Deal With the Loss of a Pet

In the film Marley & Me, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston play a couple that grows to love their hyperactive – and destructive – blonde Labrador. In the process of adjusting to the animal, they learn about unconditional love. Finally, through losing Marley, they find their way through life’s most bittersweet terrain.

Many pet owners feel the same way about the deep bonds they develop with their dogs, cats, birds or reptiles. In the movie, the couple’s lives begin to revolve around their dog – a phenomenon that can make it even harder to recover from such grief.

The movie is an imaginative and deeply touching story of how our lives can be thrown off center for a time, but eventually open our hearts to more meaningful experiences. If you have lost a pet recently or know someone who has, here are few things to keep in mind during this emotional time.

No timeline
Don’t let anyone tell you how long you should grieve for a pet. People who have not experienced this loss may not understand that mourning a pet can be just as difficult and painful as losing a parent or a good friend. Grief is an emotion that comes in waves: you may feel you are “over it” one day, but find yourself crying the next. It’s a process with its own timeline. Allow yourself to take all the time you need – don’t confine yourself to the interval someone else thinks is “appropriate.”

Reach out
In Marley & Me the family members can lean on each other, but not everyone is surrounded by dog lovers, or by those who understand. Don’t compound your sadness by going it alone. Although it can be hard to reach out and ask for support, it’s crucial to your emotional health. If you live with a partner, children, or other pets, try to remember that the passing of an animal is a loss for the entire family.

Children often have many questions: answer these honestly, and encourage the kids to talk about their feelings. A creative project such as writing a poem for the pet or drawing a picture of a favorite memory can help the children, and you, honor this important part of the family. If you have other pets, they will also grieve. Giving them extra attention can help you to focus on the love that is present in your life.

A new pet…
It’s important to fully heal before you take another animal into your home. Don’t be impulsive about it, even if you’re tempted to do it prematurely to avoid your feelings. The decision to get another pet might feel like “proof” that you have moved on, but adding a new creature to your family too soon can be emotionally confusing: on one hand, you want to bond with the new pet, but at the same time you may feel like this is disloyal to the one that just died.

Remember that the love you have for your pet is still with you. Rejoice in knowing that it was your love that grew – and that love is with you always. Knowing that you have the capacity to care for another animal will guide you to your next pet. Loss is transformational. Though it is probably the most painful part of the human experience, it can lead to an expansion of consciousness – and the capacity to love even more.

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