Pets are beloved members of the family. They share affection with no strings attached, entertain us, and supply us with daily opportunities to show love and care. Since pets are supportive during tough emotional times, we may feel their absence especially acutely whenever we have to endure their loss without them.

“Many people simply don’t realize how attached these were to a pet,” says psychiatry professor Sandra Barker, PhD, an expert on human–animal relationships. “They think they’ll get over the loss easily and quickly but find themselves struggling with the surprising duration and concentration of their feelings.”

Most or all of the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — outlined by ­Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her own groundbreaking book On Death and Dying might be present after the death of a beloved pet. “These are now considered phases instead of stages of grief,” Barker explains, “simply because they can happen in any order and become repeated.”

We may feel guilt, for instance, if we think we should have noticed our dog’s illness earlier or forbidden our cat to go outside. Given our pets’ dependence here, it’s natural to feel there must have been more we could have done to care for them. “But animals can’t often contact us in ways that would help us understand what is wrong together and the best action to take,” she says.

“It’s important to take the long view of yourself like a pet owner,” Barker adds. “If you’re like most, you probably were responsible, dedicated, and compassionate during the life of your pet. There was only so much you could have known, and you probably did the best you could with that knowledge.”

Consider these recommendations for working through the phases of grief that come with losing a beloved pet:

  • Embrace the depth of the bond. Pets aren’t people, but our bond together is a real and deep part of being human, says Barker. For instance, you’re not a “crazy cat lady” simply because you are profoundly saddened by the loss of your cat.
  • Get support. Even though many people today understand the depth of the bond between pets and owners, the bond still seems mysterious or trivial to some. Seek support from individuals who understand what you are going through.
  • Honor your pet in your own way. “In commemorating a dog that has died or disappeared, it is important is doing what brings you comfort,” she says. “Should you rather put away all mementos from the pet for a while and hold a small ceremony a few weeks later, do this. If keeping a single memento, just like a collar or a brush, can help you grieve, do that.”
  • Don’t rush to replace the pet. “Wait until you are ready to form a new relationship and try to locate one who will occupy a different place in your heart,” Barker recommends.