Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person kisses her dog

Why Is Losing a Pet Especially Hard for Highly Sensitive People?

“Vincent’s home,” the man from the at-home euthanasia service said as he handed me the urn. I thanked him, closed the door, and then carefully placed the wooden box on the bookshelf. I sat on the couch and numbly stared at it. How could such a small box hold such a huge part of my life?

I adopted Vincent when he was eight weeks old from my local humane society. The roly-poly puppy quickly grew into a 125-pound giant of a dog — one who wanted only to love and to be loved in return. Vince was the goodest of boys, sweet and gentle, playful and lazy in turns, and happy to match my energy level, whatever it was. He was an absolute delight to come home to at the end of the day and the best part of my weekends to be sure.

I made the agonizing decision to put him down 15 days after his 12th birthday. Terminal nasal cancer had sapped his energy, made it hard for him to eat, and given him a near-constant nosebleed. Although I knew I was doing what was right for him, the feelings of guilt and sorrow were staggering. As I write this, the grief is still quite raw. It’s only been 10 days since he passed.

Why Pet Loss Is Especially Hard for Many Highly Sensitive People

Losing a beloved pet can shatter us emotionally, highly sensitive or not. Our pets are cherished members of our family, and saying goodbye is absolutely excruciating. If you’re reading this article because you recently lost an animal companion, I want to offer my sincerest condolences. I completely understand the heartache you’re feeling right now.

Pet loss can be hard for anyone, but for highly sensitive people (HSPs), it may be even more difficult. Why? Because many HSPs are ardent animal lovers. Animals provide the companionship, acceptance, emotional support, and unconditional love we need without draining our energy by expecting constant conversation. They’re predictable, emotionally stable, honest, easy to understand, and even easier to please. It’s no wonder we lose our hearts to them so easily — and lament their loss so deeply.

On top of that, highly sensitive people process things deeply. Due to their wiring, HSPs think deeply about their experiences, as well as look for a larger meaning behind events. They not only process information deeply but also feel it deeply — making it impossible to simply “get over” the loss of a pet quickly.

Are you an HSP who’s recently lost a pet? Here are five things to keep in mind that have helped me.

How to Deal With Pet Loss

1. Experience your feelings as they come

When a beloved pet dies, it’s completely natural to feel overwhelmed by the depth of your anguish. During this time, it’s important to give yourself permission to experience your feelings as they come. The shape grief takes is different for each person. You may find that it occurs in stages, where feelings such as shock, denial, anger, guilt, loneliness, and depression come in turns. Or you may encounter your grief in waves, a series of highs and lows.

Grief also has a tendency to make you hyper-sensitive — the last thing a highly sensitive person needs. For HSPs, day to day life can already be overwhelming as you feel everything so deeply. When grief takes over, it will seem as if all your feelings have been magnified. You will feel them so intensely that, at times, it may seem as if your body simply can’t handle the pain. But it can, and you will be able to live — and feel — normally again.

The grieving process happens gradually and can’t be forced or hurried. You may start to feel better in a few weeks or months — or it may take years. Whatever your experience, it’s necessary to be patient with yourself and go at your own pace. Process your grief as long as you need to.

2. Remove the guilt

Most of us hope that our pets will pass peacefully in their sleep. Unfortunately, it rarely happens that way. One of the hardest parts of caring for a pet is facing the possibility of euthanasia. Though euthanasia often spares our pets from the pain and suffering of the end stages of life, many pet owners feel a bone-aching guilt at having to make that choice for their precious companion.

These feelings of guilt often center on worries that the decision to euthanize was premature, or conversely, that it was overdue. Some pet owners may even label themselves a murderer, assigning the guilt of the loss to themselves instead of the illness/event that actually took the life of their pet. As painful as euthanasia is for us, remember that it can be a gift we can give to our pets — a way to say thank you for all the comfort and joy they offered us by ending their suffering in a dignified, painless, and loving manner.

3. Lower your walls

If you’re a highly sensitive person who withdraws when hurt, you may find yourself isolated in your grief. Unfortunately, if you continue to carry that pain alone, you will not heal. As impossible — and uncomfortable — as it may seem, it’s important to reach out to a trusted friend or family member. Don’t worry about burdening someone else with your grief — the people who love you want to help. If your roles were reversed, you know you would want your loved ones to come to you if they needed a shoulder to cry on.

4. Find healthy ways to cope

If you’re looking for healthy ways to cope with the pain of your loss and come to terms with your grief, consider the following:

  • Write about your feelings. Poems, essays, short stories, and articles are all avenues you can take to cope with your grief via the written word.
  • Honor your pet by planting a tree, making a donation to an animal-related charity, putting together a scrapbook, or installing a plaque in your yard.
  • Gather with friends and family to hold a memorial service. You can say goodbye and celebrate your pet’s life with the people you love.
  • You may get stuck in your head and struggle to open up to loved ones. If you need to talk to a neutral party, you can call Washington State University’s pet loss hotline at 1-(866) 266-8635.

Euthanasia and accidental death can add a traumatic component to grief and loss. Symptoms of PTSD (nightmares, obsessive thoughts, panic, and recurring images) can cause sleep loss, irritability, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning. If you have these symptoms — and they persist over weeks or months — it might be time to talk to a mental health professional. Discussing your feelings can help relieve self-doubt and other ruinous tendencies.

5. Schedule extra self-care

The strain of losing a pet can exhaust both your energy and emotional reserves — which can make it hard to take care of yourself. However, it’s important to try. Do what you can to ensure you’re getting the nutrition, exercise, and sleep you need. Spend plenty of quality time with the people who care about you.

Take some time off work if you feel too distracted to do your job right. Most people will take a leave of absence from work when a human family member dies, but not when an animal companion dies. It’s totally okay to do both. Don’t be afraid to take a day off because you’re worried about what your boss will think or don’t want to be seen as replaceable — taking care of your mental health will make you a better employee in the long run.

Losing a pet is one of the hardest things you’ll ever go through, and the pain of that loss is bound to be almost unbearable at first. However, as time passes, the intensity of these feelings will grow more tolerable. Be comforted knowing that there will come a day when you can look back on fond memories of your friend with both love and a strong heart.

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