THE GRIEVING PROCESS
Over the centuries, many religions and cultures have adopted a variety of ceremonies to both honour the deceased and to help those left behind start to move through the grieving process. Included among these ceremonies are wakes, visitations, funeral services, memorial services, burial services, and cremation services. Acceptance of the fact that death is an inevitable part of life, is important. How each of us copes with a loss and starts to move on without the deceased at our side, is also important.
For many, pets are important members of the family. The following information has been prepared to help pet owners who regard their pets as such, and who have suffered the loss of a pet better understand the grieving process they may experience. For those pet owners who experience prolonged symptoms of grief, professional help may be beneficial.
Grief is a process. Although emotionally painful, it allows a person to come to terms with a loss and to heal emotionally. It is a natural response, not only to the death of a loved one, but also to other losses regarding relationships, jobs, pets, miscarriages, friendships or health. Less significant events such as moving or a job change may also trigger less-intense grief responses.
Every person grieves differently and the intensity of grief depends on the significance of the loss and possibly on the manner in which the loss occurred. Grief has no rules and follows no timetable. Some people may recover in weeks, whereas others may grieve for years. Since we are all exposed to and are made vulnerable by such events, it is critical that we recognize the profound impact losses can have on our well-being and understand how we can best cope with them. In other words, the steps we should take as we move through the grief resulting from the loss. Failure to move through the grieving process in a meaningful way may result in increased feelings of grief when future losses occur.
The Stages of Grief
Many professionals believe there are seven stages a person passes through as he or she deals with grief. These stages may occur in any order, and some stages may occur simultaneously. They are:
Shock and Denial:
Many people react to learning of a loss with numbed disbelief. They may deny the reality of the loss at some level in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may be short-lived or may last for weeks. Symptoms of denial may include a lack of tears, or a failure to accept or even acknowledge the loss.
After suffering the loss of their pet, some pet owners find it difficult to accept a new pet into their home because they believe a new pet would violate the memory of their deceased pet. This feeling should not be confused with the feeling of many pet owners who wish to have a brief “pet-free” period in their life to allow them to grieve the loss of their deceased pet.
Pain and Guilt:
As the shock of the loss wears off, it is often replaced by a feeling of unbelievable pain. Although the pain may be excruciating, it is important that the person experiencing the loss experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it through the excessive use of alcohol or drugs. The pet owner may feel responsible for their pet’s death, or may feel that he or she should have taken action earlier and only prolonged their pet’s life because they couldn’t bring themselves to say “good-bye”. During this stage of grief, life may feel chaotic and scary.
Frustration over not being able to prevent the loss may give way to anger, and the pet owner may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Although this is a time for the release of bottled up emotions, angry outbursts may permanently damage relationships with those who are trying to help. If such anger becomes prolonged or vicious in nature, professional help may be warranted.
Depression, Reflection and Loneliness:
Depression is a natural consequence of grief and if not addressed properly can leave the sufferer powerless to cope with his or her feelings. The pet owner should not allow himself or herself to be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. It is at this time that the individual will finally realize the true magnitude of the loss, and it is this realization that may bring on depression. Purposeful isolation, and intense feelings of hopelessness, frustration, bitterness, and/or self-pity may bring on feelings of emptiness and despair. If this occurs, professional intervention may be appropriate.
The Upward Turn:
As the person experiencing the loss starts to adjust to life without his or her pet, life becomes a little calmer, more organized, and some sense of normalcy begins to return. Any physical symptoms that may have been experienced following the loss will have lessened, and any “depression” that may have occurred will have begun to lift slightly.
Reconstruction of Life Without the Beloved Pet:
As the pet owner becomes more functional following the loss, he or she will find that their mind starts working again, and they will find themselves seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without their beloved pet. They will start to work on practical problems and reconstructing themselves to face life without their departed pet.
Acceptance and Hope:
There is a difference between resignation and acceptance. The pet owner must accept the loss, not just try to bear it quietly. During this last stage of the grief process, the person experiencing the loss will learn to accept and deal with the reality of his or her situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil the pet owner has experienced, he or she can never return to exactly the same life that existed before tragedy struck. However, they will find a way forward. It is at this point that the grieving person will be able to reminisce about the deceased pet with sadness, but without the intense emotional pain experienced earlier.
Certain coping techniques may help ease the grieving process. It may be beneficial to chat with family and friends for emotional support, or to join a support group. If symptoms persist, it may be advisable to seek help from a grief counsellor or religious advisor. Emotions must be faced, and the person suffering the loss should resist using alcohol or drugs excessively to suppress feelings. As time passes, it may also be helpful to anticipate difficult milestones such as birthdays and dates of passing, and to plan in advance how they will be celebrated.
When to Seek Professional Help
Bereavement takes time and cannot be hurried. However, if feelings of grief, intense anger, and/or depression worsen, it may be beneficial to seek professional help from a grief counsellor or therapist. Thoughts of regret for being alive, blaming oneself for the loss, lacking the ability to trust people or to perform daily activities and/or feeling disconnected from others for more than a few weeks, may also be signs that one should seek professional help.