The Grief Process

Although not always supported by our society, grief over the loss of a pet is a normal, healthy reaction.  The passage of grief is through, not over, not by, not around, but through.  It is the very difficult process of adapting to a significant loss.  Although not always a linear or well-defined process, for many people grief manifests itself in several stages. These have been described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as:
Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

Denial is often the first reaction to learning about the death or terminal illness of a loved one. It is a defense mechanism used to protect ourselves from overwhelming emotions. “I can’t imagine life without him”, “I can’t believe she’s gone”, “This isn’t happening, it must be a bad dream” are all familiar sayings.

When the reality of the situation starts to sink in, we again shield ourselves from the pain by redirecting it and expressing it as anger. Convenient targets are family and friends, our dying or deceased pet, and very often veterinary staff. Rationally we know these people are not to blame but emotionally we need some kind of outlet.

As we begin to feel helpless and vulnerable to feelings of sorrow and loss we try to find ways to regain control. The bargaining stage is the could have, should have, would have stage. “I could have saved my pet, if only I had…..”, “I should have taken her to the vet sooner”, “Things would have been different if I……”

In the depression stage sadness and regret predominate. This is the time when we cry a lot, we feel unable to cope with everyday life, we don’t eat or sleep properly, and begin to feel very worn down. We often withdraw from others at this time when really it is when we need help the most.

Reaching the acceptance stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone, especially if we have not taken the time or effort to grieve properly, or if our grief is complicated by other factors. It is not a period of happiness but rather a time of peaceful resolution.

Dr Lianna Titcombe
Director
Pet Loss Support Group of Ottawa

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