Missing Familiar Footsteps this Holiday Season

Facing the holiday season for the first time following the loss of your beloved companion animal can be extremely challenging. The holidays represent a time for joy and reflection, but when you have lost your 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 help you through the holidays, while taking into consideration that grief is a unique and individual experience:

Acknowledge the Pain 

connect3Grieving 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 may feel pressured to mask your true feelings, but pretending you are not brokenhearted will only delay you from moving in a forward direction. Ultimately, embracing the sadness can help with leading you out of the pain. Grief comes as a result of love and is a tribute to the remarkable relationship you shared with your companion animal.

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 extreme heartache. Reflecting upon and taking an inventory of the gifts you received from your faithful companion animal 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.

Revise Holiday Traditions

For many individuals, companion animals are a vital part of the holiday celebrations and it is almost impossible to comprehend the fact they will not be here this year. Recognizing the holidays will be different without your pet and planning ahead for the change may make it less overwhelming. 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 provides the opportunity to pause and reexamine past traditions and create new rituals if the need arises. The goal is to make the holidays work for you in less than ideal circumstances.

Connect with Children

connect2The holidays can definitely be hard for children, because they are experiencing sadness due to the loss, but at the same time feel the excitement of the impending celebration. Communicate with children to let them know it is okay to have fun without feeling guilty. 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, listen to what is important to your children and try to incorporate their hopes and wishes into the celebration.

Establish a New Ritual

When a daily routine was centered on the relationship with a pet, the death can also be profoundly disruptive to one’s sense of home, safety, purpose, and identity. Find a way to include your departed pet into a new tradition by keeping his/her memory alive during the holiday season and beyond. In the matter of forming a new ritual, consider writing a gratitude list of the noteworthy experiences you enjoyed with your pet, lighting a remembrance candle at the holiday dinner, decorating a tree ornament with your pet’s picture, creating a picture book or video, and sharing wonderful stories about your companion animal with family and friends. Remember the love that you shared and make a difference in your pet’s honor by giving back, in terms of volunteering or donating at a local animal shelter.

Engage in Social Support

The need for support may be the greatest in the midst of the holiday season. Be honest with how you are truly feeling with the people you love and give them the opportunity to be there for you. After the loss of a companion animal, 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, but show up and lend support by being present.

Practice Self Care

walking-in-snowNavigating through the first holiday season following the loss of a pet can feel incredibly confusing and problematic. Grieving is an exhausting process and the pain invades all parts of your life, which is why it is essential for your mind and body to take a hiatus from dealing with the complicated thoughts and emotions. Plan an activity to bring a moment of comfort and joy that will allow you to take a much-needed break. Schedule the holiday around 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 realize 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 an easy solution to alleviate the heartache, you can manage the holidays better by taking charge of the season. Introducing new traditions to honor your pet’s memory may cause some tears along the way, but it can also provide healing as you strive to make it through the holidays.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you find peace in your heart and hope in new beginnings.

Jennifer Durn, MSW, LSW