The pain of grief is ‘love, repackaged’ and mourning a beloved pet is no different. Saying goodbye to a much-loved pet can be one of the hardest things to endure.
The emptiness and loneliness can feel all consuming, and often come with a heavy feeling of (misplaced) guilt that perhaps you could have, somehow, loved them even more. The strength of these feelings can be surprising, especially when the subtext from society seems to be to just pull yourself together and get on with life.
But often that isn’t possible. As with any kind of grief, there is no manual on how to put one foot in front of the other, nor a how-to guide on the right way to feel.
Dipti Tait, grief therapist and Author of Planet Grief, says: “Pet grief can be a profound and unique experience. It's similar to grieving a person in that it involves heartbreak, sadness, loss, and a sense of emptiness.
“But it may feel confusingly painful and different to ‘people grief’ as the bond with a pet is often deeply personal. The grief might also be misunderstood and in some cases invalidated by those who haven't experienced it or do not understand it.”
For Ruth, having her dog Maverick put to sleep in the summer, was intensely painful, but acknowledging that pain is one of the things that has helped her cope.
“He really was my closest companion and had seen me through some tough personal times. As time has passed since I put him to sleep, the pain eases, you grow around it, but I am still having moments where I cry or I catch my breath because it hurts. What has helped me is talking to people who knew his goofy character and to also recognise that it’s ok to be sad.”
But, Ruth admits, sometimes just keeping herself busy has been the only way to get through.
She says: “I’m so glad for the time I had with him, that the universe brought us together, and I will always carry a piece of him in my life.”
Dipti says: “In my book Planet Grief, my final message to my readers is “Grief is love, repackaged” and when we lose a beloved pet, the heartbreak can be devastating because the bond of pure unconditional love has been broken.
“In the short term, you should yourself to feel the sadness, speak with supportive people, and create time and space to honour your pet's memory. Also, consider speaking with a grief therapist. As time moves on, be kind to yourself. Only begin considering a new pet when you're ready to move on, and explore support groups for pet grief to connect with others who understand your feelings.”
It has been four years since another dog lover, Debbie, said goodbye to Pepper, a flat-coated retriever.
“She was our reason to go out and kept my children and me safe when we were at home. She was with me through my difficult divorce and was my matchmaker years later. When she died I was devastated, my heart felt hollow. Everywhere she should have been, but wasn’t, reminded me of her.”
Life, inevitably, returned to normal but Debbie was still struggling with her feelings.
“The normality felt wrong. In the end my grief was so strong that I went to my GP, who luckily was supportive and helped me. Over the years time has healed, but I still have her teddy in my room, and every anniversary I spend time thinking about her.”
For Alison, who recently had to have her 14-year-old Border Terrier Willow put to sleep, having a little time to prepare for her death was helpful.
“I started grieving when the vet said there was no more he could do, giving us a week or so to prepare our goodbyes. I could hardly sleep and memories of all the lives she’d touched kept running through my mind. But during that week, with my practical head on, I researched and chatted to my husband about the best way for us to say goodbye.”
She said it was upsetting but also helped the family prepare for the worst.
“As much as it broke my heart, when things changed I knew what I had to do to put her out of her suffering. After we buried her, I started to sleep much better again and I’m slowly coming to terms with our loss.”
There are lots of things you can do to help remember your pet or to support someone else who is grieving.
When you can’t find the words, our sympathy gifts for dog and cat owners can let them know you understand.
A scrapbook or pet memory box, with photos and reminders of happier times can be helpful.
While creating a space to remember a much-loved pet, with photos and a pet remembrance candle can give a bereft owner a place to grieve.
It may also be helpful to write a poem or short story or write a goodbye letter to be buried with them.
The charity, Blue Cross, which has a pet bereavement service, has many other ideas for how to remember a pet.
Cats Protection has a confidential phone line called Paws to Listen, for bereaved cat owners, while The British Horse Society's Friends at the End is there to help horse owners through the pain of an animal’s death.