Dogs bring so much joy and companionship to our lives, but their time with us never lasts as long as we would like. When the time comes to say goodbye to your dog, you may wonder how to deal with losing your pet. Will your company let you take bereavement leave for your pet? How can you cope with all the emotions that come with the stages of grief? And how do you memorialize your pet after he is gone?
Bereavement leave for pets
There is no question that the pain associated with the loss of a pet can be as intense — or even more so — than the loss of a human family member. Still, most employers do not offer bereavement leave for pets. If you are faced with the loss of a pet, you may understandably not feel up to carrying out the responsibilities of your job or interacting with your coworkers.
Standard bereavement-leave policies typically allow for 3 to 7 days of leave for an immediate family member, such as a spouse, parent, child, grandparent or grandchild, but policies can vary widely from company to company, according to the Human Resources Standards Institute. If your company does not offer bereavement leave for pets, you may have other options to take a few days off from work.
“I’d encourage someone to just be honest with their team leader,” says Coleen Ellis, CT, CPLP, founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center. “However, as easy as that might sound, I think it’s also … a process of being incredibly mindful if their team leader would be understanding of this request.”
In lieu of bereavement leave, you may be able to use sick or personal leave to deal with losing a pet. “In many cases, paid time off and sick time do not require a specified reason,” says Joe Dwyer, an ordained deacon, animal chaplain and pet loss companion. “Bottom line is that if you need the time for bereavement, you should take what you can without jeopardizing your job.”
If time off from work is not available for you, Coleen suggests looking for moments to deal with losing your pet before work, during your lunch break, after work, or other times during the day. “Take the time … to do some active mourning work needed for a healthy grief journey,” she says.
If you work for yourself are retired or are a stay-at-home parent, try to arrange your schedule so you have time to grieve. If you can afford to take some time off or can have others help you with projects or kids, do so. Nights can be a challenge as there are no other distractions, so you may want to take mornings off if possible as you may be exhausted. No matter what, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Stages of grief after losing a pet
The emotions you may feel after a pet passes away are the same as those experienced when losing a human friend or family member. “The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance,” Joe says.
These five stages of grief are known as the Kubler-Ross model, developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. They were originally revealed in her book On Death and Dying published in 1969.
- Denial: This initial stage of grief is a coping mechanism that allows you to more gradually process the strong and often sudden feelings that can accompany a loss by denying the loss hasn’t happened. An example of this is the feeling that your dog will soon come around the corner, that she is just in another room.
- Anger: This emotion may present itself as true anger or feelings such as bitterness or resentment. Anger masks other emotions and pain you may be experiencing. An example of this stage is feeling anger toward your veterinarian for an unwarranted belief that he could have done more to save your dog.
- Bargaining: You may experience this stage of grief when you feel helpless and want to find a way to feel in control of what is happening. Examples include “what if” and “if only” thoughts, such as, “If only I had noticed my dog’s symptoms earlier.”
- Depression: This stage may come when you no longer are trying to avoid the emotions that come with a loss. Depression, however, can feel overwhelming — if it seems that you can’t move past this stage, talk to a counselor or therapist. An example of this stage is a feeling that you don’t know what to do without your pet in your life.
- Acceptance: At this stage, you now accept your loss and understand how it affects your life. This is not to say that you have moved past the loss of your pet, but that you may be able to focus more on the good times that you shared with him.
How to cope with losing a pet
Intellectually, the stages of grief may make perfect sense, but emotionally, they may feel confusing, frustrating and overwhelming, especially when the loss is recent. “The best way to cope through these stages is to understand that there is no particular order, or amount of time, that applies to the stages,” Joe says. “You could be angry today, depressed tomorrow and in denial on Day 3. Early on it is important to just accept what you are feeling and not let yourself or anyone else tell you how you should be feeling.”
The ways you find to cope with your loss will be as unique as your journey through the stages of grief. Coleen calls this “mourning work” and notes that “healing from loss comes with intentional and mindful mourning work. It allows us to reconcile the grief into our heart and soul in a very healthy way by making movement in our grief journey.”
Some helpful mourning work approaches, according to Coleen, include journaling, candle lighting, exercising, quiet reflection, volunteer work in honor of the lost pet or having a memorial service. There are “countless other personal and individual activities which are meaningful and healing,” she adds.
How to memorialize your pet
As Coleen notes, finding a way to honor your pet’s memory can help with healing after your loss. Additional options include donating to an animal welfare organization in your pet’s name, creating a photo journal filled with fond memories of your pet or holding a memorial service, according to Joe.
“Should the decision be to bury the pet, there are such beautiful markers and rocks which can mark the grave, complete with a special epitaph summing up the pet and the life they lived,” Coleen says. “The options today are truly endless to honor these beautiful loves.”
But can you bury your pet in your backyard? That largely depends on the laws in your city and state. For example, in California it is illegal to bury your pet in your backyard, but you can scatter cremated remains in the yard. If you are considering this option, check with local authorities about the laws in your city and state.
In general, most states require that you bury your pet within 24 to 48 hours of his death, and that you bury your pet to a certain depth depending on the pet’s size. Keep in mind, however, that a pet’s burial site may pose a health risk to other pets with access to the backyard who may become curious about disturbed earth or strong scents.
Another option for pet burial is a pet cemetery. Many pet cemeteries offer both burial and cremation services, depending on your preferences. The compassionate staff at such facilities can help you make all the decisions regarding your pet’s final resting place, from casket or urn selection to marker wording. Some even offer grief counseling referrals.
Moving on after the loss of a pet
No matter how you decide to pay final tribute to your pet, remember that your memories of your pet will stay with you for a lifetime. “While the memories will be tough when the grief is most raw, know that there is a way to continue the relationship, only now through your memories,” Coleen says. “When the time is right, remember … the love and beautiful days together.”