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An Owner’s Grief: How to Say Goodbye to Pets

An Owner’s Grief: How to Say Goodbye to Pets

Anyone who’s ever questioned the phrase “man’s best friend” has obviously never shared his or her life with a dog or cat. The relationship between owners and pets is one that can’t be duplicated through any other means. Pets offer the kind of comfort and unwavering devotion we’re hard-pressed to find among fellow humans. It’s truly companionship at its most loving.

That’s why the loss of a pet and that rare connection is so profound and devastating. Some people feel silly for being so struck by their dog or cat’s death, but to deny such sadness and pain is to deny the importance of these dear friends in our lives. Only by acknowledging the grief and taking the right steps can a bereaved owner’s healing process begin.

Talk it out with people who can relate.

First, it’s essential that those dealing with pet death realize that their feelings are valid and perfectly normal. People who’ve never had close relationships with dogs or cats often don’t understand the pain of losing one. Grief over pet loss isn’t as acknowledged or respected as the death of another person (though that’s slowly starting to change). Sadness might be met with confusion or apathy, which makes owners question their strong feelings. What these uninformed, albeit well-intentioned, individuals in our lives don’t realize is that losing a beloved dog or cat is just like losing a family member. We shouldn’t be afraid to treat the matter accordingly—venting, crying, and confronting the pain.

This could mean going beyond friends and family to voice frustrations, memories, sadness, and so forth. Grievers need sympathetic listeners who know what saying goodbye to pets entails. If they can’t be found in an existing circle of loved ones, talk to a veterinarian about other options. He or she might recommend a therapist, a grief counselor, or pet loss-focused support groups in the area. Don’t listen to anyone who says that talking to a professional is “taking things too far”; just because an animal’s life was lost instead of a human’s, it doesn’t make the grief any less justified. There are also numerous online message boards with hundreds of people in the same situation. Take time to find the person or people you can really open up to and speak honestly and openly about the pain so you can overcome it.

Understand that you’ll experience different stages of grief.

Grief manifests itself differently from person to person, but there are a few universal stages. There’s not a set order or time limit on any stage, but at some point, most people will experience these feelings. Once owners realize that what they’re going through is common, they’ll be more likely to work with the feelings rather than trying to escape them—a surefire way to move on.


At first, it’s hard to imagine your pet is really gone. Some owners think they hear the dog walking through the house or see the cat in his favorite chair. This is a way of avoiding the sad reality.


Owners often question their decisions after their dogs or cats die, especially if they chose to end their suffering with euthanasia. Was it really Rover’s time to pass? Is there something more I could’ve done for Tiger? They’re plagued with guilt over the death, even if they know deep down it was just the pet’s time.


When we’re in pain, we want someone held accountable—the veterinarian in charge of our pet’s health, our friends and family members who don’t give us the support we need, and even ourselves. Dwelling on it isn’t healthy, but feeling some resentment is a healthy part of the healing process.


Death can trigger listlessness, appetite changes, altered sleep cycles, unhappiness, and lack of motivation. Going through a brief period of depression following pet loss is common, but if it lasts too long, counseling might be the next step.

Don’t run from feelings—especially toward a new pet.

Many people make the mistake of blocking out memories and ignoring grief in the hope that it’ll go away. An even worse idea is trying to replace a lost pet with a new one right away. This only prolongs the inevitable pain and may even lead to anger directed at the new pet or feelings of disloyalty. Instead, grieving owners should not only talk about their experiences, but find other non-verbal outlets as well. Writing in a journal, creating art, and focusing on the happy times shared with pets are positive, helpful ways to cope with pain.

Don’t consider introducing a new pet into the family until everyone has fully accepted the initial loss. It’s not fair to bring an innocent cat or dog into the wrong kind of situation—that is, a memory of a pet he or she can never live up to. A new pet signifies a new relationship, not an attempted continuation of an old one.

Figure out the best way to get closure.

As for saying goodbye to furry friends, don’t let anyone else dictate what that means. It’s important for closure, but the guise it takes is an individual choice. Some owners prefer to hold a funeral for pets so that everyone who knew them can reminisce and make peace with the death. Others find other ways to honor the deceased and move on, such as donating time or money to charities. Discuss different options with veterinarians and pet care associations to find what feels right. Saying goodbye, much like the course of grieving, is a personal progression and what works for one person might not work for another.

In the book The Loss of a Pet, author Wallace Sife writes that the human-pet relationship is unique because it fulfills both our desire for pure love and our need to nurture. Having a good cry (or several) over the loss of such unique presences in our lives isn’t only understandable, but expected. Eventually, the pain can give way to acceptance and peace, but it just takes time and effort.

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