Although grief responses, in general, differ from one person to another, there are many predictable expressions of grief. These expressions occur on physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual levels. Before, during, and after loss, grief may appear in several of the following forms.
Physical: crying, sobbing, wailing, shock and numbness, dry mouth, a lump in the throat, shortness of breath, stomach ache or nausea, tightness in the chest, restlessness, fatigue, exhaustion, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, body aches, stiffness of joints or muscles, dizziness or fainting
Intellectual: denial, sense of unreality, confusion, inability to concentrate, feeling preoccupied by the loss, experiencing hallucinations concerning the loss (visual, auditory, and olfactory,) a need to reminisce about the loved one and to talk about the circumstances of the loss, a sense that time is passing very slowly, a desire to rationalize or intellectualize feelings about the loss, thoughts or fantasies about suicide (not accompanied by concrete plans or behaviors)
Emotional: sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety, relief, loneliness, irritability, a desire to blame others for the loss, resentment, embarrassment, self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, feelings of victimization, giddiness, affect that is inappropriate for the situation (nervous smiles and laughter)
Social: feelings of withdrawal, isolation and alienation, a greater dependency on others, a rejection of others, rejection by others, a reluctance to ask others for help, change in friends or in living arrangements, a desire to re-locate or move, a need to find distractions from the intensity of grief (to stay busy or to over-commit to activities)
Spiritual: bargaining with God in an attempt to prevent loss, feeling angry at God when loss occurs, renewed or shaken religious beliefs, feelings of being either blessed or punished, searching for a meaningful interpretation of a loved one’s death, paranormal visions or dreams concerning a dead loved one, questioning whether or not souls exist and wondering what happens to loved ones after death, the need to “finish business” with a purposeful ending or closure to the relationship (a funeral, memorial service, last rites ceremony, good-bye ritual)
Grief is one of the most normal and natural emotions that we can feel; yet it is one of the most misunderstood. Grief is a normal, and unavoidable reaction to the loss of treasured loved one. Because grief often involves very painful and difficult feelings, most of us think that our grief is wrong or crazy in some way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grief is a very healthy psychological response that requires expression and acknowledgement. Attempts to suppress feelings of grief can sometimes actually prolong the healing process.
Our discomfort with grief comes from a variety of sources, but can often be traced back to how our own families have dealt with loss, and how society in general responds to a bereaved person. Unfortunately, many of the responses we hear reinforce the notion that grief is unnatural and perpetuate the myths that grief should be avoided and expressed only behind closed doors. Society tends to reward the more unhealthy responses (stoicism and avoidance) while punishing the more healthy ones (expression and acceptance). Some common responses we hear when a death occurs are as follows:
- Try to stay busy.
- Big boys don’t cry.
- No sense dwelling on the past.
- You must be strong right now.
- Support groups are for weaklings.
- Out of sight, out of mind.
- He had a good life.
- Think of all your good memories.
- You still have other pets.
- Count your blessings.
- God needs him more than you do.
- If you look around you can always find someone who is worse off than yourself.
These responses suggest to us that we should not feel badly about our losses. They encourage us to avoid our feelings and put pressure on us to get over the loss as soon as possible. Grief just doesn’t work that way and cannot be put onto a time schedule. Everyone grieves in their own time and in their own way, and creating artificial deadlines or expecting grief to disappear overnight only creates more stress for the bereaved person.
These responses also minimize the griever’s pain and do not acknowledge the loss that the griever feels. They also suggest to us that we have no right to be upset or distressed about the loss. These kind of responses can make a griever feel guilty or ashamed about being upset and reinforce the notion that grieving is wrong.
Other common responses like… life goes on… you’ll find new friends to love or just go out and get yourself another dog… suggest that loved ones are easily and readily replaced. They tell the griever to handle the pain by replacing the loss and forgetting the past. The notion of replacing a loss as a way of handling the grief comes to many of us from a very early age. Many of us can probably recall from childhood losing a favorite toy or beloved object and being told, “don’t feel bad, we’ll buy you a new one tomorrow. Responses like these minimize and complicate the griever’s pain by insinuating that the loss was relatively unimportant and should be fixed by replacement.
Given that our society promotes many of these myths about grief, it is important to remember that a grieving person needs acknowledgement, validation, and support. One of the best ways to deal with our grief is to understand that it is normal and to not make any judgements about our emotions. There are times when we can handle these feelings with the support of family and friends, and there are other times when professional assistance may be very helpful. There are many professional counselors, therapists, and members of the clergy trained in the areas of loss and grief who can provide assistance through the grieving process. There are also many books, articles, and other resources about the grief process available in most public libraries and local bookstores.
Responding to Children’s Needs During Pet Loss
The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with death and loss. It is an important time for parents and other adults to teach children how to express grief in emotionally healthy ways free of shame or embarrassment. Some helpful guidelines are as follows:
- Be as honest as possible. Avoid euphemisms like, “put to sleep.” These can be frightening and confusing to children (especially young children). Encourage parents to be honest with their children about a pet’s death and don’t collude in lies.
- Understand that the emotional responses to a pet’s death varies according to the child’s relationship with the animal. Don’t assume that a child’s reaction will be the same as the adult’s.
- Recognize that pet death is a significant loss for children and should not be trivialized or minimized.
- Discover what the individual child is thinking and encourage parents to be open and receptive to any questions/concerns that child may have.
- Be alert to “magical thinking.” Young children often mistakenly believe that they are somehow responsible for the pet’s death. Talk openly with children about this.
- Parents are encouraged to involve children as much as possible in decisions surrounding the pet’s illness and death.
- Parents can ask their veterinarian about the benefits of including children in the euthanasia procedure if the children are well-prepared and given a choice.
- Don’t encourage replacement of pets.
- Parents are encouraged to involve their children in a good-bye ceremony and in memorializing the pet.
When Your Pet is Sick
When your companion animal is diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, you may feel a variety of emotions that are often overwhelming. Some people experience shock, disbelief, confusion, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, or helplessness. These emotions are normal and understandable responses to the realization that your special friend is ill.
When you are overwhelmed, it can be very hard to act and behave in ways you normally do. People who are feeling overwhelmed often report that they cannot think straight or feel like they are in a fog. Everyday activities can seem difficult, and your body might feel out of sorts (tightness in chest, headaches, appetite changes, and sleep disturbances). In the days and weeks to come, you will likely face stressful situations and tough decisions. Here are a few strategies that may assist you:
Write things down. When you are given a lot of medical information and you have a lot of questions, it is hard to remember everything. Listing your questions and concerns may help you to keep things straight. Discuss your concerns with your veterinarian.
Seek support. Talk to others who understand the relationship you have with your pet. Being with others who know what your pet means to you can be helpful. Talk to family members or others who may want to be involved in deciding your pet’s care. For families with children, it is very important to include children in discussions and decision-making about the treatment and care of your animal.
Think about quality of life. You know your pet best and are the expert on what makes a quality life for him or her. Different animals have different personalities and tolerances. You know what these are. Think ahead of time about what is important for you and your pet and write these down.
We also encourage you to think about pain versus suffering. Pain is a physical sensation and can be evaluated and medicated by you and your veterinarian. Suffering is more difficult to define and can include such things as: inability to engage in daily routines, inability to interact with you, and inability to do the things that make your pet “who he or she is”. These issues are important to address and are different for every animal and owner. There are no “wrong” answers here. Because you love your pet and want to do what is best for him or her, your instincts are important and should be explored. Spend time with your companion animal. Think about the weeks or months ahead and decide what will be important to you.
Take care of yourself. Helping a loved one through a serious or terminal illness is very stressful and tiring. You may focus so much of your energy on your pet that you neglect yourself and your health. Long-term neglect can lead to additional stress and can even result in you becoming ill. Monitor your own reactions and assure that you are caring for yourself as well as your animal.
Find support in friends, family members, pet loss counselors and support groups.
Dedicated to and in loving memory of Barney
Below are a variety of ideas for memorializing a pet. The ideas were contributed by volunteers of the Pet Loss Support Hotline at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. I was inspired to create this when I learned of the impending death of my beloved cat, Barney. Barney died on June 30, 1990. This is intended to be a living document such that ideas are continually being added to it.
Leah M. Hertzel, Class of 1991
UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
- Take lots of photographs, and when you think you’ve taken enough, take some more. Use the photos to fill an album, place them in your pet’s favorite spots in the house, make a collage with them, fill a multi-picture frame with them, carry pictures in your wallet.
- Write a poem, story, song, etc., about and/or dedicated to your pet.
- Write down your special memories of your pet. Add to these stories or anecdotes from friends and family. Alternatively you could make a tape recording of the same thing.
- Chronicle your pet’s life with photos and/or by keeping a journal of its life.
- Write a letter to your pet expressing feelings you may be struggling with.
- Videotape your pet doing anything and everything — eating, sleeping, playing, and just sitting there.
- Make something that reminds you of your pet, e.g., a drawing, a clay sculpture, a needlework project, etc.
- Have a professional portrait, sketch, sculpture done of your pet. This can be done after the pet’s death from a photograph. You can also have a photo of your pet transferred to a T-shirt, clock, button, mug (check advertisements in magazines like “Dog Fancy” and “Cat Fancy”).
- Keep baby teeth, whiskers, fur (from shaved areas) and place in a locket.
- Horses – save shoes, tail, mane hairs from horses.
- Keep pet tags. You can place these on your key ring so that you will always be carrying the memory of your special friend with you.
- Have a plaque made to honor your pet. Place it in a special place — next to your pet’s ashes, on a tree near where your pet was buried, in the hospital where your pet was cared for, etc. One place you can order one is at the Argus Institute.
- Make a donation in memory of your pet to a special cause.
- Volunteer your time at a humane organization and/or help find homes for strays and unwanted pets.
- Start a pet loss support group in your area.
- Plant a bush, shrub, tree, flowers over or near the location where the body or ashes are buried.
- Place a bench with an engraved nameplate and/or inscription beside where your pet is buried.
- Place ashes in a potted houseplant.
- Scatter ashes in an area that was special to you and your pet.
- Place ashes in a locket with your animal’s name engraved on the locket. (Ashes need to be sealed in an airtight bag and then placed in the locket, which must be airtight as well.)
- Collect pet’s collars, tags, bowls, blankets, etc., and place in a special area in honor of your pet. Can also place ashes, sympathy cards, etc., with them.
- Send out cards with a photograph of your pet informing those close to you and your pet of your loss.
- If the animal is not buried near you, take pictures of the grave and place these in a special spot which you can “visit”.
We would like to acknowledge the Argus Institute at Colorado State University for some of the information contained in this handout. There are several helpful links on their website for assistance in issues of pet loss, grief and the human-pet bond.