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Grieving a pet: How to overcome the sadness

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By Sarah Walker, Espresso


Grieving a pet: How to overcome the sadness

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Losing a pet is just as traumatic and grief-inducing as losing a family member or friend, so overcoming the death requires a tremendous amount of self-care, reflection, and compassion. For anyone who’s recently said goodbye to a furry friend, here are 20 pieces of expert advice that will help you cope.


Treat the death as you would any other

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Research shows that pets are viewed as members of the family, so they should be grieved in the same way as any human—slowly and compassionately.


Know what to expect

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According to Mental Health America, one of the most important ways to cope with grieving is to know what to expect from the process: “When a death takes place, you may experience a wide range of emotions, even when the death is expected. Many people report feeling an initial stage of numbness after first learning of a death, but there is no real order to the grieving process.”


Prepare for a mess of feelings

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While coping with the loss of your pet, you will likely go through a lot of emotions—denial, confusion, perhaps even humiliation and guilt. All of this is normal, says Mental Health America. “You may not be prepared for the intensity and duration of your emotions or how swiftly your moods may change. You may even begin to doubt the stability of your mental health. But be assured that these feelings are healthy and appropriate and will help you come to terms with your loss.”


Understand that grieving will be painful

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Because grief means you’re breaking a bond with something you care about, the process will be painful. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Rybeck explains: “Part of the reason that our experience of grief is so painful is that we must learn how to let go of our attachments following a significant loss…. In our protest of separation from our bond with our loved one, we may have anxiety and difficulty comprehending the loss, an experience known as numbing.”


Accept how you feel

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Harvard research shows that those who fail to acknowledge their feelings or who hold on to negative energy are at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. An easy way to protect your health and navigate the choppy waters of grieving is to simply let yourself feel whatever emotion you’re feeling.


Acknowledge your loss, but don’t ruminate

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According to Jenna Baddeley, author of the blog Embracing the Dark Side, speaking about your loss can have short- and long-term benefits, but ruminating on it will not. “Going over the same story is unlikely to be healthy for your grief and it may alienate your consolers.” She advises people to discuss their loss candidly but then to move on to other discussions with close friends and family.


Don’t expect others to “get it”

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Grief is complex, so discussing your emotions with others may alienate them or make them feel uncomfortable. To protect yourself, remind yourself at the start of a conversation that you may not get the reaction you want or think you deserve—and that’s OK. “Be aware that a lot of listeners don't know how to respond to grief stories,” says Jenna Baddeley. “Expect discomfort and misunderstanding from some listeners, and recognize that you are in a perfect position to educate them about what kind of support and comfort you need.”


Grief is not a straight path, it’s a process

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Those five stages of grief you often hear about? You’ll likely experience them all at some point. But while the psychiatrist behind the notion, Dr. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, introduced it as a linear concept in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, you’ll more likely move through phases and then regress.


Identify your response to grief

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According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, everyone’s health is impacted by grief. “There are different dimensions of response to loss unique to the individual and impacted by the circumstances of the death and the relationship to the person who has died,” says the director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. Take the time to identify how it’s affecting you—for example, if you’re experiencing insomnia, loss of appetite, or migraines—and seek medical advice accordingly.


Talk it out with a professional

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Since processing emotions can be difficult, you may find it helpful to discuss them with a bereavement counsellor. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, bereavement counsellors “can give you time and space to talk about your feelings, including … your relationship, family, work, fears, and the future.”


Slow down

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“Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable,” says psychologist Therese Rando. So give yourself a break. After losing your pet, take some time off work and allow yourself to be still and to process your emotions.


Say goodbye

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If you’re in the unfortunate position of having to euthanize your pet, take the time to plan their last days and hours so you can say a proper goodbye. To prepare for the procedure, think about whether you want it done at home or at your vet’s office and if there are any items you’d like to bring to comfort you and your pet.


Memorialize your pet

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As with visiting the grave of a loved one, visiting your pet’s final resting place, whether their remains lie in an urn or a cemetery, can be extremely cathartic.


Join a pet loss support group

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If you find it challenging to discuss losing your pet with friends, look into resources such as pet loss support groups for assistance. By discussing your loss with individuals going through the same experience, you’ll be able to overcome your grief faster and maybe even become a more thoughtful person.


Help others

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Research shows those who help others in their community experience greater satisfaction in their day-to-day lives and are better equipped to handle stressful situations. Activities such as volunteering could help you move on in your grieving process while also doing a good deed.


Practise self-care

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Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep are some of the best tools you have at your disposal to combat the most negative side effects of grief (e.g., anxiety, depression), notes the American Psychological Association. If you find that you’re struggling, seek help from your friends or consult a medical professional (e.g., naturopath, dietician).


Replace negative thoughts with questions

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When your grief is still fresh, your mind will likely fill with negative thoughts brought on by loneliness and sadness—and that’s OK. But once you’re ready, it’s important to replace sad thoughts with positive ones. Forbes contributor Melody Wilding notes the following: “Research shows that asking ourselves questions rather than issuing commands is a much more effective way to create change. It’s as simple as tweaking the way you speak to yourself. When you catch your inner critic flinging accusations, think: how can I turn this statement into a question? Asking questions opens up exploration and possibility.”


Come up with new daily routines

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Writing for Scientific American, Guy Winch explains: “Losing a pet can leave significant voids in our life that we need to fill: it can change our daily routines, causing ripple effects that go far beyond the loss of the actual animal. Caring for our pet creates responsibilities and a schedule around which we often craft our days.” When you lose your beloved animal, you’ll likely need to reorganize your schedule and fill your days with other activities. Take your time with the process.


Fill the void

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According to psychologist Michelle Roya Rad, filling the emotional space your beloved pet has left behind is part of a healthy grieving process. “The closer your connection and the more intense the loss, the more profound the emptiness may feel. When ready and within a reasonable time frame that you set for yourself, you have to find ways to fill up this gap with something positive that makes you feel good, whether it is another relationship or an activity that generates vitality and gives your life a new meaning.”


Be OK with moving on

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There will come a time when you start to feel like you can move on from your loss, and that’s OK, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. You’ll know you’re ready to move on when you accept the loss of your pet and have adjusted to living without them.

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