Healing after experiencing grief over loss of a pet

At Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the focus is on the welfare of the animals, but a recent workshop with an expert on grieving considered the emotions people experience when an animal dies.

Coping with a pet's death

Linda Harper, a clinical psychologist, has considerable experience in the animal welfare arena. She is the facilitator of the WINGS Pet Loss Support Group sponsored by the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. At Best Friends, she presented a workshop to help staff work through their grief after an animal's death, whether it is one of the animals at the sanctuary or a personal pet.

"We can form intense bonds with animals we have known a day or 22 years. The heart of the animal lover knows no limits in their ability to form a caring and loving bond," she said.

Linda’s special understanding of grief comes from the lessons she learned from the furry companions she has lost and from the death of her father. "When my beloved dog, Blackie, was diagnosed with lymphoma, I started a support group for other animal caregivers dealing with a chronically or terminally ill pet.

Grief work

"I became especially interested in grief work in 1999 after I accompanied my father on his one-and-a-half-year journey with an aggressive cancer, which did eventually take his life. Through my experience with my dad, which included three months of hospice care, I discovered many unexpected, life-changing and precious gifts of giving from the heart."

For Colleen McMuller, one of the caregivers at Old Friends (where the old dogs live at Best Friends), Linda’s message about being open to the gifts that come from caring for a dying animal was especially important. "Linda told us that if you spend all of your time anticipating the dog’s death, you miss the gifts in the meantime. She said you don’t draw strength from anticipating the death, that the strength you need will come when you need it," she said.

Tips for dealing with the loss of an animal

Here are some of the important points in coping with grief over the loss of an animal:

  • Grief is a unique and individual experience. Accept all of your feelings and your unique reaction to loss.
  • Nurture yourself during times of loss: Take a break, let somebody do you a favor, take a few things off your "to-do" list, curl up with another animal friend.
  • Finding your own way to pay tribute to your furry friend can also be healing. Try writing a poem, sending an e-mail with the animal’s picture attached to your friends, lighting a candle, making a scrapbook, or planting a flower.
  • Linda said, "Remember, continuing to share your love with your other animal friends honors the one who has passed on. Our animal friends bring us so much happiness and fulfillment. They want us to be happy - and they want us to continue to promote that love and kindness to all living creatures.
  • "Finally, remember that you were the lucky one - you were blessed to be part of that animal's journey here on earth, no matter how long or short."

Get information on the Healing Heart workshop from Best Friends.