Pets are non-judgmental, love you unconditionally, and greet you every day. They make you feel warm and fuzzy and can lift you up or make you laugh on a tough day. We play, snuggle, go on trips, and talk with them, growing attached by the minute. And because human-pet bonds are so intense, losing them is never easy. In fact, studies show that the death of a pet can be as painful as the loss of a relative, whether your pet died in an accident or of natural causes.
To best understand the pet grieving process, I decided to speak to certified end-of-life and grief coach Wendy Van de Poll. She is a pioneering leader in the field of pet loss grief support, the founder of the Center for Pet Loss Grief, and author of My Dog Is Dying: What Do I Do? Emotions, Decisions, and Options for Healing. She provides wisdom, joy, and compassion for grief relief in her practice.
PolicyGenius: When it comes to the grieving process, what is your number one piece of advice?
Wendy Van de Poll: Be prepared. It’s never too early to start thinking about it. Have a plan, no matter how you choose to euthanize — whether it’s at home or at the vet — or how you choose to lay his remains — whether it’s burial or cremation. Because you want to enjoy the last days and moments with him, the last thing you want to do is scramble at the end.
PG: How do you know when it’s the right time to euthanize your pet?
WVP: Listen to your gut. Unless your pet gets hurt in a tragic accident or is diagnosed with an aggressive disease that causes pain and discomfort daily, it’s not easy to decide when it’s the best time to put him to sleep. Talk to your vet, of course, for medical advice, but follow your instincts when making the decision. You know your pet better than anyone. Is he in pain? Is he unable to walk or eat? Is he constantly uncomfortable or struggling with everyday functions? Has he lost her dignity? It’s also important to listen to your pet. He will tell you. Maybe he’ll do something he’s never done before and you’ll just have that intuition. Ask others for advice, especially those who know you and your pet well. But don’t ask people who don’t have pets or who don’t understand. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. You will do it when you know the time is right.
PG: Who should I talk to about my grief?
WVP: Surround yourself with a strong support system. Pet loss can be harder than human loss, so make sure you have a team that understands, respects, and loves you through this difficult time. Don’t hide your grief when you’re around them. You’re allowed to be sad and you’re allowed to be upset. And ignore the naysayers who question or mock your grieving process. Be prepared for what people (even well-intentioned people) say when they’re trying to make you feel better or trying to downplay how you’re coping.
PG: Should I seek professional help?
WVP: Have an expert on-call. No matter how you’re planning to put him down, make sure you have an experienced veterinarian, pet loss therapist, or holistic counselor on speed dial to help you through the process and help you make the best decision for yourself and your pet. They work with ailing pets, grieving pet parents, and pet loss daily so talk to, listen to, and value them and what they have to say.
PG: How long should I grieve?
WVP: While I get asked that question all the time, it’s an impossible one to answer. Since everyone grieves differently, it’s important to understand the grieving process. Although I’m sure you’ve heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s important to know that not everyone experiences them all and not everyone experiences them in that order. But because they are mainly tools to help us identify what we may be feeling, make sure to seek professional help if you’re in a particular stage for longer than you’re comfortable or if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. There is normal grief, and there is abnormal grief (extended periods of feeling depressed, worthless, psychotic, or suicidal). Grieve with help and guidance.
PG: How do I care for myself through this process?
WVP: First of all, give yourself time to grieve, both before and after her death. If you hold it all in and don’t give yourself time to process the experience, you won’t be able to have a clear vision of what’s best for your pet. Allow yourself time to be angry, sad, and depressed. But make a list of things to accomplish every day no matter how much you want to stay in bed. Take a shower, go grocery shopping, walk around the neighborhood, or go to work. Make something or someone a priority daily so you keep moving and living your life. Be in control and try every day to feel strong, alive, and self-reliant. If you don’t take care of yourself and don’t sleep or eat well, you won’t have enough energy to grieve properly.
PG: How should I spend his last days?
WVP: Celebrate his life. Allow quality over quantity to be your mantra at the end of his life. If you focus on how little time is left, you won’t be able to function, I promise you. Fill his last days with positive, happy things he loves (and you love together) whether it’s car rides, beach trips, pizza, or picnics. Buy him his favorite toys, spoil him with treats, and surround him with people he enjoys spending time with.
PG: What do I do while he’s being euthanized?
WVP: Keep him calm. And while he’s being put to sleep — if you can — be by his side. Having a friendly, familiar, trustworthy face there will keep him relaxed. Create a comfortable experience for him and surround your pet with his toys and blankets. Talk to him, pet him, and tell him how much you love him. Make the experience about him, not you.
PG: Do I get rid of his things?
WVP: Again, there is no right or wrong answer here. Everyone is different so you need to do what’s best for you. Bring his collar and blanket home from the vet if you’d like to keep them. And when you get home, listen and be still in your home. Your pet’s energy is still there. If you want to leave his bowls on the floor, do it. If you don’t want to vacuum for a while so you can preserve his hair, don’t. You have to do what feels right for you, not your friends, neighbors, or coworkers. Clean when you’re ready. Remove items when you’re ready.
PG: Should I get another pet?
WVP: So often my clients ask this question because, yes, they’re seeking advice, but also because they’re feeling guilty for having those thoughts. Guilt is a part of grief. If and when you decide to get another pet, it’s important to know that having those feelings of guilt is normal. But getting another pet in no way takes away your former pet’s specialness or place in your home and heart. Make sure you get you give yourself and your family — especially if you have children — enough time to grieve before getting another pet. Your new pet will never be a replacement. He will be something new to care for, love, and cherish like your last pet.
PG: How do I take care of others who are grieving?
WVP: Grieve with your family. Whether it’s your spouse, child, or other pet, remember that other people and animals in your life are grieving the loss as well. Talk to them and allow them time to mourn. Your surviving pet, especially, may be lethargic or having trouble eating or sleeping. Give her plenty of TLC and attention and make sure you keep things as normal and routine as possible. Take her to the vet if things don’t improve.
PG: How can I honor my pet?
WVP: Consider a burial or memorial. While it doesn’t have to be as large or formal as a traditional human funeral (but by all means it can be!), having a farewell ceremony can provide much-needed closure, especially if your pet died tragically with little or no warning. It gives everyone a chance to say goodbye and say a few words to honor his life and what he meant to those around him. Some pet parents have even started a fund, adopted a new pet (losing one, but saving another) or given to an animal charity or shelter in his name, helping his legacy live on forever.
Your pet and your relationship with him will never be forgotten. Your love and memories will live forever. Although losing a pet is painful, it’s important to be prepared, surround yourself with those who love and understand what you’re going through, and cherish your pet’s last days. By taking care of yourself — mentally, physically, and emotionally — and allowing yourself time to grieve and honor your pet, you can make it through the bereavement process.