Every pet owner dreads the day that their beloved companion is no longer with them. And when you do experience that loss, there is an intense feeling of emptiness.
Everyone experiences grief differently and there are healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with grief.
And while there's not necessarily such a thing as too much grief or too little grief, the grief you feel is real--and acknowledging its validity is part of healing.
Why Losing a Dog Hurts So Deeply
Research has shown that the loss of a pet can be comparable to the loss of a human loved one. We bond with them almost as closely (if not as closely) as we bond with other humans.
Part of this is a matter of evolution. Dogs have adapted to live alongside humans for the last 10,000 years--indeed, they're the only animal to have evolved specifically into a companion.
That matters because dogs, unlike their ancestors, have a remarkable set of social skills. Dogs express emotions through their faces in a way that we recognize (after all, humans do it too). Dogs make eye contact. They seek physical closeness and affection. They attend to us as quickly as we attend to them.
Even cats, who have long been domesticated, don't have this skill set. Cats communicate emotion through their ears and tails--they just don't have the facial muscles to do what dogs do.
Dogs have had generations to learn how to mimic human facial expressions as a way of showing emotion. They smile. They hang their heads in guilt. They raise their eyebrows to make adorable puppy faces.
All of this cues us to read a dog in almost exactly the same way we read a human (except for the fact that they can't talk). This is reinforced by the physical affection that most dogs show.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Grief
It's only natural that we would grieve a dog in much the same way we would grieve a person. After all, we respond to them and treat them an awful lot like people.
And much like you can grieve unhealthily for a person, you can also grieve unhealthily for a dog.
Everyone experiences grief differently, and there are many healthy ways to work through grief. And while "too much grief" is a bit of an unfair scale, as different people express grief at varying magnitudes, there are several negative ways of handling grief, no matter how deeply you feel the loss.
One of the biggest ones is denial. Trying to shut out grief is trying to deny reality, but ignoring it doesn't change the fact that your dog is no longer there. This can spiral into anxiety and depression, as you cannot emotionally reconcile this reality with your old one.
Denial also underlies other negative coping mechanisms, such as numbing yourself with various "overs" and "unders" (overeating, oversleeping, overdrinking, undersleeping, etc.)
Acknowledging Reality and Pain Successfully
Regardless of how deeply you feel the loss of your pet, the key to successful grieving is to acknowledge the pain you feel.
It isn't going to be pleasant. It's not a feeling you want to sit with, and we're not telling you to set up camp with your pain forever.
We're saying that you have to acknowledge that your pet is no longer here. Once you accept this, you can begin to slowly accept the fact of their absence and how your life will take shape without them.
Don't Get Lost in Too Much Grief
The loss of a pet can leave you unmoored. But the key to grieving and healing is not to lose yourself in too much grief.
Don't deny yourself the chance to feel what you feel. But don't let your pain control you, either. Learn how to sit with it, and learn how your love for your pet lives on even when they're no longer with you.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to encourage treatment or diagnosis of any animal medical condition. For medical advice, contact your veterinarian.