How to mourn the loss of a pet: ‘There are no rules, grief has no endpoint’

A grief support specialist, vet and an animal behaviourist discuss the deep sense of loss the death of a beloved pet can bring

For many, the loss of a pet can feel like a death in the family. Experts agree there should be no time limit or pressure to heal. Unsplash / Jonas Vincent
Powered by automated translation

“Our family lost our loving companion Champ today. I will miss him,” US President Joe Biden wrote on Twitter in June, when announcing the passing of their beloved German shepherd.

“In our most joyful moments and in our most grief-stricken days, he was there with us, sensitive to our every unspoken feeling and emotion,” the Bidens said about their rescue dog, who moved into the White House with them in January.

“We love our sweet, good boy and will miss him always."

It’s a sentiment any pet owner will relate to. The loss of a beloved pet often leaves a hole in daily lives, around which feeds, walks, baths and grooming, not to mention petting, cuddling and simply hanging out, used to revolve.

Owners can sometimes face indifference or a lack of understanding from those who may not understand the place their pet held in their lives. But whether dog, cat, horse or hamster, the loss of a pet can have a devastating effect.

“Pets are family members that accompany us through life’s joys and sorrows, offering unconditional love, laughter, unspoken affection and entertainment,” says Farah Dahabi, grief support specialist and director of mental health first aid at the LightHouse Arabia wellness centre in Dubai.

“Each person’s grief reaction will be different depending on their personality, attachment to their pet and the circumstances surrounding the loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve a loved one.”

Unconditional love, support and affection

“Anyone who owns a pet will know this without me even telling them; they love us unconditionally,” says Sam Westhead, senior veterinary surgeon and clinical director at Amity Veterinary Clinic, Dubai.

“My own dog Goli is always happy to see me when I return home and utterly dependant on me for food, water, comfort, affection and a home. She tells me she appreciates it with every wag of her tail.”

The phrase “member of the family” is often used to describe pets. “Until one has loved an animal,” wrote French poet Anatole France, “a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

“Pets bring Mother Nature right into our home,” says dog behaviourist Rajiv Saini. “Family is all about being connected, a feeling of belonging, nurturing and caring. Nature has been so kind to give us pets to help us connect.

"Their love is unconditional, a gift which is very hard to get in this busy world. No doubt, pets easily become a part of our family.”

‘Acknowledge that your grief is just as valid as losing a person’

The loss of a pet can be a difficult time no matter how long the pet was with you. From the smallest goldfish to the biggest great Dane, the loss of an animal can be devastating.

“Acknowledge that your grief is just as valid as losing a person,” says Dahabi. “Know that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and that grief gets softer with time, but it has no endpoint. Grief has no set stages, and your healing journey will not be linear.

"Give yourself permission to process all feelings with compassion and do not say anything to yourself that you would not say to someone you love or respect.”

Experts agree that allowing yourself to mourn, in any way and for any length of time, is the best way to express your feelings about the loss of your pet. “We all mourn in different ways and whatever helps you get through this difficult time is a personal matter,” says Westhead.

“I encourage people to take a bit of time to gather their thoughts before driving away from the veterinary clinic. Having a family member or close friend present is helpful, because there are few life events more traumatic than enduring the loss of a pet alone.

“I never rush people out of the consulting room and sometimes they want to talk about a pet's life. That’s fine by me, I’m a bereavement counsellor as well as a vet in this respect.”

‘It’s only a dog’: dealing with grief dismissal

Although it’s doubtful intentional cruelty lies behind a dismissive attitude to pet loss, others may struggle to understand the depth of feeling when it comes to mourning a beloved pet, particularly if they don’t own any themselves or don’t consider themselves to be “animal people”.

Grief cannot be solved, only supported. Do not say things like: ‘It was just a dog or cat'
Farah Dahabi

“Pet owners experience disenfranchised grief, where friends tend to dismiss or not acknowledge the scale of the grief of losing a beloved pet,” says Dahabi. “This further complicates the grieving process. If grief is ignored or anaesthetised, it is more likely to rise in the form of depression, anxiety disorders, addiction or physical illness.”

Indeed, grieving the loss of a pet should be approached in the same way as any loss, and friends are advised to consider the grieving person’s feelings with sensitivity. “Interacting with people who have lost their pets is a sensitive issue and one has to connect with them and meet them at a level where they are,” says Saini.

When it comes to supporting friends who are grieving the loss of a pet, Dahabi suggests offering solidarity through listening, not advice-giving.

“Grief cannot be solved, only supported,” she says. “Do not say things like ‘It was just a dog or cat’, ‘You have to accept this’, or any statement that begins with ‘At least ...’ Say their pet’s name. By saying their name, you are not triggering their grief but reminding the person of their pet’s life.”

There are also many online platforms where grieving pet owners can connect with others who understand their loss, including @petlosspsychologist on Instagram.

Knowing when it’s time

Part of being a responsible pet owner is knowing when it’s time to say goodbye.

As well as many obvious signs, such as inability to eat, signs of pain or distress and difficulty breathing, animals will also let you know in myriad unspoken ways that their quality of life has diminished.

“Oscar was an eight-week-old rescue puppy when I gave a home to him in the UK in 2001,” says Westhead of his beloved late dog. “He was a wonderful character, always happy and followed me on my travels to Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and then Dubai eight years ago. His life was a long one, 17 years, but at the age of 16 he started losing bowel and bladder control so every day involved cleaning up his mess and often three or four baths.

"Sadly he also developed what I can only describe as a form of dementia and I had to make the decision I didn’t want to make. There was no way I was going to allow anyone else to do the job so I placed an intravenous catheter in his leg one evening and said goodbye to him.

“The pain was horrendous and suddenly the whole world seemed quiet, empty and cold. I’d prepared for this in my mind as well as I could, and there was absolutely no doubt that I’d done the right thing.”

Remembering your pet

There are different options available for owners whose pet has died. Home burial is permitted, but experts urge owners to consider the UAE climate as well as the depth of the plot, the risk of infectious disease transmission and general biosecurity.

Pet cremations are available with both mass and individual options costing different amounts, which vets will be able to advise on.

“Many clinics offer to have paw print made in clay,” says Westhead, “and you can even have your pet stuffed by a very well-respected taxidermist in Dubai. Of course, nowadays many people post photos and memories on Facebook or Instagram.

“When I put Oscar to sleep I had him individually cremated,” he says. “One day I'll take his ashes home and put him in a pot with a fruit tree of some sort growing in it.”

Updated: June 30, 2021, 5:33 AM