Gone too soon: Coping with the loss of a young pet

When a young pet joins your family, it is always a time of excitement and happiness (with some possible training stress thrown into the mix for those of you with dogs, cats, or rabbits!)

You think about the years of fun, love, and companionship ahead of you. This is true whether your young pet is a tiny hamster, a quirky axolotl, a snake, a guinea pig, a playful kitten, or a giant breed of dog (and every shape, size, or species in between).

As you plan for the future that includes your young pet, their death is probably the farthest thing from your mind.

Sadly, though, many people within The Ralph Site community find themselves having to cope with the loss of a young pet. It could be what has brought you to this site.

Is there a way of ‘coming to terms’ with the premature death of a pet? How can you process your loss when your companion has quite simply gone before their time? Is it possible to find comfort when all you can think about is how horribly unfair life is to rob your pet of their future when there was still so much of it in front of them?

Death is never easy

We know that death is never easy but when a young pet dies, it can throw everything you know into doubt. People talk about the ‘natural order’ of things and the cycle of life and death but reconciling that with a young animal can feel impossible.

All that potential. All those experiences that you hoped to share. Surely, to lose those before they had a chance to happen goes against the ‘natural order’ of life?

We’ve talked before on The Ralph Site about coping with sudden and unexpected pet loss. Perhaps, in pet loss terms, nothing is more sudden and unexpected than when a young animal dies.

It can be incredibly hard to process.

In the face of such a bereavement, people report a wide range of emotions. Bewilderment is common – surely this cannot be real? Anger too – it is so desperately unfair. You might feel anxious and unsafe because it seems like nothing has happened as it should. And let us not forget the guilt that is so deeply tied to pet loss. Guardians of young pets often experience a significant amount of guilt because they feel they should have been able to guarantee their companion a long life. 

Whatever you are feeling, there are no right or wrong emotions. Grief is different for everyone and it is important to experience your feelings as they happen instead of bottling things up inside.

It is unfair and heart-breaking and so very wrong that your young pet has died. No wonder you feel all these emotions and more.

Unhelpful things other people say

Pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief that is not recognised by everyone in our wider society. You may find that some of your friends and family just do not know what to say to support you. This could be because they do not understand the depth of your loss or because they do not want to say the wrong thing.

When a young animal dies, it is very common to be told, “Everything happens for a reason”, “He’s in a better place” or “It just goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen, which is why we need to live each day like it’s our last” (and other varieties of things people say when they are trying to give a bereaved person comfort).

These expressions can be hurtful. Your pet was in the best place with your family – a place where they were loved, and they mattered. What kind of reason can there be for a young animal to die? 

Even sentiments like “we have to live like there’s no tomorrow” can be tough to take. After all, youth is so often about creating the foundations for the future. It is natural to want to make plans with your pet. The fact that you can’t can leave you feeling cheated.

People mean well when they say these things, but the truth is that sometimes the best thing anyone can do is sit in silence with you or tell you that they care, and they are sorry for your loss.

If you don’t have anyone who can say this to you face-to-face right now, The Ralph Site Facebook group is full of people who have experienced losses of their own and will metaphorically sit by your side in support at this tough time.

Coping with your grief

Is there a way to ‘get over’ grief? This is a question that many bereaved people ask.

The truth is that grief never truly goes away. However, it does change its nature with time – or maybe it is more accurate to say that we learn to live with it as part of us. It becomes part of our new ‘normal’. Check out some of the grief analogies that explain this perfectly. 

If you are struggling after losing a young pet, the following may help you:

  • Allow yourself time to feel the truth of your loss

When a death is unexpected, it is common to feel shocked, confused, numb and full of disbelief. Surely, someone has made a mistake?

In many ways, death rites in our society create space for these early feelings. They give you practical tasks to focus on when you are reeling from shock. They also help you to feel that you are accompanying your deceased loved one on a passage from life into death, which can be hugely comforting.

But, of course, these rites are not automatically part of pet loss, a fact that can leave you lost in terms of how to react to your bereavement.

You may find it helpful to arrange a memorial service for your pet or arrange a cremation or burial. The act of doing this can give you time to feel the truth of your loss.

Remember too that you will continue to need time.

Grief is not linear, and it does not come with an expiry date. It takes a long time to become part of the fabric of who you are, and it is threaded with many emotions. Be kind to yourself and sit with whatever you are feeling instead of trying to push your thoughts and feelings away. 

  • Think about the quality of your pet’s life, not the quantity

It is natural to be preoccupied with the fact that your pet has died and the circumstances surrounding their death. Most people respond to bereavement in this way.

Your brain will be doing everything in its power to make sense of what has happened, even if there really is no explanation to be found.

The downside of this need for sense is that you can get stuck on the events surrounding your pet’s death rather than celebrating their life. It is important to make their story about more than how they died. 

How would you describe your pet to someone who did not know them? What were their unique quirks? What happy memories did you share together? How did it make you feel to hold them or spend time with them? 

It can be helpful to remind yourself of all the ways your pet had a great quality of life, even if they were robbed of quantity. 

  • Recognise that your pet’s death was beyond your control

When we experience pet loss, especially when we are mourning a young and previously healthy pet, we often look for someone to blame. It could be that you are blaming yourself, a family member or even a stranger who was somehow involved in your pet’s death, e.g., a driver or your vet.

Again, blame is a common response to loss, especially as we strive to make sense of what happened. However, it can cause you to become consumed with anger and is generally a futile use of your energy. After all, even if someone is directly to blame, it cannot change what has happened.

A helpful tactic here is to think about the circumstances and intentions surrounding your pet’s death. 

Did you or anyone else intend to cause harm to your pet? 

If you or anyone else could have known what would happen, would they have done things differently?

Could you or anyone else have known what would happen?

The chances are that there was no intention of harm or malice towards your pet. As unfair as it is, accidents happen, and illnesses occur. If only they did not. 

Please think about your own intentions towards your pet and recognise that you only ever wanted good things for them. Their death does not change the truth of that.

  • Honour your pet’s life

The founder of the worldwide Scout movement, Robert Baden Powell, said that we should each “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it”.

In fact, many people believe that this is the very definition of a life well lived – to make our own little corners of the world better for having existed in them.

Well, your pet achieved that. They made the world better by existing and the memories they have given you ensure that this gift will always stay with you. 

Is there anything you can do to continue this legacy? Is there goodness that you can put into the world to honour your pet?

Perhaps you could support an animal charity, foster or adopt another animal when you feel ready or raise awareness about an issue that affected your pet, such as road safety or a rare health condition.

Even creating a memorial or writing a letter to your pet about the life you had hoped they would live can help to provide comfort.

  • Talk about your loss

It is important to be able to talk about your loss if you need to. Ideally, support will come from your friends and family but sometimes it helps to speak to other bereaved pet carers who understand the array of emotions you are experiencing. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.

You might also find it beneficial to talk to a pet bereavement counsellor. Many people find this instrumental to processing their grief. The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service is an excellent starting point.

Just know that, although your loss is yours alone and no-one can truly know how you are feeling, you are not alone in your grief. The Ralph Site is here for you.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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