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How to grieve for a pet: A family can be devastated

Pet owners who stage funerals can be the target of mockery, but ceremony can help

Grief is grief

The grief of losing a pet is real. "Grief has no boundaries. Whether it is a person or an animal, how people deal with it can be very similar," says Eileen Finnegan, member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. "You hear people say, 'For God's sake, it was just an animal'. But the death can be so traumatising for somebody for whom the pet meant so much. Don't minimise it," says Finnegan.

“All of us can have our biases of what we consider worse or better grief, but it is what the loss symbolises to the person. The memory of getting the dog, the attachment people had to it, there is a story that goes with it. Where we can all meet each other is if we can just acknowledge what it is like to lose and to comfort somebody in the same way.”

Pets mean more than ever

The pandemic strengthened many people’s attachment to their pets. Many got a pet for the first time. “There was a sense of the pet bringing the family together – ‘What are we going to do, will we bring the dog for a walk?’ or ‘Did someone feed the cat?’ Pets definitely became an increased focus,” says Finnegan. “Because our connection with society was so shut off, we were trying to find other ways to connect. Pets brought us back to connecting with the immediacy around us rather than the external.”

More than a pet

A pet’s death can be difficult because of the role the animal plays. “It’s the comfort they bring to a family, the security and sometimes it’s the structure they give to our day-to-day lives,” says Finnegan. “It’s something to do when you come home. People stop and have a conversation with you in the park about your dog. The chances of walking around the park on your own and someone stopping to talk to you is far less. So the loss of a pet is about the loss of all of those things.”


Look out for others

A family can be absolutely devastated by the death of a pet. Each member will process things differently, so keep an eye on each other, says Finnegan. “It’s very important to watch out for the people around us and to be alert to feelings of loneliness and depression.”

Create a memorial

Pet owners who stage elaborate funerals can be the target of mockery, but ritual and ceremony can help. “The brain needs a template for how to process difficult feelings. Planting a tree, having a photograph of the animal or having some little marker in the garden to remember them can help us to work through our feelings,” says Finnegan. “From a trauma perspective, we talk about shock, despair and denial – the brain doesn’t know how to cope with them. Whether we believe the loss of a pet is significant for someone or not is irrelevant. What we have to know is that this person has had a traumatic event, whether we believe it’s traumatic or not.”