Thoughts on Grief
Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief developed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What many people are not familiar with, however, is that Dr. Kubler-Ross developed these stages from her research with terminally ill patients. It wasn’t until later that the stages began to be applied to the grief process for family members of the terminally ill and then to the general public. There have also been some misconceptions about how the stages of grief work. They are often listed in the order I mentioned above, leading many people to believe that the stages are separate and linear and that everyone must experience each stage, but this is not the case. Every person and every death are unique. Dr. Kubler-Ross never intended for them to be used as a universal explanation of grief, as many people have come to believe. She states, regarding the stages, “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
J. William Worden has developed what he refers to as the four tasks of mourning. These include accepting the loss, living with the physical and emotional pain of grief, adjusting to life without the loved one, and finding an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.2 British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes and psychologist John Bowlby propose four phases of grief: shock and numbness, which act as a defense mechanism enabling people to survive the immediate aftermath of the loss; yearning and searching, which may include emotions such as weeping, anger, anxiety, preoccupation, and confusion; disorganization and despair, which may precipitate feelings of apathy, anger, despair, hopelessness, and questioning; and reorganization, which is similar to acceptance. Although grief never ends, thoughts of sadness and despair diminish, and positive memories of the loved one increase.
These kinds of classifications can be helpful guides, but there are some characteristics of pet loss that make it distinct. Many times, pet owners are left to Grieving on their own, individuals are often expected to get over it and move on when a pet dies. There is rarely a funeral, and no out-of-town family comes to visit and offer support. Often, a pet owner only has the support of immediate family members, and sometimes not even that. No bereavement leave time is offered by employers for the loss of a pet, despite the fact that more and more people have pets and consider them to be members of the family.4 Our culture has yet to catch up when it comes to treating pet loss in the same manner as human loss. Some people find that they grieve more for their pet than for other human family and friends. This actually makes sense when we think about the qualities pets possess and all they offer us. Pets offer no judgments. They are genuine and trustworthy. They offer us complete acceptance and support; forgive unendingly, make us laugh, and, most of all, they love us unconditionally. Few of us are lucky enough to have people like that in our lives. No wonder losing a pet can feel so devastating.
Despite these challenges, there are ways to ease the transition of grieving a pet. Here are some points to remember.
1. Everyone grieves differently, and every death is unique. Your personal reaction will depend on a variety of factors, including personality, upbringing, the type of relationship with the pet, the personal situation at the time of the death, and cultural and religious beliefs.6 Give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions arise without concern for whether or not you are grieving “correctly” and whether or not you are grieving the same way as someone else. Honor yourself and your feelings. According to Moira Allen, “the most vital step in coping with the emotions you feel upon the loss of your pet is acknowledging them.”
2. Learn about the common grief reactions. There are four categories of grief reactions: feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors. Feelings may include shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, anxiety, anger, guilt, loneliness, depression, helplessness, relief, and yearning. Thoughts might include disbelief, confusion, difficulty concentrating, preoccupation, and hallucinations. Physical sensations may be experienced, such as tightness or heaviness in the throat or chest, nausea, upset stomach, dizziness, headaches, physical numbness, muscle weakness, or tension, fatigue and vulnerability to illness. Finally, behaviors might include difficulty falling or staying asleep, loss of energy for enjoyable activities, loss of appetite, losing interest in being social, irritability or aggression, restlessness, or excessive activity. Understanding that these reactions are a normal part of the grief process can help you sort through your personal experiences. Again, the most important step is to acknowledge whatever you are experiencing.
3. Do what helps you. Some suggestions for coping with grief: recognize and acknowledge the stages and emotions you are experiencing, allow yourself to think any thoughts, feel any emotions and/or physical sensations, and recognize any behaviors that are common grief reactions. Seek out people who have also experienced pet loss, perhaps even attending a support group. Create and perform any rituals that are comforting to you. Take bereavement leave if you can afford to. Have a funeral or memorial service. Honor your pet through a donation to an organization of importance to you, or anything else that feels right to you.
4. Recognize any other life events occurring at the same time that have the potential to compound your grief. C. Miriam Yarden states, “[T]he loss of a pet should be viewed not just as an independent event, but in the context of your life at the time of the loss.”6 Are there other challenging experiences going on at the same time or within a short period of time surrounding the loss of your pet? Consider any emotions those events might be adding to your experience. Compounded grief can lead to more intense emotions and may last longer. Understand that this is a possibility and be kind and gentle to yourself as you progress.
5. Know that grief is a process, and you can make it through. Moira Allen states, “Grief consists of several steps, which ought to be taken one at a time. It is also an experience that will recur over and over after a loss, and through that repetition comes the slow easing of pain. Each time, one experiences a little more consolation, a little more healing.”6 Give yourself time to process your grief. Your thoughts of sadness and despair will diminish over time, and positive memories of the loved one will increase.3 Remember that thoughts of sadness and grief reflect the love you have for your pet. “Love is really the only thing we can possess, keep with us, and take with us” (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross). The sadness will lessen, while the love will live on.
1. Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., “Coping with Grief and Loss,” helpguide.org
2.Litsa Williams, “Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning,” whatsyourgrief.com
3.Angela Morrow, R.N., “The Four Phases and Tasks of Grief,” verywellhealth.com
4.Pauline Wallin, PhD., Grieving Your Pet—It’s Normal,” pennlive.com
5.Ralph Rybeck, M.D., “Why Losing a Pet Hurts So Much,” psychologytoday.com
6.Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., “The Emotions of Pet Loss,” pet-loss.net
7.”Understanding Grief and Loss,” cancer.net