When a treasured pet dies, it can literally incapacitate us. It’s an all-encompassing sort of grief that feels very much like losing a family member – and why wouldn’t it be? After all, our beloved pets are just as much our family members as anyone else.
New evidence shows
that losing a pet may have consequences even more dire than deep sadness; it could even cause cardiovascular trouble, too.
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (Broken Heart Syndrome)
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, spurred on by the stress of losing a pet, causes the left heart ventricle to balloon up dangerously. While the disorder disproportionately impacts post-menopausal women, anyone can experience it if they undergo enough stress.
When Broken Heart Syndrome
occurs, it carries a long list of troublesome symptoms, including shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, various arrhythmias, and a greatly increased risk for strokes and heart attacks. It can also look like a heart attack on an EKG, making it difficult to initially diagnose and potentially even more dangerous.
Fortunately, Broken Heart Syndrome is fully treatable and reversible. Patients who experience it will
need management and treatment. Doctors recommend therapy and stress-reduction strategies in tandem with various cardio drugs to reduce symptoms until it naturally resolves – usually within a month.
As with most diseases, Broken Heart Syndrome is easier to prevent than to fix. Understanding grief, the stages of grief you might experience when losing a pet, and how to help yourself process that grief before a precious pet passes away may reduce your risk. We’ll cover these topics in the rest of the post.
Pet-Related Grief: The Basics
Those of us who love pets know that they’re very much our best friends. Whether you got to spend a month, a day, a year, or even a lifetime with your furry (or scaled, or feathery...etc.) loved one, losing them to illness or natural causes is always painful. Left unaddressed, it can cause a whole host of disturbing struggles, including intense sadness, anxiety, anger, or even full-blown depression
One thing that may be helpful is understanding the natural stages of grief in advance. We’ll map them out for you in the rest of the article.
This is often the first and most confusing stage. Denial doesn’t always mean you refuse to believe your pet has died; it can also encompass feeling shocked or confused by the death. You may find yourself grabbing your pet’s leash or filling his bowl automatically each day, only to be reminded that the task is no longer necessary. You may question how you can go on or even push your feelings down and ignore them completely.
Many pet parents experience anger after a pet dies
. You may feel someone contributed to your pet’s death (e.g., a vet who didn’t do enough to save him) or you may simply be angry at the loss in general. Sometimes, anger can cause grievers to lash out at loved ones. If you are religious, you may question your faith or even wonder how a loving God could allow such a thing to happen.
This stage sometimes begins before the death even occurs, but may extend well beyond it. You may pray for your pet to be healed, begging God to save them. Or, you may find yourself embroiled in “if only” or “what if” thinking
For example, some pet owners find themselves promising their higher power to be a good person for life if their pet’s health is only restored. Bargaining can also include thinking there was something you could have done to prevent the death in the first place.
The fourth stage of grief, depression
, is often where most of us spend the most time. While it certainly includes sadness, in moderate doses, it’s actually an important part of the grieving process. This is when pet parents start thinking less about what they could have done or should have done and more about the reality of the situation. Intense feelings of sadness, crying jags, wanting to be alone, sleeping a lot, eating a lot, having insomnia, and just plain feeling exhausted can all come with this stage.
Note that the depression stage is not
the same as Clinical Depression, which is a diagnosable mental health disorder. Grief-related depression does dissipate after some time in nearly all situations.
The last stage of grief, acceptance
, is when you truly begin to heal and move on from your grief. It doesn’t mean you feel okay with the death or even feel right about it, but you come to accept that it happened and allow yourself to feel your feelings about it.
Pet parents going through this stage may begin to finally feel they’re getting their footing and finding their way through life without their treasured pet. They may also begin to think about adopting a new pet or spending time with other animals, or they may find ways to honor their late pet, such as donating time or money to a shelter.
Nearly all of us graduate through these stages when experiencing grief. However, everyone traverses the path in a slightly different or unique way. Furthermore, you may vacillate back and forth between these stages at any given time. The type of grief, the extensiveness of the grief, and even your current life situation may influence how you experience grief-related emotions.
When & Where to Seek Help
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we’re just totally unable to cope with our feelings about a pet’s death
. We may find ourselves frozen in time, unable to move forward or crippled with sadness. Understand that you aren’t crazy or even abnormal for feeling such intense feelings, no matter what anyone tells you. The relationships we share with our pets are filled with love and light, and it’s totally reasonable to find yourself devastated when they’re no longer present.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by your feelings, or if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of illness, it may be time to reach out for help. Speak with your doctor or local care team about your experience; be honest and upfront about the depth of your emotions.
Reaching out in your local community may also help. Look for local grief support groups in your area. Standard grief and loss groups
accept people struggling with the loss of a human or pet loved one, while pet loss groups focus solely on the loss of a pet. Both can help you find shelter and solace with others going through the same experience as you. Depending on the state you’re in, you can find a pet loss support group through the Humane Society, Hospice, local churches, and groups facilitated by local therapists.
Support can also be found by phone. Various organizations provide counseling by phone through a pet loss support hotline. Cornell University, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) and The Animal Medical Center in New York City are examples of organizations that regularly provide this service.
Books and poetry can provide support as well. Examples of books that have been incredibly healing for others include For Every Dog an Angel
, For Every Cat an Angel
, Bill at Rainbow Bridge
, Heal Your Heart
, and The Souls of Animals
. A poem that is growing in its popularity is one called Rainbow Bridge
. It is a poem that imaginatively answers the question of where pets go after their death. Other poems have been published throughout the web. Reading them can bring a sense of support by empathizing with the feelings and thoughts of each poem.
Lastly, if you find yourself having disturbing or frightening thoughts of self-harm, or if you’re significantly disabled by your sadness, it is especially important to seek help. Some pet parents may become seriously clinically depressed after the loss of a pet. Medications, therapy, and other strategies can help you to manage these feelings either in the short-term or long-term.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, guilt, self-harm, or anger right now, help is available. Dial 1-800-273-TALK to speak with a crisis counselor. This free service is available 24/7 to help you cope.