Losing a pet is a unique type of grief, and those who care for small pets may find that the loss of a small companion mammal can be especially difficult to navigate on their own. In recognition of Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, we wanted to offer some suggestions on how to cope with the loss of a small pet.
- Not everyone will “get it.” Know those in your circle who will. Some who have never been guardians to small animals don’t understand our attachment to these little guys. In some cases, this might mean they don’t fully understand the grief we experience when a small pet passes away. That’s not necessarily a personal failing of theirs—they may not have had a chance to experience how special small exotics are!—but while you’re grieving, keep in mind that they might not always be able to relate to what you’re going through. Often, those who have lost a small pet find the most comfort from talking with others who have cared for small pets. If you think talking with other pet parents may help you through the grieving process, try reaching out to local rescues and support groups for resources, or try finding a forum or group on the web that is dedicated to small animal care.
- Grief is messy—and that’s okay. The grieving process is sometimes described as five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While some grieving people do experience all five of these stages at some point, grief can be incorrectly framed as a linear process. Instead of visiting each stage of grief like a space on a gameboard, grief can be a messy process, and no one experiences it the same way. One day it might feel like you’re doing okay, but then the next it may feel like you’re back at square one. It’s important to give yourself some grace during this time. Your life has been altered in a major way, and if your little one was one of your closest companions, that may mean you will take their passing especially hard.
- Or, grief might not be messy—and that’s okay too. For some people, grief can look different. You might not cry at all, and you may be able to go to work the next day. You might not experience all five stages of grief. Remember to never compare your grief to others. Comparing yourself to others in this way can cause you to set unhealthy expectations for yourself, whether that’s asking the question “why am I not feeling better faster?” or “why am I not crying more?” There’s not something wrong with you for processing your loss differently from others.
- Remember to work toward the new normal. You may want to isolate yourself by taking time off from work, turning off your phone, or staying off social media. For some grieving pet parents, this is a vital step to experience and learn to accept their new reality. If you do use this mode of coping it’s important to check in on yourself, and to understand when the time you’re taking to be on your own might be unhealthy. If you do decide to process your grief privately, exposure to the “rest of the world” after a pet death can be another difficult part of the process. However, it’s necessary for those who are experiencing grief to reintegrate back into their social circles (even if that means just digitally reintegrating at first). Pet parents who have experienced loss may feel like exposure in small amounts is the best way to handle reintegration.
- Aftershocks are totally a thing. Think of “aftershocks” as those small jolts you have in your cognition as you’re adjusting to life without your pet. You might feel like things are going back to normal, and then it suddenly hits you that your pet is no longer with you. Know that as you adjust to life without your small companion, unexpected triggers will come up that remind you of them. You might see your pet’s favorite veggies at the supermarket, or you might hear someone calling their pet by the same name as your pet. You might even have flashes of grief that pass over you while passing by a particular landmark. These aftershocks could be you trying to understand how to relate to the world after loss. It’s not fun to experience, but it means you’re learning how to adjust—and whether or not you experience aftershocks, learning how to adjust is vital progress.
- When you’re ready, think of a way to honor your pet’s life. If you need an outlet, there are countless ways you can remember your pet and help process grief. Some pet parents display a small memorial in their home with their pet’s picture, clay paw print, and favorite toy (fairy lights can be a pretty addition to memorials as well!). Pet parents who enjoy crafts may decide to spend time making a scrapbook with photos of their pet, or cross stitch or embroider their pet’s likeness. Pet parents who are able to serve the public may find volunteering with a local humane society or rescue to be an especially rewarding way to remember their little one while also helping others and contributing to a larger cause.
- If daily life is becoming difficult and you don’t think you’re making any progress with your grief, it might be time to speak with a professional. Throughout the grief process, it’s important that you check in with your emotions and thought patterns. Do you feel like you’re healing? Are you able to keep up with daily tasks? Or have you been thinking obsessively? Have chores become too much to keep up with? In the past, working with mental health professionals may have carried stigma for some, but times are changing for the better. It’s normal to need help from others, and sometimes that help cannot come from a friend or family member—sometimes we need professionals to assess situations from a nonbiased, expert perspective. Become acquainted with what mental health options are accessible to you based on your insurance or what public options are available. Remember that some mental health practitioners have a sliding scale system where you pay what you can. Often all you need to do is to ask and be prepared to provide a pay stub to show your income.
While grieving can be lonely, remember you don’t always have to go it alone. We hope these suggestions may be helpful to you and your grieving process.