Pets are more than just animals. To many, they are members of the family, and when they die, it can be very hard to cope.
Lots of people develop a wonderful bond with their pet companions, and when the pet passes away, they can feel as though they have lost their closest friend. They may also worry that their friends and family will not understand as they experience deep mourning over a pet. This can be incredibly hard to deal with, and people in this situation should be treated with respect and compassion, just like anyone else who is suffering from bereavement.
The Elderly and Coping with the Death of a Pet
A lot of elderly people live alone and have only their pets for companionship. When this bond is broken, the owner can be hit extremely hard by the loss, and it can lead to serious depression and sadness.
Often, older people struggle to cope over time as they feel that they cannot get another pet because they can't manage a young animal due to their own age or infirmities. If this is the case, a rescue center may be able to help them find an older dog or cat to rehome when the time is right.
Helping Children After the Death of a Pet
Telling a child that their pet has died can be a traumatic experience both for the child and for the person who has to explain it to them. Often, the death of a pet is the first time that a child will come into contact with the experience of death and dying, so it is very important that it is handled with care.
If a child is told that a pet has 'gone away,' then they might think that they did something to make it leave; the youngster may also wait for it to return. If they are told that the animal has 'gone to sleep and won't wake up,' then they may become terrified of sleeping, fearing that the same will happen to them.
While it is natural to want to protect children from some of the harder parts of life, being honest about death and dying will help the child to understand and cope in the future and stop any misunderstandings that could frighten the child. The age of the child will determine how much they understand and also how well they are able to deal with the situation.
Generally, children of around 2-3 years old won't understand what is happening and will think that the animal has simply gone to sleep and will be satisfied with that. Children of around five years will understand that the animal has gone, but they might not understand that it has actually stopped living, or what dying actually means. Older children between the ages of 6-10 will have various levels of understanding about death and dying and might start to ask lots of questions. They may also start to worry that other animals or people that they love are going to die and may need reassurance. They should be encouraged to share their feelings and emotions, and know that it is normal to want to cry and feel a sense of emptiness. Alternatively, if they don't want to cry, then they shouldn't feel like they are wrong not to.
Helping Other Family Pets Following the Death of an Animal
Other pets will notice if one of their pack is missing. They may spend hours looking for the missing animal in the places it could usually be found; the surviving pets may refuse to eat or drink, they may become withdrawn and sleep more than usual and wander around crying.
They may become anti-social or exceptionally affectionate – just like people, each animal reacts differently, and they should be allowed to go through their own grieving processes. If there are fears for the health or well-being of a surviving pet, then a veterinarian should be consulted.
Moving on After the Death of an Animal -- Should We Get a New Pet?
For many, it's not a good idea to get a new pet right away. Everyone needs to go through the grieving process before they can really start to bond with a new animal. Moving too soon can cause problems, especially with children who may think that they are disloyal to their old pet. This is very common, and many people feel guilt at the thought of getting a new pet when a faithful companion has passed away.
Alternatively, for some people, bringing a new animal into the house can help them get through the grieving process; it can help continue a routine that may otherwise emphasize the loss - walking a dog at the same time every night, for example. Every situation will be different, and only those who have lost a pet can decide when the time is right to get a new one.
Whatever the situation, it's very important to remember that a new pet will never replace the previous one, so comparisons should be avoided. The new addition should be allowed to develop its own personality and, in doing so, bring a new and exciting character into the home.