Pet Loss Support
The NC State University College of Veterinary Medicine has prepared the following information about pet loss support services.
The bond formed between humans and animals is unique. For many people, animals are the primary sources of emotional and social support and can be described as children, best friends, confidantes, partners and companions. They become members of our family and can provide a sense of constant support through various changes in our lives. Pets enhance and stabilize our lives with constant unconditional love and devotion. This special human-animal relationship is what makes the death of a pet one of the most significant losses we experience in our lives. The impact of our loss is often determined by our personal experiences with loss, how close we are with our pet and the strength of our attachment with our pet.
Honoring Every Animal’s Life and Legacy
The goal of our pet grief support group, HEALL, is to provide people who have lost an animal with a safe and confidential environment in which to share their experiences with animal illness and death. Being with other animal people who understand the pain of losing an animal can open the door to healing from that loss. The HEALL group is facilitated by trained social workers and meets at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
The HEALL group is open to the public and free of charge. Registration is required for all groups. Please contact Family & Community Services staff at 919-513-3901 for more information.
NC State Veterinary Hospital Pet Loss Support
It can be very difficult to cope with the loss of your animal. The loss of an animal can have an impact on you that is similar to the loss of a family member or friend. When your pet dies, you will grieve; this is a natural and normal response to your loss. Although the grief response is unique to each individual, understanding the grief process may help you cope with your grief or help other family members or friends who share your sense of loss. There are several stages of grief, but not everyone experiences them all or in the same order. Individuals may go back and forth between stages or may feel several emotions associated with different stages at the same time.
First Stage: Denial & Isolation
Your first response may be denial that your pet has died. Denial can be a healthy way to deal with uncomfortable or painful situations and can function as a buffer after unexpected shocking events. This does not mean denial of the actual loss; it’s just that the loss is too much for you to handle at that point in time. Denial can help pace our feelings of grief and often comes in the form of questioning; Is it true? Are they really gone?
Second Stage: Anger
Anger is a common emotion associated with loss. Anger may be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including your family and your veterinarian. Anger may present itself in many ways such as anger at the pet for getting sick or anger at the veterinarian for not saving the pet. You may even be angry at yourself for not being able to save your pet. These feelings do not have to be logical or valid and many other emotions are usually beneath feelings of anger, including feelings of pain.
Third Stage: Bargaining
You may feel that you can enter into some sort of an agreement to try and postpone the inevitable from happening. You may try to make a deal with a higher power in hopes that it will save or bring back your pet. Bargaining can be an escape from the pain and a distraction from reality of life without your pet. This includes many “what if” and “if only” statements and is used to keep suffering at a distance.
Fourth Stage: Depression
This is when grief enters a deeper level. It is important to understand depression felt during this stage is a normal and appropriate response to loss and not something to be fixed or “snap out of.” Common signs you may experience include withdrawal from life or feeling left in a fog of intense sadness. It may be difficult to engage in daily activities. Feelings of fatigue as well as frequent crying spells are also common signs of depression. Depression can be helpful as it slows you down and allows you to take real stock of the loss. It helps you rebuild and moves you towards growth.
Fifth Stage: Acceptance
Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings and begin to accept your pet’s death. This does not mean that you are all right or okay with what has happened. Most people never feel okay about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality of the loss, that your pet is really gone. You will never like this reality, but you learn to live with it. This is where your final healing and adjustment can take place.
Pet Loss/Grief & Children
It is important to talk honestly with a child in age-appropriate ways about the death of a pet. This is probably their first experience with death and loss. Remember that children understand meanings on a very literal level. They might not understand explanations such as “He is sleeping” or “She went on a long trip.” This may cause them to fear going to sleep or going to bed or to wonder why the pet did not say good-bye.
Do not be afraid to show your emotions about the loss of your pet to your child. This helps show the child that grief is normal and healthy. Children grieve in small amounts. They may go back and forth from being upset to playing in a short period of time. They may temporarily regress to previously outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking and being clingy.
Be sensitive to your child’s needs and emotions. Your support and understanding can make a big difference in helping him/her deal with grief in a healthy way. Offer your child reassurance through hugs, talking about your pet, and recalling memories of your pet. Children can participate in rituals and memorials for the pet. Prepare them as to what they should expect beforehand. Maintaining their routines, showing affection and allowing them to ask questions will help them cope with their loss.
How to explain the death of a pet to a young child
For young children, a pet may be not only a beloved member of the family but a special playmate and a source of comfort and joy.
So when the day comes, as it inevitably will, how best to tell your child the pet has died?
The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with the life cycle. This means it could be a valuable teaching opportunity.
The first inclination of many parents is to protect their child from pain and soften the impact of the loss. They may use a euphemism such as “putting the dog to sleep” when discussing euthanasia or create an alternative story to why an animal is no longer present.
Parents should make sure they are using clear and simple language when explaining the death of a pet. The conversation should be age appropriate, but even the youngest child should be provided honest information about what death is and what it looks like.
The two big lessons here are that death is universal and irreversible. All living things die, and once it happens we cannot make the body work again. The pet can no longer see, hear, taste, or feel. But death does not have to be painful; it does not have to hurt. Approached in the proper manner, this conversation does not have to be threatening to a child.
NC State Veterinary Hospital’s social worker suggests explaining how trees shed leaves and the leaves die or how bugs die so the child understands that all living things stop working at some point.
A child needs to know that there are some things we can fix in people that we cannot fix in an animal, and that there are some things we cannot fix in people or animals.
Some key strategies
- It is important to keep communication open and let the child talk about the situation and take as much time as needed to ask questions.
- Adults should model appropriate behavior during the process. It is okay for children to see adults being sad and missing their loved ones, as loss is a part of the universal human experience.
- If a family is preparing for the death of an animal, the child should be given the opportunity to say goodbye and participate in any memorialization—perhaps writing a letter or drawing a picture that will stay with the animal.
- Some children might not want to be present at the time of death but they might want to say goodbye before the animal buried. The veterinarian can assist in that process so the children can say goodbye without it being traumatic.
- Very young children cannot maintain their attention on one topic and process their emotions in short bursts. It’s not unusual for a young child to have many questions right after a pet dies. A little while later they are off on another activity. It does not mean that they have forgotten about the pet’s death or that they have processed it and moved on. Parents have to be available and open for further conversations.
- Find comfort in the daily routines. Maintaining a normal daily schedule for meals, bedtime, and play time is an important part of coping with a life-changing loss.
- Welcome the opportunity to remember the pet by recalling and sharing stories of happy times. Memories are part of the healing process and can provide comfort months, and even years, after an animal’s death.
- Bringing another animal home will not speed the grieving process. When the family has enough time, energy, and emotion to devote to another pet, a new animal member of the family may be appropriate.
For more information:
“When a Pet Dies” by Fred Rogers
“Cat Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant
“Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant
Pet Loss Support Resources
Many veterinary organizations host volunteer- or student-run hotlines that are available on a limited weekly schedule. We have chosen to list only those hotlines that are regularly and/or professionally staffed.
ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline
Calls are returned 24 hrs/day
IAMS Pet Loss Support Center and Hotline
This national hotline is available Monday through Friday from 9am-6pm EST.
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
- Pet Loss Support
- Hoof Beats in Heaven
- Harmony Animal Hospital: Pet Loss
- Grief Healing
- Argus Institute
- The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets
- Delta Society: The Human-Animal Health Connection
- Rainbow Bridge
Books on Pet Loss/Grief for Adults
- Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet by Moira Anderson Allen, 3rd edition, Peregrine Press, 2007
- Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski, Stillpoint Publishing, 1997
- The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife, Wiley Publishing, 2005
- Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty Carmack, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003
- Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, 2001
Books on Pet Loss/Grief for Children
- Dog Heaven by Cynthia Ryland, Scholastic Trade, 1995
- Cat Heaven by Cynthia Ryland, Scholastic Trade, 1995
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, Simon and Schuster, 1975
- A Special Place for Charlee: A Child’s Companion Through Pet Loss by Debbie Morehead, Partners in Publishing LLC, 1996
- When Friendship Lives Beyond the Stars by Dr. Amy Sugar, Pawsitive Resources, 2004
♦ Denotes a North Carolina business
Best Friend Services – Animal urns, pet cremation jewelry, burial markers, and sympathy gifts
Custom Pet Urns – Custom-made pet sculpture urns
Forever Pets – Urns for dogs, cats, and horses
Furry Angel Pet Memorials – Pet memorial candles and memorial wind chimes
Good Shepherd Pet Services ♦ – Memory glass, caskets, urns, and keepsake boxes; serving Charlotte and Western North Carolina. 704-553-0545
In the Seam – Custom canvas photo pillows in the likeness of your animal
Let Your Love Grow – Planting mix that neutralizes cremains for remembrance gardens/plantings
Pet Reliquaries – Hand-crafted, custom-made mementoes designed to hold ashes, fur, or whiskers
Star Deed – Name a star in your animal’s honor
This is not an exhaustive list, nor do the contents imply endorsement by NCSU