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Pet Bereavement: Grief and healing

Pets are often considered beloved members of the family as they offer companionship and unconditional love. Thus, saying goodbye to them can be an extremely tough and emotional experience. Unfortunately, due to the inevitable life cycle, at some point, pet owners must face the painful experience of pet bereavement, especially when pets don’t live as long as humans. I can say this from personal experience as my family has had several pets over the years and, sadly, we have suffered several losses.

We can’t dismiss that the love of a cherished animal companion, be it a cat, dog, bird, snake, horse, guinea pig, rabbit or other, can be just as devastating as losing a human loved one. The process of grieving for a pet is a deeply emotional journey that requires understanding, support, and healing.

Since the beginning of civilisation, companion animals have had a unique relationship with human beings (Ross-Barton & Baron-Sorensen, 1998). Arkow (1987) commented on the discovery of a 14,000-year-old human skeleton found with its hands wrapped around a dog skeleton. For the ancient Egyptians, pets were very important and were considered gifts from the gods, to be cared for until their death, when they were expected to be returned to the divine realm from which they had come. Pets were well-cared for and, after their death, were often mummified in the same way as people.

In the ancient civilisation of Greece, dogs, birds, mice, and goats were common pets. Dogs were valued companions and hunting partners. In fact, Greece’s deep relationship with dogs is evident in some of the most notable works of philosophers. In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates claims that the dog is a true philosopher because it can distinguish between the face of a friend and that of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing.

In Ancient Rome, Romans developed a strong and lavish relationship with their pets. Like the Greeks, Romans favoured dogs and birds over other animals. A famous mosaic called Cave Canem, which literally translates to “beware of the dog” was found in the ruins of Pompeii. So, all this is an indication that animal companions were considered valued companions that inspired ancient people in different ways and means.

The connection and relationship between humans and their pets are built on shared experiences, unwavering companionship, and the unconditional love that pets provide. Studies (Podrazik, Shackfrod, Becker & Heckert, 2000), have shown that interacting with pets can lower stress levels, reduce feelings of loneliness, and even have positive effects on cardiovascular health. This strong emotional bond makes the loss of a pet particularly challenging, often triggering a range of complex emotions.

Pet bereavement – the grieving process after the loss of a pet – is a unique experience that varies from person to person. It is characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, guilt, anger, and even denial. Just like with human loss, individuals may experience a wide range of emotions and may go through various stages of grief, such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The concept of the 5 stages of grief was first published by a Swiss-American psychologist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in 1969. Her research actually involved terminally ill patients, who she argued go through these five stages when accepting their imminent death, but it can also be applied to pet bereavement. Some people might find it difficult to express their grief, fearing they won’t be understood by those who haven’t experienced a similar loss. In fact, I remember having conversations with family members who never had pets or never experienced the relationship and connection with a pet, and they couldn´t grasp the feelings and emotions that other family members had gone through.

Factors that can influence the intensity and duration of grief are the nature of the relationship with the pet, the circumstances of the pet’s passing, the person’s support system, and their coping mechanisms. Additionally, cultural, and societal attitudes towards pet loss can affect how individuals navigate their grief. Some people may find it challenging to seek support or may feel pressured to suppress their feelings due to societal norms that don’t fully acknowledge the significance of pet loss.

Coping and healing tips

The journey through pet bereavement involves finding healthy ways to cope with the pain and gradually heal. Here are some tips that can help to navigate this difficult process:

  1. Acknowledgement – Recognize the importance of your grief and allow yourself to feel the emotions that arise. Give yourself permission to mourn and express your feelings.
  2. Create a memorial – Establish a memorial or ritual to honour your pet’s memory. This could involve creating a scrapbook, planting a tree or holding a memorial service.
  3. Seek support – Surround yourself with understanding friends and family who recognise the significance of your loss.
  4. Self-care – Engage in self-care activities that promote emotional healing, such as journaling, exercise, meditation, or spending time in nature.
  5. Preserve memories – Keep mementos of your pet, like photos and toys, to help you remember the positive moments you shared together.
  6. Honour the grieving process – Remember that healing takes time. Be patient with yourself and allow the grieving process to unfold naturally.
  7. Consider professional help – If your grief becomes overwhelming and begins to affect your daily life, seek help from a psychotherapist.

This article was written in honour of our beloved and dearly missed family pets that have passed away along the years.


  1. Arkow, P. (1987). The loving bond: Companion animals in the helping professions. Saratoga, CA: R&E Publishing.
  2. Podrazik, D., Shackford, S., Becker, L., & Heckert, T. (2000). The death of a pet: Implications for loss and bereavement across the lifespan. Journal of personal and interpersonal Loss, 5: 361-395.
  3. Ross-Barton, C., & Baron-Sorensen, J. (1998). Pet loss: A thoughtful guide for adults and children. New York: Harper Collins.
Maria Mifsud

About Maria Mifsud

Maria graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) in 2008, then went on to read for a Masters in Probation Services at the University of Malta. After years of being part of the Government workforce, she realised that to better understand her clients and be more equipped, she had to further her studies by enrolling in a Masters in Systemic and Family Psychotherapy with IFT-Malta. Some years later, she continued to pursue her studies in Clinical Supervision with IFT-Malta. Maria is also a qualified Victim Offender Mediator.

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