animal grief, grief, trauma

How Do You Deal With the Trauma of Losing a Pet?

how do you deal with the trauma of losing a pet

Losing an animal companion can be traumatic and result in intense grief. I’ve found that animal loss can be traumatic when their death was sudden or unexpected, or we have witnessed their deaths ourselves. It can also be traumatic if our animal suffered, or we perceived them to be suffering before they died.

How do you deal with the trauma of losing a pet? Whether you’ve had to make the difficult decision to euthanize your pet or you’ve lost them unexpectedly, let’s talk more about traumatic loss, traumatic pet grief, and how you can navigate this incredibly difficult path you now find yourself on.

Was It a Traumatic Loss?

Whether not your pet’s death was a traumatic loss depends on your unique experience. A traumatic loss, as defined by grief expert Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, is any loss that was unexpected, sudden, disfiguring, violent, or death of a child at any age from any cause.

However, a traumatic death can also be from prolonged suffering, such as if your pet had a compromised quality of life in their final months, or if someone accidentally (or intentionally) killed your pet.

If your pet had a traumatic death, you may be experiencing traumatic grief. Traumatic grief can be a very different experience from regular grief.

Traumatic grief takes much longer to recover from, and requires much more support, than traditional grief. Often, people who have experienced the trauma of losing their beloved companions find there is no “normal” to return to, no going back to their old lives after such a loss.

My Experience With Traumatic Pet Deaths

I have had pet deaths that have been both traumatic and non-traumatic. When my sons Ansel, Nadir, and Fiver died, it was traumatic for me all around, even though Nadir and Fiver’s deaths were expected and planned, and Ansel’s wasn’t.

But when my son Olivier died, I did not feel it was traumatic, at least not in the same way. I was with Olivier when he was euthanized at the age of 11 at our vet’s office, and although that process was upsetting and difficult, I didn’t come away from it feeling traumatized.

Traumatic deaths and griefs can be case-specific. Just because your pet’s death meets one or more of the criteria does not necessarily mean it will be traumatic for you. And even if people say your pet’s death doesn’t meet the criteria of a traumatic death, I consider my animals my children, so their passing always has the potential to be traumatic.

How to Deal With the Trauma of Losing a Pet

If you feel your pet’s death was traumatic, it can feel overwhelmingly, gut-wrenchingly, and heartbreakingly difficult to navigate such a loss. How do you deal with the trauma of losing a pet? Here are a few things that may help you in your grief process.

Allow All Feelings to Surface as They Come

This isn’t easy. Many feelings will come up, and it can make you feel crazy.

You may feel:

  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Disassociated
  • Guilty
  • Heartbroken
  • Panicked
  • Relieved
  • Shocked
  • And many, many more things

In grief, especially traumatic grief, it’s important to let all your feelings surface. And like I said, this isn’t easy, because some of your feelings will feel unbearable. They may feel like they are completely crushing you, like you can’t take it.

Feelings are meant to pass, so let them move through you.

It will be painful, and you may not be able to do this without a professional or being in a “safe” space, such as with another person or when you’re having a day when you feel more stable or capable.

Putting off our feelings is sometimes necessary for survival. But ultimately, this strategy isn’t sustainable, because your feelings will surface one way or another.

So let your feelings surface piece by piece, with a friend, partner, therapist, counselor, or coach if you need to. Given their time to be present, these feelings will begin to change and move through you—and sometimes it only takes a few seconds or minutes. Yes, these awful feelings will probably return at many points through your grieving process as you go in and out of the stages of grief, especially in traumatic grief. Recognize them, allow them space to be, and let them move through you when this happens.

There are no “right” or “wrong” feelings in grief. If we label certain feelings as “wrong” or “bad”, it can complicate our experience. Is it wrong if you feel relieved that your senior pet is no longer suffering anymore? Of course not. Is it bad if you feel so heartbroken you can’t do anything but lay on your bed and cry? Nope. This is all normal inside loss, especially traumatic loss.

Let your experience unfold without resisting it. It will be painful. Your pain is a reflection of the love you and your animal share and will continue to share. It will change over time. Let it.

Be With Your Pain, Don’t Suppress It

When asking, “How do you deal with the trauma of losing a pet?”, many people are referring to the unbearable emotional pain they feel when their beloved animal dies.

The pain can be unbearable, but as with your other feelings, it will transform when you allow it to be and witness it. Let those moments that bring you to your knees bring you to your knees. Let the scream you’ve been holding back go. When you suddenly feel overcome with emotion and need to burst into tears, let yourself sob.

As with your other feelings, you may need to do this with the support of a professional, especially if you are unused to being with your emotions or are a trauma survivor. It can feel unsafe and even be anxiety-inducing to experience such intense pain. If you do not have a coping system to help you weather such emotions, I strongly recommend working with an experienced therapist or coach to help you.

Feeling this pain is not easy. You have experienced the unimaginable. There is no going back to a normal life after such a devastating loss. You are forever changed. These things are not easy to accept, and it takes time, support, and resilience to bear such grief. You don’t have to do it alone.

And as with our other feelings, there are moments when we instinctually feel that it’s better to suppress our feelings of grief and pain. For example, if we’re in the grocery store and see our pet’s favorite food. Or if we’re talking to a neighbor who asks how we’re doing, and we want to scream at them. It’s ok to hold back at moments like these if you feel the need to do so, just be sure to honor these feelings later when you are in a safer or calmer space.

Make Time for Your Grief

You may have heard it said that time heals grief, or at least helps it.

For some people this feels true. For others, it doesn’t.

What I mean by making time for your grief is making space for it in your life. It isn’t going anywhere, so we must invite it to be a part of our lives.

You may not be ready to do this yet, and that’s ok. Take as much time as you need.

When we invite grief to sit with us, when we look in it in the face and acknowledge its presence, when we honor the way it shows up in our hearts and minds, we can begin to integrate this immense loss into our lives.

What does inviting grief into our lives and hearts look like? It can be different for everyone, but it may look like:

  • Having alone time daily where we can cry, speak to our loved one, or just contemplate their transition. For example, instead of coming home from work and turning on the TV or eating dinner with your family, you have a few minutes of alone time in your room beforehand.
  • Making different plans during big days, such as holidays, your pet’s birthday, or your own birthday that reflect your current grief. For example, instead of attending a large gathering or party, you might choose to celebrate at home with your partners or a couple close friends.
  • Putting pictures of your beloved animal in places where you can easily see them, such as on the fridge, counter, or on your nightstand. It can be comforting to see them even though it’s not the same as seeing them when they were alive in their body.
  • Talking about your loved one with a trusted friend, partner, therapist, coach, or pet grief support group. In grief, especially traumatic grief, we may need to retell our story over and over. It’s how the brain tries to make sense of such a huge loss. Let yourself retell your story as many times as you need to with people who really listen.

These are just a few suggestions. Other people may make time for their grief by spending time in nature, by their pet’s grave, writing about their animal, meditating or praying, or creating an altar with their animal’s pictures and favorite things.

There is no “right” way to grieve. Do whatever feels right for you at the time, and allow yourself to reevaluate your needs as time goes on.

Talk to a Professional

I never felt like I needed to talk to a therapist about my pet’s deaths before Mouse died. Although by then I had been in professional therapy for well over a year, I didn’t feel that the pet deaths I had experienced before Mouse were something I needed to discuss with a professional.

I have buried many beloved pets. Two years before Mouse died, I lost Nadir and Fiver, two rabbits that I was very close to. They were both essentially on hospice for the last six months of their lives, and caring for them was difficult and emotional at the end. When we decided to euthanize them and they both died while I held them in my arms, it was traumatic to say the least. But I expected their deaths, planned them even.

When Mouse passed very suddenly two years later, I was still grieving Nadir and Fiver. I was completely unprepared to lose Mouse, who is insanely special to me. My therapist later told me she believed Mouse and I are twin souls, a term I’d never heard of before, but it rang true.

The sudden nature of Mouse’s passing left me reeling. I was beyond bewildered. I was shocked, disoriented, gutted. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I texted my regular therapist, who didn’t even text me back (I had to text her a second time to make an appointment, and I stopped seeing her a few weeks after Mouse’s death). The day after Mouse died, my husband looked at me and said, “We need help.”

I called several therapists, and the next day, one called me back. We made an appointment for Tuesday, less than a week after Mouse’s death.

We continued to see this psychologist and my regular therapist for a few weeks. The psychologist was very expensive, and we couldn’t afford to keep seeing her, and my regular therapist was not helpful. I started working with a grief coach after I stopped seeing my therapist, and she was one of the people who has helped me the most on my grief journey.

You may not feel like a professional is necessary on your grief journey, and that is completely fine. It’s up to you to decide what you need. But know that you do not have to carry this immense loss alone. There is support available if you need it.

I found that professional help is often much different and more effective than well-meaning friends and family who say things like, “I’m so sorry” and “They are always with you.” Professionals can help you unpack all the complex emotions around your loss and process what happened. And if you have experienced a traumatic loss, professional help can be even more important in dealing with your pet’s death.

For me, professional help was a way to:

  • Not blame myself for the death and realize that I couldn’t have stopped it
  • Cope with the daily reality of the loss
  • Retell my story
  • See what happened from different perspectives
  • Have my pain witnessed
  • Talk about Mouse with people who listened

Whether the loss of your animal companion was traumatic or not, talking to a professional can help greatly.

You Don’t Have to Navigate the Trauma of Losing a Pet on Your Own

How do you deal with the trauma of losing a pet? It takes time. It takes patience. It takes courage. It takes the support of other beings. If you have lost a beloved animal, I am so sorry. You do not have to deal with the trauma of losing a pet on your own. While your loss is absolutely your own and this journey is yours alone, there is help and support available.

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