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Missing Familiar Pawsteps this Holiday Season

By:  Jennifer Durn, MSW, LSW

Facing the holiday season for the first time following the loss of your beloved furry family member can be extremely heart-wrenching. The holidays represent a time for joy and reflection, but when you have lost a pet, you might feel unable to celebrate because your lap or the space next to you is empty. Participating in traditional family activities is an ongoing reminder of what is missing from your life.

The following recommendations serve as a guide to assist you through the holidays, while taking into account that grief is a unique and highly personal experience:

Acknowledge the Anguish of Grieving the Loss of a Pet 

Someone who played an integral role in your life is gone and your heart is hurting. Grieving the loss of a pet is agonizing at any time of the year and the holidays tend to intensify feelings of loneliness and sorrow. You might feel compelled to mask your discomfort, but pretending you are not brokenhearted will only hurt in the long run. Grief comes as a result of love and is a tribute to the remarkable relationship you shared with your pet. It is essential to remain true to your feelings since your story of love and loss is of great significance. Ultimately, allowing yourself to feel every emotion can bring about genuine healing and help with moving forward at your own pace.

Treasure the Memories

While your pet’s physical presence is gone, the love, memories, and lessons learned will always be with you. Do not be afraid to remember the favorable times with your pet, as this can be a source of comfort while experiencing tremendous heartache. The years of love, laughter, and joy will live on in your heart forever. Reflecting upon and taking inventory of the gifts received from your faithful companion sparks the healing process. One way to honor the relationship between you and your pet is to acknowledge how your life has been changed for the better. You are understandably a different person than you would have been without that meaningful relationship and those benefits will travel with you on your journey.

Revise Holiday Traditions

For many individuals, furry loved-ones are a vital part of the holiday celebration, and it is almost impossible to comprehend the fact they will not be around this year. While there is a great value in upholding holiday traditions, it might not feel right to participate in the familiar festivities after the loss of a pet. Grief initiates the opportunity to pause and reexamine past traditions and create new rituals if the need arises. The primary objective is to make the holidays work for you in less than optimal circumstances.

Connect with Children

The holidays are difficult for children, because they are experiencing sadness due to the loss, but at the same time feeling the excitement of the impending festivities. Communicate with children to let them know it is okay to have fun without feeling guilty. Share the upcoming schedule of events with children and encourage them to have a voice in how the time will be spent. With regard to modifying holiday traditions, keep in mind children depend on the familiarity of annual rituals, since it provides them with a sense of security. Before finalizing the holiday plans, incorporate your children’s hopes and wishes into the celebration.

Establish a New Ritual

When a daily routine was centered on the relationship with a pet, death can also be profoundly disruptive to one’s sense of home, safety, identity, and hope. Find a way to integrate your departed companion into a new tradition by keeping the many wonderful memories alive during the holiday season and beyond. In the matter of developing a new ritual, consider lighting a remembrance candle during the holiday dinner, decorating a tree ornament with your pet’s picture, creating a picture book or video, writing a special poem, and sharing notable stories with family and friends. Remember the love that you shared and make a difference in your pet’s honor by donating to a local animal shelter or volunteering your time there. When helping someone else, it can restore your sense of purpose and may even ease your loneliness and despair.

Engage in Support

The need for support may be the greatest in the midst of the holiday season. Try to surround yourself with individuals who truly care about you and recognize the deep connection you shared with your pet. Be honest with how you are feeling with the people you love and give them the opportunity to be there for you. After the loss of a loved one, reaching out to family and friends can be a daunting task. If you know someone who is grieving over the loss of a pet, do not wait for an invitation for help, show up and lend support by just being present. The pain of loss can feel incredibly overwhelming at times, and you might think about communicating with someone who specializes in grief or attending a pet loss support group.

Implement Self-Care

Navigating through the first holiday season after the loss of a pet can feel especially confusing and challenging. Maintaining a structured routine of rest, relaxation, exercise and nourishment makes all the difference as you are finding your way. Grieving is an exhausting process, and the pain invades all parts of your life, which is why you must allow your mind and body to take a hiatus from dealing with the overpowering thoughts and emotions. Plan an activity that will bring a few minutes of comfort and joy, while briefly breaking away from the sadness. Spend some time in the healing power of nature to find solace and restore your heart. A few deep breaths in the cool crisp air can have a substantial impact on how you feel, cope, and enjoy the holiday. Celebrate the days ahead with supportive family and friends but balance it with quiet time as well. Try to streamline your life as much as possible in relation to the holiday preparations. Most importantly, be kind to yourself and recognize your pain is entirely appropriate.

The first holiday season after the passing of a family pet is generally the most difficult. While there is not a magical remedy to alleviate the heartache you are feeling due to the loss of your adored companion, you can manage the holidays better by taking charge of the season. During the holidays and beyond, stay open and receptive to the healing connections with family and friends, which can be a major source of comfort to you. Introducing new traditions to honor your pet’s memory may cause some tears, but it will provide healing and hope for the future.

My greatest wish this holiday season is for peace to present itself in your heart and in your life.