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The Stages of Grief
The bond between a pet and its owner can be unlike any other. Pets accept us for who we are and the unconditional love they show us might seem irreplaceable. Losing a pet can be heartbreaking. It is normal to feel grief when losing a furry friend after so many happy memories and so many years spent together.
Grief is Individual
Everyone grieves in their own way. For some, grief is like waves. The feelings gently wash over you at times and then retreat. For some people, the grief of losing a pet is like running into a wall. Everything comes to a sudden, painful, shattering halt. And some people bury their grief and do not feel it until much later.
Whatever your response, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. However, understanding the five stages of grief will help you in your journey toward healing.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
The most widely accepted “Stages of Grief” are those described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969. Inspired by her work with terminally ill patients, Kübler-Ross researched death and those faced with it at the University of Chicago medical school. Her project involved several seminars which, along with her research and interviews evolved and became the foundation for her popular book.
We will take a brief look at the Five Stages of Grief as well as offer ways to support someone
who has experienced a loss?
Stage 1: Denial
When you first learn of a pet passing, it’s common to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel a sense of shock or you might feel numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotion. It’s a defense mechanism and completely normal.
Denial may initially seem like an odd feeling to go through, especially when dealing with a long illness where death was expected. Yet, when your pet actually takes his or her last breath, you might be surprised to find yourself experiencing feelings of denial, shock, and deep sadness. Nothing, even knowing that death is around the corner, seems to prepare you for the loss of your furry friend.
As odd as it may be, shock, denial, and feeling numb offer you a coping strategy that is meant to help you survive the loss. It’s nature’s way of protecting you from trying to process an overwhelming situation all at once. Denial helps you manage the painful feelings at an unconscious level one piece at a time. It helps provide some breaks from the intense pain.
Day after day, as we replay our sweet pet’s last moments (which is, by the way, a very natural way to deal with trauma), we get more and more used to the idea that they are no longer with us. The loss starts to gradually feel a bit more real, which will help you move
from denial towards the next parts of the grieving process.
Stage 2: Anger
Anger may take on different forms at different times during the grieving process. You might be angry with yourself or with God or with others. You may just be angry with the whole situation.
Thoughts such as, “It’s not fair that my dog had to suffer so much,” and “Why are other cats with the same disease living longer?” may be present in parts of this stage. Anger may also be directed towards veterinarians in the form of: “Why didn’t my vet suggest this or that diagnostic test before?”
Anger may also be present if you did many things that should have increased the dog’s life expectancy. You might have a sense of injustice. “Why did my cat get sick if I always fed him the best foods?” or “Why are my neighbor’s dogs who are eating lousy foods healthier than my dog? Life is not fair!”
Anger during grieving is simply a sign of pain—pain against the unfairness of life. It is also an important part of the process because this is when you start to allow buried feelings to surface. As with other stages of grief, it’s important to accept anger and to let it out rather
then hiding it.
Anger can be unpleasant. It can raise your blood pressure and if it continues unchecked it can cause some people to turn away from you. However, it does have some good in it. It’s a necessary part of the grieving process and it shows the depth of your feelings for your
Stage 3: Bargaining
Bargaining means to “negotiate the terms and conditions of a transaction.” In this case, you are not dealing with a business transaction but instead are trying to cope with the threat of a loss and then the actual loss.
Bargaining often shows up in the earlier stages of anticipatory grief. You may have been
“bargaining” in hopes that your dog did not have cancer or that your cat would not suffer
from the disease process.
Once your pet leaves this earthly plane, bargaining might include the hope that you will see your beloved pet once again in the future, that they will be watching over you, and that they will be in a better place. You may then also bargain that death will spare your other pets, at least giving you some time to recuperate from the painful loss. As bargaining subsides and you delve deeper into the loss, you are likely to reach a point where the mind ends up reaching the clear conclusion that your beloved friend is truly gone. Not everyone goes through the bargaining stage of grief. If you do find yourself here, though, consider finding someone to help you work through to avoid getting stuck in this stage.
Stage 4: Depression
As denial and anger dissipate, usually the loss becomes more real and more present. The grief now enters a deeper level and there is a sensation of emptiness. At this stage, you might feel as if getting up from bed is a burden, that you no longer have an appetite, or you might even start to neglect your life.
Although others may think that depression after losing a pet is abnormal and is something requiring a fix, depression is expected after a loss, and losing a beloved pet is certainly a deep loss. Not feeling any type of sadness would be abnormal.
This is the stage where it becomes crystal clear that our pet will never come back.
Feelings of apathy and exhaustion may take over. This may appear similar to clinical depression, but in the case of grief, it’s often a normal response to a loss. Sadness and depression must be experienced deep to the core in order for the grieving person to heal. It’s best to learn to accept the sadness rather than try to push it away or mask it. Instead of repelling it, it is better to welcome it, sailing directly through the storm rather than around it. Depression will eventually leave once it has served its purpose which is to help us adapt to something that we may have a hard time accepting. As you get stronger, depression will eventually leave. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape.
Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its
entirety. Kübler-Ross If the depression is all-encompassing if you cannot seem to find joy or happiness anywhere, if you become non-functioning in life, then it might be time to seek help. Or if someone close to you suggests you need help, agree and ask that person to assist you in finding help.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Right when things seem to be unbearable, acceptance pops up on the horizon. You will notice the change when you start having more good days than bad. Life starts bringing enjoyment once again. Acceptance entails recognizing the loss and learning to live with it—to come to peace with what has happened. This is a time when our energies are withdrawn from the loss and are instead focused on investing in life again.
A big part of acceptance is understanding your new normal is the way life is going to be from here on out. Many pet owners, when reaching acceptance, find themselves considering bringing a new pet into their family. This is completely fine if it feels right for you. If you don’t want a new pet right away, that’s fine too. The love of a new pet, when the time is right, will almost certainly ease any remaining grief without erasing the cherished memories of your angel pet.
Probably the most important takeaway here is that these stages of grief are not linear.
Kübler-Ross found that not everybody goes through all of the stages in the same way and some will not go through them in perfect order. Each person is a unique individual and a
predictable progression of these stages is not to be expected.
In addition, there is no specific time period suggested for any of these stages. Someone may experience the stages fairly quickly, such as in a matter of weeks, where another person may take months or even years to move through to a place of acceptance. Whatever time it takes for you to move through these stages is perfectly normal.
It can be so difficult to know what to say or do when someone has experienced loss. We do our best to offer comfort, but sometimes our best efforts can feel inadequate and unhelpful. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Avoid rescuing or fixing. Remember, the person who is grieving does not need to be fixed. In an attempt to be helpful, we may offer uplifting, hopeful comments, or even humor, to try to ease their pain. Although the intention is good, this approach can leave people feeling as if their pain is not seen, heard, or valid.
- Don’t force it. We may want so badly to help and for the person to feel better, so we believe that nudging them to talk and process their emotions before they’re truly ready will help them faster. This is not necessarily true, and it can actually be an obstacle to their healing.
- Make yourself accessible. Offer space for people to grieve. This lets the person know we’re available when they’re ready. We can invite them to talk with us but remember to provide understanding and validation if they are not ready just yet. Remind them that you’re there and not to hesitate to come to you.
The loss of any being that you deeply love is never easy. Give yourself the grace and space necessary to go through these stages at your own pace and in your own way. Also, be willing to seek help if any part of the grieving process seems too overwhelming. Trust the process and you will, once again, find peace.