Losing a beloved pet can be an incredibly heartbreaking experience. In this article, we explore compassionate approaches to help pet owners navigate the challenging journey of grief and healing. From understanding the importance of empathy and listening to the power of group therapy, we provide insights and support for those who are grieving. Additionally, we delve into the heartfelt impact of custom pet memorial gifts as a touching way to honor and cherish the beautiful memories of our furry friends. Join us as we navigate through the complexities of pet loss and discover ways to offer comfort and solace.
A few real cases of pet loss in our lives
An American animal writer once said, “The only fault of a dog’s life is that it’s too short.”
Man commits suicide for his cat?
“My beloved cat Sophie died in my arms on December 8, 2011. This is a memory of her life.” In 2011, a widely followed suicide incident occurred in the United States.
After Michael McAleese‘s cat Sophie accidentally died, a heartbroken Michael uploaded a video online five days after her death. Three days later, Michael took his own life by poisoning himself, ending his journey at the age of 44.
When a pet dies, it feels like the world can never go back to what it was…
You can find many stories of other people’s experiences online.
But today, this one is mine.
As I write these words, I am still in a deep sense of heartache.
Zoe, a Chihuahua I once had, passed away on January 2, 2019. At the time, she was 14 years old, blind in both eyes, and had lost her hearing. The spark of life was about to fade.
This lively Chihuahua was once the dominant presence in our home. Even Jay, who arrived later and was perhaps ten times her size, submitted to her. However, the natural order reigns supreme in the world. At this point, Zoe was barely hanging on.
I had intended to give her a bath, as she hadn’t had one in a long time, and put on clean clothes to welcome 2019. I thought it might be Zoe’s last New Year, but I didn’t expect that it would be the bath that would cause her fragile heart to stop beating.
An anticipated yet unexpected farewell suddenly arrived.
When I frantically rushed Zoe to the pet hospital, the doctor could only offer me consolation.
As Zoe’s tiny body gradually lost warmth and stiffened, I couldn’t hold back my tears while waiting for my sister to arrive at the pet hospital’s treatment room. I felt guilt and regret, thinking that maybe if I hadn’t given her a bath, she would have been fine, or if I had noticed her unusual behavior earlier, even ten minutes sooner, and rushed her to the hospital…
Perhaps, I hoped for any outcome different from reality, while all I faced were dreams that kept reproducing as I slept.
But that was the truth. If there are no parallel universes, the river of time won’t flow backward for any life. Although reluctant, I had to say goodbye. However, I was responsible for this outcome.
When my sister tried to comfort me, saying she was the one who should feel regret for not hugging Zoe before leaving for work, I felt even more guilty. For a week after, I could barely sleep, and I dreaded the arrival of morning. The sunlight seemed like the entrance to a black hole in my heart.
I always thought I was a strong woman, but at that moment, I couldn’t help curling up, as if desperately protecting my heart, which was on the verge of shattering from grief and guilt. This pain felt as real as losing a loved one.
I had to force myself to stay focused.
At the time, I planned to complete my studies in the United States by March of that year.
In the last session of the “Human-Pet Relationship Studies” course, Professor William arranged the topic of “Pet Loss and Euthanasia.” The lecture covered the psychological processes pet owners might go through when their pets pass away. Sitting in the classroom, I had regained some emotional stability after a period of time. The uncontrollable, compulsive recollection of Zoe’s death had lessened.
However, during the class, as the professor discussed the various reactions pet owners might have when facing the death of a pet, it felt as if a therapist was diagnosing me. The freshly healed wound seemed to tear open again, transporting my thoughts from the American classroom back to my home in London, back to the morning of January 2, 2019.
I could feel my eyes welling up with tears, and Professor William must have noticed something was amiss. During the break, the professor quickly called me aside to inquire about the situation. When I told him I was currently experiencing “pet loss,” he immediately apologized and tried to console me. I was grateful for the professor’s consolation, but the sadness in my heart surged, and I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing…
It wasn’t until I started working in this field that I realized I wasn’t the first or the most severe case of someone affected by “loss.”
Toto’s owner admits to suffering from ‘moderate depression‘
In October 2017, doctors rushed this little cat to the hospital due to a sudden heart attack and discovered that cardiomyopathy caused it, leading to pulmonary edema. There wasn’t much hope for recovery, so to spare Toto any further pain, its owner Miss Lou chose to have Toto euthanized.
The news of Toto’s death shocked many netizens, as Toto had always been a beloved and cheerful presence in their hearts. The sudden loss left people at a loss for words. Netizens spontaneously offered their condolences, and 140,000 people on Weibo shared Toto’s death.
For the following year, its owner Miss Lou virtually disappeared from the public eye. It wasn’t until the first anniversary of Toto’s death that she reappeared on social media.
It turned out that during this year, Miss Lou had not been able to move on from Toto’s death and had developed moderate depression. Unsuccessful medication led to her condition worsening into a mix of moderate depression and moderate anxiety…
Why “Pet loss” is indeed a problem for humans?
American psychiatrist Kenneth M.G. believes that “those who form a special emotional attachment with dogs or cats put themselves at risk from a mental health perspective.”
The reason is that although pets’ lifespans have greatly increased, the farewell will eventually come.
With changes in pet care, improved living standards, and better medical conditions, pets’ lifespans have significantly increased. According to a US statistic, in the past 10 years, the average dog’s life has extended by 0.7 years (8.4 months) to reach 14.0 years; cats have extended by 0.5 years (6 months), reaching 14.2 years.
In human years, this is approximately 4-5 years for dogs and 3-3.5 years for cats.
Despite this, due to the natural life cycle of dogs and cats, their lifespans are still much shorter than humans. Almost all pet owners will face the day when their furry friends leave them.
However, humans often consider pets as family members and emotionally “anthropomorphize” them to some extent. As a result of this emotional connection, the death of a pet may lead to unexpected consequences.
What is “Pet Loss”?
A research report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 stated that a woman who lost her pet dog experienced broken heart syndrome. This refers to symptoms similar to heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing, caused by extreme sadness or anger in response to a major external event. I also had a similar experience after Zoe passed away.
In academia, there is a term to describe the impact and influence of a pet’s death on humans: “Pet Loss“. People also call it the “Pet Loss Syndrome.”
People experiencing “Pet Loss” will display typical psychological reactions following “Traumatic Events.”
- Experiencing serious accidents, personal attacks, war, natural disasters, sexual assault, or abuse;
- Witnessing these events happening to others;
- Examples include learning about a friend or family member’s sudden death (e.g., due to an attack or accident) or experiencing life-threatening events or serious injuries
Therefore, the grief one feels over the loss of a pet (including death, loss, or serious illness) to which they have formed an emotional connection is as intense as the loss of an important family member or friend. Some people’s grief over this may even be more intense.
In 2003, researchers conducted a study on 274 people who had experienced pet loss within a year to investigate the prevalence of pet loss syndrome among pet owners. They found that 85% of people had at least one symptom of pet loss syndrome. It is evident that the majority of pet owners experience a period of grief after losing their pets, affecting their physical and mental state and daily life.
What are the main manifestations of “Pet Loss Syndrome” ?
The Five Stages of Grief Theory
In 1969, American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her book “On Death and Dying,” in which she proposed the “Five Stages of Grief.” These stages generally represent the emotional process that people go through when dealing with an unavoidable loss, such as a sudden tragedy or the loss of a loved one. Facing these challenges and grief, most people will experience these five stages.
Although people increasingly question the accuracy of this theory in recent years, it can still serve as a model for understanding and adapting to the emotional reactions during a traumatic event
Stage 1: Denial
In this stage, the grieving individual refuses to believe or accept the reality of what has happened. They try to convince themselves that life remains unchanged. They may even reenact past rituals with their loved ones to assure themselves that life has not changed, such as pouring a cup of tea for someone who is no longer there or eagerly sharing news with someone who has passed away. These behaviors are common in this stage.
Stage 2: Anger
After overcoming denial, individuals become angry and express their anger in various ways, such as blaming others for their loss. During this stage, emotions can become volatile, and one might even feel angry at themselves (for example, thinking they are responsible for their loved one’s death). It’s essential to be cautious during this stage and find healthy ways to release anger without harming oneself or others.
Stage 3: Bargaining
This stage involves bargaining with oneself or a perceived supernatural force. People may offer something in exchange for reversing the reality of their loss, like trying to make a deal to bring back their loved one and return to life before the tragedy. This is a manifestation of the human desire for things to return to the way they were.
Stage 4: Depression
Depression is a stage that almost everyone who experiences a significant loss (including pets) goes through and is often the most challenging stage to endure. During this stage, individuals feel exhausted, listless, and may suddenly break into tears due to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. They may feel life has no purpose and experience guilt, as if everything is their fault. Pet owners might feel punished and unable to experience happiness and satisfaction, even from things that used to bring them pleasure. In some cases, they may even have suicidal thoughts.
Stage 5: Acceptance
This is the final stage of grief, where individuals realize that life must go on and that they must accept the loss of their loved one. They start working towards future goals, understanding that time can be a healing force for emotional wounds.
Main Manifestations of “Pet Loss Syndrome”
Referring to the “Five Stages” theory, “Pet Loss Syndrome” generally has the following manifestations:
- Emotional manifestations: Grief, despair, anger, feeling overwhelmed, fear, guilt, abandonment anxiety, emptiness, indecisiveness.
- Physiological manifestations: Easily triggered tears, heartache, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, fatigue, insomnia or excessive sleep, difficulty speaking, restlessness, heightened sensitivity to sounds or touch, gastrointestinal discomfort, muscle aches similar to those experienced during a cold.
- Thinking patterns: Doubt, confusion, inability to think about anything other than the pet’s death, feeling the pet is still present, engaging in soul and religion-related thoughts, concern for the safety of other pets in the household.
- Behavioral manifestations: Repeated crying, loss of appetite or overeating, alternating between insomnia and excessive sleep, indulging in pet-related items (such as toys, fur on a comb, etc.) or routines (mealtime and bedtime), unconsciously calling the pet’s name, revisiting places where the pet enjoyed spending time or its burial site, heightened sensitivity to others’ conversations, social withdrawal, zoning out during group activities, and constantly organizing mementos.
Understanding the Grieving Process of Pet Loss:
Shock and Denial
When someone euthanizes a pet without warning, the owner most likely experiences shock and denial. This typically involves emotional ups and downs, reluctance to accept the truth, and many negative thoughts, followed by numbness, dissociation, and emptiness.
During this stage, due to excessive longing, the owner may try to find ways to connect with their pet, such as photos, videos, familiar places, or pets that resemble their lost companion.
Sometimes they may feel doubt, anger, and self-blame, especially regarding the cause of death, medical staff, and family members. They may want to cry at any time and experience some uncomfortable physical symptoms.
I recall the morning after Zoe passed away, I unconsciously filled her bowl with dog food. In retrospect, this action was partly due to a long-established habit that was difficult to change quickly and possibly also a form of self-defense within me, unwilling to accept the truth.
The pet’s death alters the previous daily routine, leading to feelings of emptiness, time slowing down, and bewilderment about focusing on life moving forward.
At this stage, there is a sense of relief, and the ability to reestablish life patterns emerges. Although feelings of loss and sadness may linger, physical discomforts disappear, and the owner can discuss their deceased pet and interact with other pets.
Moving towards a new life is also the wish of our furry friends on the other side of the “Rainbow Bridge.” The so-called “Pet Loss Syndrome” is not an inevitable occurrence for every owner facing their pet’s death.
To some extent, addressing the issues brought about by “Pet Loss” is also a component of public mental health management.
How to Help Someone Cope with Pet Loss ?
Face the grief and avoid moral judgment
Traditionally, “well-intentioned” comments like “it’s just a dog or a cat” or “get another one” surround the pet loss owners. These remarks only cause more negative emotions for those grieving their pet’s loss.
The right attitude is to give the person enough time to grieve. Facing the permanent separation from a beloved pet can be painful, but grief is a natural response to the loss of a close relationship and facing death, whether the subject is human or animal.
Do not judge anyone’s grief as right or wrong.
Grief from pet loss is an individual’s internal experience, and even if it may seem insignificant from the perspective of others or society, but if there is no comparison, no judgment, and showing respect and acceptance is the best thing.
Empathy and listening
It’s crucial to have empathy for feelings of sadness and pain. For therapists, the most important skill is not “guidance” or “preaching,” but “listening.” Due to cultural traditions, we tend to suppress our emotions, but the resolution of grief requires expression and listening.
Looking back on my journey through the pain of losing Zoe, Professor William and my sister provided significant help. Besides my sister being understanding and tolerant of my emotions and behavior during my most troubled times, the group therapy session introduced by Professor William was also of great assistance.
Group therapy is a form of psychological counseling that promotes individual observation, learning, and experience through interpersonal interaction within a specific group, helping individuals understand themselves, explore their relationships with others, and learn new attitudes and behaviors to promote good adaptation and development.
The group therapy I attended was specifically for those experiencing “pet loss,” called the “Rainbow Bridge Club.” Three aspects of this group counseling were particularly helpful for me.
First, express yourself and listen to others
Participants in the group all aimed to heal from the sadness of losing a pet. Under the guidance of a therapist, everyone could openly and unreservedly share their grief, exposing their most vulnerable and delicate parts, while also listening to each other’s stories. This listening itself is a form of silent support and encouragement.
Second, organize your pet’s life journey: share your pet’s story
When did you start keeping a pet? Do you have any special memories? What was their most unique aspect? What do you miss the most? These reflections help us remember the parts we don’t want to forget.
The movie “Coco” mentioned that everyone experiences two deaths: the first is the death of the body, and the second is being completely forgotten.
Death is not the real farewell; forgetting is. This is true for both humans and pets. Although their lives may not be as long as humans, the memories associated with them will always accompany and heal us.
By participating in activities for three weeks, I gave myself time to heal my emotional wounds and gained support and encouragement from my peers in the group sharing. Gradually, I accepted Zoe’s departure and believed she was in another world, living in my heart.
Later, when facing Jay’s death, although still sad, I was more at peace.
Third, consider offering heartfelt custom pet memorial gifts or pet loss gifts to help the owner cherish their beautiful memories.
A meaningful way to express empathy and provide comfort is through presenting unique pet memorial gifts or pet loss gifts. These carefully crafted keepsakes can profoundly touch the heart of the grieving pet owner, making them feel acknowledged and understood. Such tokens not only capture the essence of the irreplaceable bond they shared with their cherished companion, but also serve as a lasting tribute to the unconditional love and joy that their pet brought into their lives.
Seek treatment if necessary
“Pet loss” does indeed carry the risk of triggering mental health issues. If symptoms such as depression, insomnia, or irritability arise, it’s essential to seek professional treatment to help you recover.
As mentioned earlier, doctors diagnosed “Miss Lou,” the owner of “Toto,” with moderate depression and anxiety. However, over a year, she actively sought treatment, and her condition gradually improved. She adopted two kittens, and now she finds joy in recovery. Her condition is stabilizing and moving towards recovery. She has returned to the public eye, facing life positively and actively helping friends struggling with depression online.
Try to get help from the authorities
Saying goodbye to a life you’ve raised since childhood is a difficult moment. Although we strive to move on with our lives, we inevitably fall into the sadness and pain of permanent separation.
Think back to what your pet would do when they saw you sad. Zoe would paw at me, asking me to pick her up and then lick my cheeks.
They provided emotional support and endless companionship. They would want us to be happy and content in their other world. Farewells are always for the next reunion.
This article is a tribute to Zoe and Jay and all the furry friends in the world. Love you, thank you, and miss you all~