Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
The stages of grief when losing a dog are based on the response to loss as described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the book On Death and Dying, published in 1969. Inspired by her work with terminally ill patients, Kübler-Ross researched death and those faced with it at the University of Chicago medical school. Her project involved several seminars which, along with her research and interviews, evolved and became the foundation for her popular book. According to popular psychology, the five stages of grief are:
The Stages of Grief Are Non-Linear
Kübler-Ross found that grief goes through several stages and that the stages of grief may vary based on individual factors. Not everybody goes through all of the stages in the same way and some will not go through them in perfect order. Even Kübler-Ross pointed out years later that the stages of grief are non-linear and a predictable progression is not expected.
Many grieving dog owners report feeling as if their emotions go up and down, making them wonder whether they will ever get over the loss. The ultimate answer is that we never really "get over" loss, but we only learn how to better cope with it. The only sure way to deal with grief is to go through it and deal with it.
What Makes the Human-Canine Bond so Special?
Losing a dog can be such a heartbreaking experience that dog owners have compared it to losing a close family member or friend. Some dog owners (perhaps with a bit of guilt) even go on to describe that the pain felt from losing a dog is even more intense than that experienced from losing a close family member or friend (or that the feeling was quite different).
The bond between a dog and its owner is a very strong one. Dogs accept us for who we are, and the unconditional love they provide us with makes us very appreciative of having them in our lives. It is normal to feel a sinking feeling of depression, perhaps even desperation, after losing a furry friend after so many years spent together.
It's as if the whole balance of life is gone. With more and more people perceiving dogs as furry family members, dogs and their families form strong units that are in a perfect state of homeostasis. Then, along comes death as a result of an accident, aging, or some terminal illness, and that blissful state of homeostasis is gone for good; the family unit is now out of balance.
Stage 1: Denial
Denial may feel like an odd feeling to go through, especially when dealing with a long illness where death was expected. Yet, when the dog actually dies, the dog owner is often surprised to face feelings of shock and deep sadness. Nothing, even knowing that death is around the corner, seems to prepare the dog owner for the loss of their beloved dog.
Denial Is Often Accompanied by Shock
Shock soon seeps in. The water bowl is full, the dog's bed is empty, the leash is laying down lifeless on the table, and there is nobody to greet the owner upon coming home. Dogs' lives may not be as long as we might hope them to be, but they are certainly long enough to cause deep shock when our dogs are no longer with us. Years of daily habits and routines are gone.
This is not really denying that the death has actually occurred, but instead, it’s more of a sense of disbelief: "I can't believe he's gone for good. How can this even be possible?" These thoughts often cause tears to flow over the surreality of the events.
In the denial stage, you are not living in ‘actual reality,’ rather, you are living in a ‘preferable’ reality . . . . Interestingly, it is denial and shock that help you cope and survive the grief event. Denial aids in pacing your feelings of grief. Think of it as your body’s natural defense mechanism saying 'Hey, there’s only so much I can handle at once.'
— Christina Gregory, PhD
As odd as it is, shock, denial, and feeling numb offer the grieving person a coping strategy that is meant to help survive the loss. It's nature's way of protecting grieving dog owners from going through a situation that may be overwhelming and just too much to process at once. Denial helps one to manage the painful feelings at an unconscious level one piece at a time. It helps provide some breaks from the intense pain.
Day after day, as we replay our dog's last moments (which is, by the way, a natural way to deal with trauma), we get more and more used to the idea that Rover is no longer with us. The loss starts to gradually feel a bit more real, which helps us move from denial towards the next parts of the grieving process.
Stage 2: Anger
Anger may take different forms during the grieving process. Dog owners may be angry with themselves, with God, with others. They may be angry with the whole situation as if they could have willingly stopped death from occurring.
It Is Common to Ask Questions
Thoughts such as, "It's so unjust that my dog had to suffer so much," and "Why are other dogs with the same disease living longer?" may be present in parts of this stage. Anger may also be directed towards veterinarians under the form of: "Why didn't my vet suggest this diagnostic test before?"
As mentioned, anger may also be directed towards God: "Why did you have to take my dog from me?" Dog owners with this type of anger may not like others telling them that it was simply God's plan. They may have prayed to God when their dogs were sick in hopes of healing, and now they are angry that God didn't fulfill their wishes.
Anger Is Simply a Symptom of Pain
Anger may also take place if a dog owner did many things that should have increased the dog's life expectancy. A feeling of injustice may take place: "Why did my dog get sick if I always fed him the best foods?" or "Why are my neighbor's dogs who are eating lousy foods healthier than my dog? Life is not fair!"
Anger during grieving is simply a sign of pain—pain against the unfairness of life. It's a form of progression, as it entails externalizing feelings by allowing them to surface. As with other stages of grief, it's important to accept anger and to let it out rather than hide it.
Guilt Is Anger Turned Inward
Guilt is often part of the anger stage, as it's anger turned inward and on oneself, explains Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler in the book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages. Guilt also often accompanies the bargaining stage.
Guilt may easily spread and get out of hand just like an invasive plant, reaching many areas—from how a disease was managed to when a dog was put to sleep. "What if I had my dog diagnosed earlier?" "What if I insisted on doing a particular test?" "What if I euthanized too early?" "What if I waited too long?"
Second-Guessing Is Unproductive
Second-guessing appears to affect many dog owners (some call it the "coulda, woulda, shoulda stage") causing them to wonder what the outcome could have been if they did things differently. This mental torture is not productive at all as it actually stalls the healing process. Although guilt is considered a normal part of the grieving process, Dr. Kübler-Ross finds that guilt may be one of the most painful stages.
The Difference Between Guilt and Regret
One important distinction should be made between guilt and regret. Guilt is based on some purposeful wrongdoing, whereas regret is something that a person would have liked to have done differently. This distinction may help dog owners better cope with the feelings of "guilt" that they may experience.
It's therefore important for dog owners to realize that, whatever the circumstance, it was never their intention for their beloved dog to get hurt, and that whatever decision was made, it was made out of pure love. Although as dog owners we would like to spare our dogs from the effects of aging, accidents, and disease, it is impossible to control everything in life.
Reflection Is a Healthy Part of Grief
Last but not least, we must reflect. Would our deceased dogs want us to suffer or be unhappy for something belonging to the past that cannot be changed? It would be far more productive to cherish the good memories. Therefore, any time guilt creeps up with its ugly head, it would be best to shift focus on to some positive thoughts such as all the joy and happiness our dogs have provided us with during their lifetimes.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Bargaining means to "negotiate the terms and conditions of a transaction," but in this case, we are not dealing with a business deal—we are trying to cope with the threat of loss and the actual loss.
Bargaining often shows up in the earlier stages of anticipatory grief. We may have been "bargaining" and hoping that our dogs did not have cancer, that our dogs would not suffer from the disease process, and then later on, that our dogs would die peacefully.
Once death occurs, bargaining involves hoping that we will see our beloved dogs again in the future, that they will be watching over us, and that they will be in a better place—whether over the rainbow bridge or in heaven. We may then also bargain that death will spare our other dogs, at least giving us some time to recuperate from the painful loss. As bargaining subsides, we delve deeper into the loss, to a point where the mind ends up reaching the clear conclusion that our beloved dog is truly gone.
Stage 4: Depression
As denial and anger flow away, the loss becomes more and more tangible, and dog owners delve deeper into the present state. The grief now enters a deeper level, focusing on the sensation of emptiness. Dog owners may feel as if getting up from bed is a burden, they may no longer have an appetite, or they may start neglecting themselves.
Although others may think that depression after losing a dog is abnormal and is something requiring a fix, depression is expected after a loss, and losing a dog is certainly a deep loss. Not feeling any type of sadness would be abnormal. This is the stage where it becomes more and more crystal clear that our beloved dog will never come back.
Sadness and depression must be experienced deep to the core in order for the grieving person to heal. It's best to learn to accept the sadness rather than try to push it away or mask it. Instead of repelling it, it is better to welcome it, sailing directly through the storm rather than around it.
Depression will eventually leave once it has served its purpose: to help us adapt to something that we may have a hard time accepting. As one gets stronger, depression will eventually leave, albeit temporarily paying a visit every now and then when the chance presents.
Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Right when things seem to have become unbearable, acceptance pops up on the horizon. This is when we start having more good days than bad. Life starts bringing enjoyment once again, although we may feel a bit guilty at times because we think that enjoying life is a bit like betraying our beloved dog.
Learning to Live With Loss
Acceptance entails recognizing the loss and learning to live with it—to come to peace with what has happened. This is a time when our energies are withdrawn from the loss and instead focused on investing in life again.
Learning to Enjoy Life Again
If dogs could talk, this is ultimately what dogs may wish for us. They want us to enjoy life rather than mourn their loss. They want us to cherish the wonderful memories when they were healthy, rather than thinking about their last days.
Acceptance doesn't mean we have reached the final end of the journey. While acceptance may appear to provide a sense of closure, many dog owners attest that they really never get over the grief of losing their dogs, they just get through it.
Grief Comes and Goes
Grief is just lingering around the corner when you let your guard down. There may be days where the waves of grief appear to be just a distant memory, but then it just makes a comeback in a moment of weakness. Yet, grief at this point may feel almost bittersweet compared to the raw sensations of the earliest stages.
Many people mistakenly believe that 'acceptance' means we are 'cured' or 'all right' with the loss. But this isn’t the case at all. The loss will forever be a part of us, though we will feel it more some times than others. Acceptance simply means we are ready to try and move on—to accommodate ourselves to this world without our loved one.
— Dr. Christina Hibbert
- On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler.
- Dr. Christina Hibbert: 5 Stages of Grief
- Psycom: The Five Stages of Grief: An Examination of the Kubler-Ross Model by Christina Gregory, PhD.
Questions & Answers
Question: Our beloved Espen was attacked by two vicious dogs two houses from our front yard while walking a week ago. It was so helpful to read this today. I hurt so bad and miss her with every breath. These dogs had killed before, I had no idea they had escaped their fence but I'm dealing with so much guilt and pain. She was such a sweet personality, slept with us, loved us so much. We are broken over it. Any advice?
Answer: So sorry you have lost your dog is such a traumatic way. It is very hard to lose a dog, and more and more support systems are being made available to grieving owners considering the extent of pain we feel. Lots of guilt and "what ifs" tend to run through our minds and that's a normal stage of grieving. You have no fault other than living in a place with such inconsiderate neighbors who leave their dogs at large despite a history of killing, but that's not a fault, it's just an unfortunate situation that you could have never predicted. Your dog was loved deeply, may all the good memories prevail in this difficult time. I wished there was a way to lessen the grief, but it seems like it comes in stages, and we must navigate the waves of sorrow. I truly believe that, out of all the lessons of unconditional love, the joy of living in the moment, and the noble art of forgiveness our dogs teach us, we must also learn to live our lives without them and be strong, focusing on considering ourselves honored to have met them. Sending you a virtual hug.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 25, 2020:
Hi, so sorry for the loss of your dear Toby. You can spoil your dog with toys that keep her mind occupied such as stuffed Kongs, Buster Cubes, Kong Wobbler etc. Here are more tips for dogs grieving the loss of another dog: https://pethelpful.com/pet-ownership/Ways-to-Help-...
daniochoaag7 on July 21, 2020:
Hi Adrienne - thank you for your article. My best friend's doggy (Toby) died today of old age but he was part of the family of course. What's the best way to help her through it. What kind of gifts can I give her that won't make her more sad. Thanks for your help.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 09, 2020:
Hi Jamine, it's so true it's very difficult to lose your first dog and it's something you will never forget. It doesn't get any easier though when you lose your second or third dog. Thanks for stopping by.
Jasmine Lynn from England on March 31, 2020:
Thanks for the article Adrienne. The first dog you lose is something you'll never forget. Glad there's someone speaking to those who are going through it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 31, 2020:
Gemma, so sorry for your loss. It's so tough to have them fill up our lives with so much joy and then lose them. Their loss literally turns your life upside down. Thinking of you during this difficult time.
Gemma Dyson on March 30, 2020:
My best friend died on monday 30th march 2020 he was special friend to me i feel lost without him
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 10, 2020:
So sorry for your loss of Marty. At least, she went peacefully in your bed around you without suffering. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
Terry Camacho on February 28, 2020:
Hi our beautiful french bulldog passed in her sleep with us in our bed last friday, I cannot stop crying, I miss her so much she was like a person always there for us.. It hurts so bad, I do not know what to do.. I miss her so much her name was Marty and she would have been 11 on march 27th Please pray for Marty and us. So hard
Alan Hill on January 26, 2020:
I just put my little girl down on Friday. I have never felt the loss, the pain, the guilt that this has created... everything I knew and brought meaning to me left me when she died. When I got up in the morning, when I came home. The time she spent in my lap as I worked. The favorite thing of listening to music on my laptop and drinking wine while she would nudge my idle hand to pet her. This all left me and I'm empty inside. Its a tsunami of pain, it wells up in me, consumes me and then leaves me with tears and confusion. All while life goes on and there is no time to stop and pause and reflect. I know it will get better, life has taught me that but in a weird way I don't it to. To go on and not have this pain feels life like a betrayal. I just wish she wasn't gone and no one or other dog ever will replace her. She was unique.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 13, 2019:
Maia, so sorry for your loss of your sweet Polly. Dogs really touch the deep parts of our hearts and make an impact on our lives with their pure love. I am sure Polly is watching over you and wants to wipe your tears away telling you to cherish all the good memories. When I got my first dogs, I didn't know better and used some harsh training methods that now I deeply regret. I think dogs though forgive us and understand our mistakes. The important thing is learning from them and making changes in our lives-always for the better.
Maia on December 09, 2019:
I lost my 13 year old Shih Tzu-Maltese dog, Polly and I miss her so much. I feel horrible for the mean things I would do to her and I can't bear it. I cry almost every night because she used to sleep in my room every night because I was scared. Bedtime has become a lonely and miserable time for me. I used to fall asleep to her snoring and would wake up to her fluffy little face. For some reason, I feel like the more time that goes on the farther I'm getting from her. I remember how she had soft white fur and a beautiful set of eyes, one baby blue and the other a deep, rich brown. She was my best friend, always there for me through hard times. Sometimes I go down in the basement and smell her bed because it still smells like her. It makes me cry. It feels like I will never heal. She has been there for my whole life and now she is just gone. She was put down on November 9 last month and I'm trying to remember what it was like to have her. She did so many funny things like when I would stretch for a workout, she would do it with me. I know it was the right thing to put her down because she had diabetes, arthritis and extremely poor oral care. She was very old and could barely walk and showed clear signs that she wasn't doing well. I tell myself that despite the fact I did mean things to her sometimes, she new she was loved. It's just really hard for me. Now it's Christmas time and Polly isn't here to celebrate it with us. I just feel so lost and confused with all these emotions. It's a stone weighing down on my heart to know that my precious little angel is gone. But I believe she is my guardian angel now and she wants me to be happy. I know I can make it up to her by being kind to everyone with pure love just like she did. I want to make sure I have no regrets the next time someone I love dies. I believe that there is a Better Place somewhere and that I will someday meet Polly there again. I know she left this world in the best possible way, in my family's arms with hugs and kisses and that when she was put to sleep, she woke up in Heaven. I know that for a long time, it's going to be hard but I will make it through. Thank you so much for listening, I really needed to tell someone how I feel about this.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 09, 2019:
Losing one dog is devastating enough, can't imagine how it would feel to lose three in a such a short time. So sorry for your losses.
Seven Close on December 05, 2019:
I have lost three dogs, sisters, in 3 months. The pain is unbearable. They were my life.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 05, 2019:
JenniSherry, so sorry for your loss of Cosette. It is very difficult, but things seem to get a little bit better each day. It's important to remind ourselves that our dogs as loving beings don't want us to suffer so much from their loss.
JenniSherry on October 06, 2019:
Thank you for this article, we just had to let Cosette, our 10 yr old pug go suddenly due to various health issues. I don't know if I will ever recover, as a person who suffers from depression and anxiety, Cosette was a calming companion for me, as well as a major part of our family. Appreciate the information found here and will check out the rest of the site now that I am here!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 27, 2019:
So sorry for your loss of Pippa. Brain tumors are horrible. You have done all you can. Sending you my deepest condolences.
Bethany caroline on September 26, 2019:
We let go of our 3 year old boxer Pippa yesterday afternoon.
We did the best we could medically with a MRI and a specialist but she had a brain tumor and there isn't anything we could have done.
Were 4 weeks off expecting our first child. Pippa was supposed to be our daughter's best friend. I had images of walking with baby and Pippa and had been teaching her about being gentle and she was so intrigued with the nursery etc. Pippa was my baby. She would jump up and position herself so that I was cradling her like a child.
3 years wasn't long enough with her and I feel so empty.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2019:
So sorry for your loss of your beautiful Sasha. I used to think it this way too, but after losing my dogs and going through the pain twice, I started thinking it the opposite way. In order to not feel the pain, it would mean never having had our wonderful dogs in our lives in the first place. This would be a true loss. Our dogs have taught us us so much and have filled out so many days our lives with joy. I hope this little thought can help ease a little bit of pain, as it did with me.
KEN LAST on September 08, 2019:
My beautiful Shi Tzu Sasha passed away a month ago. His rear joints went completely which made it harder as he was so enjoying life-his meals and being with me. I am so struggling with grief as I loved him and had known it for years. The problem having pets in our lives, it can only end in heartbreak.
Justin on August 11, 2019:
Thank you for the helpful words. It is now approaching 8 months since I lost the love of my life. A little beagle mix named Smuckers. I still can’t seem to get over the loss of her. I know she is not in pain anymore, I beat myself up for not being a better dad to her. Smuckers was my life, I miss her so much.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 05, 2019:
Jo, so sorry for you loss. I am at the opposite side. My dog passed away from spleen cancer (a histiocytic sarcoma) that ruptured. She got very, very weak and we were unable to put her in the car on time to see the vet. My thoughts are therefore having waited too long instead. But second guessing, is just part of grief. One way or the other we always seem to feel bad and I think it's just because we cannot accept losing our best friends. Hugs to you at this difficult time.
Jo on April 03, 2019:
Adrienne- Thank you for this article. Particularly the part about dogs having a good day before they are close to dying. Our beloved Golden, Maggie was put to sleep last night at home. She had been in such good spirits and back to “normal” for most of the day that I was second guessing my decision and am beside myself with guilt today. She was just diagnosed Friday- likely with hemangiosarcoma- but had a huge tumor she was not a candidate for surgery. She was wasting away and had a ticking time bomb in her tat could rupture at any moment. Your words have given me a sense of peace in a very difficult morning,
Russ Davis on February 25, 2019:
Our beloved rescue dog died the day before Thanksgiving! Hard to give thanks for that! She was 11. I feel depressed but am getting better! I miss her so, and it was so sudden but she had a great life! Soon we will give another dog a great life, but we had just moved into a new house, her "forever house". We are going to spread her ashes around a pink dogwood so this can indeed be her forever house!
Cas on January 27, 2019:
We woke up Thursday morning to find our 8 yr old Cavachon Tilly dead, half in her bed and half on the carpet. She had probably died two hours before we found her and according to her vet and died of something catastrophic like a blood clot or heart attack. Her twin brother had been with her for those two hours. We are obviously watching her brother very carefully and have increased his exercise and treats and although we are trying to keep to our usual routine we haven’t left him alone. He is eating and drinking and although he clearly looks for her when we go for walks ( they were inseparable and hadn’t been parted since birth even though we tried.) he seems to be coping...such a brave little man.
I am absolutely heart broken. My baby girl was the funniest, most loving and caring little girl and such a character. I can’t imagine life without her and her funny little ways. She, as does her twin brother, brought such love and happiness into our home and we will never forget her or stop loving her. We brought her ashes home today and I am struggling when I think that just four days ago she was full of fun and running circles around us.
Thank you my beautiful babygirl Tilly for making our life so much better. We wish with all our hearts you could have stayed with us longer.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 19, 2018:
So sorry for the loss of your beloved Serg. Unrealistic feelings are a normal part of the grieving process. The numb feeling is the way our mind protects from something that hurts too much. All I can say is that it get a bit better as time goes by, although our dogs will be always deeply missed. I lost my dog in August and it still hurts. Some days more than others.
chiamaka ajaero on November 16, 2018:
I just cant believe i lost my serg..i dont know how to keep the pieces together...it just does not feel real that i wont be seeing my dog again.am so devastated.i miss u...serg!!!
MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on August 28, 2018:
I am sorry to hear of your grief at the loss of a faithful companion, as most of us see our pets. I will happily make it available to my readers who are mostly pet-lovers. Thank you.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 28, 2018:
Hello MarieLB, I wrote this at a difficult time after having lost my dog to a very aggressive form of cancer. I was trying to internally process my feelings and thought to see what happens when people grieve and noticed that the same feelings can be applied to pet losses. Feel free to share, I hope it helps others in the same situation! Best regards.
MarieLB from YAMBA NSW on August 28, 2018:
Brilliant idea Alexadry. One finds a lot of aids to assist those grieving a person, but unless you are very lucky, you may not find many around you who could understand how a pet can have claws set deep into your heart, and why you are so grief stricken. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I hope that you will not mind my putting a link on my pet pages. This is pure gold to us pet lovers.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 22, 2018:
Thank you so much Heidi for your kind thoughts. Writing about these stages has helped me better understand what we are feeling these days. My other dog is greiving too!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 20, 2018:
Oh, Adrienne, my heart and thoughts are with you on your loss of your beloved Petra! I've been there so many times, and through all the stages you talked about in this post!
Some people think that getting counseling for the loss of a pet is trivial and silly. Not so! I hope that people realize that these animal-human relationships are just as valid as any human-human bond, and not to discount their feelings and emotions.
Wishing you peace and strength, as well a comfort from the happy memories of your time with Petra!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 19, 2018:
Claudia Mitchell on August 19, 2018:
I'm so sorry about Petra. It's amazing how much losing a pet affects us. Take care.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 19, 2018:
Thank you Peggy, so sorry for your loss. It's so true that it takes time, it's not very easy to process.I lost several people close to me and then my cat several years ago, and I know what acceptance feels like. It's interesting how our mind during the intial stages of grief uses self-protective mechanisms to shield us from too much pain. Sometimes I like to imagine my dog still sleeping on her bed at night.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 19, 2018:
So sorry for both of your losses. It is now 8 months since we had to have our dear little Skippy put to sleep. Grieving takes time and each of us does it in different ways although the stages you mentioned are typical. That goes for people as well as pets.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 19, 2018:
Yes Claudia, I perfectly remember your comment. I am so sorry for yor loss. It is very, very tough. We are going through this too right now as we lost our beloved Petra last Tuesday. Things still seem surreal, but then when it hits it really hurts. It seems to come in waves. We are trying to be strong for our other dog as he is missing her a lot too. I haven't had the strength yet to remove all her medications from the counter. Sending you hugs at this difficult time.
Claudia Mitchell on August 19, 2018:
I had to come read this right away. About 2 months ago I commented on another one of your articles about eye issues and sadly our beagle's eye did not get better, it got worse. We took him to a specialist and back to the regular vets but nothing worked. We lost him about a week and a half ago. We think he had a tumor. He developed another large mass in his hind end quickly as well. What is really sad is how fast he went down hill. When he started twitching constantly and drinking more water than he ever had, and had stopped eating completely, we knew he shouldn't suffer anymore. We are still in the midst of grieving. In fact this morning I was cutting up some cantaloupe and had to shed a tear because I would always give him a piece. Not quite sure where we are in this process yet.