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Pet Loss Stages of Grief

The following in an excerpt from my recently published book, "Beyond the Horizon: A Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet".

Below are stages of grief commonly experienced after the death of a companion animal. It is important to note that the grieving process does not always occur in a linear or predictable fashion and everyone will process through the loss in their own way and in their own time. These four stages were predominate themes underscored in my scholarly research on the Human-Canine Bond and Pet Loss (2006) and I have seen variations of these stages in my clinical work with bereaved pet owners. These stages are in no way absolute but are meant to provide a general guide and offer a way to conceptualize one's response to the death of a beloved companion animal.

1. Shock and Disbelief

In the days or weeks following the death of a beloved animal companion, it is common to experience psychological shock; a sort of emotional anesthesia. Just as our bodies can experience physical shock in response to pain, so can our psyche experience psychological shock in the wake of emotional trauma such as that experienced after the death of a loved one. In addition to the Physiological response, shock can be thought of as a Psychological coping mechanism to help deal with emotions that are experienced as too overwhelming. During this stage, it is common for bereaved pet owners to experience; emotional numbness, feeling emotionally “frozen”, denial and repression of painful emotions, disbelief, inability to cry, feeling as if you are functioning on “auto-pilot, dissociative features such as observing what is going on from afar, being in a “fog" and calling out behaviors. It is important to note that emotional numbness is not the result of lack of feeling or caring but rather a protective response to the trauma and our way of repressing the shocking reality that is too difficult to accept. It is very common to go in and out of shock and for the shock to be triggered by painful circumstances such as; picking up and /or viewing the ashes, finding pieces of fur or an unexpected toy, looking a old pictures or videos etc.

2. Painful Emotions

As touched on previously, individuals may find themselves in a state of shock and disbelief as a means to defend against painful emotions. However, at such time when the shock and disbelief begins to fade, it is common to begin to feel an emergence of painful emotions. During the painful emotions phase of grieving, the bereaved begins to better understand and acknowledge the permanency of the death. At such time when the shock and numbness diminish, you may begin to experience emotions such as; anger, depression, guilt, sadness, fear, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, helplessness, irritability, and grief pangs. Counterfactual thinking such as “what if’” and “if only” is normal during this stage as you begin to wonder if you could have changed the outcome. It is not uncommon for some people to experience an exacerbation of preexisting mental health conditions such as; addictive behaviors, PTSD, clinical depression / mood disorders and unresolved grief during this time.

3. Living in the Past

A common experience I have discovered in both my clinical work and scholarly research is the tendency for bereaved pet owners to live in or desire to stay in the past. Living in the past is often times experienced as; a sense of ambivalence towards the future, resistant to change, lack of desire to engage in new activities and a need to engage in the same activities and patterns as when the pet was still alive. Living in the past is an outgrowth of painful feelings in such that the connection to your animal companion is preserved through engagement in these familiar emotions and patterns. In this sense, the experience of living in the past serves to link you to your pet and the concept of “moving on” is often times met with resistant. During this stage, it can be challenging to re-engage in life and is common to focus on a time when your pet was alive and well. During this stage of grief, you may feel guilty doing things without your pet and have the desire to withdraw from people and activities. While still struggling with the loss, you may also feel the need to carry on with “normal” activities. This polarization can be the source of tension and conflict and it is normal to feel a sense of ambivalence from experiencing conflicting emotions at the same time. i.e. the inclination to continue on and re-engage in your life and the desire to stay in the past. I see this stage more in pet loss then human loss and may be due to the disenfranchised nature of the loss and associated grief.

4. Acceptance and Reconciliation

As you move through the trials and tribulations inherent in the grieving process, you may eventually find yourself in the stage of acceptance and reconciliation. Acceptance is the point when you can embrace the inevitability and permanency of the death of your animal companion and reconciliation is the adaptation process of becoming accustomed to an environment and life without your pet. This takes place as you work to integrate the new reality of moving forward and re-engage in life without the physical presence of your beloved pet. At this stage you are able to make sense of what happened and reinvest energy in new ways. The loss no longer consumes the entirety of your emotional energy and you become available to pursue new activities and relationships. It is significant to mention that acceptance and reconciliation does not imply forgetting about or leaving your pet behind. Rather, it is the process of coming to a place whereby you have internalized and embodied the memory of your companion animal, enabling you to keep their essence forever present in your heart and evolving life.

Beyond the Horizon: A Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet.

Julianne C. Corbin, Ph.D.

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