Coping with Pet Loss
By Aurora Winter



Our pets are such an integral part of our lives. They become inextricably entwined with our daily routine — the excited greeting when we come home from work, tail wagging with delight. The daily walks and feedings. The snuggling, cuddling, brushing and purring. Whether it’s a dog or a cat, a horse or a bird, a pet is more a part of the fabric of your everyday life than most friends and family.

In spite of that fact, most people do not fully respect the depth of grief that follows the death of a beloved pet. Some say, “You can just get another one” or “It was just a dog”. But the truth of the matter is, it wasn’t just a dog. It was a member of the family.

Grief is not about whether the deceased had two legs or four. It’s about the heart of the person who is grieving. It’s about the heart connection. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief.

To accelerate healing after the death of a pet, it is important to:
1)     ask for support
2)     express and release your feelings
3)     review the entire relationship
4)     say good-bye

As an example of doing it right, Rich and Lisa were deeply mourning the death of their beloved dog, Roxanne. Rich shared, “For more than a decade, Roxanne provided us with laughter, joy, and most of all, love. And while the house seems so still today, she has moved into our hearts forever.”

They reached out to me and asked for support. They knew that I understood grief. They had read my book “From Heartbreak to Happiness” and so they knew that I would offer them support and guidance. I became a grief recovery counselor who started on this path after my husband died suddenly at the age of 33.

I saw them two weeks after Roxanne’s death, which was weighing heavily on their hearts. They were taking a vacation at a friend’s beach house. In their own home, the absence of Roxanne was too painful. Her nose prints on the glass patio doors were too precious to clean off — and also a painful reminder that Roxanne was no more.

They openly shared all the things that were weighing on their hearts. Roxanne had been such a big part of their family, their bond. Was she the glue that held their family together? What would their life be like without her? They were doing their best to support each other through their grief, which was good, but not enough.

It’s important to share your feelings with someone who is not grieving, someone who can listen without getting triggered. Someone who can hold a safe space for you to share all of your feelings.

At the end of any relationship, it’s normal and natural for the mind to turn over and over the final events. As endings are usually unpleasant, it’s helpful to balance that out by reviewing the entire relationship from the very beginning, and I encouraged Rich and Lisa to do so.

Rich and Lisa both brightened up as they told me how Roxanne wandered into their yard one day and captivated their hearts. She adopted them. They laughed as they told the story of persuading their landlord to make an exception to the “no pets” rule. They were so in love with Roxanne that they put up a small fortune as security deposit.

They became very animated as they happily recounted joyful memories. Remembering the good times brought a sense of balance and greater peace of mind.

They also became aware of all the cute things Roxanne hadn’t done in years as her health gradually eroded. The last few months involved Rich and Lisa caring for her around the clock, and the vets giving her the best possible care... and yet she continued to fade away. Finally, Rich and Lisa had to make a choice that demanded everything of them. They decided to release Roxanne from her suffering and have her put down.

About a week earlier, when Rich was home alone with Roxanne, he felt compelled to write. And the words that poured out through his pen were a goodbye letter, as if they were written by Roxanne herself. Without sharing it with his wife, he sealed it in an envelope, and hid it in the car.

In the early hours of Father’s Day, when they found themselves at the emergency vet, Rich fetched the letter from the car and gave it to the vet. He asked her to read it to them both after Roxanne was gone.

Rich and Lisa showered their dog with love and said goodbye. The vet administered the fatal dose. Rich and Lisa remained at Roxanne’s side as she peacefully slipped away.

Then the vet read Roxanne’s goodbye letter thanking them for such a good life, and being so brave at the end. Lisa and Rich wept. So did the vet. Saying goodbye is key to healing, whether that goodbye is a letter, a prayer, a burial, or some other way to achieve a sense of closure. (Later, Rich made a video of Roxanne’s life, which brought a greater sense of closure.)

Lisa shared that the final image of Roxanne, coupled with the thought that she shouldn’t have died, were keeping her awake at night. We investigated that painful thought — was it even true? If Roxanne were still alive today, what would she be experiencing? What would Rich and Lisa be experiencing?

Rich and Lisa realized if Roxanne were still alive, she would be experiencing pain and misery — and so would Rich and Lisa. That realization brought peace of mind.

The truth is that old age and death are not a punishment for bad behavior, but simply an inevitable part of the circle of life.

Many people rush out to get a new dog immediately. In my experience, if you try to stuff a new pet into the hole in your heart left by the old pet, you will not be able to fully love the new pet. Rich and Lisa wisely took time to grieve.

Six months after Roxanne’s death, I got an excited email from Rich and Lisa, showing pictures of their new dog adopted from a no-kill shelter where Rich now volunteers in Roxanne’s memory. This new dog does not replace their beloved Roxanne... but Edison is a welcome addition to their family.

In summary, Rich and Lisa handled pet loss beautifully. They asked for support. They expressed and released their feelings. They gained a sense of perspective and inner peace by reviewing their entire relationship with their pet. And they said good-bye.

By following these same four steps, you can cope with the death of a pet, too.

The blessing of death is that it jolts us out of taking things for granted. It reminds us to appreciate and savor each moment. It reminds us to seize today. It reminds us to be grateful.

Or as Rich so beautifully put it, “In honor of Roxanne’s memory, please do something special for the people or pets you love. No need to tell them why. Just pause at that moment in your life, snap a mental picture, and take nothing for granted.”

Aurora Winter is a speaker, a Certified Grief Recovery Counselor,  and the author of: “From Heartbreak to Happiness: An Intimate Diary of Healing”.

Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “I read every page of this beautiful diary
— it touched my heart and I know it will impact yours.”

Get your free ebook at:  To book her as a speaker or coach, call (866) 344-3108.

Return to the March/April Index page