No longer by my side
but forever in my heart.

The Dynamics of Grieving

A favorite quote about grief is this observation from C.S. Lewis who, in A Grief Observed wrote “No one ever told me that grief was so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

Unfortunately, no one (now, or throughout history) has ever lived a loss-free life; everyone living today–as well as all those who came before us, commoners, members of royalty and everyone in between–has experienced the loss of someone or something dear to them. And they’ve endured the loss in their own way–for that’s the nature of grief: it’s not the same experience for everyone.

So, what’s it like for you? Whether it feels like fear or simply an overwhelmingly-large sadness which prevents you from doing anything more than weeping–grief is a dynamic force for change in our lives. A force to be accepted and understood. What is Grief? Grief is a complex, multi-faceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed. While most people focus on the many emotional responses to loss, grief also has physical, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement refers to the state of loss, and grief is the reaction to loss.

What Can I Expect? George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, conducted more than two decades of scientific studies on grief and trauma. Subjects of his studies number in the several thousand and include people who have suffered losses in the U.S. and cross-cultural studies in various countries around the world. His subjects suffered losses through war, terrorism, deaths of children, premature deaths of spouses, sexual abuse, childhood diagnoses of AIDS, and other potentially devastating loss events or potential trauma events. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss he summarizes his research. Because grief responses can take many forms, including laughter, celebration, and bawdiness, in addition to sadness. Bonanno coined the phrase “coping ugly” to describe the idea that some forms of coping may seem odd, bizarre, or yes, downright ugly. And you should know this: there is no right or wrong way to mourn a loss. There’s just your way.

The process of grief includes: Feelings Most people who grieve experience these emotions: sadness, anger, disbelief, numbness, relief, and guilt. They may come and go, or appear unexpectedly in response to a “cue”: something that reminds you of the pet, or person, or thing, you lost. It may be scary to experience such a wide range of emotions, or to feel them with such intensity, as you adjust to the loss you have experienced. But, all are part of the grief experience. Physical Sensations As C.S. Lewis described, his experience of grief felt like fear. Often after a loved one dies, people describe feeling “hollowness” in the chest, tightness in the stomach; increased sensitivity to noise or touch, weakness, and a loss of energy. It is important to remember that these, too, are normal experiences, particularly in the early days and weeks after the death of a beloved pet. Random Thoughts People who are grieving may experience many unfamiliar thoughts.

A sense of disbelief or confusion, preoccupation with thoughts of the loved one who has died, disorientation, or even a sense of “presence” of their loved one may be experienced. Being “preoccupied” in this way is distracting, so take extra care when driving, crossing the street, or walking down stairs. Odd behaviors are common to experience changes in sleep or appetite patterns. There may also be a sense of social withdrawal, as the energy it takes to interact seems taxing. It is normal to feel disoriented and exhausted. You may feel that no one else understands what you are going through. Some people have vivid dreams, cry constantly or can’t cry at all.

Understandably, any combination of the above behaviors can cause the person who is grieving to feel a loss of control and to wonder if life will ever again have stability or meaning. While these experiences may not be normal for your “normal” life, they are normal for the grief experience, and they will pass.


Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends,
is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives.

John Galsworthy

Coping with Pet Loss

“Animals are reliable,” wrote Alfred Montapert, “many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful, and loyal.” He went on to comment these are “difficult standards for people to live up to.” In other words, our cherished animal companions are our teachers, our confidantes, and often our protectors. Is it any wonder we are broken-hearted when they leave us? If you have recently experienced the death of a pet, please accept our condolences.

Without doubt, the death of a pet can be one of the hardest things we ever face–and right now, we’d like you to know that you are not alone in your sorrow. All of us here know firsthand both the joys of sharing our lives with a pet–and the remarkable sadness felt when they pass out of our lives. We stand beside you, in loving support.

Grief counselors agree: there are ways to ease your journey through the sadness of loss, including the loss of a cherished pet. Here’s what they advise:

  • Take care of yourself physically

  • Explore your spirituality

  • Write a letter– or letters– to your pet

  • Be kind to yourself

  • Let yourself cry

  • Reach out to others

  • Tune into your feelings

  • Postpone unnecessary changes

  • Cherish your fond memories

How to Support Children after the Death of a Pet

Often the loss of a pet is a child’s first personal experience of death, and as such, it offers you–the caregiver–a remarkable opportunity to shape the way they will deal with loss far into the future. While there are many resources to drawn from, a review of them results in this short list of the top ten ways to help children:

  • Be available to listen - Offer opportunities to talk about death and loss.

  • Answer all questions about death and loss as honestly as possible.

  • Do not isolate or insulate child from grief - Remember grief is normal.

  • Include children in rituals whenever possible and appropriate.

  • Share your expressions of sadness and pain.

  • Continue to expect a child to function.

  • Be firm, yet gentle and kind.

  • Pay attention to a child’s behavior and let them know when you notice a change.

  • Find help for children who need it.

  • Refer to support groups of counseling as needed.

  • Continue to be available long after you think they “should be over it.”

The National Association of School Psychologists offers these additional guidelines in caring for children after a significant personal loss, including the death of a pet: Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences. Give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener. Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings All children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences. Grieving is a process, not an event Parents and schools need to allow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child. Pressing children to resume “normal” activities without the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions. Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses. 

Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death. Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death. Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers. Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need.