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We are frequently asked by concerned folks what to say to bereaved pet "parents." The first part of this article deals with that topic. If you are personally experiencing the loss, jump ahead by clicking here.
When people think of pet loss they usually think of a companion animal dying. But there are many different types of loss. No matter how the loss occurs, the pet’s guardian generally will have intense reactions as a result.
Some people do not take pet loss seriously. It is very easy to understand how someone can grow closer to a pet than the people around them. Pets provide a form of selfless affection not found any where else. A person outside this relationship will rarely understand the kind of bond that forms. They may think people who grieve over a pet strange. These are the ones who are quick to tell you to get on with your life and get another animal. They cannot understand how one can become so attached to a dog, cat, bird, or other pet.
Anyone who has had a pet for any length of time knows how painful it is when that beloved pet is lost. We are often left with questions, anger, guilt, or an overwhelming sense of loss that we are sometimes unable to cope with.
Out of fear of being put down or ridiculed, many animal lovers keep their feelings of attachment to their pets and their grief to themselves. They may experience distress, anxiety, guilt, depression, sadness, loneliness, and other unpleasant feelings for some time.
If they are in isolation with their bereavement, this is generally not healthy. How you talk to them about their feelings and reactions can make an important difference in their lives.
If you are close to someone who has lost a pet help console those who need it with your own experience with loss.
Very often, sharing these feelings with others who will understand is the first step toward healing. Discussing the feelings and realizing we are not alone helps us find strength and solace.
The healing process can begin by cherishing our favorite memories of our pets and recalling them with fondness.
It allows the pain to start to diminish and gives us permission to continue to love and concentrate on those still with us.
Most people who have lost a companion animal - appreciate these responses:
Adopt an attitude that conveys that you are taking the distressing experience of the mourner seriously. Be cautious about making assumptions on how you think the mourner might be feeling and reacting, simply show interest by asking the mourner about the circumstances.
Listen and speak with empathy, understanding, support, sensitivity and compassion.
Let them know that you welcome hearing the stories of his/her fond memories of her/his animal friend. Ask how the pet got his or her name, and encourage them to tell you how the pet became a member of the family.
Refrain from asking if the mourner is planning on getting another pet, or suggesting where such a pet might be found. A pet owner might feel offended by this despite any good intentions in asking.
Minimize the use of cliches such as telling the mourner that time heals all wounds, or reassuring them that they will soon "get over it."
Send the mourner a condolence card. Some are specifically made for pet loss, if it seems appropriate. Write a thoughtful line or two (or more) on the card, in your own words. This will probably be very much appreciated.
Write down the dates that are important to the bereaved pet owner, like the dates of the pet's death, birth, adoption, etc. Consider sending a follow-up note, e-mail, or card, or making a telephone call to the mourner in remembrance of these special days.
Send a donation, in honor of the deceased or lost pet, to an animal-related organization (such as a humane society, animal shelter, or one devoted to improving the health of animals through medical research).
After a few weeks or months, follow up by asking the bereaved individual how she or he is doing in his/her mourning process over the loss of her/his pet.
Realize that the mourning process, as with people's responses to the death of human loved ones, can be multi-layered and highly complex. Keep in mind that everyone is unique, with her/his own needs and preferences. Good judgment is essential in dealing with people in such a vulnerable state.
Encourage the mourner to talk to a professional if their grief is prolonged or especially intense. Psychotherapists who specialize in pet loss counseling provide a supportive, compassionate, and knowledgeable presence to anyone grieving the loss of a pet.
Take care of your body. The body is the container of the mind which is now feeling intense emotion. Nurturing it in the following ways will ease your grieving process.
Talk to people who can empathize with your grief. Consistent interaction and sharing with those you feel comfortable around will be most beneficial.
Maintain structure in your life. Continue to do the activities you did before the loss. Do not allow this major disruption to snowball into every aspect of your life. Structure will help your regain your bearings.
Perform a ritual when you feel the time is right. Some have funerals at a pet cemetery or memorials with friends and family. Others may create a small shrine for a time.
Allow yourself to feel sadness and loss.
Grief is a normal response to a normal occurrence, yet each person goes through it differently.
If you feel as though you cannot recover, or it you have thoughts of self-harm, contact a mental health professional immediately.
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