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Dear Dr. Dina
My dog died three months ago. She was my loyal companion for 15 years. I still feel depressed and cry everyday. Nobody seems to understand. Please help.

Dear Mourning,
Losing a companion who has given you unconditional love for 15 years is extremely painful! A dog’s lifespan is so short compared to ours, and we usually have to say goodbye way too soon.

What makes the loss even harder is that many people do not understand the bond that can grow between a human and a pet. They may dismiss your feelings as an overreaction and say things like, “It’s just an animal.” If your feelings are repeatedly invalidated, this can interfere with the mourning process. You are dealing with the loss of a family member, and you need to give yourself permission to grieve.

Although there are no widely accepted rituals (such as a funeral) to bring closure to the loss of your pet, that doesn’t mean you can’t create one. It is also important that you talk about your loss repeatedly in supportive environments. Seek out people who understand the depth of the human/pet connection. Be aware, however, that even the most well-intentioned and understanding people, may not know what to do or say to console you. You may have to tell them exactly what your needs are. For example, “I don’t need advice...I just want a shoulder to cry on.”

If you have given yourself sufficient grieving space, and your depression still has not lifted, there may be other factors to consider. For example, your pet may have been a safe way to fill a void in your life (e.g., loneliness). If that is the case, you can use the pain that you are experiencing as encouragement to find other ways to fill this empty space. It is also possible that the death of your pet brings up previous losses in your life. Have you experienced significant losses that you have not grieved? This can go as far back as childhood and may include symbolic losses as well as physical ones. Regardless, it is not too late to mourn such losses. In fact, this event may represent an opportunity to grow and cleanse yourself of pain that you have been carrying for years.

Whether you are coping with the grief of losing your pet or delving into deeper issues, it is important to deal with, rather than avoid, your feelings. Hopefully, this process will help you to move forward and prepare you for a future heartwarming, yet different, connection with a four-legged companion.

Please contact Dr. Friedman for further information or to schedule a consultation.

Dr. Dina Friedman
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Private Practice
Reston, VA