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Losing a Pet Due to Divorce or Breakup

We grieve when we've lost something that we have come to love, pets included.

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Source: Jean-Marie Guyon/123RF

Many times when people hear the words grief or grieving the natural assumption is that we are grieving due to a physical death. Grief, however, impacts us on many levels and presents in many different forms. We grieve for dreams we cannot achieve, abilities that we once had that we may have lost, and we certainly grieve when saying goodbye, even when saying goodbye might have been the healthiest choice for us.

Experiencing a breakup or divorce is intrinsically painful as we remove our associated identity with our loved one. It can feel painful as we redefine who we are, and scary at times. Our body experiences the similar and healthy processes of grief as though we experienced their death . In a sense, we may be emotionally grieving their death, although they keep on living.

For many animal lovers and pet parents, the loss of a four-legged family member in this way can be just as painful, if not more painful, then the loss of their previous partner due to breakup or divorce.

Connection With Our Partner's Pets

Sharing our lives with a partner means opening our hearts to pets that they consider family, and growing (many times quickly) to love our new four legged friends. We consider them family and for many, pets become the first non-human children in the partnership.

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Source: Bakharev/123RF

Our pets are a source of joy and give us bonding activity between ourselves and our partner. We may go on walks together with our dog or sit in the living room together and play with a string for our cat's enjoyment. We may even find ourselves developing a new routine as we head outside in the morning with our partner to feed their horse and listen to them greet us with a soft whinny.

The bond we share grows just as if they are our pets, and we can quickly come to love them. It makes complete sense that when we experience their absence we grieve their loss. It's extremely important to process through our grief and recognize that even though the human relationship may have been unhealthy or not the right fit anymore, that doesn't mean the bond developed with their pet was unhealthy. We may even experience more grief over the pet as it may be a healthier connection.

A Living Reminder

When we experience grief through a physical death, there is an ending of a sense. There isn't the feeling in the back of our minds that may be from time to time wondering how this person may be doing. In a spiritual sense, this may occur of course, but we negate the risk of running into them in the grocery store.

Fabio Formaggio/123RF
Source: Fabio Formaggio/123RF

We may see active reminders, such as through our friend's pictures, of our partner's pets that used to share in our everyday lives and greet us every morning with such love and joy. Those reminders may trigger us or present us with an intense emotional reaction as our body attempts to process our emotional trigger.

Some find that in order to cope with the loss in this sense, completely removing those reminders is the best option. These individuals may find that they are unable to move past the pain of the breakup and become stuck in a cycle that keeps them from reintegrating their lives, or rediscovering who they are and what gives them meaning as an individual outside of the relationship.

Others may be able to experience these reminders, say in the form of pictures, and sit with the pain of loss. Eventually, with a healthy grieving process, the pain associated with seeing their partners pets will reduce. When this happens it may be a nice reminder to see their new adventures and experiences.

Whichever style you are, it's important to remember there is no "right" way to grieve. Everyone copes in different ways, and that's a good thing.

Move Through The Triggers

Fabio Formaggio/123RF
Source: Fabio Formaggio/123RF


The intense moments we may feel shortly after the breakup and throughout the process of rebuilding ourselves can feel at the time all-consuming and extremely painful. We may miss our old pet to the point that our body physically manifests pain. We may have increased anxiety and panic within these moments. Our body may sweat in an attempt to return to homeostasis, or back to its baseline.

With all grief, we must allow our body to experience these emotional ups and downs. Every time we go through a triggering experience our body is healing and allowing a release of the pain. In healthy grief we find ourselves, over time, recognizing the time that was shared as a gift versus a painful reminder of what was lost.

Engaging in self-care strategies as though you've physically lost a pet can be extremely helpful to process through your experience. It may be helpful to read 7 Self-Care Essentials While Grieving the Death of a Pet and engage in 99 Nurturing Activities Helpful During The Grief Process . Some may even have to sort through pet products, in this case it would be helpful to read The Quiet House and Empty Dog Bed, Coping After Pet Loss .

Recognize Your Loss And Be Kind To Yourself

It can be tempting to say to yourself, "that was nice while it lasted," shake your head and move on while repressing, or pushing down, our feelings of grief. While this may be helpful at certain times, repeatedly ignoring your emotions leads to complicated grief down the line. Grief is never a single episode experience and eventually returns, asking us to process through our pain. This may come when our defenses are down and we are vulnerable, such as when we are sick or when we've experienced another loss, compounding our grief reaction.

Adam Clark, LSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Adam focuses his work on the psychology behind the human-animal bond, specializing in endings and transitions. He is passionate about reducing the cultural stigma associated with pet loss, supporting pet owners, and educating veterinary professionals. Additional information on Adam and his current projects can be found at www.lovelosstransition.com , or he can best be reached at [email protected] .

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