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When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing

When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing

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by Alan D. Wolfelt

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Affirming a pet owner's struggle with grief when his or her pet dies, this book helps mourners understand why their feelings are so strong and helps them overcome the loss. Included are practical suggestions for mourning and ideas for remembering and memorializing one's pet. Among the issues covered are understanding the many emotions experienced after the death


Affirming a pet owner's struggle with grief when his or her pet dies, this book helps mourners understand why their feelings are so strong and helps them overcome the loss. Included are practical suggestions for mourning and ideas for remembering and memorializing one's pet. Among the issues covered are understanding the many emotions experienced after the death of a pet; understanding why grief for pets is unique; pet funerals and burial or cremation; celebrating and remembering the life of one's pet; coping with feelings about euthanasia; helping children understand the death of their pet; and things to keep in mind before getting another pet.

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Parents Express
A compassionate, practical guide for pet lovers.

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Companion Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.25(d)

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When Your Pet Dies

A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2004 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-36-4




Your beloved companion animal has died. I am so very sorry for your loss.

Your grief is a journey that started on the day that your special pet died. Actually, if your pet was sick or in declining health before she died, your grief was set in motion when you first understood that the illness would result in death.

An important distinction to keep in mind as you read this book is the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss. Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside of yourself. Mourning is the outward expression of grief.

In Part One of this book, you will learn not only about common thoughts and feelings of grief after the death of a pet, but ways to mourn those thoughts and feelings, as well. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.

The capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn

When a pet dies, you may feel the loss very strongly. You may feel overwhelmed by the depth of your sadness. Others, especially those who have never experienced the joy of giving and receiving love from a pet, may not understand your feelings of loss. They may even imply that you are overreacting.

If you take away only one piece of counsel from this book, let it be this: Your feelings are what they are. The fact that you are having these feelings means you need to have them. Never shame yourself over feelings of love and loss.

The second piece of counsel I hope you take from this book is that you need to express your feelings. The outward expression of grief, or mourning, is how you externalize those thoughts and feelings and ultimately, integrate them into your life.

If your grief feels very painful and debilitating, your brain might be asking your heart why this is so. Following are a few of the main reasons that our beloved companion animals are so important to us.


The strong bond between people and animals is not a recent phenomenon. Actually, it dates all the way back to ancient times. Archeologists have discovered prehistoric gravesites that prove that people were often buried with their dogs. The early Egyptians thought so much of their cats that when a beloved cat died, the owners shaved off their own eyebrows to acknowledge the loss. This was a way to let others know they were in mourning and needed support. So, as you mourn your pet, remember — people have always loved their pets and mourned their deaths.

Pets are part of our families

Most pet owners I know consider their pets part of their families. A recent survey showed that at least a third of dog owners consider their dogs to be family members. I'd guess that the actual number is much higher.

How do our pets come to be considered a part of our families? Well, we not only love our family members, but we're concerned about their well-being. We make sure they receive good medical care and eat good food. We encourage them to get exercise. We give them comfortable places to sleep. Sound like your pet so far?

With family members, we also enjoy their presence in our everyday lives. We come home glad to see them and they to see us. We look forward to spending time with each other. When we're with them, no matter where we are, we're "home."

Of course our beloved pets are part of our families.

Pets delight in our company

We pet lovers sometimes call our pets "companion animals" because they are, in fact, our companions. In fact, the majority of dog owners (68%) and cat owners (61%) say that companionship is the main reason they have a pet. You could even say that our pets' very purpose is to spend time with us and simply "be" with us.

Not only are our pets our companions, but they also help meet our need for physical contact. How many companions in our lives do we routinely hug and hold and kiss? Compared to the physical intimacy we experience with a partner and the physical closeness we might share with our children, our use of touch with our pets is often as or more frequent. We touch our pets and they seek out our touch. We are comforted, calmed, and grounded when we stroke them or they lie next to us. When death separates us from our pets physically, we mourn not only the loss of a companion, but a companion whose touch was central to the relationship.


• 95% of dog owners hug their dogs daily

• 85% of cat owners play with their cats daily

• 45% have taken their dogs on vacation

• 29% have celebrated their cat's birthday

While I was unable to find similar statistics for horse owners, bird owners, etc., I'm sure they would be equally telling of our love for all our companion animals.

Pets are part of the ritual of our days

Because pets are part of our families, they are an important part of the ritual of our days. If your special pet was an indoor animal, you may have awoken with the pet near you and expressing his affection for you each morning. All pets require nourishment; you may have begun your day by feeding your pet — perhaps before you fed others in your family or even yourself! (My pets get fed before I even make my coffee in the morning.)

Grooming and exercising your pet may also have been a regular part of your routine. And it is likely that your pet's presence played other, subtler (but just as important) parts in your day. Maybe your dog always sat at your feet while you read the newspaper. Perhaps your horse greeted you with a fond whinny when you walked out to get the mail each day. Maybe you spent some time in affectionate play with your pet every evening.

A horse called Starlight Moon

Kirby's story

She had a white star on her forehead, a pretty sorrel color to her coat, and because she was born under a full moon, I named her Starlight Moon. Since my childhood on a Wyoming ranch I had always wanted to raise a foal of my own and as an adult I finally got the chance with Starlight.

One day, Starlight hurt her leg. I took her to the veterinary hospital and after spending several thousand dollars on tests, X-rays and nerve conduction studies, I found out she had a radial nerve palsy with at least a possibility of recovery. Even if she could never be a sound horse, maybe she could be a broodmare, I reasoned. Twice daily for months I removed her splint, performed physical therapy on her leg and redressed her leg. It was very time-consuming, but she whinnied at me each time I came and seemed to appreciate the time we spent together. She was always cooperative, even when the therapy was not pleasant. Eventually I was able to wean her to smaller and smaller splints until she was able to stand and walk without too much of a limp.

Just as I was beginning to feel optimistic, one morning I noticed her standing stiffly, unwilling to move at all. She was now lame on all her legs. Once again the vet returned with woeful news. She had foundered from the stress of the injury; the bones in her feet had become inflamed and her hooves had grown irregularly. She was now in constant pain. This time I agreed to let the vet put her down.

It was quick and painless, but I still remember the sound as she fell to the ground from the injection. I moved her in a trailer to the corner of the pasture, where I had dug a grave. After I buried her, we had a ceremony at the gravesite in which my wife, our three kids, and I all recalled our favorite moments with Starlight. At the end I said a short prayer and left her spirit in the hands of God. I planted a rose on the gravesite. Sometimes I still look for her in the pasture. And occasionally I see her running through the green grass in my mind.

In many ways, pets are an intrinsic part of our day-to-day lives. Their absence, then, comes as a shock. Not only has a companion you dearly loved been taken from you, but a key piece of the ritual of your life suddenly is no longer. No wonder it can feel like your life has been torn apart.


Have you noticed that more and more companies are encouraging employees to bring their pets to work? A recent study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that having a pet in the office results in better motivation, more productivity and decreased absenteeism. In addition, many health-enhancing benefits of pet ownership, from reduced blood pressure to lower stress levels to improved overall health, carry over into the office environment. This trend is testament to the depth of the relationships we have with our pets — and the depth of the loss when they die.

Pets give us unconditional love

A final reason that our pets are so very important to us is that they give us that rarest of affirmations — unconditional love.

Our pets love us no matter how lazy we are, how slovenly, how unsuccessful. They don't expect great things of us; they don't pressure us to work harder or earn more money. Our pets love us regardless of our weight or haircut or body shape.

Our pets love us without judgment. They even love us when we don't love them back as well as we should — when we neglect to groom them or take them to the vet or forget their night-time meal.

They love us. They just do. And we feel that love and appreciate its steadfast presence in our lives.

Grieving a pet vs. grieving a person: Is it the same thing?

In my travels throughout North America teaching about grief and loss, I'm often tacitly asked to acknowledge that some types of loss are more difficult than others. Yes, the death of a child is an excruciating experience for parents. The death of a spouse can also be very hard for the widow left behind. Deaths by homicide and suicide often result in extremely painful and complicated grief for mourners. But none of these kinds of death is definitively the "worst" for family and friends. You simply cannot "rank" losses in this objective, overarching way, because each particular death, no matter the cause or circumstances, is colored by infinite variables.

And what of the death of a pet? Isn't a pet less important than a person? And so shouldn't we feel less grief after the death of a pet?

Here's what I know to be true: Pet owners often feel the loss of their companion animals very deeply. If asked to explain the significance of the loss, many will say it was one of the most profound in their lives because (and here' s the important part) the relationship they had with their pet was one of the most profound in their lives.

Wally the parrot

Jean's story

My husband and I would both attest that our attachment to Wally, a Senegal parrot, was the most intense attachment either of us has ever had to an animal (and we have both had dogs, cats, hamsters, etc.). Birds are intimate companions; they crave physical contact with you, engage in continuous verbal interplay with you, want to be in the same room with you, and bond strongly to you. And parrots even express their wishes; they talk to you. So when you have a parrot, you don't have a pet. You develop a relationship. And I would say that my relationship to Wally was one of the most significant relationships I've had in my life, animal or human.

One day I was lying on my bed reading; Wally was on a T-stand looking out the window. He sneezed a few times and then called me to him. I went to him and as he stepped onto my hand, he keeled over backwards. (And because parrots have a reflex that causes their digits to grasp when they lean back, instead of falling to the ground, he was hanging from my finger). I tried to resuscitate him for much longer than was logical, then called my husband at work and gave into hysteria. Chris rushed home and I wouldn't stop cradling this dead little parrot body, sobbing. I had a small, unreasonable hope that he would somehow come back to life if I held him long enough.

This summer it will be eight years since Wally died. He' s still very much present in the secret language Chris and I have that consists of Wally's phrases and voice; in the pretty glass vase that holds his molted feathers; and in all the damaged household items: clothing with holes, expensive pens with bite marks, frayed furniture, file folders with chewed edges, books partially shredded — beak destruction that made us furious when it happened, but now makes things special. But Wally is most present, I think, in the way that Chris and I have never had another pet. I think in a way we're afraid to put that much love into a pet again, or afraid that we couldn't love another as much.

People are often closer to their pets than they are to other human beings. We spend time with our pets day in and day out, whereas we might see our family infrequently. And our relationships with our pets are often less complicated than our relationships with other people. They are more straightforward and consistently happy, whereas our relationships with other people are often complicated and ambivalent.

I believe that grief for a pet is not inferior to or "less than" any other grief. It is what it is. If you feel it deeply and profoundly, then the loss is deep and profound for you and, as with any grief, is a result of the deep and profound love you felt for the pet that died. Only you can be the judge of your grief after your pet dies. Accept it for what it is and mourn it accordingly.

How your grief is unique

Everyone grieves after the death of a beloved companion animal. But their grief is never precisely the same as anyone else's. Each person's grief is shaped by all the things that make each of us unique human beings.

Your grief over the death of your pet will be affected by:

The nature of the relationship you had with your pet.

As I've already said, the stronger the attachment, the deeper the grief. Some people are even dependent upon their pets for their own survival! When a guide dog dies, the implications for his blind master can be profound. The length of the relationship you had with your pet will also be a factor. And some human-pet relationships are ambivalent. When my Huskies are puppies and chewing on my furniture, I often say I have a love-hate relationship with them! Having mixed feelings about a pet when she is alive can lead to mixed feelings upon her death.


For older adults, their relationships with their pets are often the most meaningful relationships they have in their present lives. Under these circumstances, the pet becomes a "very best friend." And so the pet's death can have a significant impact, particularly if the older adult is isolated from human contact.

My 76-year-old mother lives in an assisted living facility with her little rat terrier, Minnie. "She's a lot of company," Mom says. "I don't know what I'd do without her."

When the pet dies, the experience may trigger old griefs from losses encountered throughout life. It may also cause the elderly person to lose all hope for the future and despair the lonely weeks and years to come. On the other hand, many older people, having coped with death many times before, reconcile themselves to the loss of their pets with relative ease.

Older adults may need to talk about their grief over the death of a pet, sometimes telling the same stories over and over again. Finding one or two good listeners who will listen without judgment can make all the difference.

They also need encouragement to mourn in other ways, such as journaling or painting or planting a garden in memory of their pet. These activities help direct their time and focus and give meaningful shape to the early days and weeks of intense grief.

Also, don't inappropriately push a new pet on an older adult. Knowing that a new pet might outlive them, some make the selfless, responsible decision not to get another pet. Choosing to remain petless is not necessarily a sign of complicated grief or withdrawal.

The circumstances of the death.

Sometimes how and why your pet died will play a big part in your grief. If your pet was ill for a long time and had to endure pain, you may be troubled by this aspect of the loss. If your pet's death was sudden or violent (such as being hit by a car), you will probably need to spend more time processing the circumstances of the death before you can truly mourn the loss of the life.

Your unique personality.

Whatever your unique personality, it will be reflected in your grief. For example, if you tend to be quiet and introverted, you may express your grief quietly. If you are outgoing, you may be more expressive of your grief.

Your support systems.

The quality and the quantity of support you feel from people around you as you mourn the death of your pet has a decided impact on your grief. If you have caring, nonjudgmental people to talk to about your loss, people who will really listen and respond with empathy, your journey to healing will be easier. If you don't have family, friends, or co-workers to talk to about your loss, consider joining a pet loss support group.


Excerpted from When Your Pet Dies by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2004 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He writes the “Children and Grief” column for Bereavement Magazine and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, and Today. He is the author of Healing Your Grieving Heart, Healing a Teen's Grieving Heart, and Understanding Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
webangel More than 1 year ago
This book is great. I read it to help me with my Animal Ministry but I know that when my Sophie's time has come, I will be prepared with the grieving process. It's an easy read. Has great suggestions on how to remember you family companion and it helps you to explain death to children. I recommend this book to everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I try to read a sample I get the book Induring Love! I want to read a sample of this book!!!!! No way am I am going to buy the book if sample is not correct.
jsandoval82 More than 1 year ago
This "book" reminded me of reading a college essay/report. As this book is good to understand your feelings about a recently lost pet. It focused more on dogs and did not cover anything about having multiple pets. I would have like to see this book cover more of the how to cope with the loss instead of focusing on just feelings on that you encounter when you loose a pet. I would not recommend this book for the price that Barnes and noble is offering. I think that this subject needs more attention than just 56 pages.