5 Aug 2017
How to identify and mark pet loss stages of grief

How to identify and mark pet loss stages of grief

I don't know about you but sometimes I don't realize that I'm going through something until I'm nearly out the other end. Even though I do a lot of work to increase my emotional intelligence, some growth processes sneak up on me. I kinda hate that because it means I may not grow emotionally through them as much as I would be able to do if I'd been aware of them. The stages of my pet loss journey have been no different.

Working through your anniversary reactions will require emotional awareness and, when possible, some forethought. So I've been working on understanding how we (in general) move through pet loss in order to plan for and ritualize my journey a little more intentionally. 

The Grief Anniversaries Following the Death of a Pet

I like to think of grief milestones in terms of two categories, the first of which is perhaps the most obvious. These are related to days of the week/month/year, specific dates on the calendar, or visceral experiences, including:

  • Your pet’s birthday
  • The day you brought your furry friend to your home for the first time
  • The day of the sudden accident or health crisis
  • The day of your cat’s or dog’s death
  • The day of your animal companion's memorial service
  • A holiday such as Christmas or summer vacation

These reminders of the death of your pet can churn up all kinds of emotions for you, including anger, anxiety, fatigue, guilt, pain, crying, loneliness, dread, fear, insomnia, and even physical pain. Anniversary reactions are not something you should avoid out of a fear that you are going backward instead of forward. Instead, reactions to grief milestones should be seen as a reflection of how much your beloved pet is worth missing.

Most of these are easy to see coming, and marking them on your calendar or using some kind of count-up app is a great way to be aware of and prepared for them. So I recommend you set up some system to notify yourself of upcoming milestones like those listed above so that you can be ready for them when they come.

Yet they're not the only types of milestones we experience during the mourning process. The others that come to us are related to the phases of grieving...

Pet Loss Anniversary Grief Reaction Tiny Pet Memories

The Stages of Grief as Milestones After Losing an Animal Companion

The grief holidays noted above are big but we also experience milestones in our emotional journeys that aren't really guided by the calendar. These stages of grief – often thought of as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – were first outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s, though they have been refined and expanded upon in recent research.

In fact, a study several years ago looked at some of the most common stages of grief to examine more closely the types of negative emotions felt and the sequence in which they were felt. The two-year study, conducted by Dana-Farber researchers, found that indeed, people do have somewhat predictable anniversary grief reactions. Their findings were as follows:

  • Immediately following loss: The bereaved have a strong feeling of disbelief.
  • 1-4 months post-loss: The most keenly felt emotion was yearning – pining and missing the individual who was lost. This yearning peaked around 4 months, with grievers really wanting their loved ones back at that time.
  • At about 5 months post-loss: Anger was the most predominant emotion.
  • At about 6 months post-loss: Depression took over as the leading emotion.
  • From 6 months onward: Acceptance was the highest felt emotion by this time, with the strong emotions tapering off over the following year and a half.

Not surprisingly, these milestones do follow somewhat closely to the five stages of grief, though disbelief rather than sadness was the leading emotion immediately following the death of a loved one. Moving through these variuos phases – whether in a straight line or back and forth – can be an emotionally jarring experience. I know for me, there were times when I would wake up to find myself in a phase of lessened mourning – and I felt guilty about it! Making the shift into a stage of greater acceptance caused its own type of grief that I had to deal with. In this way, I think of the stages of grief as milestones to be thoughtfully processed just like the anniversaries.

So think through all of the ways you're going to process your bereavement - those ways that revolve around the calendar and those that revolve around your grief journey. How will you mark those occassions? How will you grow through them? Only you can decide these things, but I'd love to hear what kinds of rituals you've incorporated into your process to make the most of them.


Images: Niklas RhöseJeff Sheldon

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