Death rarely fails to have a significant impact upon us. Logically, we know that there is an inevitability to it, a natural part of the life cycle. Still, emotionally it has the potential to have a devastating and disruptive influence. This doesn’t just go for the passing of human friends and family, either—when our pets die, we can feel it just as keenly.
The grieving process is a natural and—potentially—valuable byproduct of death. However, while we will often allow ourselves space and time to grieve for friends and family, we are not always so permissive of grieving for pets. There is an erroneous and unhelpful tendency for society to place the position of pets below human family members. As such, grieving for pets can often be treated with belittlement, or even ridicule. Yet, grieving for our animal companions can be just as important.
Every pet parent knows that their furry (scaly, feathered) friend is no less a member of the family than their bipedal counterparts. There should therefore be no question of taking time to mourn in a healthy and productive manner. We’ll take a look at a few of the ways in which the grieving process can be vital following the death of a beloved family pet.
Your Mental Health
It can’t be overstated how important grief can be. Death of a beloved family pet can leave a huge gap in our lives, and without taking the time and space to heal during bereavement, our mental health can suffer. Whether that’s from an extended period of unaddressed pain, or attempting to fill the hole the death has left with unhealthy behaviors.
Therefore, throughout the grieving process it is imperative to remain cognizant of our mental health. Be aware that the pain we feel may come in a variety of forms, and our behavior may change perhaps unexpectedly. In the days and weeks following a pet’s death it can be useful to adopt a regular practice of mindfulness; checking in mentally and physically with ourselves, assessing changes, examining our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving yourself permission to take time away from your duties to heal.
It’s also important to understand that grieving doesn’t necessarily begin after a death has occurred. At times when there’s a decline in pet health, symptoms may be present for weeks, months, perhaps years. There could be veterinarian office visits, tests, even surgeries over a period of time. It may be the case that, as the imminent death of your pet becomes apparent, you’ll start to experience symptoms of grief. It is equally important to begin building your mental health toolbox during this stage, to help carry you through their illness, death, and the days beyond.
We may not always recognize it, but our rituals when it comes to death are an important coping mechanism. They provide us activities upon which to focus, arm us with an element of control at a time when we can feel powerless. Is it any wonder that funeral rituals are an important part of our culture? Yet, when it comes to our pets, we generally don’t have this same tradition of organized ritual that can help us deal with the intense emotions we experience.
Perhaps the upside to this is, you have free reign to design a more personal type of funeral ritual for your furry family members. You can design and create a DIY cremation urn, applying your energy into an artistic, practical expression of your love for them. Organize the type of service that works for your family, sharing memories during a tour of your pet’s favorite locations, or create a funeral playlist of tunes you associate with cherished memories of your pet.
It’s also important to remember that your rituals needn’t be limited to a single funeral event. Many people find it useful to use routines as part of the ritual process. Continue going on regular walks to favorite parks or woodland areas, take the routes you would have with your pet. There is still value in taking a moment once a week to check in with your memories, and use them to work through your grief.
Just as with a human death, the passing of a cherished pet can have an impact upon the whole family. Let’s face it, the animals who live with us are an integral part of our family unit—their absence will be felt deeply by each of us. Children in particular can feel the death of a pet keenly, with one study finding that many children consider pets their siblings, and that even years afterward, they consider the day their pet passed to be the worst of their lives. Therefore it’s important to make certain that the entire family be provided space to grieve, and to come together for support where possible.
Involve every family member in the processes that surround your pet’s death. Invite input into what each person feels they would like to contribute to a funeral or memorial, encourage creativity—have children draw pictures, or write poems. It’s also key to be honest from the outset, each member of the family should be provided with the truth of their pet’s passing in order for them to grieve in a way that is appropriate for them.
Again, it’s important to remember that our families won’t suddenly be free of pain once a memorial has taken place. Find ways to keep the memory alive as a family—celebrate your pet’s birthday, share important memories frequently. This is particularly important where children are involved—it can be scary to think that as soon as a person dies they are forgotten about, or that it is forbidden to talk about them. Share your grief as a family, so that you can help each other cope, and even draw closer together through your loss.
Featured image: Trinity Kubassek