In some regards, losing a pet is more difficult than losing a family member.
When a family member dies, we’re given space to mourn their loss and time to accept our grief. But when a pet dies, we’re often met with insensitivity and impatience.
Working through your grief is important, regardless of whether it’s a pet or a person. And while no one’s path through grief is the same, there are some common stages of grief that most people experience.
The first stage, for many, is denial.
This happens when you first learn of the loss and your mind is struggling to reconcile what you’ve been told with the reality you’d accepted as fact. Your pet was a part of your life; now, suddenly, they’re not.
This is a defense mechanism–in fact, it’s an incredibly common one. People often rely on denial when faced with anxiety. And while it may seem strange to think of your initial grief in terms of anxiety, that’s exactly what’s happening.
You’re anxious about the prospect of facing life without your pet. So you deny reality in the hopes that it’s a bad joke.
It’s not a bad joke, though. That’s where anger comes in.
When reality sets in, you have to deal with the reality of your pain. You also have to deal with the unfairness of the situation.
Everything must die eventually. But our anger leads us to question why it had to happen now, to this animal.
This frustration and helplessness manifests in many ways. You may lash out at your loved ones. You may lash out at God. Some small part of you may even be angry with your pet for leaving you alone.
Of course, denial doesn’t go away when anger sets in. That’s when bargaining comes into play.
As you take out your frustration, you know, in your heart of hearts, that your anger won’t change anything. It’s not a bad joke, and you’re not going to wake up to find it was all a bad dream and your pet is snoring next to you.
But you want it to be a bad dream. You want it so desperately.
So, you make a truce, as it were, with God. You’ll devote the rest of your life to helping others, if only you can wake up to realize it was all a bad dream.
You want your life returned to you, and you’re willing to go all-in with God if it means you can have it back.
This can also take the form of what-ifs. What if you had walked your dog more often? What if you had gotten that medication? What if you had been home? What if, what if, what if.
Eventually, though, you have to realize that all your bargains and what-ifs won’t work, just like your anger didn’t change anything. You have to face your pain.
This is when most people stumble into depression.
Once you stop bargaining, you have to sit with your sadness and understand the nature of your loss. But that doesn’t mean the loss makes sense, which means that many people have no idea how to deal with their sadness.
For many, this results in situational depression, or depression resulting from a concrete situation (as opposed to clinical depression, which results from a chemical imbalance in the brain). It’s temporary, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
However, some people do get lost in their depression. Sometimes, situational depression can spark off depressive tendencies you already had, or spark a depressive episode if you already had clinical depression. This is where depression and complicated grief can get tangled together.
The final stage is acceptance.
This is when you stop denying, stop running, and stop drowning yourself in your sorrow.
Acceptance isn’t a happy stage, but it is a stage of finding peace with your loss, inasmuch as that’s possible.
If your grief is complicated by mental health issues, sometimes it’s not as simple as being strong. Sometimes it’s a matter of seeking help.
But you can find peace and, yes, happiness after the loss of a pet.
Moving Beyond the Stages of Grief
Moving beyond the stages of grief requires two things: willingness to face your feelings and time.
Grief is temporary, but it is valid. Part of living life is recognizing how fleeting it is and learning to choose joy over hopelessness.