The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2017 that after her dog died, a woman experienced “broken heart syndrome”—a condition in which the response to grief is so severe the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be 30 times greater than normal.
Although grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when we lose a companion animal. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog because we fear doing so would paint us as emotionally weak. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. So, we are not only robbed of invaluable support systems when our pet dies, but we may even get messages overtly that it’s time to get over it.
People who have just lost a companion, or have a furry companion who is ill may find it extremely difficult to keep up with normal responsibilities, even though they are expected to keep performing as normal.
If your pet has been experiencing decline, whether age or disease-related, and you’ve been preparing for their passing, it can be helpful to have a “next steps” plan written down and posted somewhere that takes little effort to recall. In this acute phase, a lot of “easy” things to remember become much harder to recall, as our body is experiencing an intense emotional change and we struggle to grasp the new reality before us. Things around our home or yard may remind us￼ of our loss. See also What Can We Learn from Companion Animals.
Integrate understanding friends or loved ones early on and notify them of your grief. Since grief is fluid, there are times that you may want to be alone with your emotions, and that’s ok. People may even say unhelpful things in an attempt to comfort you at some point such as, “we can get another one” or “at least they are in a better place.” In the acute phase, the most helpful thing is a calm presence and support. Even if there’s nothing more to be said, knowing that you can express your grief and are supported in your pain can make a world of difference.
If there is an unhealthy or no support system, there are online communities such as Pet Loss Grief Support Community at Rainbow Bridge or the Pet Loss Grief Support Message Board.