Stephanie W. Johnson, LCSW
Grief is the emotional process one experiences when anticipating or following the loss of an object of attachment. It is also described as the process of "letting go" or saying goodbye". Pet owners often turn to veterinary professionals as a source of support, comfort and understanding during a loss; pet owners feel as though you must understand because of what it is you do each day. The emotions experienced during the grief process are very intense and very individual. In order to best recognize, respond to and support these emotions, it is best to first understand the process of grief.
Strong attachments can form between owners and any type of animal. In my counseling experience I have seen clients grieve over rats, turtles and pigs as well as the expected and more commonly seen dogs, cats and horses. The degree of attachment varies from relationship to relationship; this level of attachment is often indicative of the significance of the loss and the intensity of the clients' grief response. Owners who have experienced life changes such as loss of a spouse, change in residence, change in marital status, or trauma and have been comforted by their pet's presence may exhibit strong attachment and intense bereavement.Pets are often reminders to us of both pleasant and unpleasant events in our lives, with symbolic meanings resulting.
The bond between owner and pet may be perceived as stronger and more important when:
Owners believe they rescued their companion animals from death or near-death
Owners believe that their companion animals "got them through" a difficult period in life
Owners spent their childhood with their pet
Owners have relied on their companion animals as their most significant source of support
Owners anthropomorphize their companion animals
Owners have invested extensive time, effort, or financial resources into their companion animals' long-term medical care
Owners view their companion animals as symbolic links to significant people who are no longer part of their lives or to significant times in their lives1
These keys to attachment are important to pay attention to when trying to understand/appreciate the grief a client is experiencing.
There are many different types of losses pet owners may experience. A loss occurs when a pet dies suddenly or unexpectedly. Some clients experience loss when their animal runs away or is stolen. Still other losses are anticipated due to a long term/terminal illness. Also felt as a loss is when an animal is given up for adoption. There is no one loss felt more significantly than another. The attachment and ensuing emotions will be felt but at differing levels for each client. Clients have defined the many emotions experienced during loss as: anger, helplessness, isolation, loneliness, guilt, frustration, and fear. Many behaviors which would ordinarily seem odd can be normal manifestations of the grief process. We may see clients acting in ways we haven't seen before; we have to remember what they are going through.
Because of the important role pet's play in our lives, it is not surprising that the eventual breaking of that bond is a significant event for many pet owners. It is also not surprising that during such a loss that many clients turn to the veterinary health care team for support. Who can better understand what the client is going through than the people most closely involved and trusted in the Fluffy's care? Clients may also turn to the veterinary health care team because they cannot find or do not get the support they need elsewhere.
Providing support may feel outside of your professional boundaries, but this awkwardness will not prevent clients from turning to you for support. The veterinary health care team is in a unique position to provide assistance to clients experiencing grief over the loss or anticipated loss of their pet. The importance of "knowing the story" has been mentioned previously. Knowing the story and appreciating the bond between the client and their pet place you in a unique position of understanding the significance of this broken bond.
Death is an inevitable part of pet ownership; most companion animals do not outlive their owners. Animal death and euthanasia are issues of central importance to the veterinary medical profession and each veterinary health care team. The way in which matters surrounding death are handled is vitally important to the success of the clinic. Clients need to be educated about the grief process and reassured that their feelings, reactions and behaviors are normal. It is important to respond with compassion when involved with a client experiencing grief.
Moira Anderson points out that many of us feel that we owe our pet a period of grief. Often, feeling better is equated with "letting go" and sometimes we aren't ready to do that just yet. We must feel that our pet's memory is honored in our grief.3 Clients have described "letting go" as a feeling of "closing the door", something very final. I ask clients to perceive "letting go" as a window, a window without a lock that you can see through and open and close any time you need to. I remind clients that it is alright to close the window...you can still see.
The Grief Process
There are several models in existence that describe the grief process. For the purposes of this discussion we will draw upon the grief process described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Through her research Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resolution.2 These stages are not necessarily sequential and may be repeated when grieving a loss. One may experience each stage on separate days or all five stages may be experienced within five minutes. Grief must be experienced, "gone through". We cannot go around it.
Denial is the normal defense which serves to buffer an individual from some unbearable news or shock. It can be experienced as numbness, or an individual may seem to actively refute the loss. We tend to initially deny any loss or pending loss. A client in denial may appear to not have heard anything the veterinary health care team has said. Following the conversation detailing the diagnosis and poor prognosis the client experiencing denial may ask that their pet's toenails be clipped. We need to understand that the seeming irrational responses are normal in the response to the fear of loss.
Bargaining is experienced as conscious or unconscious attempts to control the situation or refute the loss. During this stage the client may attempt to bargain with God or their Higher Power. You might hear the offer of, "I'll do this, if you do this". This is the stage where the client may display attempts to reverse the reality. It is during this stage that the client may ask the Veterinary Health Care Team to employ the latest "miracle cure" discovered on the Internet. Clients might also seek second, third, and fourth opinions. Keep in mind that these desire for second opinions are not to be taken personally, the quest to control and change the reality of the current situation is all part of the Bargaining stage. Bargaining creates hope while the client comes to terms with the inevitable.
Anger can be direct or indirect, specified or generalized. The client may present as resentful, angry, or even furious at the situation. The anger may be directed in many different directions. It might be directed at themselves for not stopping the loss (hit by car, escaping from the fence etc) even if there was nothing that could have been done to stop it. Clients might be mad at God or their Higher Power, at the veterinary health care team, or any person, organization, or object that might be possibly a part of the loss, no matter how irrational seeming the connection. Clients in this stage may present the greatest challenge.
In addition, anger appears very often, especially in pet loss, in the form of guilt. Clients often come to the veterinary health care team seeking absolution from guilt. The client might want to know if they should have brought their pet in earlier. Perhaps it was a shampoo utilized on or food fed to their pet that caused the illness or death. There might also be guilt directed at the decision of euthanasia; whether they decided too soon or too late. Clients experiencing guilt will often use phrases such as "could have", "should have", and "what if I had". These clients need reassurance that they made the right decisions for their pets.
Depression is the actual "grief"/sorrow. During this stage the client acknowledges what is happening; this brings understandable depression. This stage can be the most painful part of the process because the individual is "letting go". Clients describe feeling complete, overwhelming sadness during this stage. Often, during this stage clients report irritability, changes in sleep patterns, restlessness, and inability to concentrate. This is also the time when clients confide concern/surprise at the intensity of the emotion they are feeling at the loss of a pet. It is important the client in the grief stage feel validated and the unique bond shared with their pet be acknowledged. This stage is a stage of healing. The sadness felt allows the client relief and release from pent-up emotions.
Resolution is the final stage of the grief process. Clients have accepted their loss and there is a return of functioning and a restoration of hope. Clients reaching resolution stage feel little of the other four stages. It is at this stage that clients may be ready to entertain the thought of sharing life with another pet. It is at this stage when the client can remember what they shared as opposed to what they no longer have. Memories are considered fondly, with smiles rather than despair. The veterinary health care team may be introduced to a new "family member" at this stage.
It is at a point close to resolution that a stage of Personal Growth is recognized. Sandra Brackenridge began acknowledging this part of the process in 1990 when the Best Friend Gone Project was established at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. It is during this stage that clients are able to recognize and appreciate some meaning or growth in the grief experience and/ or the pet's life. The client is able to verbalize meaning within their relationship. They are able to identify what this relationship/bond taught them and keep the "spirit of the bond" alive through this deeper meaning. For instance, a client might share a feeling that their pet exuded courage throughout his/her life and take this as a prompt to find courage in their own lives.
1. Lagoni L, et al. The Human-Animal Bond and Grief 1994.
2. Kubler-Ross E. On death and dying 1969.
3. Anderson M. Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet 1969.