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Coping with the Loss of a Companion Animal during COVID-19

  • November 29, 2020 1:03 PM EST

    VetVine Pet Loss Support Group Facilitator Katie Lawlor, Psy.D. recently shared her perspectives on pet loss during the pandemic, and we are posting this on her behalf:


    Why are we brokenhearted when our companion animals pass away? With fellow humans, especially loved ones, our relationships are complex; they are full of highs and lows, break-ups and misunderstandings, arguments and hurt feelings. Our pets however always seem to make us feel better, even on our worst days. We come to rely on their unconditional love and devotion. When they die (deemed “crossing the rainbow bridge” amongst animal lovers), their absence leaves a gaping void in our lives. This loss is real, and it’s devastating.

    Several studies show that humans are biologically predisposed to feel a deep connection with animals because they have been essential to our survival for millions of years. Current scientific research maintains that they continue to provide us with several physical and emotional benefits today. For example, having a companion animal has been shown to reduce an owner’s blood pressure and resting heart rate, thereby decreasing their overall risk of an adverse cardiac event such as a stroke or heart attack; there is also strong evidence of greater post-cardiac event survival rates. Recent articles published by the Mayo Clinic indicate that owners believe the presence of their pet in the bedroom at night benefits their sleep, which is vital for overall physical and mental health. Interacting with animals has also been shown to diminish levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), depression and anxiety symptoms, and feelings of loneliness, while simultaneously boosting oxytocin production (the hormone inherent in attachment and falling in love) and feelings of social support. There is also promising research being conducted on the benefits of pets in the lives of those living with dementia, diabetes, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

    Due to this remarkable human-animal bond, this pandemic-imposed time of isolation and uncertainty has been deeply difficult for those who are struggling with the loss of their companion animals. Although there are many unique theories about the grieving process, generally all agree that experiencing a full range of feelings is normal and to be expected; these can include shock, disbelief, emptiness, loneliness, guilt, regret, shame, anger, helplessness, insecurity, and fear. Acute symptoms typically last for about one year, however unexpected reminders of our pets can trigger an overwhelming emotional response when we least expect it. The healthiest way to engage with these memories is to allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise; trying to suppress them will only prolong the mourning process. On special anniversaries it may be helpful to schedule an activity you enjoy with a friend; a walk in the park or a cup of coffee at your favorite neighborhood spot can serve as a reminder to celebrate the joyful moments in your life. 

    Coping skills can also aid us in processing our grief. Perhaps the most effective of these is to do something for another - human or animal - because we often find strength and fulfillment in helping others. Even the smallest gesture allows us to make a meaningful contribution. Consider volunteering your time or making a donation in your pet’s honor to an organization whose work you are grateful for. 

    In closing, if you find yourself needing additional support, please know you are certainly not alone. Confiding in a trusted friend or family member can help you feel heard and understood, which can improve your outlook and foster connection. Please keep in mind that your loved ones may not recognize when you could benefit from their encouragement, so you may need to ask them directly.

    --- Katie Lawlor, Psy.D., received her doctorate from the joint program between the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. She currently works at a Stanford-affiliated private practice with offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. 

    • 348 posts
    November 30, 2020 5:04 PM EST

    Dr. Lawlor was on the panel of a recent VetVine lunch 'n learn, that we hosted for a group of veterinary practices, and spoke about the impact of the pandemic on pet loss: