Losing your pet can feel devastating at any moment in the year. At the holidays, your grief can appear even greater as you try to find joy amongst your loss and are often contending with added family stressors. It’s normal to wonder how you may ever find happy holidays again when missing your loved one. Perhaps within the isolation of our current pandemic, you’re also anticipating the added emptiness in your home without your cat who loved to play in the boxes and ribbons or your dog who excitedly tore into their wrapped packages of new toys. Facing the holidays without your pet can feel overwhelming, but there are strategies available to help you cope as you continue to heal.
Consider these tips as you navigate the holiday season without your pet:
- Devote intentional time to consider and express the grief you are experiencing. Allow yourself to hold space to acknowledge your complex feelings and the ways you notice the loss within your family at the holidays. When we reflect on our relationship and memories with our pets, it’s common to encounter both tears and smiles. You may notice feelings of guilt increase at the holidays as you find yourself enjoying the holiday cheer, so remind yourself it is not disrespectful to feel happiness again and your pet would want you to enjoy yourself. It can help to engage in this reflective practice in a journal and set a timer for yourself to help contain this emotional space and signal the transition as you balance your holiday commitments.
- Remind yourself that the stressful holiday season is time bound and will not last forever. Be gentle with yourself in this moment. The added family, social and financial stressors that often come with the season can compound your loss. They will ease again soon. The year will progress and with time, you will continue to process and gain acceptance of the loss within your own journey. You may never stop missing your loved ones but you will find ways to adapt to life without them here with you.
- Children may have an especially challenging time celebrating the holidays without your pet and may experience bursts of grief. Since this may be their first experience with death, it’s important to use honest, concrete terms when discussing the loss and include them in finding ways to honor the pet at the holidays. Encourage sharing favorite memories of the pet through writing a letter, drawing a picture, or telling a story. Remind them that laughing about their favorite memories with the pet or feeling joy at the holidays doesn’t mean that they don’t still care about them. Nor, does reflecting on a moment the pet made them mad by breaking the holiday ornaments mean they hurt the pet or caused their death.
- Connect with someone in your life that appreciates the bond you had with your pet and loss you are feeling at the holidays with a video chat, call or letter to remind yourself you are not truly alone. Perhaps, that person may also be experiencing loneliness at the holidays because of pet loss so you may offer each other genuine empathy. Seek additional care from a trained healthcare professional when more support is needed. If you need someone to listen, the Pet Compassion Careline is a 24/7 grief support available to all: (855) 245-8214.
- Develop a new holiday tradition with your family that involves remembering your pet. Make it your own and align it with your cultural and spiritual customs. Examples could include saying a blessing or gratitude for them at a holiday meal, lighting a candle, and/or setting an empty space for them within the holiday gathering. Consider creating a decorative ornament, wreath or votive light to honor your pet. Etsy offers great inspiration and marketplace for creating custom pet-related ornaments: https://www.etsy.com/market/pet_photo_ornament
- Frame a meaningful picture of your pet so they will always be with you as you move through life. Thoughtfully gifting the picture to a family member or friend may help them to continue to cherish the pet’s memory, too. Others may prefer getting artwork commissioned of their pet. Find an artist whose style captures the essence of your animal, whether bold, distinguished or whimsical. The Washingtonian featured a few local artists who will create custom artwork of your pet: https://www.washingtonian.com/2018/02/16/these-five-local-artists-will-create-custom-portraits-of-your-pet
- Donate money, items or time to a local animal-welfare organization in your pet’s honor this holiday season. A family holiday activity could involve making pet toys to donate and adding a message of love to each. Contributing care and fun to other animals in the name of your pet is an actionable way you may continue to honor your meaningful bond with them. Friendship partners with some wonderful organizations such as Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, Humane Rescue Alliance, and City Dogs Rescue.
- Write a holiday card to your pet sharing the love you will always cherish for them, ways you find yourself missing them, and updating them on relevant happenings. Feel free to mail the card to Friendship Hospital for Animals (care of: veterinary social worker) if it would be helpful for you to release the thoughts, we would be honored to receive your notes sharing your bond. Consider writing a response from the voice of your pet back to you so you may receive their offerings of good wishes and peace this season, too.
- Join our upcoming Friendship Pet-Loss Support Group to build additional community during your time of loss. We offer a safe and supportive (virtual) space to share your bond with your animal and your experience with loss. The free group is facilitated by a licensed, mental health clinician. Visit friendshiphospital.com/petloss for more information, including upcoming dates and registration.
We welcome you to reach out to Friendship’s veterinary social worker (firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional support and resources related to your pet loss.