Losing Rooster and Milo within a week of each other was difficult, to say the least. I wish I could say that their passings were a complete surprise but at 14.5 years old, Rooster was a super senior lab and we knew we were on borrowed time with him. Milo was only 11 years old but after weeks of illness, there weren’t many options to help him sadly. But their passings were so difficult to process. Heck, it’s still hard for me to fully understand that these two wonderful dogs are gone.

Grief over losing a pet is difficult. For some, the cats, dogs, and other animals we care for are our family. They might have their annoying moments but I’m sure many pet owners would agree with the idea that pets are a valued part of the family and our lives. And according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 36.5% of households in the US have dogs and 30.4% have cats, meaning that there are millions of people in the US alone that have loving relationships with animals.

Unfortunately, grieving isn’t a simple process, no matter who you’ve lost. Every person will experience a loss in a different way but there are five general stages: shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Going through the five stages of grief isn’t simply going through each emotion in a linear way before accepting the loss. Instead, grief is a difficult and messy process. You might feel denial, depression, and anger all at once or you might go through all the stages at different times.

Everyone will grieve and deal in a different way but the good news is that it’s something that you won’t have to deal with alone. There are more than a few pet loss support groups around the country. The Seattle Animal Shelter and Whatcom Humane Society both have pet loss support groups (every Thursday and third Thursday respectively). During the school year, the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU has a pet memorial program and there are many other resources available.

My advice for dealing with a pet loss? One, don’t let anyone tell you how to feel about the loss and let yourself grieve. We all have complicated emotions and for many, their pets aren’t “just a cat/dog”. Your emotions and grief over losing a pet are valid and it’s okay if you’re sad about the loss. Don’t be ashamed to fully feel every emotion in this process.

My second piece of advice is to not go through this journey alone. There are pet loss support groups all around the country and hopefully, you have a good circle of folks around you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Humans are a social bunch and being around people who love you can be incredibly helpful. Plus, therapy is a great resource for everyone, especially if you’re not experiencing grief.

Lastly, remember all the good you did for your pet and all the good memories you might have. Knowing that my family gave Rooster an amazing last half of his life has been such a reassurance. And Milo had an exceptionally wonderful life too. They went on hikes and walks and all sorts of adventures. We went for swims on hot days and sat in the grass on cool evenings. They got treats and pets and the best kind of care. These dogs got so much love in their lives with me, my neighbor, and our families. Knowing that has really made a difference for me.

If you know anyone who has lost a pet recently, there are a few ways you can be supportive. Sympathy cards are always wonderful. My mom and I have a little space in our kitchen of sympathy cards from friends after we lost Rooster. It was so nice that people were thinking of us and to know that he had an impact on others. And if you can’t quite understand why a pet is important (as not everyone is an animal person!), keep in mind that your friend or family member might still be experiencing grief.

Ultimately, there’s no one way to grieve a pet but it’s not something you have to deal with alone. Reach out to friends and maybe consider going to a pet loss support group. And remember to bring all that love and joy you gave your pet to people and other animals when you’re feeling ready. While pets don’t stay in our lives for long enough, they do stay in our hearts forever. Their love and the things we’ve learned from them can stay with us for the rest of our lives and that’s what keeps me going personally.

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