Grieving a pet is tough. Late last year, I lost my much-adored husky Simba. My beautiful girl apparently had a tumour near an artery that burst, causing a massive internal bleed. It happened in the middle of the night. I was alone and she died in my arms before I even had a chance to get her to the front door. She was only eight years old. I wrapped her in a blanket and lay with her until the vet opened and I could take her in for cremation. My other three dogs, Pepi, Sky and Mookie, lay with us. Sky kept nudging her to wake her up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more heartbreaking.
Grieving a pet is something I never wanted to do, or indeed do again in a hurry, but realistically, with four dogs aged over eight years, I had been preparing myself for the inevitable. That didn’t make it easier when Simba died, and it certainly hasn’t made it any easier after losing her brother, Pepi, last week. Patient, gentle and kind, he was, like his sister, the perfect dog in every way. Pepi died in the same way as Simba – very suddenly. It is just a few short months after Simba.
I am in a state of complete shock. However, the grieving process seems a very different one from my experience with Simba. It could be because I began taking anti-depressants, as I couldn’t see my way out of the darkness of losing Simba. Not for quite a few months. Or perhaps it is because I’ve walked this path recently and have jumped straight to a phase of acceptance? Who knows?
I spoke with Lesley McPherson, Gestalt Therapist and Counsellor about my experience. She explained how the seven stages of grief work.
“Grief doesn’t discriminate,” she told me. “It can hit at any time, whether you’ve lost a partner, parent, friend, or pet. It can happen if you lose a job you love, or if you have to sell a much-loved home. it is also different for every person, and it can be a different experience for the same person facing it for a second or third time.”
Grieving A Pet, Or Anyone, Is Not Linear
Lesley revealed that when grieving a pet, as with losing a loved one, the journey is not a straight one with a definite destination.
“Grief is not linear,” she explains. “In fact, the seven stages of grief are frequently represented in a U shape. People who are grieving find that they moved between the stages, and often back and forth between them. It can also feel like you’ve done your grieving, and days, weeks, months or even years go by and one day the grief comes back with a force so mighty it feels like you’ve been hit in the stomach. Grief often doesn’t leave us, rather we learn to live with it, or we live our lives around it.”
Lesley then explained to me the seven stages of grief, and offered advice on how to cope.
1. Shock And Denial
It’s normal to feel shock and denial when you first move into grief, whether you’re grieving a pet or you’ve lost a job. “These feelings are unavoidable in nearly every situation,” explains Lesley. “It’s a very human response to what has occurred, and it is the way your brain starts to process the event or the loss.
“Reality hits hard. You’re losing or missing something and there is a natural unwillingness to come to terms with this loss.”
2. Pain And Guilt
After the initial shock, you will move into a state where you feel pain and guilt.
“You will begin to question yourself and the chain of events,” says Lesley. “There will be a lot of ‘what if’s and ‘if only’s’. Try your best to accept these feelings, as they perfectly normal, but at the same time, know that you can’t be hard on yourself at this time. While it is natural to experience self doubt, it should never lead to self-loathing.”
3. Anger And Bargaining
It’s also normal to feel anger when grieving a pet, explains Lesley.
“You might be angry at the car that may have hit them, or the person who broke the news to you, or yourself for whatever reason. As you move though this stage, you may find yourself bargaining. You might think, “if I rescue a dog/cat from the pound, I will feel better.” Again, this is perfectly normal, and it’s actually a good sign that you aren’t spending too long being angry and you can see some light. It’s a natural shift.”
4. Depression, Loneliness And Reflection
There is a massively mixed bag of emotions that comes with grieving a pet. “In some people, this can lead to anxiety or depression,” says Lesley. “Others may feel isolated, while many experience reflection and hope.
“This reflection and hope comes with the realisation of events, as well as you knowing that you are OK and you’re still very much in the land of the living. This realisation is important, and it is a sign that you are moving through grieving your loss.”
5. Upward Turn
“As humans, we naturally crave contact, connection and support,” explains Lesley. “During the Upward Turn stage, people who are grieving a pet may find they begin to engage with others again. You may also begin to think seriously about getting a new pet.
“This is the stage where many people regress. Don’t feel as though you’re a failure or lesser if you slip backwards. It is very common. Allow yourself to sit with these emotions, and if they become very overwhelming, please do seek out support or professional help. At the same time, remember that it’s normal to shift between any of the stages of grief from hour to hour, or even minute to minute.”
This stage of grieving is when you realise that you can’t do anything to change the past events. What you can alter though is the way you perceive and react to it.
“This is a new normal for you. This phase is unique to each person. We all have our own way of grieving and it will look and feel different for each persons’ experience of grief. It is important never to compare yourself to others and to take each day, week month at a time.”
7. Acceptance and hope
This stage sees you settling into a state of gratitude for what you had. The years you spent with your pet and the adventures you had. You reach a stage where you have all these beautiful memories, but you accept that their time has come to an end.
“It is you accepting that things never stay the same,” says McPherson. “You realise it is OK and accept that endings are a very normal part of life. You realise that there are new beginnings, too.”
Your Unique Experience Of Grief
To repeat, every person experiences grief in their own way.
“This may mean experiencing all, some or even none of these emotions, advises Lesley. “The length of time an individual stays in any stage will vary, depending on past experiences with grief, as well as the internal resources they can draw on.
“It’s vital that you allow yourself to sit with your emotions, but if at any time they are seriously overwhelming, or you find yourself turning to negative behaviour to cope, I strongly suggest you seek professional counselling for support. This also applies if you find yourself in a dark place for longer than a month or two.”
If you’re struggling with grief, please don’t do it alone. Gidget Foundation Australia and My Grief Assist are just two organisations that offer online support. Lesley McPherson is also available for ZOOM consultations. Get in touch with her here and follow here on Instagram here.