For some people, the death of a pet can be more difficult than the loss of a relative. Here’s why.
Whoever said diamonds are a girl’s best friend never owned a dog.
If you’ve ever lost a beloved pet, you know just how true that old adage is.
From dogs to cats to canaries to lizards, we humans form unbreakable bonds with our furry, feathered, and scaled friends.
In a way, nearly every treasured pet is a therapy animal. They may not have certificates or wear special vests that give them upgraded seating status on airplanes, but they greatly enhance our lives in a number of ways.
Numerous studies have shown evidence that pets not only provide companionship and bring joy, they can also help people recover or better cope with a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders.
And when a pet dies, it can be an emotionally devastating experience that can have a negative impact on our both our mental and physical health.
In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine reports one 61-year-old woman began experiencing severe chest pains following the death of her dog. She was admitted to the ER where doctors diagnosed her with takotsubo cardiomyopathy — otherwise known as “broken-heart syndrome” — a condition with symptoms that mimic a heart attack.
After being treated with medications she eventually recovered, but the death of her Yorkshire terrier literally broke her heart.
The loss of a cherished pet can be every bit as difficult as losing a person — or in some cases, even worse.
People are often denied sufficient support following the death of a pet, which can increase emotional distress and lead to feelings of shame and isolation.
This can be particularly difficult for children who are experiencing the loss of a pet for the first time.
Leah Carson, now a young adult, remembers her first pet. It was a gentle Golden Retriever mix named Sandy.
“We grew up together and she did everything with our family. I remember playing in the snow, hiking, and [sweet moments like] Sandy following me to my room when I came home from school,” Carson says. “When I was about 11-years old, Sandy got cancer and we had to put her to sleep. I cried a ton. I was so sad and confused. It was the first time I’d ever lost someone I loved. Afterward, there was so much quiet in her absence.”
Carson’s memories of Sandy are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, especially for those who’ve personally experienced similar loss at a young age.
Roxanne Hawn, author of “Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate,” understands that children are especially vulnerable to misunderstanding and grief following the death of a pet. She points out there are a variety of ways parents and adults can help kids through the grieving process.
“I suggest taking on memorial projects to focus your grief, and your kids’ grief, in productive ways,” Hawn says. “It’s better to embrace grief through action rather than ignore it.”
Hawn says grieving as a family can help children better process the loss, and she suggests activities in which each family member can participate as they feel the need.
“Have everyone write down as many happy memories as they can on colorful scraps of paper, and place all those good thoughts into a pretty bowl,” she says, offering one example. “Anytime someone experiences a surge in grief, they can grab one of those slips of paper and, at least for a moment, remember a happier time. Children who can’t yet write or spell can contribute drawings of their pet instead.”
Hawn also suggests allowing children to keep a pet’s beloved memento with them such as a collar or favorite toy — especially during the days immediately following the loss — its presence can help.
With a lifetime of experiences, senior citizens might seem as if they’d be better equipped to deal with the loss of a pet, but the opposite is often true.
“Losing a pet is extremely difficult for seniors. It is more than normal grief,” Lisa Frankel, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist tells Healthline. “Seniors have already dealt with so much loss: friends, family, life structure, hope, physical contact, community.”
She adds, “Pets, especially dogs, give them purpose, companionship, a reason to exercise and socialize. When a dog dies, all of that is gone.”
In Frankel’s practice, she works with many patients who are experiencing deep grief from the loss of a pet. She points out how feelings of guilt and shame can often complicate the grieving process. She cites examples of people who have lost their pet to coyote attacks or being hit by a car say they feel they could have done more to save their pet. Also, she points out others who have made the difficult decision to euthanize their pet are haunted by their decision.
She urges people who have lost a pet in these circumstances to be compassionate and forgive themselves, as well as spend time with others who understand their feelings. She also suggests organizations such as pet grief support groups, which can be a great comfort for some.
“Individual therapy can be helpful as well,” Frankel says. “Many people have a hard time opening up in groups and do better with individual counseling. If therapy triggers other losses or traumas, these losses might also have to be looked at. Grief that is really debilitating or lasts exceptionally long might be complicated by the association of the loss to other losses and trauma. Individual therapy might be really important to understand this connection and to work it through.”
While no one approach to coping will work for all people who have lost a pet, there are many options and resources available to help.
In addition to the suggestions Frankel offered, she also recommends two books, “How to ROAR: Pet Loss Grief Recovery” by Robin Jean Brown and “The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies” by Wallace Sife, founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.
The blog Pet Loss Help has published an expansive list of bereavement resources which includes numerous pet-loss support hotlines and information about support groups in different states, as well as additional online resources.
There will never be another pet quite like the one you lost, and the thought of adopting another might seem disloyal, but it isn’t.
Pets enrich our lives and we, in turn, enrich theirs.
There’s much to gain by allowing yourself to love again and pet owners have so much love to give.
Adopting a new pet could be just what the doctor ordered to help mend a broken heart.