Coping with Pet Loss & Grief During the Holidays

The holidays can create a poignant contrast for those of us who have lost a beloved companion animal. Perhaps we want to feel the hope and joy of the season, but then are reminded of our heartbreaking loss. We might even feel guilty for trying to enjoy ourselves in their absence.

Overwhelming feelings of grief during these days are a common occurrence for those of us who wish our pet was here to celebrate with us. While nostalgic music, special meals, family traditions, and sparkling decorations are meant to prompt joy, they can also serve as painful reminders of the times we shared with our pets.

If you're contemplating how to get through these festivities without your companion animal, these strategies have been shown to help:

Set Protective Boundaries

Don't feel like you must attend every event you are invited to, or participate in customs that remind you of your pet. For example, if engaging in a particular activity is likely to bring about too many painful memories this year, it’s absolutely alright to hold off.

Note: Loved ones may try to convince you to participate, thinking they are helping, but acts of self-care and time spent alone are restorative too. Think about what you need to get through this time.  

Lower Anxiety with Agency

There are so many things we can't control during the holiday season. For example, we may be blasted with Christmas tunes at the grocery store, or overhear our co-workers excitedly talking about their travel plans. While we can't prevent these occurrences from happening, creating a practical plan for how we'll manage them can provide us with greater agency in daunting situations. For example, driving yourself to a gathering, or riding with a trusted loved who will take you home whenever you choose, gives us an “exit strategy.” This often relieves the anxiety over how sad or difficult we think something is going to be, knowing we can leave at any time. This can also help us enjoy the activity much more than if we felt “stuck” or “trapped” there.

Start a New Tradition to Honor Your Memories

Create a meaningful way to memorialize the animal you've lost. Whether you decide to light a candle every night or incorporate their photos and belongings into your decorations (e.g., using their collar and tags as the star on your tree, their blanket as a tree skirt, having ornaments made with their image), honoring your pet can serve as a tangible reminder that although they are not physically here with us, their love is forever present and radiating from our hearts.

Allow Yourself “All the Feels”

The holidays can provoke a wide range of feelings. We might feel excitement, guilt, dread, and loneliness all within a few moments. We need to allow ourselves to feel these emotions without judgement, or thinking we should out on a “happy face,” or that we shouldn't be enjoying ourselves. Grief is not linear and there are no rules as to how we “should be” feeling during these sentimental times.

Consider What Your Pet Would Want for You

It can be especially helpful to imagine the life our pets would want for us, and how they would want to us to feel. Of course they would choose to be here with us if they could. However, since they cannot be, I strongly believe that they would want the love and closeness you shared to live on in your heart, and to sustain you during your most challenging times.

Perform Acts of Kindness

Even when we are deep in grief, we still have so much to offer. When we do things for others, we feel a sense of purpose. For example, offering to take your elderly neighbor’s dog for a walk can provide comfort and care for all those involved.

Be There for Others

If you have a loved one experiencing grief due to the loss of a pet the holiday season, the most compassionate act you can for them is to acknowledge their devastation and let them know they are not alone. Some ideas might include:

  • Leaving flowers/a plant, coffee, or homemade dish/dessert on their front porch (text them after to let them know it’s there).
  • Volunteer an hour of your time for a cause that’s important to them.
  • Offer to run errands for them.
  • Donate extra sheets, blankets, and towels to an animal shelter in honor of their pet.
  • Offer to watch their children for an hour, or take them out for a treat outside of the house, to offer a few moments alone.

Gentle reminder: often the warmest gestures don’t cost any or much money – they are just thoughtful.

Dr. Katie Lawlor, Psy.D. is a psychologist who specializes in pet loss support and veterinary mental health. Katie is the Director of the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative and co-founder of the Pet Loss Community, an online platform where pet parents who are struggling with loss and grief can find support, encouragement and a way through their pain. To learn more about the Pet Loss Community, click here: www.petlosscommunity.podia.com

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