It is widely accepted that there are 5 main stages of grieving, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, the model explaining the stages first documented by the late world renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This model was initially used to describe the stages that someone with a terminal illness goes through as they come to terms with their prognosis, and was subsequently identified as matching the stages of grieving during bereavement.
David Kessler co-authored with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross the book ‘On Grief and Grieving’, recently introduced a 6th stage of grieving – Meaning. He believes that this allows those grieving a roadmap to remembering those who have died with love rather than pain. A concept already widely accepted by those grieving the loss of a pet.
In order to have a complete understanding of pet bereavement we should consider 7 main stages – Shock, Denial, Bargaining, Guilt, Anger, Depression, & Acceptance. The additional 2 stages that are important in pet loss are Shock and Guilt.
Pet carers may experience all stages of grieving and these can repeat over and over throughout the period of bereavement. It’s important to remember that no two people grieve the same e.g. a pet carer may find they are struggling more with guilt or anger or vice versa, or may take longer to gain acceptance than another pet carer did, but they should never compare how they are coping to that of someone else.
Grieving is individual, it’s unique to each pet carer, and they may not experience all emotions associated with grieving – it’s their journey, their story and it is their experience that is important, not anyone else at this time. They may find that the stages of grief repeat, and many pet carers described grieving as ’being on a roller coaster of emotions’. Whilst grieving the pet carer should avoid alcohol and drugs, tempting as they may be, they will not help them with the grieving process and can in fact intensify their grieving.
Throughout the 7 stages the pet carer will experience not only emotional reactions, but they can experience physical reactions too, these can include the following –
Psychological trauma or shock happens on hearing bad news or witnessing an accident or injury. A stressful event can rock us to our foundations and remove our sense of security and control. It is a built in defence mechanism that protects us as we try to make sense of what we have just heard or witnessed.
Stress hormones are released – Cortisol and Adrenaline. Cortisol increases our heart rate and a rush of Adrenaline affects memory and can give the feeling of wanting to run away but being unable to, it’s our body’s natural fight or flight response.
Many pet carers experience shock when they are told by the Veterinary Surgeon that there is no more that can be done for their pet and euthanasia should be considered, or that their pet has died (perhaps suddenly). Shock generally last for a few hours, for some it can last for days, and the pet carer may experience the following –
Although these symptoms can be frightening, they give the pet carer time to process what they are being told or what they have witnessed but these feelings generally pass as they start to accept what they have been told and move into the next stage.
For those pet carers who witness a traumatic event they can experience these symptoms for much longer and prolonged shock can lead to PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
If a pet carer is concerned that symptoms of emotional shock are lasting too long they should speak to their Doctor.
Denial is another built in coping mechanism to protect ourselves and avoid emotional trauma or anxiety, a way to dismiss negative thinking. We simply refuse to accept what we are told or what we see despite overwhelming evidence. It’s not that we do not understand the truth, but it allows us time to process our thoughts whilst avoiding the facts.
Denial can be as straightforward as repeating to yourself that the death (or impending death) cannot be true, to having complete disregard for what you have been told about your pet that it’s simply not true.
It is generally during this period that pet carers tend to seek a second opinion about their pets’ health especially if they have been told there is no more that can be done for their pet or their pet has a life limiting illness. Of course some pet carers do seek a second opinion and insist on further treatment for their pet regardless of the prognosis or likely outcome.
Symptoms and reactions of Denial include –
Witnessing someone ‘in denial’ can be frustrating for family and friends, however with patience and understanding the pet owner will generally come to terms with their current or impending situation and will move through this stage.
Bargaining is recognised as a significant stage of grief especially in human loss and it is important to note this stage. Bargaining can be fleeting or it may be a feeling that is repeated over in the mind several times. It does tend to be a common reaction to grief in children and for them, these feelings may be longer lasting. Bargaining can happen pre or post the death of a pet when there is a deep longing to save the pet or a longing to be with the pet again.
It makes the pet carer believe that had they done things differently the outcome would have been different i.e. the death wouldn’t occur. Bargaining allows them to hold onto hope, no matter how futile that hope is.
Bargaining happens in the mind of the bereaved and many will offer a ‘bargain’ to their God or whoever they worship, for example if they changed their bad habits, could their pet be saved. It is also a significant stage for those pet carers whose pets are missing or stolen.
Although these feelings are futile, once accepted, many pet carers may lose faith and quickly slip into depression.
Guilt is a very powerful emotion associated with pet bereavement. A pet carer can initially feel enormous guilt for making the decision to euthanise their pet and it continues as and when they proceed with the process.
Feelings of guilt can consume their every thought and no matter how well prepared a pet carer may feel they can deal with their loss, feelings of guilt can get out of control. Many focus on the last few minutes of their pets’ life and replay every second over and over in their mind, some believe that by allowing their pet to be euthanised that they killed their pet and their pet knew that, or their pet was afraid, or that their pet will never forgive them.
Many feel that they euthanised their pet too early or too late, or may blame themselves for not noticing their pet was getting old or they were unable to recognise that their pet was seriously ill. The reasons pet carers feel guilty is endless, here are just a few –
Feelings of guilt can be a way to self-punish, it serves no purpose when it is simply the pet carer’s perception of the decision that is distorted. Although it is perfectly normal to feel guilt and they are allowed to feel guilty, it is important to look at why they feel guilty and address those negative feelings before they take hold and overwhelm them.
It is helpful to look at their feelings from a different perspective, for example –
When reassuring a pet carer riddled with guilt, who believes that they euthanised their pet too early, and they think they should have kept their pet longer - remember there is no such thing as a day too soon, only a day too late, and they would not have wanted their pets last day on earth be their worse day, due to intense pain and suffering.
Guilt and anger often accompany one another in grief, and like guilt, it’s perfectly normal to feel anger. Feelings of anger can be directed inwardly when we blame ourselves for our pet’s death, or it can be directed at the Vet or anyone who played a part in our pet’s life. It can also be directed at those closest to us, or a complete stranger. Unlike other emotions experienced during bereavement, those grieving may find that being in a state of anger somehow makes their loss easier to cope with even if their behaviour is completely out of character.
Accepting that anger is a feeling often associated with grief allows the pet carer to accept why they feel that way, but finding ways to express that in a constructive and not a destructive manner is important.
Recognising the times, situations and triggers that make them feel angry and dealing with those emotions in a constructive way is advisable and will help get them through those episodes. Anger can often be easily triggered by the following –
Depression associated with bereavement generally only lasts for a couple of months unlike someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression by their Doctor.
Depression is the stage of grieving that tends to last the longest, although this too will pass. However if the pet carer finds that after a couple of months that those feelings are not beginning to dissipate but are in fact getting worse, they should speak to their Doctor. For those who are clinically depressed when their pet died, grieving will compound those feelings and it may take substantially longer to get through this particular stage.
Depression can manifest in many different ways and the pet carer may experience several of these emotions and symptoms –
Acceptance is generally recognised as the final stage in the cycle of grief but it does not necessarily mean a conclusion or end to the pet carers pain, the cycle and pattern of grieving may repeat itself many times especially on anniversaries.
Pet carers who find themselves at this stage are often reluctant to move forward and can actively choose to avoid acceptance, believing that by doing so, they will somehow forget their pet and this final stage, can for many, be the hardest to accept.
The term acceptance should not be confused with the term closure, coined by the media at the beginning of this century. Many pet carers believe they should be seeking closure at the end of their grieving however that is not acceptance nor is it attainable.
Closure is not something the pet carer should strive to reach. Acceptance however is acknowledging their loss and that their life has changed forever. It is also the beginning of a new normal way of life without their pet, and one that allows them to honour their pet and move forward with all the love they shared.
Acceptance is not an event that happens, it does not occur at any specific time, it is something that happens gradually and often the pet carer will not necessarily notice when or how, but it’s a realisation that they have moved forward in the grieving process. This does not mean that they will never experience those intense feelings of grief again.
Many pet carers have stated that they felt they had accepted their loss, yet months later found themselves back in the midst of the grieving process. If that happens, or has happened, the pet carer should try not to worry or think that their grieving will never end.
Follow the advice on ways to help through the grieving process and they should find that this repeated period of grief does not last as long as the first time. Remember moving on doesn’t mean letting go!
Dawn Murray's new book 'An Introduction to Pet Bereavement Counselling' is now available to buy on Amazon. This is a must have reference book for anyone who supports or counsels others through pet bereavement.