When we first experience a loss, such a when someone close to us dies, everyone around is sympathetic. They offer their condolences and let us cry on their shoulders if needed. However, at some point, our friends stop being so patient with our mourning. It’s as if they expect us to just “get over it” and move on. This is especially true if the deceased is an animal and not a human.
Here's the truth: There is NO timeline on grief. In fact, it varies with each person. Some are still experiencing years after the death while others process their emotions more quickly. Both ends of the spectrum are normal, though the speed with which you process your grief has nothing to do with how healthy you are in handling it. What matters is whether you face it honestly and allow yourself to grow through the experience.
What I've learned through my own experience with pet loss is that it's more beneficial to allow grief to become part of who I am than to deny it and run away. Doing so makes me more compassionate, more forgiving, and less judgemental. Facing my reaction to the loss of Tia and Spartacus has been an opportunity for me to develop better interpersonal skills that I can use to relate to others in the future. This journey has also helped me appreciate those who are still with me and made it possible for me to drop some of the protective walls I've erected over the years in order to be more genuine and sincere. I am so grateful for Tia and Spartacus for what they taught me in life, and also for what letting them go has taught me now that they're gone. I encourage you to welcome each stage of grief in a spirit of learning to see what you will discover about yourself, too.
Understanding the Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is best know for her development of the five stages of grief. She observed that people often cycle through similar emotions following loss, and outlined the most common in this way:
- Denial: This is the point in which we are in shock; what happened doesn’t seem real to us. We might even pretend it’s not happening.
- Anger: Reality starts to set in and the pain of grief is intense. We might lash out at others.
- Bargaining: Also known as questioning, we might ask, “what if we had done things differently?” This phase is an attempt to postpone the inevitable.
- Depression: In this stage, depression can come in two forms: regret and guilt or overall sadness.
- Acceptance: At this point, we come to terms with the loss. We’ll still miss our pets and mourn the loss, but we’ve reached at point at which we’re at peace.
Now, the kicker: There are no neat stages of grief that anyone follows. In fact, these stages can occur in any order. You might be depressed first, then angry. You may remain in a certain stage for a prolonged period of time. Or you may repeat stages. Not everyone reaches acceptance either, especially when there’s no time to prepare for the loss.
In other words, grief is not tidy. You cannot check off little boxes as you go through the stages of grief because one may come right back to bite you in a month or five. Grief is work, often ongoing. And it takes time.
Re-looking At The Tasks of Mourning (via Worden)
In recent years, mental health professionals have started to question whether the Kübler-Ross stages of grief are the right fit for understanding this journey. In face, William Worden has postulated that it's more helpful to think in terms of of the "tasks of mourning" - it's a flexible model that includes four particular emotional tasks you need to complete in order to get to a new state of equilibrium. Here they are:
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To process the pain of grief
- To adjust to a world without the deceased
- To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
These tasks are not to be completed in any particular order or along any particular timeline. They're meant to be adapted to each individual situation and to encourage the griever to be active in their own healing.
By thinking of grief in this way, we change our involvement from passive observer to persons with agency. We are given tasks that keep us focused on the journey of healing and recovery and the new life we are forming. Perhaps most importantly in my view is that this way of conceptualizing pet grief makes it more about growth and the process. And in making that mindset shift, perhaps we free ourselves from feeling like we have to rush through it to get to the other side.
The Dangers of Rushing Grief
I've spoken to lots of people during my grieving process and many caution me not to get stuck. But I think in doing so, they're missing the point. Pressure from society to rush through bereavement and get to acceptance faster is based on false understandings of how mental health works. As we've seen, there are emotional things we need to accomplish in the grieving process, and rushing only impedes our ability to grow. This is as important when a pet dies as when a human companion passes away.
And yet, too often people are unwilling to allow us to feel the pain we feel. They're quick to dismiss how deep our loss is (hello disenfranchised grief). They simply don’t understand that our animal companion was as big a part of our lives. This lack of understanding only compounds what we’re going through at this time.
But this is only one way that rushing the mourning process is unwise. Here are some of the problems with speeding through grief:
- Cognitive Dissonance: Unresolved grief can lead to cognitive dissonance. In this case, we might honestly tell ourselves we’re OK and all is well. We try to put on a brave face with others so that they’re not worried. Inside, though, we’re slowly torturing ourselves because the sadness, the emptiness, and the hurt are still quite pronounced. The external and internal worlds don't match and deepen our pain.
- Prolonging Grief: When we try to rush grief, we ultimately prolong it. It’s much healthier to allow ourselves the time to come to terms with what happened. In the long run, we fare much better when we can compute our emotions and be angry, sad, depressed, shocked, frustrated, sorrowful, empty, lonely, or whatever feeling we have wrapped up inside our body.
- Getting Stuck: Consider grief like a clogged sink. We can pretend that as long as the water goes through, there’s not a problem and avoid calling a plumber. We can plunge it and try to fix it ourselves. Eventually, the water is going to back up and won’t drain. This is what happens when we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. At some point, pretending no longer works and the emotions we’ve stored up overflow, just like that backed-up sink.
There might not be any quick fixes to grief, like with a sink. But, when we acknowledge our pain, we open up all kinds of opportunities to grow and learn. Never let anyone else dictate the terms of your mourning or suggest that you should be “over it by now.” Deal with your grief as it comes and know there are many others, like us, who fully understand it’s a process.
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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.