Most of us are aware of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Very often I hear clients say things like “it’s been over a month and I still can’t believe she is gone”, or “she died over a year ago – why don’t I feel acceptance yet?” This idea that we flow through a linear path, starting with loss and ending by embracing that loss, is so ingrained into our language and culture that it has helped shaped how we as a society grieve (or at least how we think we should grieve). In this magical five stage world where grief follows a neat, predictable path, a griever follows the rules, stays on the path, and they end up healed and happy. We know that pets are part of the family, so it would follow that we would progress through these stages in the same way after pet loss.
So, what’s wrong with this picture? Well… a lot, I think! Let’s break it down:
First, the five stages model was actually NOT developed for people grieving the loss of human or animal family member. Contrary to popular belief, the model was first inspired by Kübler-Ross’ work with terminally ill patients and their experiences of dying. When considered from that vantage point, some of the stages make much more sense. However; the model has become widely accepted by the general public and stretched to apply to the grief experience that results from the loss of a loved one.
Second, everyone is different, every grief experience is different, and every loss is different – in every way imaginable. Thinking of the grief process using this model undoubtedly excludes people who don’t fit into it (which, I would argue, is a lot of people). For many of us, losing a pet is already a painfully isolating experience because it isn’t always recognized as a “real” loss. Research has shown that the way humans grieve the loss of their companion animal is very similar to the ways that we grieve our human family members; however those ways don’t typically fit into the 5 stages box. Just because you don’t feel denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – in that exact order – after saying goodbye to your pet doesn’t mean there is something wrong with how you are grieving. You are grieving in exactly the way you need to be.
If this 5 stage idea is so outdated, misunderstood and exclusive, why do we still cling to it? Perhaps it gives us a framework and this feels good to us. It gives us an explanation – any explanation – for what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. It gives us hope. It gives us language to communicate with others. It is human nature to try to make sense of things, and it can be uncomfortable to admit that there are things we can’t possibly understand, things that are too complex, unpredictable, and even unfair. The death of an animal companion whom we’ve shared our days, our beds, our tears, our hugs and our milestones with brings painful and often unbearable emotions and it would be really nice if we could map those feelings out and know exactly what to expect…wouldn’t it?
What are we left with then, if there are no clear rules?
There are plenty other academic models for grief that make more sense, but maybe that’s for another day. In reality, what we are left with is a messy, unpredictable, painful, awkward and incomprehensible process that we have no choice but to push through. The hope is that we somehow get to where we are supposed to be a changed person, maybe even a better person. The important thing to remember is that there are no rules and we need to expect the unexpected. Your needs and your timeline are yours alone – you get to make the rules. If you ever feel uncomfortable with how your grief is progressing, it is important to seek professional support. While you are the only person that can process and define your grief, you don’t have to do it alone.