After more than 30 years as a practicing veterinarian, and many, many personal losses, I’ve learned some strategies that can help pet owners who are dealing with the loss of a beloved companion. While we veterinarians do everything we can to keep your pet healthy and happy, euthanasia is often a necessary — and very difficult — part of our job. But we are all proud of this part of our work; we not only ease suffering, but we are almost alone in the medical field in actively ending pain, often at great emotional toll to ourselves.
My professional familiarity with death means I also know a great deal about grief — my own, of course, and also that of the families whose pets I have looked after throughout their lives. Helping those who remain behind is also part of my work, and over the years, I have learned a few useful strategies for coping with this loss.
Give Yourself Time -- And Permission -- To Grieve
In general, grown-ups don't like to cry in public, and we don't like to share how much we're hurting. But it's extremely important to remind yourself that love is love and that loving a pet is no different from loving a person -- and when you lose your pet, you will feel like crying. Your feelings are not wrong, and you need time to work through your grief. Don't try to minimize the bond you and your pet shared. No matter what anyone else says or thinks or what you were raised to believe, I am confident that your pet loved you, truly. Let yourself believe this, too, and don't rush to "get over it." You can't hurry grief, so be kind to yourself and let yourself feel what's in your heart.
Take Care Of Yourself
Losing someone we love can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. While you are grieving, it's important that you eat well and get enough sleep. You'll do better in the short run -- and certainly in the long run -- if you look after your own health right now. Stick to healthy, good foods, and resist the impulse to go for the junk because it's there and it's easy. Comfort food can be good food, too, of course -- but again, try to stick with healthy choices and appropriate portions. And don't be afraid to touch base with your doctor if you feel yourself struggling to get back to normal. Don't try to "gut it out" -- experts say you'll just prolong your grief.
Avoid 'He Was Just A Pet' People
You know who these people are -- they're the ones who never really understood the bond between you and your pet in the first place. Often, they're trying to be helpful, but chances are their comforting words will only make you feel worse. And then there are the people who will attempt to "one-up" your grief or put your loss in context: "At least it wasn't a child, just a pet" ... "When I lost my husband I learned that losing a pet wasn't really that big of a deal" ... "Just get another one right away!" ... and so on. If you can't avoid their comments, no matter how well-meaning, try to ignore them or change the subject. It's OK to say that you don't want to talk about your loss -- even if it's only this one particular person you don't want to talk with.
Seek Out Support
This is a great time to call a friend. The pet-loving people in your life understand what you're going through and they'll be there for you. Don't be shy about talking with people who care about you and who will offer genuine sympathy. Ask for help if you need it, even with mundane tasks; if you can't deal with picking up your pet's ashes or packing up his toys, ask a friend to help, for example. If you need more support than friends can give, your veterinarian may be able to help you find <a href="http://www.vetstreet.com/coping-with-the-loss-of-a-pet" target="_hplink">a pet-loss support group or a pet-loss hotline</a> (many veterinary schools and colleges have them). There are also pet-centered websites for memorials, some of which have staffed pet-loss support chat rooms -- seek them out.
Make Plans For A Memorial
Plant a tree, make a memorial donation to an animal charity, scrapbook a memorial ... you'll know what works for you. I recently spoke at a conference of pet-loss professionals about the strength of the human-animal bond, and while I was there, I learned a lot, too. There are many choices in memorials, from the simple and private to the most elaborate. It's all about what you feel comfortable doing. At our Almost Heaven Ranch, we have a graveyard for our animals, and celebrating their lives is an important part of the Becker family traditions. I meet a lot of pet lovers, and if you are among them, please tell me about your pet. I am always ready to listen -- and I'm just as ready with a hug.