How to Cope with Losing Your Emotional Support Pet
7 min read
It always comes unannounced; death does. The death of a pet is no less impactful than the death of a close human being. Our emotional support animals become family over the years. They provide us with unconditional love, trust, and mutual acceptance. The sudden end of such a relationship comes with emotions like shock, confusion, and eventually grief.
What is grief?
Grief is a complex emotion triggered by loss and experienced differently by everyone. Some people argue that there are 5 stages to it; some mention 7. The truth is that those numbers are irrelevant. The most important part is understanding all the ways it could look like and be prepared.
Grief is not always a progressively forward process, nor does it have an exact time frame. One can make some progress toward recovery, only to fall right back into a previous stage later on. Anything can trigger such a recession, from any other loss, including possessions, to any major hardship. However, if you relied on your pet for emotional or mental support, then their absence will leave an even larger void.
We may not have a formula for the stages of grief, but we can give you an Rx with the 7 R’s that can help you manage this process better. Here are these 7 ingredients:
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Ingredient 1: Realizing
Be aware of your mourning process, your feelings, and your behavior. As mentioned earlier, the process is not straightforward and several triggers may stifle your progress. Understanding that you won’t be able to recover overnight is crucial to your wellbeing. Your process will be unique to you and there is no need to rush it or expect it to look any different. You are entitled to mourn your loss and it is a totally valid loss, no matter what others have to say. By understanding this you can avoid frustration or disappointment. Take this as it comes, one day at a time. Accept your own journey and realize that death is part of life.
Something else to be mindful of is emotions, particularly of when they show up and what triggers them. Also, identifying whether you’re feeling angry, confused, or nostalgic instead of simply feeling “bad” can help you better address such emotions. In fact, studies have shown that emotional labeling or emotional granularity can lessen the intensity of our feelings and make them more manageable. So specifically naming your feelings as soon as you are aware of them can improve your coping mechanisms.
Lastly, you have to realize how grief has affected your behavior. You might enter a negative loop of self-harm or self-critique, or you might feel the need to take it out on others. Another common behavior that can come with grief is a shame. One could feel ashamed for their inability to handle their feelings and try to dismiss them as a result, especially when others may not understand them. Realize, though, that you never simply pushed your pet’s poopsies under the rug or allowed them to stick around. That wouldn’t have made them stink any less. Emotions are fairly similar in that sense. They may be uncomfortable to deal with but they should not be ignored.
Ingredient 2: Removing
Removing a few triggers can make it easier for you to experience the grief.
You may not want to move that water bowl or that cage; you may resist closing this chapter. However, the more you run into objects that remind you of your pet, the harder it will get to make peace with reality.
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You don’t have to put everything away immediately. You also don’t have to hide all these memories completely out of sight. If it makes it any easier, dedicate a subtle corner to your pet and their belongings. The idea is to help yourself in this process by removing some of the triggers.
Ingredient 3: Replacing
No, this is not about replacing your pet; this is about replacing the habits and routine you’ve created around them. You’ve invested a lot of time into taking care of your pet. You’ve organized your schedule around your responsibilities toward its wellbeing. You may find yourself automatically filling up their bowl with food. As Charles Duhigg describes in his book “The Power of Habit,” one does not simply get rid of old habits; what happens is they get replaced. So take your habit loop, break it apart, and replace its components with new ones. This is easier said than done, but at least it’s a starting point.
However, many people who attempt to replace a habit tend to go for negative ones like addictions. Falling in this pattern will only do you a disservice and perhaps even nullify the efforts of your emotional support animal. If you’ve already started on that path, it is not too late to change again. Any habit can be replaced with another, and you can always choose a positive alternative to fill the void of losing your pet.
Taking care of yourself honors your pet. You’re not betraying their memory by choosing to be healthy and happy; on the contrary, you’re continuing their legacy. The best way to make their efforts count is not by wallowing in sadness but by continuing to heal. Select activities that nourish both your body and mind. Nature strolls or exercise combined with creative endeavors like crafting could do the trick. Even just pampering yourself can help toward filling that void.
Ingredient 4: Redirecting
You should not dismiss your feelings but you should also not allow them to linger on for too long at a time. It is almost impossible not to drift off into unpleasant thoughts like regret. However, too much of that is not healthy. It is important to catch yourself drifting and then redirect your attention.
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One way to do that is by picking any random object around you and analyzing it in detail. For example, grab your pen and look at its color, texture, shape, flaws, etc. How does it feel in your hands? Do you like the way it writes? How could you improve its design? These types of thoughts are part of a technique called focused attention meditation, which can not only help distract you from a negative thought but can also help you recognize when you drift off into such thoughts sooner.
Ingredient 5: Refocusing
Refocusing is a more proactive strategy than redirecting. Instead of allowing yourself to often fall into a stream of unpleasant thoughts, you can actively prompt more positive ones.
Cherish the good memories and appreciate having this pet in your life. Feel the gratitude and acknowledge how far along you’ve come because of them. Also, realize that they too had a wonderful life with you. You took proper care of them and made their tails wiggle often. These are the kind of memories that you should focus on.
Ingredient 6: Releasing
A consultation with a therapist may help you find ways to feel better.
Every so often, it may help to release your internal struggles either on paper or verbally. You could start a diary, record a voice note on your phone, express yourself through written words or drawings, or simply talk to another person.
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A word of warning… not everyone will understand your pain, particularly if they’ve never owned a pet or needed one for emotional support. These people might dismiss your feelings or minimize them. However, their inability to understand is not their fault. So keep that in mind and select the right person to talk to. If you can, consult with a professional therapist as they have the right tools to get you through this.
Ingredient 7: Readjusting
Losing an emotional support animal may also cause you anxiety, panic, and uncertainty about the future, particularly as it comes down to handling the emotional and mental issues that your pet has helped you with. You’ll need to make a number of decisions.
First, consider if you still need help from an animal to handle your mental and emotional health. If so, then do get another pet. This does not mean you’ll be replacing your old companion; it simply means you are trying to move forward. Life has to go on and you will need to readjust to a new normal.
Second, figure out if you need and can take some time away from your responsibilities, like work. This is both beneficial for you and for those who depend on you. Time does help to heal, especially when combined with our 7 R’s Rx.
Few last considerations
The reality may be sad but it will be easier with time.
This process is your own, not other people’s; it is not their responsibility to be there for you but it does help to have a support group to lean on. Regardless though, you CAN overcome this. As hard as it may be to wake up every morning to the reality of living without your faithful companion, it will get easier eventually. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
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