Nothing can prepare you for when your pet dies. Everyone’s mourning process is different, but there are things you can do to embrace and move through these feelings.

If it’s your first time losing a pet, you may be surprised by the intensity of your grief, says Nancy Curotto, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago who is a grief educator and pet loss bereavement specialist. But losing a pet for the second time (or beyond) doesn’t make the experience any easier. “Research shows the attachment to a pet can be profound,” she says. A review of 17 studies published in 2022 in Death Studies found that people may experience the death of a pet the same way they would the death of a person.

Why? Your pet sees you. They are there for you at your best and worst, every day, beside you as you move through life-changing transitions – such as new relationships, the birth of children, moves and relocations, or major losses – and they love you no matter what. “That type of attachment creates a relationship that’s rarely replicated, which explains why their death is so difficult,” says Dr. Curotto.

As you approach your grief, know it’s normal and it’s also not something to just ‘get over.’

“My work with clients is to help them learn to grow around their grief,” says Curotto. Keep in mind that the process of grief is not linear. There won’t be a specific point in time when you’re through it, and you should expect that the sad feelings may come rushing back like a wave. So if you find yourself tearing up at the grocery store or in the shower without warning, know that that’s normal, too.

One of the more surprising things that can come out of a loss like this is the positive lessons learned and even some emotional benefits. The aforementioned review found that some people said they had developed resilience, self-reliance, courage, and personal strength, as well as a stronger appreciation of life and a new ability to cherish memories.

The unfortunate reality though, is that the loss of a pet isn’t seen by society as being as significant as it is, something that can make the entire process even harder, adds Jennifer Breslow, a psychotherapist and pet-loss counsellor in New York City. That said, there are things you can do to work through the grieving process that you may find comforting in this difficult time. Keep in mind that “the playbook won’t be the same for everyone,” says Breslow, so finding strategies that speak to you is key. Here’s what you can do.

Remind Yourself That Your Feelings Are Valid

“It’s important to acknowledge for yourself that this is a legitimate loss and it’s okay to feel bad – there is no right or wrong way to feel right now,” says Breslow. You may feel sad, angry, guilty, devastated (any number of other descriptors may fit your feelings), and it’s important to sit with those feelings and not push them away or ignore them. In addition, there is no timeline for how long you should grieve. “Give yourself permission to heal. It takes as long as it takes to feel better,” Breslow adds. Also keep in mind that these feelings won’t last forever. You will move through the grieving process and still look back on fond memories of your pet.

Brush Off People Who Suggest It’s ‘Only a Pet’

It’s both frustrating and heartbreaking when a co-worker, friend, family member, or neighbour says it’s “only a pet” or “you’ll get over it soon” or “just get another dog/cat/bearded dragon.” Curotto helps clients set boundaries to protect their peace. One thing you can say back to them? “It’s clear my relationship isn’t understood. This is a grief moment for me.” Another tactic to try? “I never shared how much [insert your pet’s name here] meant to me, and so I can understand why you’d say something like that.” Then move on with your day.

Use Art or Nature Therapy to Transform Your Pain

As a certified art therapist, Breslow recommends the healing power of art therapies to her clients.

Expressing your feelings through drawing or painting, music, writing, or even planting a garden can transform that pain into something beautiful.

It’s helpful to externalise your feelings and get them outside of yourself,” she explains. You don’t have to be conventionally talented at any artistic pursuit either. What you create will honour your pet regardless of the finished product.

Breslow got into her field after her own experience of the loss of her cat. Worried she’d forget the details of her feline, she wrote about memories they shared and her cat’s quirks and personality. “Right after a loss, it’s easy to hang onto the painful images of their last days, but writing can be a way to start shifting that energy,” she explains.

Find Support and Talk About Your Pet Loss

Talking to trusted friends and loved ones who are understanding will help you express and process what you’ve just lost. Pet support groups are also highly recommended, says Curotto, who leads a group at PAWS Chicago, a no-kill animal rescue group, called HEAL (Helping Each Other Alleviate Loss). “Any kind of grief is best not managed in isolation. It’s best worked through in community and in connection with others,” she explains. It’s a place where you won’t be judged, or your relationship with your pet marginalised. And that can help bring peace.

Practice Self-Care Throughout the Mourning Process

It can be tough to take care of yourself when you’re mourning a loss, but do what you can. That includes trying to eat well (such as a balanced, nutritious diet), getting the recommended seven or more hours per night of sleep, and making time for exercise. “Taking care of your physical wellbeing will shore up the reserves you need to support your mental wellbeing,” says Breslow.

Seek Professional Mental Help if You Need It

Loss can be really intense, and there may come a time when you could benefit from speaking with a mental health therapist. If you’re finding it difficult to function day-to-day, are struggling to go to work or take care of family obligations, can’t sleep or eat, or feel as if you’re depressed, seek out a licensed counsellor, especially one who specialises in grief or pet loss, advises Breslow.

Get a New Pet if and When You’re Ready

Some people rush into getting a pet again, while others are more apt to wait. There is no correct time. “I’ve had clients get a new pet an hour to 10 years after a pet’s death,” says Curotto. “There is no right or wrong time. I tell people, if you’re ready to love, love. You decide when you’re ready to give your love again,” she says. It’s also possible to love and grieve at the same time. Meaning, getting a new pet won’t erase your grief or replace your lost pet, but it will bring more love into your life when you’re ready for it.