Understanding Grief

Companion animals play important roles in our lives. We may think of and depend on our companion animals as our children, siblings, confidants, support systems and friends. The loss of a pet can affect us much in the same way as losing a human companion in that we can feel the same grief reactions and our grieving process can be much the same.

Grieving is a normal and unavoidable reaction to a loss. It is a psychological response that requires expression and acknowledgement, but grieving is also a reaction that is often misunderstood by others.

When grieving the loss of a companion animal, some people may have said to you: “It’s just a pet” or “You can always get another pet.” You may have heard people say, “At least it was not your child” or  “You still have other pets.”

While these statements may have been offered by well-meaning people, the message we receive can be damaging. The message we receive may be that losing a pet is insignificant and that there is something wrong with us if we have an emotional reaction to the loss.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The loss of a companion animal is significant. When we are allowed to acknowledge and move naturally through our grief reactions, we are not only honoring our pet, but we are taking care of ourselves as well.

Statements that dismiss our feelings are likely coming from people who do not understand the relationship we had with our pets and from people who may want to — but cannot — control our reactions through their statements. However, statements that are made to minimize our grief reactions often make us feel guilty for feeling the way we do. These types of statements encourage us to avoid our feelings and pressure us to get over the loss quickly.

But in reality, minimizing and not recognizing grief can actually prolong the grieving process and does not allow us to move forward. Creating artificial deadlines and expecting grief to disappear creates more stress for the bereaved person.

It is important to remember that, regardless of our loss, we need support, acknowledgement, and validation through our grieving process. It is important to remember that grief is normal, and not to judge the emotions we are feeling. Sometimes we can get support through our friends and family members. Other times we may need professional assistance to help us with our grief. Assistance can be found through counselors, therapists, and clergy members. There are also a number of books and websites about the grieving process that can be helpful. There is a list of resources included in this packet; many of these books may be available at your local library, in bookstores, or online.

Manifestations of Grief

While everyone experiences grief in different ways, there are many reactions that are predictable manifestations of grief. Grief can manifest in physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual levels. Grief may appear in any of these forms before, during, or after our loss. Grief manifestations may also appear simultaneously or individually and we may experience the same reaction several times.

Physical: Crying, sobbing, wailing, shock, numbness, dry mouth, shortness of breath, stomach ache or nausea, tightness in the chest, restlessness, fatigue, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, stiff joints or muscles, body aches, dizziness or fainting

Intellectual: Denial, sense of unreality, inability to concentrate, feeling preoccupied by the loss, experiencing hallucinations concerning the loss, a need to reminisce about the loved one and talk about the circumstances of the loss, a sense that time is passing very slowly, a desire to rationalize or intellectualize feelings about the loss, thoughts or fantasies about suicide (without actual plans or behaviors)

Emotional: Sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety, relief, loneliness, irritability, a desire to blame others for the loss, resentment, embarrassment, self-doubt, lowered self esteem, feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control, feeling hopeless or helpless, feeling victimized, inappropriate affect

Social: Feelings of withdrawal, isolation and alienation, greater dependency on others, rejection of others, feeling rejected by others, reluctance to ask for help, a desire to relocate or move, need to distract oneself from the intensity of the grief

Spiritual: Bargaining with a deity to prevent loss, feeling angry at ones deity when a loss occurs, renewed or shaken religious belief, feelings of being blessed or punished, searching for a meaningful explanation of a loved ones death, visions or dreams concerning a dead loved one, questioning whether or not souls exist, finding a purposeful way to say goodbye (funeral, memorial service, goodbye service)

Grieving is a Process

Everyone experiences death of their companion animal in her or his own personal way. There are many theories on the grieving process, none of which is exactly accurate for each individual.

The following model is a guide for how one may experience the grieving process. People may experience some or all of the phases. People may also move back and forth within and between phases in ways that reflect their  personal processes.

Initial awareness of the loss: This is the phase of “anticipatory grief.” People in this phase realize that may lose their animal and begin to display symptoms of grief. People begin to prepare for the death of their companion animal and begin to say goodbye.

Coping with the loss: This is the phase where death is imminent and people are faced with making end of life decisions including facilitating and supporting the dying process.

Saying ‘Goodbye’: People may choose to say goodbye before, during or after the death of their animal. People may choose euthanasia for their pet and may choose to be present or not for the euthanasia. This is also the phase of burials, cremations, commemorative rituals and memorial ceremonies. Ceremonies and rituals are a helpful and meaningful way to pay tribute to the bond you shared with your animal.

Awareness of the loss: People feel the full extent of their loss in this phase. People may experience adjustments in their daily routine which trigger the grief reaction over and over. The reality of the loss is experienced in this phase and people may need additional support from family and friends or other veterinary or human service professionals.

Recovering from the loss: In this phase people redefine their relationships with their deceased animals and are able to talk about the loss of their animal without intense pain and sadness. It becomes easier to remember the good times one had with their animals and the special characteristics that made their animals unique. People are able to adjust to life without the physical presence of their companion animal.

Personal growth through grief: People are able to find meaning in their animal’s death. They are able to grow emotionally and measure their personal development in terms of recovery from the loss. People may be able to welcome new animals into their lives without feeling guilty or having a sense that they have betrayed their animal that has died.

The information included in this section of our website has been adapted from the book, Stress, Loss and Grief (1984) by Laurel Lagoni, MS, and Suzanne Hetts, PhD, and the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center’s Coping With the Loss of Your Companion Animal (2012). We are grateful to Rena Ledin, MSW, LGSW, who made additional revisions, and the staff of AEVS and BluePearl Veterinary Partners for their contributions.