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Grief at Work When a Beloved Pet Dies

By Kathleen Begley

Handling grief at work is awkward. But we can’t just turn off our emotions after the death of a loved one—even if the loved one wasn’t a human.

It doesn’t help one bit to hear comments like these from anyone. At work, though, it can be particularly hard to swallow grief when responses include:

  • “She was just a dog.”
  • “Go get yourself another pet.”
  • “Snap out of it; he was only an animal.”Coping with grief at work through a pet's illness and death is difficult.

As a long-time dog parent, I have made it crystal clear over the years that my family and friends dare not make such remarks whenever one of my beloved pets—whether suddenly or after an illness—goes to the Milky Bone Way in the Sky.

Max. Shadow. Marley. Spikey. Hershey. Panda.

All six of these magnificent creatures died in my care, leaving me to wonder initially if I would be able to survive my grief.

I am eternally grateful for the sensitivity of my personal contacts in recognizing the magnitude of my losses.

But my work colleagues? Not so much.

Strategies to Cope with Loss and Grief at Work

This disparity has led me for years to ponder ways of maintaining a career while grieving at work as a pet declines and eventual passes away.

Sound like a familiar issue to you?

Here are a few strategies that I have come up with from both personal experience and professional research:

  • Prepare for your loss. When your pet starts to show the inevitable signs of old age, save up as much vacation time and personal leave as possible. Taking your pet to the vet will probably eat up a lot of your hours off work.

Although you may be thinking anticipatory grief will lighten your emotional load once your pet actually dies, it often doesn’t. So preserve leave for the dark days after your pet child takes his or her final breath.

  • Identify pet-loving colleagues. Although in my experience work associates are less sympathetic than loved ones, every organization has dog and cat lovers. An easy way to discover like-minded co-workers is to look closely at possessions on or near their desks. Is there a photo of a black lab on the credenza or a picture of a bichon frise by the computer? Maybe an executive displays expensive, original paintings of several Portuguese water dogs hanging on the wall.

Double, triple, and quadruple check. You may be able to test the waters of support with these people as your dog or cat languishes.

  • Acknowledge your sadness. Once your pet succumbs to accident or illness, you’re going to feel like the crap you will no longer need to clean up in your back yard or along your walking trail. In all likelihood, Rover or Muffy lavished you with affection and adoration for a decade or more. That’s a long time in dog, cat, or human years. Of course you feel as if you’re missing part of yourself! There’s a warm, furry, cuddling part of you missing.

Avoid beating yourself up about your lack of interest in your monthly sales report or upcoming PowerPoint presentation. Lethargy is an unavoidable part of the early stages of grief.

  • Use mindfulness techniques. Each morning, schedule about 15 minutes to meditate on the love and affection you have for your deceased pet. Weep, pray, throw things; just get out as much emotion as possible before starting your job.

Once you’re working, stay in the moment as best you can. Focus on the task at hand rather than on your grief. It will still be there in the evening. Trust me.

Grief at Work After the Initial Shock Wears Off

For the first days and months following the death of a pet, I felt I would never again be able to function in my work. Somehow, on six different occasions, I managed to muddle through.

Here are two more ways to manage your grief at work and continue with your career.

  • Maintain confidence. Today, I make my living writing articles and books and delivering workshops and seminars. The workplace is an ever-changing place for me. But it’s still there.

Now the parent of three additional dogs, I recently have endured the news that my eldest male, Mikey, has two different forms of cancer. Although the vet oncologist says both are slow-moving, I find myself watching anxiously each day for any signs of discomfort or decline.

The difference, though, is that I know I will get through this. I’ll never stop missing my beloved pets, but having had them has contributed greatly to my work and who I am.

  • Lobby for change. Did you know that many companies in Japan offer bereavement leave when a pet dies? Sounds right to me. After all, pet health insurance is a pretty common benefit in many U.S. workplaces.

Considering that an increasingly number of people view their dogs and cats as key members of the family, I suggest such a policy would help attract the best and brightest to an organization. Why not discuss this with your Human Resources department and plant the seed of this unusual perk?


Dr. Kathleen Begley is a professional speaker and writer who has given seminars to more than 20,000 people and has written seven books. She produces a weekly business column published at www.dailylocal.com. She is a passionate lover of all things dog.





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