Although grief responses differ from one individual to the next, it does have many predictable expressions that occur on a physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual level. Please note that although these stages are based on past research, they are not meant to compartmentalize emotions into neat packages. They are merely offerings of insight as there is no typical reaction to loss just as there is no typical loss or individual. What we feel and encounter is as unique as our self.
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to adapt and cope with our loss. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. Not everyone goes through all of these or in this prescribed order and there is no said timeframe. The hope is to identify or familiarize with some of these findings to help ease the suffering.
In this stage, you may find yourself in a state of dismissiveness or/and shock. You may feel as though you are going through the motions and routine of your day but not really experiencing it. This is our mind’s way of protecting itself from the intense grief by only letting in as much as we can handle. After the numbness subsides, and reality sets in, strong emotions may begin to surface. This may be when you begin all the questioning in your mind. This is also the first step in the healing process, by unknowingly becoming aware.
As much as society teaches us to repress anger, it is a very necessary stage of the healing process. It’s important to feel everything that you are going through, even though it may seem endless or pointless. The more you become aware of each emotion, the more you may allow yourself to heal from it by seeking support and help from others. The emotion of anger is actually limitless and can be disguised through other emotions, and can extend towards others. Anger speaks through pain and since we usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it, it is very important not to deny what you are feeling in this stage, but rather recognize and channel it safely.
The third stage of grief involves a lot of self-dialogue. Before your loss, you may have tried to bargain with yourself or with your higher belief system to do “anything to allow your pet to live longer, or one more day.” After a loss, bargaining takes on the form of agreements; such as, “if I do this, I will wake up and realize it was all just a bad dream.”
This is the stage of the “if only or what ifs” because we want so badly to have our friend back in our lives even for just one more day so that we can have the opportunity to do more or do it differently. “What if” bargaining is usually linked to guilt. We are willing to do anything to remain in the past in order to negotiate away from our loss, pain and feelings of remorse. Remember that this stage too, is a response to the feeling and emotion of loss. (For a more in depth focus on this topic, see Experiencing Intense and Changing Emotions in Mourning.)
Even though one stage might not follow the next, we often move from our bargaining stage directly to the present moment of emptiness from our loss. This is when grief enters our bodies and minds at a deeper level. We may feel as though a dark cloud has come over us and there will never be light again. We may ask ourselves, “What is the point of getting on with my normal life?”
Profound sadness is an appropriate response to a loss, it is not a mental illness but it can be a reason to seek support. When you begin to realize that your beloved pet is no longer living, after the initial shock and anger has worn off, it often feels like there is nothing left to feel but emptiness. Depression or intense sadness is part of the process of healing, for from darkness comes the realization of lightness and acceptance.
Acceptance is often mistaken for being all right or all better. This is most often not the case because most individuals are not ‘all right’ about their loss. Rather, acceptance in grief is about understanding that our beloved pet is physically gone and recognizing that this is the new reality. Acceptance is the stage in which we begin to reconstruct a new life without our companion in it. However, acceptance may also invite resistance by wanting to keep the past intact while still making the effort to move forward so it’s important to identify with each emotion as they transform.
The stage of acceptance involves a lot of adjustments and re-adjustments that will likely invite in bad days and good days. The latter are often more difficult because we feel that we are betraying our deceased pet by “getting on with our lives” or feeling some joy.
For more ways on how to cope and things you can do to honor your pet’s life, please see the article entitled Ways to Cope.
Sign up for SPCA International alerts to receive regular updates on animals in crisis and how you can help.