From hamsters to horses, more than 60 percent of Americans share their home with at least one pet. As a nation, we spend more than 50 billion dollars on our animal companions each year, which is more than double the amount spent just 15 years ago (American Pet Products Association, 2013). Pets provide us with entertainment, protection, companionship, and unconditional love – it’s no wonder many pet owners consider their finned, fury, or feathered friends to be family members. Despite this status however, mainstream society has yet to fully recognize the deep, painful – and often silent – grief that many owners experience with the loss of their pets.
Personally, I have loved and lost my fair share of animal companions – it is the unfortunate price we must pay for allowing such short-lived souls into our hearts. But it wasn’t until the sudden, unexpected death of my special-needs parrot, Albert, that I truly realized the devastation that can accompany pet loss.
Whether you’ve recently lost a pet, or are perhaps anticipating a loss, grief is a normal – and healthy – reaction. In fact, because animals provide us with unconditional love, we sometimes grieve as deep, or even deeper, than we would the death of a human.
The Stages of Grief
It’s important to note that the grief process is not linear, but more like a roller coaster. Some people do not experience all stages, or in this order.
Denial – Often the first stage of grief, this can occur when a pet dies, or even when a pet is dying or goes missing. Denial is a normal coping mechanism that protects us from shock as well as the sadness that follows. While denial is usually played out within the first 24 hours, it can be prolonged if the pet has a terminal illness, for example.
Bargaining – Bargaining with God or other higher power, and even the pet, is common, especially with an anticipated loss. We eventually realize, however, that bargaining doesn’t work, which can lead to anger.
Anger – Again, this can occur with death and anticipatory loss. We may find ourselves directing anger at family members, friends, therapists, and of course, the vet. Sometimes we turn the anger inward, resulting in guilt.
Guilt – Not an actual stage, but guilt is pervasive, hindering us from moving from one stage to another, and perhaps the biggest roadblock to healing. How many have ever said “if only I had…”
Sorrow – The first few stages are really good at one thing – keeping sorrow at bay. But eventually sadness takes over and can affect many aspects of our lives This is a time for lots of tears, and you may experience trouble with sleeping or eating. But as hard as it is, sorrow is actually the healing stage. It leads to resolution, and we eventually begin to accept the reality of the situation.
Resolution – This final stage brings with it the realization your pet is gone, nothing can be done to change that, and that you will get through this. You can look at photos and smile, rather than cry. You see the world in color again. And perhaps, with time, you may even begin to consider sharing your life with another animal.