The first half of this lengthy article is an ode to my dog Maddie (short for Madeline). It’s the story of her life and death, and my grief. The second half will hopefully help you conceptualize pet loss and offer suggestions to help with grief if that’s what you need. But it felt important to write the first part first. If you’re looking for research about pet grief and suggestions on coping with it, please feel free to forego the personal account and fast-forward to the end.
I adopted Maddie just before I turned 23. I wasn’t looking for her, and how we came together is a long and windy story, but I’ll try to abbreviate it. I had found another stray dog and brought it to a shelter, but after some time, they decided she wasn’t adoptable. In trying to take care of this dog with the help of a rescue group and trying to assist with its adoption process (and initially planning on adopting it myself), one day, I brought a friend with me who saw Maddie in the lobby of the vet’s office where the rescue group housed the dogs while trying to get them adopted. My friend asked if she could walk Maddie, and I shrugged because I hadn’t even noticed her and looked over at the vet tech. They allowed it.
While the dog I was walking was huge and would pull and lunge, Maddie would pad along. From that day on, when I would go to walk the dog that I had found, I would ask to walk Maddie afterward, as I found it helped settle my nervous system. She was meek, small, and so fearful. She was nothing I was looking for in a dog, but she wormed her way into my heart. I fell in love with her, and I eventually adopted her. If you’re curious about the other dog, I will share that it seemed she had always been a stray and was quite feral. With the help of the rescue group, we raised funds and found a trainer to relinquish her to, as she wasn’t the dog for me, and we were unable to get her adopted. This is the end of her story, but the beginning of my relationship with Maddie.
The rescue group shared how they had found Maddie and her last remaining puppy as a coyote carried it off. When they located the previous family that had had her in their possession, they shared that they didn’t want her and had let her go. Maddie was lucky to be alive and initially was deeply distrustful and seemed quite sad. After a few weeks with Maddie, as she became more comfortable, she also became fiercer. She chewed through almost all of my roommate’s shoes and tried to chew through our front door.
Maddie could be incredibly friendly or ferocious, but she was always sweet with me. Not all of my friends and family supported my decision to take on this responsibility, and even my then-therapist had discouraged me, saying that it was too much and asking how I was going to afford to care for her and that I had to focus on my future. But I am so grateful that my 22-year-old self saw in Maddie a love that sustained us for over a decade.
Maddie was with me for over 15 years. She saw me through every relationship, breakup, insecurity, and late night spent working on a graduate school assignment. When I was sick, Maddie wouldn’t leave my side. She was not fond of every visitor and was sometimes quite unruly. While Maddie could do some tricks, she only did so when she wanted to. She was fearless and tough and didn’t recognize her size. Maddie wasn’t always easy, but she ruled my heart. She was the only constant in my life for our time together, and the security I felt in our relationship was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I always knew that Maddie wouldn’t live forever, and yet I would force myself not to think about her eventually dying. Vets and groomers were often surprised by her age because she was in good spirits and in good shape for such a long time. And then suddenly, last fall, her health started to decline. At first, she had trouble walking, and after a week or two, I thought it was due to the sweater and harness we had put on her to keep her warm. She seemed to recover briefly, but then other ailments would surface. She wouldn’t eat for a day and then would eat the following day. She would lose her balance. She took to her bed. She seemed to lose her appetite, but not all at once. We would make her scrambled eggs and other soft foods, and I would hand-feed her things she would have raced to eat just months prior.
Soon, there was blood in her water dish after she drank. We took her to different vets, and they gave us different feedback. Maybe she needed to have a tooth extracted. Perhaps she had an infection in her tooth. I would call specialists to make appointments while also trying to be realistic about what we could afford and how much to spend on a dog that was old and likely at the end of life. And then, after a couple of months, the vet told us that she had a malignant tumor, which is what was causing the swelling in her lymph node and was probably causing everything else. Different doctors continued to suggest various courses of treatment, and some expressed frustration and disdain for the state of her teeth, for the fact that we had not caught the diagnosis sooner, or when we asked about euthanasia. The guilt set in and stayed with me for a long time.
I paid a vet twice to come to our home to euthanize Maddie, only to change my mind when she was there. Once, Maddie woke up and started to bark at the vet when she came to our home after spending almost 24 hours in bed and not responding to anyone. She then walked over to her dish and began eating the soup I had prepared earlier. This was before the diagnosis, and the vet suggested that perhaps she just needed some teeth pulled. I was over the moon to have some hope. As Maddie declined and I knew that she was not going to live for long, I had the same vet come over to euthanize her, and then I still couldn’t do it.
I poured over websites, spoke to friends, and was often told that I would know when it was time to make the decision, but I can tell you right now that I never had a moment of pure clarity. Maddie had fewer and fewer good days, but sometimes, she would have good hours. I was also told by vets and by the internet that it was better to euthanize her too early than too late. And there was one vet that I spoke to who seemed to be opposed to euthanasia and reminded me that death is a natural process and that I didn’t have to euthanize Maddie. Still, generally, I received the message that it would be the loving and humane thing to do if I knew she was suffering.
On January 17th, 2023, I had an appointment made to take Maddie to the vet to euthanize her. I didn’t feel sure about the date or the decision, and I loved her and did not feel ready to say goodbye. But I knew that there wasn’t anything that was going to make her really feel better and that while I wasn’t sure about the extent of her suffering, I knew that she wasn’t herself anymore. She hadn’t completely stopped eating, but it took more and more to get her to eat, and sometimes, she would not eat or drink for over a day. How did I decide that it was time? I just did. I spent the day with Maddie, trying to prepare her and myself to say goodbye. I took her to the vet’s office alone and held Maddie in my arms as the doctor injected her with the first medicine that would put her to sleep and the second that would stop her heart. She seemed to go peacefully. I sobbed and sobbed, and walked out a shell of myself. I felt immediate regret, and while I knew that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent her eventual death, I also spent weeks thinking, “I killed my dog.”
I cried for weeks. I was irritable and felt terribly guilty. I was mad at everyone, and I was so mad at myself. I started to look for another dog to adopt and was told by some that it was too soon, but the silence in the house was deafening, and I was struggling to sleep. I hoped another dog would fill the space that Maddie had left behind. When I did adopt a dog, I initially resented it for not being Maddie. To some degree, it may have been too soon. I was still grieving, and I still am.
Having a young dog in my home that was nothing like Maddie had been at the end of her life helped me see that by letting Maddie die peacefully, I took care of her for one last time. When Maddie was young, she was so full of life. And seeing life in another dog helped me see Maddie’s misery. How confused, uncomfortable, and alone she had seemed towards the end. Doctors had told me that I didn’t have to euthanize Maddie, but that it was something that I could do for her, and that finally made sense.
Our young pup hasn’t replaced Maddie because that’s not possible. There is no way to replace a relationship that carried me through hardship and joy, and that offered me comfort whenever I needed it. Maddie’s personality, paws, smell, gait… no other dog could ever take her place. Opening our home to another dog allowed me to expand my heart and ability to love, but it didn’t take away from the place in my heart that I will always reserve for my Madeline.
I have continued to grieve Maddie and miss her all the time. When her ashes were delivered to my home weeks after her death, it was like she had died all over again. I couldn’t understand how her whole body, and her whole being, fit into this tiny package of white dust. When I picture her in my mind’s eye and think that I will never be able to bury my nose in her neck and inhale again, that I will never curl the one bit of fluff at the back of her head or scratch her in the exact right place, it floors me. That’s what grief is. It comes and comes and reminds us of our loved ones. It’s the cost and reminder of our love. I am so grateful for the relationship with Maddie, and so thankful for the grief as a reminder, even though it still stings quite a bit.
When I was preparing for Maddie’s death, I looked for help grieving but didn’t find quite what I was looking for. Reading other people’s accounts did help, so perhaps my article can help you in that way. I also wanted to help by offering a more profound psychological exploration of pet loss and grief, which you will find below. The death of a pet or companion animal is its own experience, and I am hoping that the rest of the article can help you get through it as intact as possible while honoring the grief and love that is left when a beloved pet dies.
What is Pet Grief?
Anyone who has had a beloved pet die knows that this loss is painful and challenging to manage, even though we step into the relationship knowing full well that our pets won’t live nearly as long as we would want them to. From the moment our pets become ours, we try to banish thinking of the inevitable; when the inevitable happens, it can be incapacitating. Pet grief is experienced broadly, as most Americans care for a pet (the American Pet Products Association reports that around 70% of American households own a pet). Still, the research on the topic is limited and doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
To understand the grief we feel when we lose a pet, it’s essential first to understand our relationships with our pets. The attachments we form with our animals can be some of the most rewarding and secure relationships we experience. As humans, we all have the need to connect to others, to have an affectionate bond that provides safety and security. Pets often provide this in our relationships with them. They don’t judge or criticize but take us as we are. The bond we form with our pets can be powerful, and many with pets consider their pets family. Studies have shown that people often view their pets in the same way that they view humans in terms of their emotions, needs, and rights.
In fact, the emotional bonds that a person may form with their pets could be even stronger than those they form with other people. There are many theories to suggest why this may be the case. One is that we trust and connect with animals more fully than other humans since they can’t lie and manipulate. Pets cannot hide their emotions or deceive their humans for their gain. Pets offer nonjudgemental companionship and unconditional love, allowing for forming relationships that one might trust more readily than those formed with humans.
Why Don’t We Talk About Pet Grief?
Societally, there is still, unfortunately, a lot of stigma surrounding pet grief. Some people find it hard to empathize with the pain that others experience when they lose a pet. People who have not had a close relationship with a pet may struggle to comprehend the emotional impact of losing one. And these individuals who have not experienced the bond that people experience with their pets may trivialize pet grief, viewing it as less significant than human grief. This lack of empathy can make those grieving the loss of a pet hesitant to share their feelings, and it’s something that people with pets may internalize. Pet owners may internalize that their losses aren’t as significant, even though they feel incredibly painful.
As a result, a great deal of people grieving their pets do so without adequate social support, and this can cause their grief to become more complex and compounded. This type of grief, also called disenfranchised grief, is grief that is not broadly accepted or acknowledged. Kenneth Doka, a bereavement expert, defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that results when a person experiences a significant loss and the resultant grief is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly mourned. In short, although the individual is experiencing a grief reaction, there is no social recognition that the person has a right to grieve or a claim for social sympathy or support.”
Attitudes toward pets and grief can differ depending on one’s culture. In some cultures, pets are considered integral family members, and their loss is deeply mourned. In others, pets may be viewed differently, and even for those who do feel deeply connected with their pets, it can affect how grief is perceived and how support is accessed or offered.
Additionally, as a society, we struggle with grief and loss in general. It is still so taboo to talk about death and dying, and it’s something that is done privately, behind closed doors. We relegate the act of death to hospitals and hospice and avoid talking about death and dying because it’s difficult and uncomfortable. If this is how we approach our deaths and the deaths of our human loved ones, it makes sense that this could also extend to how we approach the death of our pets.
How Can Losing a Pet Affect My Mental Health?
Losing a pet can have a profound impact on a person’s mental health. Research has found that people who have recently lost pets are three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than the general population. These symptoms can include persistent feelings of sadness, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in activities, and a sense of hopelessness.
A study conducted by Gerwolls and Labott found that the grief associated with the death of a pet was remarkably similar to the grief people experience at the loss of human loved ones. It is common for people to rely on their animals to meet emotional and psychological needs. For example, those with anxiety and depression tend to benefit from having a pet because caring for them can provide a routine and a sense of purpose, so, understandably, their loss would be deeply felt and rather destabilizing. Additionally, losing an attachment figure and the source of unconditional love and emotional support would understandably be significant and impactful.
Losing a loved one has been proven to be a traumatic experience, and the same can be said for losing a pet. Some people’s experience of pet loss can mimic or develop into PTSD, and traumatic stress has been known to cause symptoms of depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and memory loss, among others. Depending on the level of attachment, the death of a pet can also increase feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can also cause feelings of depression and despair. The cause of death can also impact how one processes and manages the grief of pet loss. Sudden death can be very traumatic and impactful, and having the option to euthanize a beloved pet can also be complex and challenging.
Further, pets generally have much shorter lifespans than humans, so those who have many animals might have multiple experiences of pet loss, which can develop into compounding grief, especially if their pet’s life is cut unnaturally short. This type of grief has the potential to evolve into or exacerbate existing mental health challenges if not adequately addressed, and the lack of social support around pet grief means that many people struggle a great deal when their pet dies. Because our mental health tends to be closely connected to our physical health, the combined stress and grief that one may feel at the loss of a pet can create changes in appetite, symptoms of fatigue, and even a weakened immune system.
Why Do I Feel So Guilty About My Pet’s Death?
Guilt is not an unusual component of grief, but because pet owners feel such a sense of responsibility for their pets, the guilt they experience after the death of a pet can be extreme. Often, your pet has relied on you to take care of all of their needs, and when they die, we are left wondering if what we did was enough and thinking about what else we wish we could have done.
This feeling of guilt can be overwhelming in instances where a pet owner is faced with a choice of how they want their pet to die. Pets are generally only euthanized when it is determined that they would have an inferior quality of life and be in immense discomfort if left to live out the rest of their natural lifespan. And even though we know we are caring for our animal companions by ending their suffering, making the choice to end their life is still an incredibly heavy burden to bear.
For those whose pets died suddenly or prematurely, there’s also a lot of guilt to contend with while grieving. While they mourn the death of their pet, pet owners might dwell on any perceived mistakes and how they imagine they contributed to their animal’s death. They might hold themselves responsible for any shortcomings and think about and question their choices, including diet, exercise, medical care, or other aspects of pet care. Some may also feel guilt for not spending enough time with the pet, not recognizing symptoms earlier, or not doing more to prevent or alleviate suffering. And because of how much we care for our pets, some pet owners may have had unrealistic expectations regarding our ability to protect our pets from illness or accidents. We then feel tremendously guilty and responsible when we can’t meet these expectations.
As we process and try to make sense of our pets’ death, guilt is a normal and common response. Given that we were fully responsible for our pet’s lives, it’s not a stretch to extend that responsibility to the belief that we could have controlled or prevented their deaths, even when we did our best to care for our pets.
The guilt we experience and all of the other complex emotions associated with pet grief can be challenging and emotional to process. Grieving is a unique and personal process; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel. Below, we offer suggestions that we hope can help you in your grieving process, with the understanding that this process will take time and require care.
How Can I Cope With The Death of My Pet?
Honor the grief you’re feeling:
Permit yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or criticism. Grief is complex, and given the relationship and love you felt for your pet, allow yourself to get knocked down by the grief if that’s what happens. The feelings you’re feeling now won’t last forever, and they’re understandable and valid. Even if our society doesn’t always acknowledge the weight of pet grief, that doesn’t mean you can’t.
Offer Yourself Compassion:
If you’re grieving the death of your beloved pet and you’re struggling, it is essential to be kind to yourself during this time.
You know how deeply you cared for your pet, so if you euthanized your pet and find yourself feeling guilty, remind yourself that choosing to end their life to save them from further suffering, was the final act of love you were able to perform.
Self-compassion is also essential and valuable if your pet dies unexpectedly or due to an accident. You can’t make the pain of their loss hurt any less, but offering yourself the unconditional love and forgiveness that your pet often did may make the grieving process a bit easier to manage. Allow yourself grace and understanding, and give yourself space to feel grateful for the relationship you shared with your pet.
Find a ritual:
While, as a society, we are not great at acknowledging and processing grief in general, this becomes even more evident when we look at the lack of rituals around pet loss. Funerals and memorial services help us conceptualize the death of loved ones, and they prompt us to gather together to mourn and the same structures can help with pet grief. While the rituals probably won’t look the same, create a way to celebrate the life your pet lived and the love you felt for them. A dear friend shared that the shrine her mother made after her dog died was the most helpful thing in her experience with grief. It contained her grief and provided her with a way to show her pet care even after her death. While not every pet owner will have the chance to say goodbye to their companion, as some deaths may be sudden and some losses may be ambiguous, gathering people together to say goodbye before the pet’s death or afterward can also be another ritual that helps in the grief process.
If you have family or friends who are animal people and understand the depth of your relationship with your pet, now is the time to reach out to them. If you’re preparing for the death of your beloved pet, think about giving them the option to show up to say goodbye to your pet and to show up for you simultaneously. And if you’re sitting in your grief after the loss of your pet, let the people that you know understand that you’re struggling and use this as an opportunity to have them hold you up. Talk to them about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Tell them what you miss most about your sweet pet and any other feelings you’re trying to manage. To have your feelings validated and to know that you are not alone in grieving can be important and valuable. If you don’t trust that your friends and family can provide you with the support you need, there are also communities (in person and online) that can empathize with your grief. Look for a pet grief support group or message board to find others sharing their experiences to offer validation and understanding.
I hope this article serves as a tribute to Maddie, and offers some comfort and validation to anyone struggling with pet grief. Given our unique and profound relationships with our pets, it is understandable that our grief will be unique, complex, and profound, too. If you find that you need support during this challenging time, I hope you reach out to us. We know how difficult moving on without a beloved pet can be, and we would be glad to help you honor your grief and the relationship you shared with your pet.