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A Hospice Vet's View On Pet Bereavement

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

When a pet dies it can be a huge loss for any family and make a massive impact on how you go about your daily life. As we all know, pets are family, so when they die, it’s no wonder we grieve them as we would the loss of a family member. But how long is it normal to grieve over a pet, how can you overcome bereavement, what support is available for pet bereavement, and when is the right time to buy a new pet? We asked our lead vet, and end-of-life care advisor, Dr Emma Clark, her views on pet bereavement. Read on to receive her expert advice.

The Stages of Grief

Before we dive straight into the interview with Dr Emma, it is important to note the five stages of grief.

These include:

  • Shock and denial

  • Guilt

  • Anger and bargaining

  • Depression, reflection, loneliness

  • Acceptance and hope

Having awareness of these stages can help you understand your feelings and rationalise them.

An Interview With Dr Emma Clark:

Is it normal to grieve over a pet?

Yes absolutely, grieving after the passing of a pet or even before is normal. People can have what's called anticipatory grief which is when they feel emotions of grief even though the pet is still with them. This is often for a life that they've led prior to the pet becoming debilitated. It can also be in anticipation of how they're going to feel once the pet is no longer with them and imagining life after their passing. It can be a life-changing emotion to feel.

I think people don't often give themselves enough time to grieve for a pet. It seems quite normal to grieve for a human but sometimes society or family members won't allow themselves to stop and take a moment to grieve which can become problematic.

What are your top tips for helping a friend or family member going through a pet bereavement?

Just being there for them will help. This could be going for a walk or simply spending time together. They may want to help celebrate their pet’s life, for example writing down the memories and funny stories about their pet and adding them to a scrapbook with lots of photos. You could also make a video montage of all of the great phone footage you/they might have of them.

Encouraging them to take some time away from work can help although some people like to be busy. That's totally fine but it's important to realise that they spent a significant part of their life with their pet, so there can be a large void to fill. Try to remind them to take time to process the bereavement.

How long is it ‘normal’ to grieve over a pet?

There's never a definite amount of time. Certainly, grief can be quite raw and all-consuming when it first occurs but it does lessen with time. Some people grieve for the rest of their lives whilst other people move on quite quickly. It's very dependent on your personality and character.

I once heard someone say that we're all grievers, which is true. We all grieve for someone or something in our life and obviously, as we get older, that does become more significant as more people and animals are lost to us. But there's no normal period. Just know that it will subside over time. It doesn't mean you stop grieving, it just means that you feel less of the pain and feel able to start rebuilding and moving on with your life.

How is best to discuss pet bereavement with children?

It depends on the age of the children. There are guidelines for different age groups. Sometimes children aren't really aware of what grief is (up until the age of 6-7 years) and what bereavement really means to them. They may ask questions that are quite disarming for adults or questions we wouldn’t have voiced ourselves.

It really does depend on the age of the child. Obviously, teenagers will experience grief a bit differently, not only due to their age but often having gone through much of their childhood with their pet, compared to a much younger child.

There are many books about grief for children (you can find a list of some in this article: Comforting Your Child After The Loss of a Pet). It is about trying to approach grief as a parent in the way that you feel is right for your child. Some children are much more sensitive than others, some seem unfazed by the passing of a pet and can be quite matter-of-fact about it.

What are your top tips when grieving a pet?

If you have someone you can talk to them telling them about your feelings is important. Internalizing them is not the healthiest option, but if that's how you cope with life, then it may be that you want to just keep it to yourself. If that's the case, write it all down. Journaling is known to be a good way of dealing with emotions. There are pet bereavement support services as well. So, if you would rather, you can talk to someone you don't know about your feelings.

It's also important to surround yourself with people who understand pet loss because not everyone understands what this means. Often people who don't have pets themselves can be quite dismissive of pet bereavement, so, where possible, surround yourself with people who understand your feelings.

As I mentioned earlier, making a scrapbook, a video montage, or a memorialisation for your pet can help. We have memorials on our website (which you can find here) and also on our social media pages. Pet owners can find comfort in posting a photo and a short memorial about what their pet meant to them.

You could scatter the ashes and plant some flowers in a window box or in the garden as a floral tribute in memory of your pet. You may like to keep the ashes of your pets and have a little shrine in your house. You can have jewellery or even artwork made out of ashes.

Is there support available for adults, for pet bereavement?

Your vet may have a team that will support you through bereavement depending on the practice setup and their pet hospice services. At Roundwood Pet Hospice, we offer bereavement support, however, please be aware that although we are veterinary professionals, we aren't trained in counselling. So I would advise listening services, or mental health support if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Different hotlines such as Animal Samaritans, Blue Cross Bereavement, and Cats Protection are great support services. Again, they're not counsellors, however, they will offer listening services with volunteers who've been through a similar experience. If you feel that you're struggling, and need more help than this, then you can also be referred to a mental healthcare professional. It is very common for people to experience mental health issues in association with losing a pet so it’s really important you feel able to reach out for support.

When's the right time to get a new pet?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

For some people, it's the next day, whereas for others they may never feel like having another pet. It varies from person to person.

As long as you're going about it for the right reasons and in the right way then there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't. Animals are such a source of strength and comfort sometimes it is the right thing to do. However, I would recommend that the feelings of grief are still addressed to avoid leading to longer-term problems. It is important to make sure your home and family are ready to open their hearts to a new cherished furry friend.

If you need support during the bereavement of a pet, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 0800 0495944, or click here to learn about our bereavement support.


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