Most people associate pet bereavement with the physical death of a beloved pet but what happens when you’re grieving for a pet that has escaped from your home, runaway or even been stolen?
A traumatic loss
When a pet goes missing, it’s so horribly unexpected that it can take time to process the circumstances and your feelings.
Bereavement experts agree that the grief that follows is very similar to that experienced when a pet dies suddenly and traumatically.
As well as the feelings of missing your pet and the life you share with each other, it’s likely that your thoughts may be running in a terrible cycle of questions, “How did this happen?”, “Are they scared?”, “Are they suffering?”, “Are they safe?”, “Has someone found them?”, “Who’s fault is this?”, “What if I’d done X, Y or Z instead?”, “Where are they now?”.
You may feel angry, helpless, frustrated and guilty. If your pet went missing because of someone else’s actions – however innocent those actions may have been – the chances are that you feel angry with that person and may even blame them for your loss.
This can have devastating consequences if that person is part of your immediate support network – a partner, parent or friend – who you would normally turn to at this time of grieving. You may find that you can’t even look at them without thinking of your lost pet.
Or what if your child accidentally forgot to shut the garden gate or close the front door? You may find yourself torn between wanting to minimise their suffering and being angry about their role in this loss, which can be challenging to manage.
How long do we wait?
There’s one feeling, in particular, that can make grieving for a missing pet even more heart wrenching, and that feeling is hope – hope that your pet is alive and well; hope that they’ll come home; hope that your family will be complete again one day.
Most of us have heard stories of cats that have disappeared, only to return months later without a care in the world. There’s always the hope that your pet could return one day too.
As someone once described it, “It’s like having an open wound that’s not allowed to heal” because, of course, all the time there’s hope, it means that the loss might only be temporary. If you have hope, you may feel that it’s not OK to grieve. After all, wouldn’t grieving be like giving up?
But many people are faced with the question of, “How long do we wait for our pet to return?” Maybe what they’re really asking is, “When are we allowed to grieve?”
There is no right or wrong answer. As we’ve said before, grief doesn’t have a timeline.
Searching for a missing pet
Most people find it helps them to be as proactive as possible about searching for their pet, especially in the days immediately after they go missing. If you haven’t already, you could:
- Initiate a search of the local area
- Let your neighbours know that your pet is missing
- If it’s your cat who’s gone missing, many people recommend putting the litter tray outside so that the scent carries
- Check with local vets and animal shelters
- Create some ‘Lost pet’ posters to put up on lampposts and community noticeboards
- Post on Facebook – many areas now have local community groups where you can post about missing pets
These actions can help to give you back a feeling of control at a time when you may feel impotent in the face of your loss
Coping with your loss and finding closure
You may feel like it’s impossible to reconcile your grief with the glimmer of hope we talked about above. It’s this lack of closure that is particularly cruel.
Some people cope by telling themselves that their pet is alive, well and loved but just somewhere else. Others decide to view their pet as having died in order to be able to say goodbye. Eventually, most people are able to say that if their pet returns, it will be the greatest gift but, until then, they have to live as if the animal has gone forever.
Again, there is no right or wrong.
There are some steps you can take to help you cope with your loss, whatever stage you are at in the grieving process:
- Remember that you – or whoever was involved – did not plan for this to happen. No-one woke up one morning and said, “I am going to make sure my pet escapes today”. Mistakes happen – they are part of the human condition.
- Blame is not productive – it creates barriers, loneliness and silence at a time when you need support.
- Ask yourself whether your pet would blame you or want you to be unhappy? The wonderful thing about animals is that they live in the moment, they give unconditional love and they don’t dwell in the past. Your pet would not want you to be sad.
- Grief is experienced one moment at a time – some moments are good, some are bad but all are OK.
- If you have other pets, you might find it helpful to plan against this kind of loss happening again. For example, you might want to ensure that your pets are microchipped or that the microchip has your latest contact details.
- Prioritise your self-care, whether that means eating well, going for regular walks, meeting up with a friend or soaking in the bath.
- Let yourself grieve – whether or not your pet finds his/her way home one day, doesn’t diminish the loss you’re feeling right now. Your grief is natural.
Reach out to pet bereavement support services or groups such as The Ralph Site Facebook group, where other people have lost their pets in all sorts of circumstances and will understand your feelings.
Sadly, you may never know the truth of what happened to your pet after they went missing. But you do know the truth of the life you shared together. It’s important to remember how special this was because that’s the story of your pet’s life and it deserves to be cherished.
Above all, do know that you’re not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support