Steps Toward Recovery
By Ann Palik, MA, MFT   Copyright 2004



Our relationships with our pets are some of our most special. They entertain us, listen to our secrets, and give us unconditional love. Losing a pet can leave us with a muddle of other feelings in addition to sadness: anger, anxiety, guilt, or pain from previous losses. The good news is that if we get support, grief is time-limited, and eventually we will feel better again.

You may be familiar with Kubler-Rossí five stages of grief:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages were observed during her work with terminally-ill people facing their own deaths. Although the Kubler-Ross model is helpful, in this article I will focus on the four phases of grief recovery developed by J. William Worden. You may move back and forth between phases during the mourning process.

Phase 1: Accept the Reality of the Loss. When anything shocking happens to us, our first reaction may be, ďI canít believe it.Ē The shock is too much to digest, and denial (or a sense of numbness or unreality) kicks in, serving as a natural buffer to keep us functioning temporarily until we can come to terms with the event. But until we accept the loss as real (not that it feels okay), we cannot fully recover.

Phase 2: Work Through to the Pain of Grief. This phase starts when the full force of grief takes hold, perhaps when we come home the next day and the house is unnaturally quiet and empty. Our pet is really gone. Even if a loss was expected, it is still painful and you need support. You may need to tell the story over and over.

Well-meaning people may not understand why we are so upset over ďjust an animal.Ē Not everyone is bonded to animals in the same way, and thatís okay. But itís not whether our loved one was a person or an animal that determines our ďrightĒ to be upset. It is the level of our love, and itís hard to recover from losing a special relationship in just a few days or weeks. I wish I had some magic formula to take the pain away, but for now you just need to face one minute, one hour, at a time.

Feelings of anger may also surface: toward ourselves, our vet (for not saving our pet), or even our pet (for leaving us). This is normal, as are feelings of guilt. We may say to ourselves, ďHe trusted me to take care of him. Should I have taken him to the vet sooner?Ē Or we may have second thoughts about euthanizing our suffering pet.

I donít recommend getting a new pet right away, even though you might be tempted. Each pet is unique with his/her own personality. Give yourself time to recover, so you will not be inclined to compare the new pet to the one you lost.

Do things you enjoy, and be with people who nourish you. Take care of your physical body. Exercise helps us release grief physiologically. Nature has its own healing power, so spend time in nature when you can. Art, music, writing, and the like can help express deep emotions nonverbally.

I also recommend the following books: Saying Good-Bye to the Pet You Love, by Lorri A. Greene, Ph.D, and Jacquelyn Landis; and When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. Those with a Biblical or spiritual bent may enjoy There is Eternal Life for Animals by Niki Behrikis Shanahan.

Some loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and/or crying is normal. But if you have physical symptoms that are of concern, please get medical attention. If you feel stuck in intense grief after a reasonable period of time, say, two to three months, you may benefit from counseling. Other issues may complicate grief, such as chronic illness, relationship conflicts, or previous losses (even from a long time ago).

Phase 3: Adjust to an Environment in Which Our Lost Pet Is Missing. If youíre not ready to move your petís bowls or bed, thatís okay. Or you may wish to store them away for now. Certain times of day may be difficult. For example, if you previously walked your dog at 7 p.m., substitute another activity for that time, like meeting a friend for dinner, journaling, or working out. Give yourself time to readjust and reinvent, little by little.
Phase 4: Finally, we will be able to Emotionally Relocate Our Lost Pet and Move on with Life. Over time, as pain begins to recede, we can access happy memories of our pet. We may still have difficult days (such as an anniversary reaction), but we are feeling progress toward recovery. You may want to create a memory book or shadow box celebrating your petís life, with photos, fur/feathers, footprint, collar, or favorite toy. And at this point, you may feel ready to love a new pet.

Ann Palik is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in grief counseling, and a member of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, Inc. She can be reached at (310) 840-2341 or 

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