Coping with Pet Loss

How to deal with the holidays when you’re grieving the loss of your pet.

Broken with grief female dog grieving owner holding the lovely pet collar and deep weeping about animal loss. Home pets relatives and love concept.
Pet loss grief can be extremely difficult during the holidays. If you want to help someone cope, consider donating to a charity in the name of her dog as your loss of pet gift. © Solovyova / Getty Images

When we lose our beloved pet (our beloved anyone), the house in which we live is not the same. We are not the same people. Our world has changed, and we are not who we were before the death. Coping with pet loss anytime is a profound struggle, but coping with pet loss during the holidays with all the triggers associated with our lost love is a wound to the heart.

So, how can we be present with the people we love during a holiday celebration?

We shouldn’t try. First, we have the right not to attend any celebration we don’t feel up to, though that’s not always the most helpful thing to do when trying to manage your pet loss grief.

We need a touch of light and laughter. But trying to fit in to the celebrations, pushing away the mind and body’s natural response to pet loss grief never works. It backfires. Emotions and tears may ambush you.

Tips for coping with pet loss grief

Now is the time to try to accept that the old normal is gone. And there is no timetable for pet loss grief to uncoil. We’re living a new normal, with a new relationship to our beloved animal companion. And in the midst of the laughter, cheer and celebrations of the season, there is no need to explain or justify our feelings. It will likely feel hollow.  Yet, even in this unsettling time, pet loss grief needs to become grieving, become active so it can start healing.

Steps for pet loss grief

Here are some thoughts I hope help with grieving your lost pet during holidays:

  • Light a candle in front of a photograph of your lost dog. Talk to him in the quietness of your own space, letting each other know how much you miss each other.
  • Write your feelings down. Writing externalizes your emotions and helps make sense of what’s happening to you.
  • Cry as long and as deeply as you need. But remember to take grief breaks. Join your friends and family if only for a hug here. A song there. A smile. You can then return to the privacy of your feelings.
  • Please get outside. Take a walk. Being outside and walking release tension and being in nature softens the pain.
  • Think about spending a few hours volunteering at an animal shelter or a senior home. Your loss has opened your heart. Seniors, who have lost so much, will love your company. Remember to listen closely to their stories. You’ll likely hear echoes of your own.
  • Honor your pet’s memory by talking with the abandoned animals in your local shelter, and bring a special holiday something to the staff.
  • At the end of the season, if there’s a Christmas tree, plant it outside, cover it with peanut butter for the birds and squirrels.
  • Take care of yourself. Pet loss grief depletes us physically and emotionally. Stay hydrated, for example.

Finally, remember, pet loss grief is not a mental health issue. There is nothing wrong with you! And there is no pill for sadness. But reach out to a grief and loss counselor if the sorrow overwhelms and you’re frightened at the intensity of your feelings.

Loss of pet gifts – what’s acceptable?

While holidays are often about gift giving, the impulse to give a pet-sympathy gift to the bereaved pet parent should be done cautiously. Most who have lost a pet want to make personal “memory” choices, ones that reflect the special bond that we share with our pet.

Final words on coping with pet loss grief

Stay connected to friends and family, but only those who truly get the depth of your heartbreak. Avoid those who say things like, “It was only a dog.” In time, you will hope for a future of love and acceptance.

The poet John O’Donohue tells us that someday we will be able to enter the hearth of our soul where our loved one has awaited our return all this time.

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