This is how to deal with the heartbreak of losing a pet, according to an expert
From dogs and cats to tortoise and fish – there are few small animals we haven’t brought into our homes and loved as pets over the years.
According to research from the UK Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) 62% of households in the UK were said to have owned some kind of pet in 2022, making us an undeniably animal-loving nation.
Despite this fact (and the reality that there are people losing their animals daily), we tend to shy away from discussing our feelings when it comes to pet grief.
In one 2019 study, researchers found that 25% of owners ‘took between 3 and 12 months to accept the loss of their pet, 50% between 12 and 19 months, and 25% took between 2 and 6 years, to recover’.
Clearly, more of us are struggling than we might care to recognise. So, we spoke to grief and bereavement expert, Lianna Champ, about the best ways to remove the stigma and tackle this strangely taboo issue.
With over 40 years’ experience and a practical guide, How to Grieve like a Champ, under her belt, Lianna is an expert in how to deal with loss of any kind, including your pets. This is what she told us.
Give yourself permission to grieve
One of the most important things we can do, according to Lianna, is to be honest about our feelings and recognise that they are valid. After all, ‘grief is grief,’ she explains, adding that some people can often feel more pain from the loss of a pet, than a relative. ‘It is important to allow yourself to feel devastated by losing a pet and understand the significance of the relationship you had.’
While those without pets might not be as sympathetic, that doesn’t mean these feelings of loss can be any less painful, says Lianna. ‘What determines the level of grief felt is not whether the loss relates to a human or animal, but rather the strength of the relationship between the person grieving and the human or animal that has sadly passed away,’ she says.
Don’t shy away from discussing your feelings
Most of us will drone on for hours about the joy that comes with owning pets. And yet when they die? We’re often silent on the matter, reluctant to discuss or admit the pain which comes with losing an animal.
According to Lianna, human grief is something we are more likely to take time out for to seek help, or work through properly, meaning that we are often better positioned to cope with its effects. But when it comes to animals, the same just can’t be said. Often, she explains, ‘it’s because we feel that we don’t have societal permission to grieve in the same way as we would with humans.’
One way to feel more comfortable about grieving the loss of a pet, Liana suggests, is to regularly talk or share stories about your pet with people around you. This, she says helps to set up a support network of people who know just how much that pet meant to you and will already have a level of understanding if you happen to then lose a pet.
Recognise the impact losing a pet can have on wellbeing
The physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet are well known, from a dog’s ability to get you out walking in the fresh air every day, to the soothing, stress-busting capacities stroking a cat can elicit. In fact, research conducted last year found that owning a pet, especially for five years or longer, may be linked to slower cognitive decline in older adults.
Then there’s the unconditional element of the love a pet offers – something which is too often overlooked, says Lianna. Unlike those complicated relationships with our fellow humans, the relationships we have with pets are free from conflict, or compromise.
‘Humans often treasure the unconditional love and comfort they can get from a relationship with an animal because pets don’t get caught up in drama like humans do,’ explains Lianna. The wellbeing impact of that ‘drama’ can be significant too – research from 2020 found that troubled (human) relationships can double our risk of depression and anxiety disorders.
So, when someone says losing their pet was harder for them than losing a relative, believe them. After all, many pet owners might not form the same type of relationship with humans, meaning their grief for their animal could be the strongest emotional reaction they have to death, explains Lianna.
Be honest with your kids about the loss
When it comes to communicating the death of a pet with children, Lianna urges parents to prioritise honesty as much as possible. ‘This is because losing a pet can be a positive way to educate kids on how death is a natural and expected part of life,’ she explains.
A part of this honesty is trying not to conceal your own emotions fully in front of your children in a bid to shield them. ‘Your raw emotions might act to provide comfort and show humility to a child who also feels upset and wants a figure to relate or talk to about their feelings,’ she emphasises.
Alongside this, Liana outlines the importance of using language that is easy to understand as a way of helping younger children grapple with death. ‘Given the complexity of the concept, honesty and clear vocabulary are key to teaching your children how natural the process is.’
So, avoid confusing euphemisms like “passed away”, “gone to live over the rainbow” and “moved on” etc. Instead, explain to them clearly and precisely what has happened, and be ready to give them the support they need.
Don’t rush to replace your lost pet
Liana suggests that we tend to replace our pets soon after they die as a quick fix solution to cover up feelings of loss. However, this won’t necessarily help you. ‘Buying a new pet to replace another prevents us from sitting with the grief to accept it and move on in a healthy way,’ she says. ‘It also makes it harder to form a bond with your next pet if you do not leave time to grieve in-between.’
As for your kids? While replacement is a popular course of action, substituting your pet with another could have a damaging effect on your children’s understanding of death. ‘Replacing a pet without explaining to the child what has happened or why it has happened will minimise a child’s relationship or affinity to their pet,’ she explains. ‘Telling your child, “you can go Buy a new one on Monday” will prevent them from working through their loss in an open and healthy way.’
Need something else to help with the heartbreak? Here are three different things you can help your child, or family cope with the emotional heartbreak of losing a pet.
3 WAYS TO COPE WITH PET GRIEF
According to grief expert Lianna Champ
- Find an appropriate way to commemorate. You could cremate, bury, or perhaps plant a tree to celebrate the life of your deceased pet. Commemorating and celebrating the end of their life can be a really key and special part of the bereavement process.
- Share and celebrate memories. Displaying photos of your pet who has passed away in your house, or sharing them with others, is a nice way to feel their presence after they are gone and remember their legacy. You could even get your children to create memory boxes, or scrap books as a way to work through your loss collectively.
- Volunteer at an animal sanctuary. It can be hard for families that have lost a pet to form a bond with another pet straight away. Instead of buying a new pet, try volunteering with other animals – it’ll help you work through your loss whilst being surrounded and comforted by other animals.
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience as a grief specialist and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ.