The Stages of Grief When Losing a Dog
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).
Many perceive their canine companions to be their soul mates—special heart dogs who are very cherished and loved.
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.
There are many outlets for anger such as talking about it or perhaps being more physical by running, engaging in a sport, or punching a pillow and yelling.
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.
Feelings of apathy and exhaustion may take over. This may appear similar to clinical depression, but in the case of grief, it's often a normal response to a loss.
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.— Kübler-Ross
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.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli