I lost my first family pet when I was in 7th grade. I cried, my mom cried, and it was one of the times I remember seeing my dad cry. We loved Allie, our family dog, for 13 years. Then, all of a sudden, one day she was gone.
Losing a pet sucks. That’s not very eloquent, but there is no other way to put it. There is so much research out there telling us how good pets are for us and how therapeutic they can be. For many, pets are truly a part of the family. When the four legged, furry member of the family passes on, the grief, heartbreak, and sadness are real. Like I said, the loss of a pet just sucks.
I am not a grief expert, but I have been through the process of losing a pet many times. Each one is different, but some of the coping strategies my family and I use are always the same. My hope is that by sharing them here, they can help you too.
Four Legged Bucket List
There are many times you know the end of days is near for your furry best friend. Hopefully that comes at a time when there are still things that make your pet so incredibly happy. For my dad’s best girl Jack (yes, a girl named Jack), this meant extra rides in the truck, snuggles on the couch, and special meals especially for her once they found out she was in the advanced stages of cancer. For an especially loved kitty, that might mean some real tuna fresh out of the can, or some extra time on your lap. Whatever it is that your pet loves, try to give them a little extra in their last days if you can. It will make their heart feel happy, and you’ll have plenty of good memories to hold onto.
Let Yourself Feel
Your feelings of sadness and loss are real. It might not warrant a day off of work for you or school for your kids, but allow yourself those feelings. Maybe it’s sadness, or anger and frustration. Whatever the feels are, let them out. Talk about them as a family. This is a great time to show your children that grown ups have feelings too, and expressing them in a healthy way is a good thing.
Write the Story
Usually when handling things as a family, I try to find a children’s book to help. When it comes to loss, I am a huge fan of writing instead. Our dog passed away when I was in middle school, and I actually wrote a story about the day it happened and “published” it at school. My next dog passed away years later after I had gotten married and moved across the country (without her). I pulled out a journal and wrote moment by moment what happened that day, including the dialogue on the phone as my mom put me on speaker phone in the vet’s office so I could say my goodbyes. It still makes me tear up to think about that, but I’m so glad I have it in writing. Getting the events down on paper helped me process everything and think through it. The best thing about writing is that it’s something you can do on your own or as a family. It can be private or not.
Let your kids join in and write (or dictate) how they feel or what they remember about the day. Even better, you can also write a family memory book of favorite moments with your lost pet or the story of how they joined your family in the first place. There is something about the diligence of writing that creates conversation and helps the healing happen.
Create a Keepsake
I think loss can be such a tough thing to deal with because we don’t have anything tangible to hang on to. You have memories, but sometimes you want more: something to talk to, to look at, to remember. If you feel like that, you can certainly count on the fact that your children do. Even as an adult, I love finding a stuffed animal that reminds me of my lost pet. These make great keepsakes and can be great coping tools for kids. You can also hang onto the collar and keep it in a special place. I know some people like to make paw prints to save. Vet offices can even connect you with the right people to cremate your pet. My sister has special Christmas ornaments on her tree each year with pictures of her pets. These will be things she will keep forever. The right keepsake for each pet is a very personal thing, so do what feels right for you and your family. Remember, your keepsake should be something that helps you heal, not something that causes more hurt.
Go Out and Have Some Fun
It can be really tempting to curl up on the couch, grab a box of tissues and be sad. While I think it’s important to let yourself have all the feels, I don’t think this is the way to do it. Okay, maybe for just a little while. It is important for your children to know you have real feelings and express them. However, it’s also important for your children to see that you move on. Plan a fun day. Sure, it may feel a little forced. But if you get out there and play at the park with your kids, grab a special meal or treat, and just enjoy each other, you’ll remember that your family is strong and you can all move on together.
My dad just lost his faithful friend, Jack. She was always ready to hop in his truck and go for a ride and snuggle on the couch. They’ve known it was coming for about a month now, but that doesn’t make the hurt he and my mom felt today any easier. I know my dad’s evenings on the couch and weekend errands in the truck just aren’t going to feel right for awhile. I don’t think he’d trade the years of his happy dog hopping in the truck for the grief he feels today though. Those are special memories he’ll hold onto forever.
There’s no set timeline on how long it takes to heal after you lose a pet. It does happen though. This definitely isn’t a checklist or a map on how you get through it, just some ideas that might help. In my own family, our Lucy has been with us for over 9 years. She has helped us welcome both of our babies, move across the country, vacation at the beach, and is very much a part of our family. I hope that we have many more years with our best girl ahead of us. When the time comes though, I know my heart will break. I also know my family will write our story, find a black labradoodle stuffed animal, and plan some together time.
If you’re reading this at a time of pet loss in your own family, know that we know how you feel, and that it does get better. Many hugs and lots of love to you and your family as you work through it.