Today’s cats have an average lifespan of around 15 years, up from just 7 years in the 1980s. While some small dog breeds frequently live into their teens, large and giant breed dogs typically have much shorter average lifespans, only gracing our lives with their presence for 7-9 years. Because our pets have much shorter lifespans than we do, most pet parents will experience the heartbreaking loss of a pet. For many of us, pets are family, and navigating the stages of grief can be every bit as painful.
The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—as described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, are familiar to many. The late Dr. Wallace Sife, founder of the Association for Pet Loss Bereavement (APLB) expanded on these stages as they relate to pet loss. He eventually labeled six stages of grief that pet parents experience when their beloved animal passes over the Rainbow Bridge.
Dr. Sife’s six stages of grief after pet loss include shock and disbelief; anger, alienation, and distancing; denial and disbelief; guilt; depression; and resolution. Grieving pet parents typically experience all six of these stages. However, as with the Kübler-Ross model, the intensity of each stage and the order they are experienced vary from person to person.
While the stages of grief don’t hit everyone in the same order, the shock is almost always the first. When we are in shock due to the loss of a loved one we aren’t fully able to process the situation. It’s just unbelievable that we will never again hear our furbaby’s voice welcoming us home. It surrounds us in a surreal sense of disbelief.
A sense of numbness often sets in when we are in shock, surrounding us in a surreal sense of disbelief. It protects us from the worst of the pain. For some pet parents, this stage of grief lasts just a short while, while others may require a week or two to move through it.
Anger is a natural response to death. Whether the anger is directed at a speeding car, the doctors, the disease, yourself, or even your beloved pet, it is a normal part of grieving.
Be cautious when acting on feelings of anger incited by loss, however. It is important to remember that while the anger associated with loss is a normal part of grieving, it may not be rooted in reality. During this stage of grief people sometimes feel less social and may isolate themselves somewhat from others.
Denial, like shock, helps us to minimize the pain we feel from a loss. It slows down the process of adjusting to your new reality and helps to emotionally cushion the blow. Denial may also lead you to feel that you are totally fine, well before you actually are.
Many people make the impulsive decision to get a new pet during this stage of grief. Although it is certainly not wrong to get a new pet right away, it is important to examine our motives and our readiness to accept the new pet before starting our search.
Guilt is another a vexing but natural response to the death of a loved one. We are often subject to rumination after loss, worrying over what-ifs and regrets rather than focusing on the good times. While feeling guilt associated with losing a pet is natural, in the majority of cases, it is also unfounded.
The stage of guilt can be easy to wallow in, but it doesn’t need to go on forever. Talk to someone you trust and take positive forward actions to help move through this period. Activities memorializing life with your pet—creating videos or photo album, hosting a fundraiser, or writing down your memories—can be very healing.
This stage of grieving is often the most difficult to navigate. This is when we feel the true weight of our loss. We go through cycles of sadness and apathy, often losing interest in the outside world. It is an isolating experience, but a needed one. It, like the other stages of grief before it, helps us to adapt to our new world.
If you are feeling the weight of your isolation too heavily during this stage, reach out to friends and family that were familiar with your pet. Discussing your sadness and reflecting on moments of happiness can help to process the difficult emotions surrounding the loss.
Resolution is typically the last stage of processing grief. It is when we have finally accepted and come to terms with the loss. We are better able to look back on our memories with happiness—the majority of the mourning has passed.
Although we are no longer struggling with our companion’s death at this point, we may still experience pain, sadness, and even regret. Once we have moved into the resolution stage, survival responses such as denial, guilt, and anger are less likely to emerge.
When we love something, we accept that the warmth of its love is worth the pain of its loss. It is the price we pay, and it is a small price compared to the joy our companions give us. Grief has a different timeline for every situation—especially the stages of grief after pet loss. It can be affected by the depth of the bond you had with your pet, your support system, the type of passing, and your own, unique personality. What passes in just a few weeks for some pet parents may last a year or more for others.
Be kind to yourself, where ever you land on that spectrum, and eventually you will heal.
This year has certainly been a rollercoaster. So whether you’re grieving a loss or just coping with what’s ahead, here are some tips on how to cope with uncertainty.