Since I first started writing this column about two years ago, I have had more compliments about the article covering the five stages of grief. Repeatedly, I’ve had readers comment about the grief article and many have asked if I would consider reissuing the article. My response was, “Sure, but you might want to save the paper this time or stop by my office and I will be glad to print a copy from my laptop for you.” I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to share my experiences and stories with all of you.
Grief is a very complicated and often misunderstood emotion. Everyone has experienced some kind of loss in their lives; some much more than others. Nevertheless, we all have had times in our lives when we have gone through the process of grief. Even if we recognize the fact that we are grieving, we can’t control it and we don’t realize which stage of grief we are in at any given time. The fact is that everyone must go through all five stages of grief in order to heal and move on. A few years ago my father passed away and I really felt like I was handling things, but I began crying uncontrollably in Kroger about a month after it happened, and it stunned me. Grief can take us by complete surprise.
Each individual will move through the stages of grief at a different pace. Some people will go through all five stages quickly, whereas others may proceed slowly. Additionally, some people get “stuck” in one of the stages and cannot heal and move forward in life.
Having practiced veterinary medicine for 21 years, it has become absolutely clear to me that people grieve over a loved pet in the exact same way they grieve for another human being. Obviously, there are all different degrees of attachment to pets, but pets are increasingly becoming like family members. Regardless, you will go through the five stages of grief whether you are grieving over a pet or another person.
The first stage of grief is denial, when you don’t accept or even acknowledge the death as real. Many pet owners will initially say something like “No, not my baby!” People will often continue to set a place at the dinner table or look for the person in familiar places when they have lost a spouse. Fortunately, most people will not experience this stage very long.
The second stage is anger, when someone is mad about losing a loved one. Often, the person grieving will blame someone for the death and sometimes will even blame the deceased for leaving them. It is not unusual for some people to remain in anger for a very long time. It does not matter whether they have lost a pet or another family member, they may be angry for a variety of reasons.
Again, you can’t heal until you move past anger and proceed through the rest of the grieving process.
The third stage is bargaining. This is when we beg, wish and pray for the deceased to come back. Many people will bargain, or make a deal, with the deceased or with God to try to stop or change the loss. Usually most people will only experience bargaining for a very short period of time.
The fourth stage is depression which is the most noticeable and often the most difficult stage to deal with. It is the typical feeling of hopelessness and feeling lack of control. Many people will lose hope for their future dreams and plans. Depression may last for a very long time and may require medical treatment and/or emotional support in order to recover.
The last stage of grief is acceptance. This is when we are able to accept the fact that our pet or loved one is gone forever. It is also when we find comfort and healing, as well as finding the good that can come out of the pain and loss. It is not necessary to forget anything about your pet, but acceptance allows you to focus on the positive memories and to live without the previous emotional struggle.
What about when pets lose a loved one or a fellow pet? How do pets grieve? It is pretty obvious that pets don’t have the intellectual ability to go through the five stages of grief known to people. However, make no mistake; pets often do grieve! Pets have been known to grieve over the loss of their owner or another pet in the household. Over the years, I have seen lots of cases of pets grieving even to the point of becoming physically ill. If a pet happens to pass away at their veterinarian’s office, I recommend that other pets living in the home with the deceased pet, be brought to see the animal that is not coming home.
Once, a patient of mine became distraught over the loss of his owner. Winston is a 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier who lost his male owner, and for the next two weeks, Winston started losing weight because he spent hours just sitting, watching and waiting for his owner to walk through the door. He was obviously depressed and no longer enjoyed his normal routine.
One thing to consider when your pet loses a loved one or another pet is to allow your pet to visit and actually see the deceased. This allows your pet to accept the loss instead of wondering where they have gone and when they will return. Sometimes we need to give pets more credit for being intelligent and include them in our emotional issues.
If your pet suffers from any grieving process, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.