Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.
What Is Pet Loss?
For many of us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. A pet can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life, and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. So, when a beloved pet dies, it’s normal to feel a painful sense of grief and loss.
While we all respond to loss differently, the level of grief you experience will often depend on factors such as your age and personality, the age of your pet, and the circumstances of their death. Generally, the more significant your pet was to you, the more intense the emotional pain you’ll feel. The role the animal played in your life can also have an impact. For example, if your pet was a working dog, service animal, or therapy animal, then you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of your independence, or the loss of emotional support. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with their loss can be even harder. And if you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong your pet’s life, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
Whatever the circumstances of your loss, remember that grief is personal to you, so you shouldn’t be ashamed about how you feel, or believe that it’s somehow not appropriate to grieve for an animal friend. While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of owning a pet, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and when the time is right, perhaps even open your heart to another animal companion.
Losing a pet, for any reason, is something that happens to every pet owner eventually. Whether your pet is stolen, dies, or must be re-homed – the loss can be overwhelmingly difficult to deal with.
Our pets often become members of the family, companions, confidantes, best friends, and some cases a coworker (working dogs) or ticket to independence (service dogs). For those reasons (and many others), the loss of a pet can trigger agonizing grief along with a whole host of other emotions – anger, guilt, shock, and many other strong emotions.
Grief and Pet Loss:
It’s natural to go through the stages of grief as you would with any loss of somebody you care for. In many cases, the people around you don’t understand the grief you are going through, and may tell you to “get over it.” You may hear things like “it was just a dog/cat/bird” or “you can just get another one.” Our society generally doesn’t recognize the significance of pet loss, nor does it allow for ‘proper’ bereavement.
Different Types of Loss.
Grieving is a highly individual experience. Some people find grief following the loss of a pet comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that their grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.Different Kinds of Loss
Death can happen expectedly, after a long-term illness or when age has taken its toll. Equally painful are unexpected deaths, such as vehicle accidents or fatal injuries. When human error or maliciousness are to blame for an animal’s demise, feelings of guilt or anger can complicate an already devastating time. If there is a question of wrongful death, do not rule out legal proceedings. State laws are constantly improving with regard to animal abuse and compensation for the loss of companion animals. Visit your state’s legislative Web site for more information. Perhaps your dog was stolen or your cat was accidentally let out or simply disappeared, leaving you without the ability to say goodbye or the knowledge of his or her whereabouts and safety. Divorce, college, or other kinds of forced separation can also prompt feelings of grief.
The grieving process happens only gradually.
It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet.
Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak or your feelings are somehow misplaced. It just means that you’re mourning the loss of an animal you loved, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run.
For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
Some things that can make your grief harder to deal with are: lack of support or understanding, guilt over making the decision to euthanize, and wondering how to discuss it with your children. One of the most important things you can do to get through the difficult time of bereavement is allow yourself to feel it. Holding it in and hiding it is generally not conducive to working through the feelings.
Your journey of grief will not take on a prescribed pattern or look like stages, such as the five stages of grief, as Kubler-Ross, or other patterns of grief. The following tips can help with grief and grieving the loss of your beloved pet.
When Death Is a Decision
If your animal companion’s quality of life has diminished to the point where therapy or medicine is no longer able to help, euthanasia is the only humane choice. Discuss this option thoroughly with your veterinarian. Once you have resolved to end your friend’s suffering, insist on being with him or her during the procedure. Ask about sedative options in order to make your companion’s passing as stress-free as possible. As devastating as it may seem, euthanasia is never a mistake. Delaying, in the hope that one more day might make a difference, may actually mean just one more day of distress. Your friend may feel your pain, too, and try to hold on for your sake. Dealing with these emotions, and especially the guilt afterwards, is a journey unto itself.
Acknowledge the reality of the death
Acknowledging the full reality of your loss may take weeks or months, but will be done in a time that is right for you. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there. Once you become accustomed to the idea that your pet has died, you can move forward. Just because your pet is now gone does not mean that you don’t still love him or her as much as you’ve always done.
Move toward the pain of the loss
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is a difficult, but important, need. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore it. Those who bury their feelings and pain of the loss of their much-loved pet find it coming out in very different ways: self-medicating with alcohol, irrational bouts of anger, and difficulty concentrating on daily tasks. It is far more healthy to feel your feelings rather than stuffing them down deep inside.
Continue your relationship through memories
Just because your pet has died does not mean that he or she never existed. Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together. Most people can understand the loss of a beloved pet and it may prove beneficial to reach out to others. Plant a memorial garden. Find a special way for you to visit the memories of your pet.
Adjust your self-identity
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet. You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning. Now you’re in a new reality without your beloved pet. It may feel scary and awful, but over time, you’ll be able to see yourself as the same person who loved that pet, only without the pet. Adjusting to a loss is always complicated and fraught with sadness, but in time, you will be able to look back on cherished memories of your pet.
Search for meaning
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of pets in your life. Coming to terms with these questions is another need you must meet during your grief journey. Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important. Many people feel silly or stupid for being so upset about losing their loved pet, like it’s not that serious, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This was someone you shared your life with, your home; someone you were responsible for. The emptiness of your life may feel overwhelming, which is why you should try to search for your new normal, place to belong, and practice self-care.
Receive support from others
Don’t hesitate to ask for help dealing with your heartache. Solace is to be found in a number of places. Support groups are springing up everywhere, some sponsored by professionals, and can give you the opportunity to share your feelings with people who understand your pain. There are help lines that you can call and many books for adults and children that deal with losing an animal companion. Some veterinary schools are increasing their efforts to help alleviate animal caretakers’ grief and have social workers on hand for counseling. The Internet is a wonderful resource for helping you find groups, individual grief counselors, and even chatrooms. Sympathetic family and friends can be a great source of comfort, too. They probably have known your nonhuman companion for as long as you have and can share fond memories.
You need the love and support of others because you never “get over” grief. Talking with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need. Try reaching out to others who’ve been where you are so that you can share your sad times and happy times with each other. Support will remind you that you are grieving a very real loss and help you through that grief.
Coping With Pet Loss:
The experience of loss is different for everyone and can present unique challenges to each person in each situation, but some of the following tips may help you come to terms with the loss of your fur-baby.
The deafening silence – the silence in your home after the death of a pet may seem excruciatingly loud. While your animal companion occupies physical space in your life and your home, many times their presence is felt more with your senses. When that pet is no longer there, the lack of their presence – the silence – becomes piercing. It becomes the reality of the “presence of the absence.” Merely being aware of this stark reality will assist in preparing you for the flood of emotions.
The special bond with your pet—the relationship shared with your pet is a special and unique bond, a tie that some might find difficult to understand. There will be well-meaning friends and family members who will think that you should not mourn for your pet or who will tell you that you should not be grieving as hard as you are because “it’s just a cat” or “just a dog.” Your grief is normal and the relationship you shared with your special friend needs to be mourned.
Grief can’t be ranked—sometimes our heads get in the way of our heart’s desire to mourn by trying to justify the depth of our emotion. Some people will then want to “rank” their grief, pitting their grief emotions with others who may be “worse.” While this is normal, your grief is your grief and deserves the care and attention of anyone who is experiencing a loss.
Questions of spirituality—during this time in your grief journey, you may find yourself questioning your beliefs regarding pets and the after-life. Many people around you will also have their own opinions. It will be important during this time for you to find the answers right for you and your individual and personal beliefs.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section below for details. If your own friends and family members are not sympathetic about pet loss, find someone who is. Often, another person who has also experienced the loss of a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through.
Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on.
Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Spend time face to face with people who care about you, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine. Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but can also help to elevate your mood and outlook, too.
Seek professional help if you need it. If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression.
When Others Devalue Your Loss:
One aspect that can make grieving for the loss of a pet so difficult is that pet loss is not appreciated by everyone. Some friends and family may say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!” Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. They may not understand because they don’t have a pet of their own or are unable to appreciate the companionship and love that a pet can provide.
- Don’t argue with others about whether your grief is appropriate or not.
- Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members.
- Seek out others who have lost pets; those who can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways of getting through the grieving process.
How Do I Tell My Children?
Young children aren’t developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes too. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for a shot. Magical thinking also may prompt your 4-year-old to believe he somehow caused the pet’s death when he wished for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with bad breath and health problems.
From ages 6 to 8, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it only happens to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them. From ages 9 to 11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in these age ranges may still feel somewhat responsible for the pet’s death, thinking their beloved pet may not have died if only they’d taken her for more dog walks or kept the water bowl full.
You are the best judge of how to discuss the loss with your little ones. Honesty is important, and you should encourage your children to talk out their feelings with you. This may be the first time a child has dealt with death in any way, and an opportunity for you to help them understand how to grieve, as well as clear up any misconceptions they may have about death and dying.
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Try to do so one-on-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted.
As you would with any tough issue, try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience.
If your pet is very old or has a long illness, consider talking to kids before the death happens. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain that:
- the veterinarians have done everything that they can
- your pet would never get better
- this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away
- the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared
Again, a child’s age, maturity level, and questions will help determine whether to offer a clear and simple explanation for what’s going to happen. If so, it’s OK to use words like “death” and “dying” or to say something like “The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating.” Many kids want a chance to say goodbye beforehand, and some may be old enough or emotionally mature enough to be there to comfort the pet during the process.
If you do have to euthanize your pet, be careful about saying the animal went “to sleep” or “got put to sleep.” Young kids tend to take things literally, so this can conjure up scary ideas about sleep or surgery and anesthesia.
If the pet’s death is more sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child’s questions guide how much information you provide.
Sticking to the Truth
Avoid trying to gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a child that “Buster ran away” or “Max went on a trip” is not a good idea. It probably won’t alleviate the sadness about losing the pet, and if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
If asked what happens to the pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding of death, including, if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. And since none of us knows fully, an honest “I don’t know” certainly can be an appropriate answer — it’s OK to tell kids that death is a mystery.
Helping Your Child Cope
Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn’t get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn’t care for the pet as promised.
Help kids understand that it’s natural to feel all of those emotions, that it’s OK to not want to talk about them at first, and that you’re there when they are ready to talk.
Don’t feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. You show that it’s OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. And it’s comforting to kids to know that they’re not alone in feeling sad. Share stories about the pets you had — and lost — when you were young and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
After the shock of the news fades, it’s important to help your child heal and move on.
It can help kids to find special ways to remember a pet. You might have a ceremony to bury your pet or just share memories of fun times you had together. Write a prayer together or offer thoughts on what the pet meant to each family member. Share stories of your pet’s funny moments. Offer lots of loving hugs. You could do a project too, like making a scrapbook.
Keep in mind that grieving over the loss of a pet, particularly for a child, is similar to grieving over a person. For kids, losing a pet who offered love and companionship can be much harder than losing a distant relative. You might have to explain that to friends, family members, or others who don’t own pets or don’t understand that.
Perhaps most important, talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will go away, the happy memories of the pet will always remain. When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.
Euthanasia: The Difficult Choice
While some pets die of old age in the comfort of their own home, many others become seriously ill, get injured in some way or experience a significantly diminished quality of life as they grow very old. In these situations, it may be necessary for you to consider having your pet euthanized in order to spare it from pain and suffering. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this difficult decision, as well as some information about the euthanasia procedure itself.
Knowing when it’s time
Talk to your veterinarian. He or she is the best-qualified person to help guide you through this difficult process. In some cases, your veterinarian may be able to tell you definitively that it is time to euthanize your pet, but in other cases, you may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude. Here are some signs that may indicate your pet is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life:
- He is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication (your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is in pain).
- He has frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
- He has stopped eating or will only eat if you force feed him.
- He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself.
- He has lost interest in all or most of his favorite activities, such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats or soliciting attention and petting from family members.
- He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk.
- He has chronic labored breathing or coughing.
Once you have made this very difficult decision, you will also need to decide how and where you and your family will say the final goodbye.
- Before the procedure is scheduled to take place, make sure that all members of your family have time with the pet to say a private goodbye.
- If you have children, make sure that you explain the decision to them and prepare them for the loss of the pet in advance. This may be your child’s first experience with death, and it is very important for you to help her or him through the grieving process. Books that address the subject, such as When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers or Remembering My Pet by Machama Liss-Levinson and Molly Phinney Baskette, may be very beneficial in helping your child to deal with this loss.
- It is an individual decision whether or not you and your family want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming, but for many, it is a comfort to be with their pet during the final moments. It may be inappropriate for young children to witness the procedure since they are not yet able to understand death and may also not understand that they need to remain still and quiet.
- Some veterinarians will come to your house, which allows both the pet and the family to share their last moments together in the comfort of their own home.
What Happens During Euthanasia?
Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is stressful, and your anxiety can often be exacerbated if you do not know what to expect during the euthanasia procedure.
- Your veterinarian will generally explain the procedure to you before he or she begins. Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for further explanation or clarification if needed.
- Small to medium-size pets are usually placed on a table for the procedure, but larger dogs may be more easily handled on the floor. Regardless of the location, make sure that your pet has a comfortable blanket or bed to lie on.
- In most cases, a trained veterinary technician will hold your pet for the procedure. The veterinary technician has the skill needed to properly hold your pet so that the process goes quickly and smoothly. If you plan to be present during the entire procedure, it is important that you allow enough space for the veterinarian and technician to work. Your veterinarian will probably show you where to stand so that your pet can see you and hear your voice.
- Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either the front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet.
- Often, veterinarians will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the pet’s vein before giving the injection. The catheter will reduce the risk that the vein will rupture as the drug is injected. If the vein ruptures, then some of the drug may leak out into the leg, and it will not work as quickly.
- Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbitol. This is most often done in pets that are not likely to hold still for the IV injection. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take effect in about five to 10 minutes. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection.
- Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbitol is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less.
- Your veterinarian will use a stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped.
- Your pet may experience some muscle twitching and intermittent breathing for several minutes after death has occurred. Your pet may also release his bladder or bowels. These events are normal and should not be cause for alarm.
- After your veterinarian has confirmed that your pet has passed, he or she will usually ask if you would like to have a few final minutes alone with your pet.
The choice to stay for the euthanasia or not is a personal one. Some vets will make a home visit to ease the transition, others prefer not to have the owner present at all. You’ll want to discuss your desires and concerns with your vet, and if they are unable or unwilling to accommodate you, then perhaps you should ask for a referral.
After your pet’s death, you will need to decide how to handle the remains. It may seem easiest to leave your pet with a clinic for disposal (a fee may apply – check with them), but there are several other options available to you.
Your veterinarian can offer you a variety of options for your pet’s final resting place.
- Cremation is the most popular choice, and you can choose whether or not you would like to have your pet’s ashes returned to you. Most cremation services offer a choice of urns and personalized memorials.
- Burial is another option. You may want to bury your pet in your own yard, but before doing so, be sure to check your local ordinances for any restrictions. There are also many pet cemeteries throughout the United States. To locate a pet cemetery near you, check with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries.
Home burial is a popular choice, but you’ll need to have the land, and make sure it’s legal in your area.
Cremation is generally less expensive than a cemetery, and offers up more options as to what you do with the remains. You can choose to keep the ashes with you, scatter them somewhere special, or bury them. Your vet, a pet store, or local shelter is likely to have more information about the options available in your area. It might be a good idea to have a plan in place ahead of time, rather than trying to muddle through in the midst of your grief.
A burial service can provide closure. There are hundreds of pet cemeteries around the world as well as several companies that manufacture coffins, urns, and grave markers for companion animals. If you decide on a home burial, however, you must first check with city and county ordinances to determine the legality of interment. Your veterinarian can also dispose of the body but you may want to ask about the clinic’s policy. Space or legal limitations may necessitate developing your own method of remembrance. Your veterinarian can recommend an animal crematory center, enabling you to keep the remains in an urn for a private memorial at your companion’s favorite park or beach.
When Should I Get Another Pet?
You may be tempted to rush right out and get another pet just like the one you lost. However, it might be better to mourn your old pet and wait until you’re more emotionally ready. You’ll also need to be careful of expecting the new pet to be the exact same as the older pet; this can lead to disappointment and frustration.
There are many wonderful reasons to once again share your life with a companion animal, but the decision of when to do so is a very personal one. It may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death by immediately getting another pet. In most cases, it’s best to mourn the old pet first, and wait until you’re emotionally ready to open your heart and your home to a new animal. You may want to start by volunteering at a shelter or rescue group. Spending time caring for pets in need is not only great for the animals, but can help you decide if you’re ready to own a new pet.
Some retired seniors living alone may find it hardest to adjust to life without a pet. If taking care of an animal provided you with a sense of purpose and self-worth as well as companionship, you may want to consider getting another pet at an earlier stage. Of course, seniors also need to consider their own health and life expectancy when deciding on a new pet. Again, volunteering to help pets in need can be a good way to decide if you’re ready to become a pet owner again.
Children may feel it’s disloyal to love a new pet, especially if what they really want is the old pet back. In most cases, it is better to get a pet that is different from your old one, to avoid making comparisons, but you will know what you and your family can handle.
If you live alone, you may want to find a new pet sooner, to help stave off loneliness and give you a sense of purpose and companionship.
You’ll also need to consider the needs of any other pets you have.
Additional Pet Loss Resources:
Pet Loss Support Page – This page is a little cluttered, but has extensive resources, including many international ones, as well as several articles and many links to other helpful pages.
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement – Professionally trained volunteers in pet bereavement counseling, and many resources, including a pet memorial
Support Line Pet Bereavement – Article on dealing with pet loss with links and information specific to the UK.
Delta Society: The Human-Animal Health Connection – Offers up articles, information, and links that may be very useful (and quite a bit of information about pets in general and how they can benefit us).
Pet Loss Memorial Pages:
Rainbow Bridge – Well known Rainbow Bridge poem. Also has resources about animal health and pet loss grief.
Pet Loss Hotlines:
US Pet Loss Hotlines:
C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Pet Loss Helpline – (877) 394-CARE (2273) We are here to accept calls from 1 to 6 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You may call at any time and leave a message, and your call will be returned as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours.
Washington State University Pet Loss Support – 1-(866) 266-8635 Phone and/or email message can be left for staff 24 hours a day. Phones are normally staffed during the semester Monday-Thursday from 7 PM-9 PM and Saturday 1PM-3 PM PST. While school is not in session and during holidays – abbreviated hours checking phone and email messages Monday-Thursday and Saturday once daily.
ASPCA National Pet Loss Hotline- 1-877-GRIEF-10
Iams Pet Loss Support Hotline 1-888-332-7738 M-F 9am-5pm
Canadian Pet Loss Hotlines:
Ontario Veterinary College Pet Loss Support Hotline – 519-824-4120 x53694 Tuesday – Thursday 6:00 pm -9:00 pm ET An answering service is available outside regular hotline hours.
Greater Victoria Area: Pacific Animal Therapy Society Pet Loss Support Line 1-250-389-8047 Daily 8:00 am – 9:00 pm Pacific Time
Edmonton: 780-707-3007, Pet Therapy Society; leave message if no response
UK Pet Loss Hotlines:
Pet Bereavement Support Service- 0800 096 6606 Daily 8.30am – 8.30pm
Animal Samaritans Pet Bereavement Service: 020 8303 1859
Australian Pet Loss Hotlines:
Pet Rest Grief Line – 03 9596 7799 from 12pm – 3pm 7 days a week
Page last audited 11/18
Losing a pet can be as hard as losing a loved one. Grief can sneak up on you.
This is his pet loss story:
My pet loss story that was that hardest on me was my the loss of the family dog I had growing up. He was 14 or 15 and started to get bad health, so we decided have him put down instead of being in pain and having to endure any more suffering.
I ended up having to take him to the vet alone, because both my parents and sister were working.
It was the hardest thing I had to deal with at the time: the pain of pet loss never does go away and losing a pet is like a family member passing away.
I sat there with him in the vet room and held him crying my eyes out because I had never had to do that to an animal before.
It’s Mother’s Day and I’ve spend most of the day in tears. I ‘d been looking forward to it; even had some cool plans for spending the day with my daughters. Those plans went sideways shortly after breakfast.
I left my husband this week, a planned separation which took several months to execute thanks to our housing situation. As far as our daughters are concerned though, we’re still a team working together to make sure they’re happy and healthy. This week we’ve been ultra-focused on our daughters and the new adjustments.
With all our attention on our children, we didn’t pay much attention to the other members of our household.
When I got home from work on Thursday, I realized one of the dogs hadn’t eaten her breakfast. Not unusual, sometimes she leaves her food until late, so I wasn’t concerned. Friday night, she still hadn’t eaten. This time, I brought the black dog into the light in the kitchen, and took a good look at her. She was gaunt, ribs and spine sticking out alarmingly.
She clearly hadn’t eaten in days.
I called my ex and we agreed to flavor up her food with broth to get her to eat. We assumed it was stress from the separation. I sat, hand feeding the dog until she finally ate her food. Same deal on Saturday and again this morning. The gauntness was less pronounced, but I noticed other symptoms: a little bloating, weakness in one leg.
This morning, my ex came to get the girls for church. As he was petting her neck, he found it. A golf-ball sized lump hiding under her fur. Another closer to the other shoulder.
He took the girls to church while I took the dog to the vet. The emergency vet gave me her early findings. My 9-year old lab has Lymphatic Carcinoma. Cancer. X-rays indicate that it may have already spread to her organs, and possibly bones as well.
Some of you will read this and know the pain and horror I felt. Others, not so much.
It may just be the dog, but it’s my dog, one we raised (along with her litter-mate) as a rescue puppy. A pet who loves me unconditionally, knows when I’m sad and has comforted me upon many occasions. Knowing that I couldn’t put her through chemo brought me to tears.
If it really is cancer, the right, most humane decision is to put her down before she begins to suffer too much.
This cancer diagnosis capped the end of an incredibly horrible week.
A week which included leaving my husband and walking away from my daughters for the first time with the new custody sharing schedule. I kept telling myself it would be just a few days, just like a business trip. It wasn’t though. Being separated from them felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest.
A week where the bank finally approved our short sale, but gave us a short 30-day deadline to close escrow. A week that saw a solid, approved plan to move into a rental home go awry as the owners of the rental we’re moving into reneged on the deal at the last minute.
A week that ended with learning my daughters and I would be homeless come the 31st.
Ironically, the owners of the rental reneged because we had one too many dogs. A massive wave of guilt washed over me as I wondered if maybe this would allow the deal to go through.
I think the dog knows what’s coming. She’s been rather chipper since we got home from the vet. It’s prompting my 6-year old to try to convince me that the hard lump on her throat is smaller than before so that maybe she doesn’t have to die tomorrow. I’m in one of those horrible waiting periods where I want to convince myself that it’s just a bad infection, one which we can treat with antibiotics and TLC.
Maybe our regular vet will disagree and give us a different diagnosis. But, we have to be prepared for the worst.
Oh, my pretty puppy.
I am going to miss you.
What Is Partner Loss?
Loss of a partner, spouse, or significant other is a painful thing to endure.
The loss of a spouse can impact us profoundly at any times in our lives. On the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, loss of a spouse is rated as the most stressful event. Losing a lifetime companion when elderly can be devastating. The spouse who survives is also likely to be coping with the loss of friends and family members. There are additional issues with their own declining health and the loss of physical abilities; diminished sight, hearing, stamina as well as the loss of independence. The challenges the remaining spouse has to face can be daunting.
The death of a spouse is the ultimate marriage crisis. One day you are married. The next day you are single, alone and grieving. Nothing is forever. The bottom line is that you will need to know how to journey on this rough passage, through a maze of details, decisions, forms to fill out, shock, loneliness, anger, confusion, fear, a broken heart, and depression. However, there can also be acceptance and new beginnings.
“Everyone will someday lose everything they have ever loved or cared for. That’s the truth of life itself … But our grief is not simply about losing a loved one or facing our own mortality. Whether it’s losing a job, a marriage, a dream, or our youth, we all have had our hearts broken. Each of has lost our innocence, and made mistakes, and done harm and been harmed along the way. We all have with our individual stories of the when, where, how, what, and who of our heartbreaks.. Each of our stories is tenderly unique and yet all of us have a story … grief is the human condition; the tie that binds us all together.” David Treadway, Ph.D., “Good Grief: Celebrating the Sorrows of Our Lives.” on PsychologyToday.com (2012)
“Everyone experiences loss differently, and the last thing people need when they are in terrible pain is to feel that they are doing something wrong because they can’t figure out a way to make themselves feel better. Remembering that sometimes nothing helps can stop you from blaming yourself in the middle of your grief.”
Will Schwalbe, “The Loss of a Loved One: How To Get Through It” on HuffingtonPost.com (2013)
Read more about loss, grief and grieving, and coping with grief.
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about.
Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives – whether or not it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen, and uncertain.
When a person or family is expecting death, it is normal to begin to anticipate how one will react and cope when that person eventually dies. Many family members will try to envision their life without that person and mentally play out possible scenarios, which may include grief reactions and ways they will mourn and adjust after the death.
Anticipatory mourning includes feelings of loss, concern for the dying person, balancing conflicting demands and preparing for death. Anticipatory mourning is a natural process that enables the family more time to slowly prepare for the reality of the loss. People are often able to complete unfinished “business” with the dying person (for example, saying “good-bye,” “I love you,” or “I forgive you”).
Grief experienced after a sudden, unexpected death is different from anticipatory mourning. Sudden, unexpected loss may exceed the coping abilities of a person, which often results in feelings of being overwhelmed and/or unable to function. Even though one may be able to acknowledge that loss has occurred, the full impact of loss may take much longer to fully comprehend than in the case of an expected loss.
There are times when grief does not progress as expected; the intensity and duration of grief is prolonged and dramatically interferes with a person’s ability to function. Symptoms of depression and anxiety may be prevalent and prolonged. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors and reactions may seem to persist over long periods of time with little change or improvement. In these situations, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional who can assess your individual situation and make recommendations that will help. It is important to seek help; complicated grief does not subside on its own.
What Are Secondary Losses?
Within every partnership, roles are eventually assigned to each partner: cooking, financial planner, social planner. When we lose a partner, we also lose the roles and responsibilities that the partner provided. These are called “secondary losses.”
The bereaved spouse must learn to manage these roles; roles they are not accustomed to being responsible for. Discovering that they can, in fact, perform these jobs may be a big boost for their self-confidence and may help establish a sense of normalcy to life. Often it is setting new patterns and routines that is the most difficult after a loss.
Finally, there will likely be bursts of emotion that come up from time to time, at birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. You may experience loneliness and withdraw from your social life. You may have a return of guilt when you begin dating again. It’s okay and normal to have these feelings.
What Should I Expect When My Partner Dies?
A lot of feelings may surface when you first lose your partner. In fact, you may be entirely overwhelmed by your emotions. That is okay and it will pass. Here are a fraction of the feelings you may feel:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shorter attention span
- Fear of the future without him/her
- Depression, anxiety, stress
- The Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
- Pressure to date and form a new relationship
- Difficulty making decisions
These are often extremely intense in the beginning but lessen with time and acceptance. Notice your emotions, describe and label them, and allow them space. Ignoring your feelings or pushing them away only makes them stronger. There are ways to cope with loss.
Overwhelmed and stricken by grief, the elderly may ignore their own needs. They may have problems with self-care, sleeping, eating, and taking their medication. The result can be the intensification of physical and psychological problems. Their resilience is compromised. This is why we see the remaining spouse could die quickly after their spouse’s death. It is referred to as the “widowhood effect.”
Research found that there is an increase chance of dying for the elderly after a spouses’ death in the first three months following the loss. This is often referred to as the “widowhood effect.” During this time, the chances increase of a cardiovascular event. The survivor may also be susceptible to “broken heart syndrome” or stress induced cardiomyopathy.
The two events are different but can both be lethal.
Stress alters our immune system, at any age.
The grieving elderly are already more likely to have a compromised immune system. This makes them even more susceptible to infectious diseases. If already in poor health, the chances of death tend to increase. It has also been found that widows and widowers tend to exhibit more cognitive decline than those who have not lost a spouse.
The emotions of grief are ageless. The surviving spouse experiences sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety and often despairs. They frequently feel they have lost their purpose in life as well as their love. Another important aspect of losing a spouse is that the survivor has lost their best friend and social contacts. It’s often hard for the elderly to reach out for help even with family members.
As bleak as it all sounds, it appears that the simple act of being involved with the elderly bereaved can literally make the difference between life and death.
Research on resiliency after the loss of a spouse found that the strongest predictors of resiliency were continued engagement in everyday life activities and in social relationships plus anticipation that people would comfort them in times of distress. In the research on cognitive decline in the elderly bereaved, it was found that having a high level of education or at least one living sibling appeared to protect against the decline associated with widowhood. Oddly,, research found that those who received emotional support from relatives had poorer health than those who received support from friends.
It appears that what is most important is some form of social contact.
Coping With A Partner’s Death:
There are a number of ways that we can help the elderly. We can be sure that they have frequent vision and hearing tests so they do not become shut off from the world.
Many bereaved elderly become afraid to leave the house due to these deficits. They often also have a fear of falling. Assisting them in getting a cane or walker is another way of helping them become more mobile. It is important to encourage them to take good care of themselves in mourning. They should get enough sleep, eat right and take their medications. It is also helpful for the elderly to be involved in an activity that provides them with a sense of purpose. Helping them to connect with a social group or charitable organization would help them to feel better about themselves as well as providing social contact. They should be encouraged to participate in some form of physical activity such as, swimming, aquarobic classes, chair yoga or other light exercise.
Just because one half of an elderly couple dies does not mean that the other need follow close behind. Becoming more aware of the challenges they face can help prepare us to help them.
With care and attention, we can reduce their loneliness and extend their lives.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings; overwhelming feelings of sadness, pain, anger, or numbness.
You do not have to be “strong” after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don’t cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
No matter how long you’ve been together with your partner, losing him or her may elicit many different emotions.
There are many feelings a person may feel immediately following the death of his or her partner. They include:
You may feel guilt – Being the spouse left living, feeling as though you haven’t done enough, or that you could have saved your partner. You may feel guilt about conflicts or issues you had with your partner prior to their death.
You may feel anger – For having your partner taken away, for not having him or her wait, or for waiting for that person.
You may feel that you could have prevented his or her death.
You may feel sadness – For the permanence of the loss, for not knowing that she was so depressed she took her own life, for the things you will miss the most.
No matter how your significant other died, the grief you feel is real and can be very daunting. In addition to managing your shocking and overwhelming feelings, there are other responsibilities to manage as well. Often there are legal and financial issues with arranging a funeral. Children and pets may need to be attended to. Family dynamics may become exacerbated causing fights, tension, and stress. This doesn’t make dealing with your loss any easier and, if anything, it causes rifts among the people from whom you need support.
What Is The Widowhood Effect?
The widowhood effect is the increase of a person dying a relatively short time after their long-time spouse or partner has died. This pattern indicates a sharp increase in risk of death for the widower especially in the three months closest thereafter the death of the spouse. This process of losing a spouse and dying shortly after has also been called “dying of a broken heart.”
Becoming a widow is a very detrimental and life changing time in a spouse’s life, that forces them to experiences changes they might not have anticipated for additional time. Responses of grief and grieving due to the death of a spouse increases the surviving spouse developing physical and psychological illnesses.
Losing a long-term spouse can lead to symptoms like depression, anxiety, and feelings of guilt, as a result; due to the stresses in the widower’s the widow’s body becomes increasingly susceptible to new illnesses as well as exacerbate existing illnesses. The mind-body connection is very clear in grief and grieving.
There are many factors that may be affected when one becomes a widow. A widow, or widower tends to have a decline in health. Additionally, the chances of death of the bereaved partner spikes during the first six months – notably after three months – after their partner dies, compared to the following six months.
Grieving spouses are more vulnerable during these few months not only health-wise but socially and physically. During this early period of bereavement, spouses tend to have less interest in their health as well as physical appearance caring less about continuing with medications or adapting healthy behaviors such as eating healthy or exercising. Also, they are likelier to practice risky behaviors and commit suicide.
The Widowhood Effect appears to be far more prevalent in older married couples than in younger married couples, thus, studies that have been conducted in regards to this phenomenon have revolved primarily around observations of older widows. Through many studies conducted over the years, it’s been found that the widowhood effect affects the mortality rates of people with varying levels of severity depending on their genders and religions.
These studies have found that The Widowhood Effect is seen far more often in more seasoned, long-term, elder couples than in recently married couples. Since the topic has only been recently studied within this last decade, and due to the prevalence of older couples being affected, most widows in similar studies are typically over the age of 50
The Widowhood Phenomenon is one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health. There are many factors and theories about the widowhood effect, but in general, a study on a large population sample has suggested rates of death nearly double during the first three months after loss of a spouse, and quickly taper afterward.
As You Grieve:
- Take care of yourself – rest and eat regular meals.
- Reach out and talk to friends and family.
- Grief support and bereavement groups can aid you in healing from your loss.
- Don’t make major life or financial decisions; you may regret them later when you are thinking more clearly.
- See your doctor and/or therapist for a mental health assessment.
- Discuss the loss with your children and be patient while they are grieving.
- Take your time mourning. Remember you must go through the grief process to get to the other side.
It is normal to feel lonely after losing a partner. You have not only lost a person you love, but also the person with whom you shared your life and hobbies. It will likely be hard for you to imagine how you are going to keep up with the kids, the house, or the bills without your partner. It can take some time to find your footing and remember how to enjoy life again. In the meantime, it helps to get involved in regular activities such as:
- Social groups such as book clubs, hiking groups, or bowling leagues
- Attending classes at the gym
- Adopting and caring for a pet
- Enrolling in an educational course
- Setting up a standing date with a friend for a walk or a meal
It is important to note that if you find that you are plagued with constant feelings of guilt or worthlessness, thoughts of suicide, or have a persistent inability to perform tasks at work or home, you may be experiencing clinical depression. Please contact your physician for an evaluation.
If you are in crisis and/or have thoughts of suicide, there is a national hotline where help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-273-8255
Additional Partner Loss Resources:
Bereavement Information and Assistance:
Grief Share offers many support groups for grieving partners
Legacy.com has support and information for spouses who are grieving.
Centering.org offers an extensive list of books as well as literature about grieving.
The Liz Logelin Foundation, an organization offering assistance to those who have lost a spouse, offers this Newly Widowed Checklist.
The Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation offers support to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, with a special emphasis on those who have lost a spouse.
Hello Grief offers chat rooms and articles for various types of grief and loss.
PBS has a very helpful page for families who are grieving with children.
The Hospice Foundation of America has an informational video for those who have lost a partner and resources for locating support groups.
The American Widow Project provides resources for military families who have suffered a loss.
Documentation-Related Information When Your Spouse Dies:
Executor’s Role in Estate and Will Probating
Make a Will online – No matter how old you are, you should have a will. Your wishes need to be laid out and your family shouldn’t have to struggle wondering what your plans for your assets would be. Make a will online. They are very inexpensive but are valuable in case of your death.
Financial Steps to Follow Following the Death of a Spouse (while this site IS old and the information may be outdated, but this is the very best explanation of the financial steps)
Page last audited 8/2018
What Is Child Loss?
The loss of a child is unbearable; the pain one experiences when their child – their living, breathing baby or toddler or older child – leaves this earth is just that. It’s the most unnatural, unfair, painful experience one can endure.
- Miscarriage affects about 25 percent of women who become pregnant during their lifetime. The experience of pregnancy loss can be devastating to couples, yet the majority of women who miscarry become pregnant again soon after the loss. This can become emotionally and physically challenging for the couple. They are often plagued with concerns about the possibility of another miscarriage and whether they made an appropriate decision to conceive again.
- Stillbirths, occurring in about 1% of pregnancies, can leave a feeling of disorientation, yearning and despair. Hospitals will give parents the option of spending time with the baby to say goodbye, and many parents have said that seeing their child was important for their grief process and enabled them to see the baby as a part of themselves. Another form of infant loss is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)-the most frequent cause of death in children under one year of age-that creates a profound void and sense of loss in the family.
- Approximately 2,000 children are reported missing every day, and these kidnappings and cases of missing children cause parents almost unbearable pain. Not knowing whether a child is dead or alive results in confusion, fright and anxiety. When the bodies of kidnapped children are found, parents may express saddened relief that their children can now have a proper burial and healing can finally begin.
- The parents of murder victims face many unique struggles in their process of bereavement. A sense of loss of control is common, and the suddenness of the death is so overwhelming that, for a period of time, parents are often incapable of processing through the grief. For this group, dealing with spiritual beliefs, attitudes toward life, and general physical health may hold special importance.
- Each day, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S., and 35% of those will die. Cancer remains the number one disease killer of children. The anguish and extreme pain parents experience begins with diagnosis. One part of the parents’ heart hopes for a cure, while the other part begins the quiet process of impending grief.
The worst thing that can happen to any parent is the loss of a child, regardless of the age of the child. People are uneasy and reluctant to talk about death and certainly not about the death of a child. Many people will pull away from a family that has suffered the death of a child as though somehow having a child die is contagious. Families who have lost children will say that others “Just don’t get it.” They are expected to move on and get over it when that will never happen. The pain will wax and wane but it is always there. With time, the pain will lessen enough to allow the parent to return to the living but their child is never far from their mind.
Grief can vary depending on how the child died. Some children will die from violence, some from cancer or other medical diseases. There are also miscarriages and stillbirths. These tend to be the less visible losses but can be just as painful. I have older adults who will talk about the loss of a child to stillbirth 40 years prior and how old the child would currently be if he had lived. The disappearance of a child has its own special torment. The parents never give up hope that their child will return someday. These parents live with intense anxiety and fear. The uncertainty can be unbearable at times.
For parents who have lost a child, the pain is indescribable. They suffer depression, anger, guilt, despair and loneliness. Even years later, parents sometimes say they cannot wait until they die so they can see their child again. They are not suicidal but long for that reconnection. The vast majority of parents have a strong belief that they will be reunited with their child on death.
The death of a child can also lead to marital stress. If there have been unresolved issues in the relationship, they can reemerge often with greater intensity. Different grieving styles of husband and wife can also cause hurt and misunderstanding, exacerbating the pain they already feel. While not all of these marriages end in divorce, a large number of them do. I frequently ask parents who have lost a child not to make any major life changing decisions for at least the first year.
All parts of the parents’ lives are impacted by the loss. In addition to the emotional aspects of grief, there are also the physical and spiritual components. As with most grief, some will be angry at God while others will find strength in their religious beliefs. Physically, the effects of stress can wreak havoc with sleep, appetite and concentration, lowering our immune system and making us more vulnerable to illness.
The age of the child at the time of death does not lessen the hurt or devastation. It feels completely unnatural for a child to die before his or her parents. However, over 57,000 children under the age of 19 die every year in the United States.
Many grieving parents question whether life will hold any meaning for them and wonder how they will survive the pain of their loss. Parents describe the feeling as having a hole in their heart that will never heal, and may blame themselves and ask, “If only I had.” Or they may be angry with their spouse, the physician, God, or the government.
Parents feel alone and isolated in their grief, as friends and relatives are often at a loss as to what to say. But it is important to talk to people who understand the loss. This may be family, friends, clergy, therapists, or support groups.
Everyone suffers loss in different ways depending upon their beliefs, culture, family history, and relationship with the person who died. It doesn’t mean that others care less if they mourn differently than you do. Grief can also vary greatly depending upon how the child died. While some losses are less visible, such as miscarriage, other experiences of loss are more traumatic, such as an accident, illness, murder or death during war.
Please also visit our additional resource pages: miscarriage, coping with a miscarriage, loss, grief, coping with grief, baby loss
Coping With Pregnancy and Infant Loss:
When a baby dies before it is born or soon after birth, parents face a difficult emotional task: they must try to say goodbye to someone they had little chance to know. They must accept that a life has ended, even though it barely began. Just as with any death and loss of a child, you are likely to experience some of the more common symptoms of grief — you may go into shock or even deny that your baby has died.
Depression, anger, frustration and other painful emotions are normal and to be expected. And even if you are normally a committed, caring person, you may find that you don’t care about anything or anyone right now.
For many parents, this time is simply one of existence and survival and very little more. There are two normal reactions to death that you will probably experience very acutely after losing a baby before or shortly after birth: anger and guilt. Because a baby’s death seems so unnatural, there is an especially strong urge to blame someone. You may be very angry with your doctor, hospital or — if you are a believer — God.
Guilt is a common reaction to the death and loss of a child, and can be particularly acute for parents who lose an infant or an unborn baby. Parents of unborn babies who die often mistakenly blame themselves for the death. The mother may believe she harmed her baby.
Both parents may tell themselves they should have sensed something was wrong and alerted their doctor. While this is a normal reaction and must be processed, eventually you must find compassion for yourself and realize that this was not your fault. You were not responsible. Knowing that it was not in your control has both an upside and a downside: you cannot blame yourself, but you may also have an increased sense of powerlessness. Getting through this is part of the process.
Many parents feel overcome by a tremendous sense of emptiness. Pregnancy brings with it a number of expectations, dreams and fantasies – you spend months planning not just the birth of your child, but also his or her life in all the years to come. Now, just as both parents are emotionally preparing to welcome a child into the world, you must instead accept the loss of both the baby and all of your expectations for their future.
Parents of infants will have a different set of triggers and potentially painful situations in the months following your baby’s death. Your home may be filled with baby clothes, bottles, and a crib. If you registered with any new mother websites or infant sites, subscribed to any magazines or registered for a shower, you are likely to receive coupons for baby food or formula and more in the mail. A baby magazine may show up as a trial subscription. Photographers may call and offer to take baby pictures. Just walking past the infant-wear department in a store may initiate tears of mourning.
After the death and loss of a child it may be difficult to resolve the grief you feel for the baby you lost. Even before you can accept your baby’s death, you must accept his or her life — their existence as a person. Remember, no matter how brief your baby’s life, you have just as much right to grieve as any other bereaved parent.
What Is Loss?
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about. Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives – whether or not it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen and uncertain.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings, overwhelming feelings, sadness, pain, or numbness.
You do not have to be “strong” after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don’t cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes or suicides, that do not give us any time to prepare. These type of losses often shake us to the core, making us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many emotions and feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.
like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss. This type of loss also creates two layers of grief: anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss itself.
One reason loss is so difficult is that it can be permanent. As humans, our lives are so fluid that the idea of permanence can be difficult to grasp. Further, if your life is structured around the person, object, or concept lost, it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns and routines.
How Are Surviving Children Impacted By Sibling Loss?
One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father after the death and loss of a child is to continue being a parent to the surviving children. Parents must continue to function in the very role they are grieving — an enormous challenge. But the surviving child or children shouldn’t feel that they are alone or have been set aside, as difficult as it may be to find the emotional reserves to support them. Parents have the difficult task of switching roles constantly, from being comforted to being the comforter, at a time when they have little ability to do so. Some parents swing to the other extreme and become extremely overprotective of their child, determined to keep them safe.
Children of all ages process grief differently. To ensure the healthy survival of your family, your children’s needs must be addressed not only by you but other family members who may have greater emotional reserves at this time. Others can help you help your child; you are critical to their healing process, but not the sole provider of comfort.
Marital Stress and the Death of a Child
Studies have shown that the death and loss of a child will not necessarily strengthen a marriage, and the grief can sometimes lead to divorce. Each partner becomes deeply involved in his or her own grief and is often dissatisfied with the quality or depth of their spouse’s grief. When coupled with the anger, frustration, guilt, and blame that often surround a child’s death, parental bereavement can be a time of extreme volatility in a marriage. It’s extremely important that each spouse understands the importance of communication (sharing of feelings), and just as one should not judge themselves for their reaction to the loss, nor should they judge their spouse.
No two people grieve alike, so there is wide range of differences in the expression of grief. Any of these differences may cause spouses or partners to erroneously conclude that their mate has rejected them or feels “less.” A bereaved couple may find it impossible to give comfort to each other when both are feeling an equal grief. Each partner may expect too much and receive too little. This unfortunate combination can create a chasm in a relationship, but it can be avoided if each accepts that you both are deeply hurt. Many of the reactions and stresses you are feeling result from your pain, not from something lacking in your relationship.
However, it is not true that most couples divorce after the loss of child. Recent studies offer some hope, showing that a much lower rate of divorces – only 12–16% — are related to the loss of a child. Perhaps with more of an understanding about grief, there will be even fewer.
Parents often experience more anger, depression, guilt, and physical symptoms than those grieving other losses. Conflict can occur between the parents due to lack of understanding about each person’s way of expressing grief. Marital problems, which were present before the child’s death, can re-emerge, often with increased strength. Blaming can occur and the words that are said to each other in anger and grief can have a lifelong impact.
With time, the pain lessens and a different future is created. During the bereavement period, a wide array of emotions and symptoms can be experienced, such as denial, self-blame, sleeplessness, fatigue, anxiety and despair. These are all normal parts of the intense grieving process, and the intensity of feelings change as you move through bereavement.
The death of a child is a traumatic event that can have long-term effects on the lives of parents. This study examined bereaved parents of deceased children (infancy to age 34) and comparison parents with similar backgrounds (n = 428 per group) identified in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. An average of 18.05 years following the death, when parents were age 53, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption than were comparison parents. Recovery from grief was associated with having a sense of life purpose and having additional children but was unrelated to the cause of death or the amount of time since the death. The results point to the need for detection and intervention to help those parents who are experiencing lasting grief.
What To Expect After a Child Dies:
Grief is one of the most common reactions to a loss. There are typically five stages of grief:
These stages may happen in any order, at any time, or not at all. Some people feel some but not all of the stages of grief. Because there is not a typical loss and each situation is different, it is hard to figure out what a “typical reaction” is. Some people feel:
After the death and loss of a child you may initially feel numb, which is your mind’s way of shielding you from the pain.
Your child can’t be dead. You expect to see your son or daughter walk through the door, or to hear a cry on the baby monitor.
After the death and loss of a child your mind may center on the “what if’s” as you play out scenarios in which your child could have been saved.
Many parents report praying obsessively to have even five more minutes with their child so they can tell them how much they love them.
After the death and loss of a child your memory may become clouded. You may find yourself driving and not remembering where you’re going. Because your mind is trying to process such a huge shock, normal memory functions can be precluded, putting you in a “haze.” You may at times even question your sanity, though you are not crazy. Your pain is affecting your emotional and psychological systems at an extreme level — a sense of being on overload is common.
Guilt appears to be one of the most common responses to dealing with the death of a child. Parents often mentally replay their actions prior to the death and wonder what they may have done differently.
In addition to feelings of guilt, parents often have a sense of powerlessness that is attributed to feeling that they were not able to protect their child from harm.
Anger and frustration are also feelings reported by most parents and are common to grief in general. If your child’s death was accidental, these emotions may be intensified. You may also be angry that life seems to go on for others — as if nothing has happened.
Loss of hope:
After the death and loss of a child you are grieving not only for your child, but also for the loss of your hopes, dreams and expectations for that child. Time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of grief. Parents often experience an upsurge of grief at the time they would have expected their child to start school, graduate, get married, etc. Parents are rarely prepared for these triggers and the wave of grief they bring. Be aware of these triggers, and allow yourself to grieve. This is a normal, appropriate and necessary part of the healing process.
However you are feeling, it can be overwhelming and out of control. One way to manage intense emotions is to observe them, describe them, and label your emotions. Sometimes putting a name to your emotion can help you express it. Also remember that we experience emotions like a wave- the emotion will build, crest and recede.
Coping With The Loss of a Child
Don’t expect that you’re going to “get over it.” The only way to “get over” a loss is to go through the stages of grieving. There’s no reason to try to be the strong one – just let yourself feel however you feel.
Write about it. Sometimes the act of writing down how you’re feeling can help solidify those feelings and help you to grieve your loss. Let yourself feel the loss. The only way to get through a loss is to go through the stages of grief. You can’t bypass it, no matter how much you’d like to. Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them. We remember your babies, always. Please share your story
Exercise – exercise releases endorphins, which are the “feel-good” hormones.
Be sure to take care of yourself physically. Go through your daily hygiene routines, get up and do something.
IT’S OKAY TO BE SAD!
The resolution of parental grief may seem like an overwhelming task, but it is possible. It’s important to be both realistic and optimistic — you will never get over the death and loss of your child. But you will survive it, even as you are changed by it. You will never forget your child or his or her death. As you go through each holiday, each season, each happy and sad occasion that may trigger another wave of grief, you will gain greater strength and better tools for coping with the pain.
Don’t hide from your emotions:
After the death and loss of a child you have feelings of guilt – which are common but not always present — confront and admit them. Examine the reality of how your child died and your actual intentions and actions at the time. You may see your actions or reactions in a more positive light. Forgive yourself for being imperfect — you did and continue to do the best that you can.
Don’t minimize your own loss. If it was a loss, it was a loss. Losses are meant to be grieved.
Don’t compare your loss to others’ loss. It’s apples and oranges. You feel a loss how you feel it, not how someone else feels it.
After the death and loss of a child one of the major hurdles parents experience in their return to the world of the living is their inability to accept pleasure — or acknowledging that it even exists. But happiness or enjoyment is one of the most important survival tools, even if for just a moment in your grief. It’s okay to laugh in the midst of tears, to smile at someone or something. You might feel that your laughter betrays your child’s memory, but you need to know you are not abandoning your grieving by enjoying yourself. The only way to survive bereavement is to step away from it occasionally.
After the death and loss of a child it is important to break down the future into small increments, an hour or a day, and deal only with one portion at a time. Focus on tasks — feed the cat, do the laundry. These little bits of normalcy and focusing on the moment at hand will make grief more bearable.
Remember the positive:
Focus on the positive events and experiences in the relationship you had with your child. At some point, consider making a journal of all the details you want to remember about your child’s life. Review your family photographs and include some in your book. You may not feel ready to do this right away or you may take great comfort doing this in the early days — each person is individual in his or her needs.
Let people know your needs:
After the death and loss of a child many people want to be supportive but are at a loss for what to do — they are unable to process this loss or know exactly what to say. Bereaved parents may have to be the ones to take the first step in reaching out to others. Let friends and family know your needs, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re afraid of running into someone who might say something about your child, ask a friend to do some shopping for you. Others could help you deal with daily tasks. Maybe you’d like someone to be available to listen to you or be around to ease your loneliness. Only you know what you need.
Talk to friends and family who love you and make you feel good about yourself. Lean on people who love you and care about you.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – someone who is trained to help you get through your grief.
Surviving the death and loss of a child takes a dedication to life. As a parent, you gave birth to life as a promise to the future. Now you must make a new commitment to living, as hard or impossible as it may seem right now.
You will survive this; however, the experience will change you.
What To Say To Someone Who Has Lost A Child:
People tend to avoid grieving parents, in part because they do not know what to say or do and do not want to upset them further. Below are some of the comments they would find helpful from others:
- “Please use my child’s name when you speak to me.”
- “Share stories with me about my child that I may not know.”
- “I am doing the best I can, so please don’t judge or criticize me.”
- “Just listen to me. Let me talk and show my feelings. I can’t take care of you by pretending I am fine.”
- “It really upsets me when you say you know how I feel. If you have never lost a child, you don’t have a clue.”
- “Let me do things in my own way and time.”
- “Please don’t avoid me; I am in enough pain without feeling abandoned.”
- “I am never going to get over this so stop telling me I have to.”
When talking to grieving parents, what we say can often make them feel worse. We cannot take away their pain, but by following these guidelines we can offer them some comfort and support.
How To Help Someone Who Has Lost a Child:
Listen non-judgmentally. Even if you don’t understand why the person feels a certain way, just listen.
Offer to help around the house with specific tasks.
Offer to take surviving siblings out for the day/week/etc.
Ask about the situation. Just because they’re not talking about it, doesn’t mean they don’t want you to ask about it.
Be there for them. Even if it means taking care of small chores or calling a couple times a week, letting them know they have someone who cares around can do wonders.
Sit with them. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, sometimes having someone nearby helps the person mourning the loss to know that they are not alone.
Ask how they are feeling. Acknowledging that they suffered a loss and allowing them to express their feelings can go a long way.
Remember their loss. Many people don’t acknowledge a loss for fear that it might make the mourner feel badly, but remembering every year around the anniversary of the loss can make a huge difference.
Let them feel their feelings. It’s in our nature to want to fix problems and tell people how they can fix their loss. But loss and feelings don’t work that way.
Call them. Email them. Reach out to them. Keep reaching out, even if they don’t respond.
Don’t minimize their feelings.
Check in with the person on anniversaries, important dates, or around holidays. Often these are times when people reconnect with the pain of their loss
What NOT To Say To Someone Grieving A Child Loss:
If you found this page because you have a friend or family member who has lost a child, thank you for caring. The fact that you want to know what to say to him or her shows how much you care. Below is a post that will give you some insight into what you should and shouldn’t say.
“It was God’s plan”
“You can have another one!”
“At least you had (X amount of time) with him/her”
“Focus on the kid’s you DO have.”
“Stop wallowing – your child wouldn’t want you to wallow.”
Additional Coping With Child Loss Resources:
Glow in the Woods– Community of Baby Loss Bloggers
How to Plan a Baby’s Funeral– From the Glow in the Woods Bloggers
The Compassionate Friends– The Compassionate Friends organization provides online and in person support for families who have lost a child, regardless of their age. They provide local chapter meetings, candlelight memorials and grief support for siblings and grandparents.
Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood Program– The SUDC Program was created to be a centralized resource for those affected by a sudden unexpected death in childhood, whose cause is left undetermined, unclear or unexplained. The site offers counselors for all family members, a huge database of resources and many articles.
CURE Childhood Cancer – A wonderful organization dedicated to help families who are going through cancer treatments and diagnoses with their child. It’s a wonderful resource for family members and other caregivers as well.
Page last audited 8/2018