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As far back as history records, humans have always
kept animals as companions. We think nothing of adopting an animal as small as a goldfish or as large as a horse. Our choice of pets often reflects our own personality to the world. Even those who prefer not to own pets of their own will acknowledge the healing benefits of pet ownership.
But pet owners know that their time with any pet is limited to that creature's natural lifespan, and at some point in time the beloved companion will pass on. Many of us go through this process numerous times in our childhoods, but the loss of a pet is never an easy time. Making the decision to have an animal 'put down' may be the right one, but the sense of loss is still present. Coping with the loss of a family pet can be difficult at best, but here are some thoughts to keep in mind at this time of sorrow.

Grieving for an animal is every bit as natural as grieving for the loss of a human relationship. Allow yourself the time to fully recover from your loss before making any decisions concerning future pet ownership. The natural tendency is to replace one animal with another, but wait until you have reconciled your feelings towards the departed pet before committing yourself to another. Animals can sense when something is not 'settled' with their new owners, and the new relationship might be more strained than it should be if you are still mourning the loss of the previous pet. The opposite can be true as well. Some pet owners vow that they will never get another pet again, in order to avoid another day like this. Allow some time to pass before making such a permanent decision, especially if children are involved. Children do not deal in absolutes very well, and may become much more stressed at the possibility of never having another pet in their lives.

Children also learn from ritual, so a 'pet funeral' ceremony is certainly acceptable, provided the circumstances permit this sort of activity. If the animal cannot be physically present at the 'funeral', then you can still discuss a memorial service. Children should be allowed to express their feelings toward the deceased with dignity. For many small children, this is the first experience with the death of a loved one, so every effort should be taken to maintain the solemnity of the ceremony. The same holds true for adult pet owners who are suffering themselves. Allow them to express their feelings without prejudice. If you learn of the loss of a spouse's pet before they do, you may want to remove any item that may trigger an emotional reaction. Food bowls and water bottles may take on more significance for the grieving owner, since their beloved pet will no longer be using them. Their empty cage may also be a difficult sight for an owner. Don't sanitize every trace of the pet's existence, but do make an effort to soften the blow by removing or covering evocative items.

If you learn of the passing of a friend's pet, it is certainly acceptable to send a condolence card or make a sympathetic phone call. Such gestures are usually welcomed by grieving owners. You might also offer services, such as taking them to a pet store yourself when they feel ready to look at another pet. Children respond well to stories told by adults who understand what they're experiencing, so feel free to share a story of loss with the child. Tell them how you learned to cope with your loss, and what happened when that next pet came into your life. Children especially look for signs of hope during a tragedy, so provide some. Assure them that the world will go on, and their pet is in a much happier place now.

There is not one standard method for dealing with the loss of a family pet, so don't expect to find one. The circumstances of your pet's death can vary from sudden and unexpected to planned and necessary. Each circumstance brings a different set of emotions with it, so be flexible in your response to a grieving child's questions about their pet. Above all, allow plenty of time for recovery for all involved. Time is the greatest healer when coping with the loss of a family pet.