Within 24 hours, two celebrities took to Instagram to share their thoughts after losing a pet. On Wednesday night, actress Salma Hayek posted a sweet photo of her cradling 18-year-old dog Lupe. “I have no words or tears to describe how much she meant to me,” wrote the 51-year-old star. “May she run free with my pack of dogs that are already waiting for her in dog heaven.”
Then on Thursday evening, Chelsea Handler paid tribute to her dog Chunk (her "chunky monkey"), who once jumped into the Hudson River and swam a quarter of a mile just to join her on a paddleboard. “I cried that day at how much he loved me. And, today I’m crying because of how much I loved him,” she wrote.
Despite what anyone says, your grief over losing a beloved pet is absolutely valid.
When a pet passes, it may be tempting to downplay the grief. After all, it's not like you lost a member of your family or a best friend. Except...you kind of did.
“Our pets become a part of our family,” Stacy Kaiser, a licensed psychotherapist based in Southern California, tells SELF. “They connect with us, they protect us, they don’t talk back to us, they don’t complain—sure, they may whine a little—and they’re really there for us when we need them.”
It's important to acknowledge that the tears, the heartache, the frustration—and yes, the grief—is real and legitimate.
“When you spend that much time loving anything that is living—and anything that gives back—you’re affected by it," says Kaiser.
Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., an Illinois-based clinical psychologist, tells SELF that in most cases, pets also provide us with something invaluable: unconditional love. “They don’t judge you, they immediately forgive you, and they make you feel good about yourself because there is this sense of I-love-you-for-who-you-are,” she explains. “In a world where we’re constantly judging ourselves—and unfortunately, as a result, judging others—it is such a unique and special relationship to have.”
She adds that even though others in our world—a parent, child, partner, best friend—may love us unconditionally, we may not feel that deep devotion on a regular basis because we can become consumed with judgement. “But with a pet, we believe it.”
So while it’s imperative to give yourself permission to grieve, keep in mind that grieving is a process that looks different for everyone.
“The intensity of the emotions and the types of emotions will vary, just like it will in every other grieving process,” Lombardo says. Some people find comfort in being active and engaging with supportive friends. But others prefer to stay inside watching movies to help work through their feelings—there's no right or wrong way to go about it.
Kaiser recommends leaning on fellow animal lovers for emotional support. “And very much like you would do when a person you love passes away, look at photographs and allow yourself to have good memories about the positive things your pet brought to your life,” she says.
However, you may want to reconsider discussing your sadness (as overwhelming as it may be) with friends, relatives, and coworkers who never owned a pet because, well, they may not get it.
“Others can have their own reactions, and I say this with lots of love, but who cares?” Lombardo concludes. “If they don’t understand [your grief], that’s fine—you don’t have to convince them. Just be comfortable in your own skin and don’t worry about what other people say.”
If you find your grief continues for a long period of time, interferes with your daily life, or is coming with other symptoms (such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns or feelings of hopelessness), it's probably time to bring in some professional counseling. Those signs may indicate that you're developing clinical depression. Still, even plain old grief deserves to be taken seriously, which may still mean counseling for some. Whatever your circumstances, though, you shouldn't have to ignore or push down your feelings for your fallen friend—no matter how many legs they had.
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