How to get over the death of a pet


A pet dying can be as traumatic as losing a family member, especially when not everyone understands your pain

In July 2023, Candice Powell, the chief executive of Hong Kong mental health charity Mind HK, received devastating news: her beloved dog Guinness had cancer.

“The anxiety and all the feelings were similar to when a loved family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness,” Powell says.

An ultrasound followed by a CAT scan revealed that the tumour was nestled dangerously close to a vital blood vessel, making surgery risky. After one round of chemotherapy, Powell and her husband, supported by their compassionate vet, decided to focus on Guinness’ quality of life.

As the days turned to weeks, Guinness grew weaker, his appetite waning. Yet just before Chinese New Year,

a glimmer of hope emerged: he regained his appetite and energy. Powell dared to believe that he was on the path to recovery. But soon afterwards, Guinness’ condition took a sharp turn for the worse.

“I went to my mum’s place on Chinese New Year’s Eve for dinner. Ten minutes after we came back, he passed. He was waiting for us. I was with him when he had his last breath. Although we knew it was coming, it was still a shock,” Powell says.The loss of a cherished pet can unleash powerful emotions. These feelings, akin to the grief we experience when a human loved one dies, require time to process.

“A lot of the time our pet gives us more unconditional love than humans, so attachments can be very strong,” Powell says.

However, not everyone understands the depth of this bond. Well-intentioned friends may inadvertently say things that seem dismissive.

Powell, a mental health professional, found solace in sharing her loss with caring friends. However, her mother’s response followed a more traditional Chinese approach.

“At a Chinese funeral,” Powell says, “when people shake hands with the [bereaved] family, they will say, ‘Don’t be so sad, adjust to the change.’

“While their intentions are kind, the grieving person may feel invalidated.”

Her mother responded in this traditional way, advising her not to be sad and to move on with her life.“ Grief  is very personal. Some people can go through grief very quickly; for other people it can last many months. There is no timeline,” Powell says.

“When you have lost something or someone that is very important to you, you need time to process your emotions.”Rashidah Mootee, a retired counsellor who previously ran pet bereavement workshops for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Hong Kong, says many people suffer in silence when they have lost a pet.

“People are afraid of being ridiculed by the loss of a pet because a lot of people of don’t regard a pet as a family member,” Mootee says.

“This can make [the grieving person] especially vulnerable because they don’t have a support group of family and friends who they can talk to about their loss.”

She adds that the bereavement process usually lasts three to six months. If it is much longer than that, she suggests the person seek professional help.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross laid out five stages of the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The model has since been updated to include seven stages.

Mootee describes them as they apply to the loss of a pet:

  • Shock – “It is a shock to the system. If the pet died suddenly or through an accident, there is more of a shock.”
  • Denial – “You are unable to accept that the pet has gone and might still keep its pet bed out or pet food in the cupboard.”
  • Bargaining – “You desperately want to get the pet back and run through scenarios in your mind of what you might do to get your pet back.”
  • Guilt – “You question yourself as to whether you did the right thing. Did you treat your pet well? Did you get your pet to the vet in time?”
  • Anger – “This could be directed at other people or at yourself, blaming yourself or others. You might get into a terrible mood or have uncontrollable bursts of anger.”
  • Depression – “After the anger, when you are properly exhausted, you may fall into a depressed state and shut yourself out of social activities and not want to talk to anyone.”
  • Acceptance – “When you have gone through the whole emotional process, you accept that your pet is gone.”

Understanding the stages of grief helps us validate our emotions, Powell says.

“A lot of the time we think we shouldn’t feel a certain way and tend to suppress these emotions. When we know it’s normal, it feels validating. My husband and I have gone through all the emotions.”

It is not uncommon for a well-meaning person to suggest that the grieving pet owner gets another pet. Mootee, though, advises against adopting another pet straight away.

“There is a tendency for the owner to expect the pet to act in the same way as the previous one. It’s best to wait until you have fully embraced the loss before you get another,” she says.

Embracing the loss and processing your emotions will look different for everyone. Things that might help include memorialising your pet.

You may perform a ritual, either formal or informal, or simply take the time to talk about your pet to loved ones.

It is also important to look out for other pets in the house. Powell says her other dog Hugo is showing signs of grief.

“He has low appetite and no motivation. He was confused when someone came to take his brother away,” she says.

Some animals will take time to process their own grief, and bringing a new pet into the house may cause friction.

However, animals are quite adaptable and usually respond positively if they are given a little time to come to terms with the loss.In May 2023, the SPCA Hong Kong launched it’s Never Too Old To Love website, with resources to help those who have lost or are on the brink of losing their beloved pet.

It has an online memorial wall, where grieving pet owners can commemorate their furry companions by uploading photos and heartfelt messages.

It “is about celebrating the happiness that the pet brought rather just focusing on the sadness after they pass. It can help with the grieving process”, says Louisa Ho, the SPCA’s deputy executive director.

Art jamming bereavement workshops also allow people to commemorate their pet and process the different emotions of grief.

“When a pet passes away, the grief is similar to a family member passing away. In traditional Chinese culture, there is a lot of hush-hush around death,” Ho says.

“We recognise that as society changes, so people’s needs are changing and people’s acceptance is changing.”

Original Link: SCMP

About author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She got her first degree (BA English Lit) from Warwick University and her postgrad (MA English Lit) from Sussex University. She was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery.