs:

Grief is exhausting. It’s key that you try to take care of your basic needs through the grief – drinking enough water (after so much crying!), eating well (remembering to and trying to), and resting.

5. Move at your own pace:

What moving through the grief will look like is an individual experience, and it is important to tune in to what is right for you. With pet loss, this can be about: with whom and how we talk about the loss, when we leave the house or feel like being at home, what we do/don’t do with our pet’s things, how we adjust to a daily routine without them, if we want to do a memorial of some kind, if we ever or never want to get another pet, when we want/don’t want to see anyone else’s animals – and the list goes on. Find what honors and feels true for you and your relationship with your pet.

6. Catch when you are stuck:

Grief is a process of being in and moving through, not “getting over.” A pet loss counselor colleague once suggested to gauge “moving through” based on how you felt the first day after the loss and how you are feeling now. You can’t move any faster than you can. It’s about taking care of yourself and your heart as you move through the pain.

That said, do take note if you feel like you are stuck, drowning in it, moving into more and more darkness. If anxiety and/or depression is surfacing, if it gets so bad that you are having your own thoughts of not wanting to be alive, get help. There are the supports we talked about here, and for the darkest moments there are suicide prevention hotlines (1-800-273-8255) or your local 911/ER.

When you are feeling “stuck” in the grief, that’s when in-person individual support with a mental health professional who is sensitive to pet loss and grief can really help. It can be hard to find the ropes you need to pull yourself through the grief on your own. Having someone else there to walk and talk you through it can make all the difference.

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.

Finding Pet Loss Support

If you are in the midst of the immense heartbreak of saying goodbye to a beloved pet, please know that you are not alone and there are supports out there that can help.

Here are some options to consider. It’s important that you find what feels right for you.

1. Books:

When reading about pet loss, it is just you and the page. This can be a way to hear the stories of others’ experiences without any pressure to share your own. You can gain information about pet loss and the grief process, as well as specific strategies that you might find helpful. There are so many books out there, I won’t even try to list them all, but one excellent place to start is Dr. Wallace Sife’s book “The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies.” I also really like Enid Traisman’s “My Pet Remembrance Journal.

2. Websites and blogs:

There are many websites and blogs out there with information about pet loss. Some websites also have online forums where you can connect with others who are also grieving. You can find information about grief, as well as additional reading material resources or strategies for healing. Two popular sites are the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) and Rainbow Bridge, and there are many more.

3. Phone support:

Phone support is also an option. There are several pet loss helplines available, often times run by veterinary teaching institutions. You can call to talk to someone and get some initial support for what you are experiencing, and often they can connect you to additional support and resources as well. Rainbow Bridge’s website has this listing of Pet Loss Helplines.

4. Pet Loss Support Groups:

Attending a pet loss support group can be a wonderful way to feel the support of others who truly understand what you are going through. VetVine is hosting online Pet Loss Support Groups. You can also see if there is a pet loss support group in your area by looking on The Pet Loss Support Page by state listings, asking your veterinarian, asking your local animal shelter, or contacting a pet loss helpline.

5. Counseling:

Counseling is also an option and can be really helpful in getting more individualized support. When you’re looking for a counselor, it’s important to know that everyday people (who are not mental health professionals) can go through some pet loss counseling trainings (like through Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement) and then offer pet loss counseling. These counselors are not offering psychotherapy and it’s a good idea to clarify or confirm this if you speak with them. Mental health professionals (who hold degrees and licenses in psychology, counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy) also offer pet loss counseling.

Be informed of what kind of support you are looking for and ask questions about what kind of training the pet loss counselor has done.

To find referrals to pet loss counselors in your area, you can look at pet loss websites to see if they have referral listings, The Pet Loss Support Page has listings by state, you can call a pet loss helpline, you can call University of Tennessee and ask for referrals to a Veterinary Social Worker in your area, or you can look at Psychology Today for a therapist with a focus on grief and loss. And if you are already seeing a therapist, you can ask if pet loss is an area they work with.

6. Friends and Family:

It’s such a gift when family and friends understand what you are going through and can offer you the support you need. Not everyone can or will be able to do that. So it’s okay to take care of yourself by accepting the support that you feel is helpful and letting any support that is not helpful, just roll on by. Even with wonderful support from those dear to you, you still may find it’s helpful to look into these other pet loss support options as well.

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.

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.

Rehoming or Euthanasia and Behavior Problems

The last several posts have focused on what it is like to care for a pet with behavior problems. It’s crucial that part of that conversation touches on something many owners will reckon with – decisions about rehoming or euthanasia. Future posts will focus more in depth about pet loss and grief and will include these topics related to behavior issues. But I want pet owners to know that if they are at that crossroads now, they are not alone, and they are not bad people for being in that spot.

The judgment that these pet owners can feel from others and towards themselves is intense, and my hope is that we can start to create more space for these difficult experiences and emotions.

There are such complexities when caring for a pet with behavior problems. Sometimes the pet progresses and does get better. But sometimes they don’t, and the behavior problem gets more intense, even with all the best efforts on the owner’s part. Our lives change and evolve. This impacts the environment that the pet is living in and whether it’s an appropriate fit. There may be new or continued safety concerns that need to be evaluated and addressed.

Making a decision about rehoming or euthanasia for behavior reasons is hands-down one of the most heartbreaking and difficult places to be, which I know from both personal and professional experience.

I have yet to meet an owner who comes to that decision lightly and without their own struggle – with feelings of guilt, feeling like a failure, intense self-judgment, and doubt. There is so much sadness and grief.

What I wish that we could give to them is:

  • open-hearted acknowledgement of the difficulty of the choice before them
  • reserved judgment to create the space for understanding their individual situation
  • professional qualified behavioral support in their assessment and evaluation of their family’s options
  • pet loss support for their complex and complicated grief

For those of you at this crossroads, my heart breaks for you. I hope that you can find support in your community and with your pet professionals.

You are not alone.

A helpful resource to navigate these decision is this handout developed by OSU’s Honoring the Bond program as well as Patricia McConnel’s blog post on this topic. I’ve also included this story and this one of traversing this painful path – thank you to these pet owners for sharing your stories with us.

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.