Pet Loss: The 5 Stages of Grief
After my father lost a well-loved cat, he refused to allow another one in the house.
Even though his cat lived to be 20 years old, he loved his Siamese, Queenie, so much he couldn’t bear to love another cat and then lose it. His refusal affected more than just him, though, it hurt my mother who in the following years missed having a cat in the house. Grief hurts. It doesn’t matter whether that grief is for the loss of a family member, friend, a job, a change in circumstances, or a well-loved pet.
A pet who has lived many years with you, as Queenie did with my parents, will obviously cause a great deal of grief with her passing. Grief is devastating and when a pet owner is told, “But it was only a pet,” the heartbreak is compounded; there is the loss of your pet and then the lack of understanding from the person who tried to minimize your suffering.
When I fostered a litter of five kittens for a rescue organization earlier this year, and found that all of the kittens were terminally ill and as a result lost all five of them, I suffered grief as if they had lived with me for years. I grieved for the sweet little babies they were, the lives they could have lived, and my inability to save them. Thankfully no one told me they were only kittens, or only pets, or not worth the grief.
When you lose a pet, surround yourself with people who also value pets and avoid those who don’t. Talk to other cat owners, dog owners, or rabbit owners; depending on the species of pet you lost. These are the people who understand the feelings you have for your pet and who will understand the depth of your grief. Arguing with people who either don’t share a home with a pet or who don’t feel about their pet as you do, is pointless.
Grief is a Unique Experience
Everyone grieves in their own way. Some people have compared it to the waves of the ocean, coming in and easing, then coming in again. Others have said it was like running into a brick wall. There is no right or wrong way to grieve as long as you don’t hurt yourself or others around you, and that you understand help is available should you need it. When I experienced several losses in a short period of time, both human family members and pets, I contacted a grief counselor and found her to be a great help. There are also pet bereavement groups, including the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, that can be of help.
Denial is Usually First
Denial is usually the first stage of grief and just about everyone goes through denial in some manner. For example, often the first comment or thought in finding out about a death is, “Oh, no, that can’t be right!” Or, “That couldn’t have happened!” This is denial.
Grief experts say that denial helps keep us sane. The combination of shock and denial allow bits and pieces of reality to sink in as we can tolerate it. Plus, denial puts some of our emotions in the back of our mind so we aren’t completely overwhelmed.
Later, as we begin asking questions and start to accept the situation, denial fades.
Anger is Unpleasant but Necessary
Anger surfaces when we begin to ask questions; often towards the end of denial. Some pet owners get angry at the veterinarian who cared for their pet. Other people will get angry at family members, “If you had cared for Sweetie better.”
The anger can also be expressed towards God or other belief systems; “Why was this allowed to happen?” Many people suspend their religious beliefs temporarily out of anger or continue to question their religious leaders for a period of time. This, too, is normal.
You might also turn that anger towards yourself. If you were unable to save your pet, didn’t have the money to pay for certain treatments, or elected to euthanize your pet; you may find yourself angrily questioning yourself.
Anger is unpleasant, raises the blood pressure, and if it continues 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 departed pet.
Don’t Get Stuck Bargaining
If your pet’s death was not unexpected, if she was old, hurt, or ill before her passing, you might have done some bargaining with yourself or with God. You may have offered to pray daily for others if your pet’s life could be saved. You might have offered to change your behavior or to donate to the local pet rescue group to save her.
After a pet’s death, many people still try to bargain. “If I do this, I’ll wake up and it will all have been a bad dream.”
Not everyone goes through the bargaining stage of grief. If you find yourself here, though, find someone to help you work through it as sometimes people get stuck here, continuing to make bargains, none of which will help.
Depression is Debilitating
After moving through the stages of denial, anger, and sometimes bargaining, many people find themselves looking at their new reality with sadness. When my dog, Riker, passed away I felt that my life had a Riker sized hole in it. I missed his joyful demeanor, his happy face, his bright eyes. He was no longer there to greet me each day or to snuggle with me in the evenings. I missed my dog and I was sad.
Sadness is a normal reaction to loss, as is feeling deserted and alone, or even lonely and confused. Plus, the loss of a pet can bring up memories of other losses you’ve suffered in the past. These are all normal feelings.
However, all of these feelings can lead to depression. People in this stage of grief often say they feel like all of the happiness and joy has been sucked out of life. Depression itself is not pleasant but is a normal part of the recovery after a traumatic event. If the depression is all encompassing, though, if you cannot find joy or happiness anywhere, if you become non-functioning in life, then get help. Or if someone close to you suggests you need help, agree and ask that person to assist you in finding help.
Acceptance is Moving On
Acceptance is generally the last stage of grief but reaching this point doesn’t mean that you’ve recovered from the loss of your pet; that everything is fine. Instead, acceptance means exactly that, you understand your new normal is the way life is going to be from here on out. I know Riker will never again snuggle with me on the sofa in the evening but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget him; I’ll treasure my memories of our 13 years together.
Many pet owners, when reaching acceptance, find themselves longing for a new pet. This is fine, if it’s right for you, just don’t try and replace the pet you’ve lost because your new pet will then always be compared to your old one and will suffer in comparison. You might want to get a pet of another breed (or even species), a different color or gender. And then let your new pet be who he is, himself, without comparisons to the pet who has passed on.
If you don’t want a new pet right away, that’s fine too. Just don’t be like my father who deprived himself and my mother from the love and companionship of a new pet just because of the grief of losing one. Grief is a process that is painful but it can be overcome. The love of a new pet, when the time is right, will also ease any remaining grief without erasing the memories of the departed pet.