In her groundbreaking book “On Death and Dying” (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross delineated five stages of grief, which apply as much to losing a beloved pet as they do to the death of a dear person. Of course, everyone grieves differently, and Kübler-Ross did not propose a five-step recipe for living through loss. Rather, the list presents a dynamic and fluid process. For some, the process is more or less sequential; for others, it develops its own rhythms, with feelings that overlap, leave, return, and often collide. In any case, most of us experience some aspect of all of these stages. Taken together, these insights shed light on where we are, what we can expect, and how we can care both for ourselves and for those around us.
- Denial. Denial is a defense mechanism that dulls the shock of loss and gets us through the initial surge of pain. It’s that raw time when, just after a pet’s death, you could swear you heard him in the other room, “attacking” his favorite catnip mouse. Or you see her coming around the corner with her food dish in her mouth…or sitting by the door, asking to go out. But it’s not your dog you see by the door; it’s a shoe. And it’s not your cat you hear; it’s your grief — and it feels as if it’s everywhere, inhabiting every space your pet ever occupied, including that emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Denial is both confusing and comforting, and it’s crucial for helping you realize how much you loved your companion and how deeply you miss him or her.
- Anger. Denial is often followed by anger, which arrives when reality sets in. Grieving people can direct their anger almost anywhere — family, friends, veterinarians, even the pet we loved so much. We know better rationally, but emotionally it’s tempting to blame someone for the pain we’re feeling, including ourselves. “The vet should have seen this coming and done something. I should have gotten a second opinion. Why did my pet leave my like this?”
- Bargaining. Many people try to deal with their sense of vulnerability and helplessness by bargaining, often with a higher power, with themselves, or even with their lost pet. Sometimes the bargaining involves a sense of guilt about what they did or didn’t do for their pet. Often it’s a jumble of intense, confusing emotions that seem impossible to reconcile. “I’d do anything for just one more day,” you think. “Anything!” If only I could take him for one more walk” “If only I could hear her purr one more time.” If only…If only…
- Depression. Sometimes depression is another word for sadness. In this state, grief can lead us to acknowledge the finality of the separation we must face. Some people withdraw into their own worlds; others begin to reach out to others. In both cases, mourners need support and patience. Sadness helps you acknowledge that you’re wounded, and that’s the first step toward healing.
- Acceptance. This is in some ways the most challenging stage in the grieving process. Acceptance does not mean forgetting or betrayal. What it does mean is embracing the sweet, beautiful life your pet lived, as well as the sad fact of his or her death. It means seeing and forgiving life itself for having an end, a fact we all know intellectually but often lose track of emotionally. Acceptance also recognizes that no other pet could replace the one you lost. At this point, remembering can bring more smiles than tears.
While not all of these stages of grief apply to everyone, this framework can bring you comfort in a difficult time.