When talking about grief of any kind, including pet bereavement, someone inevitably mentions ‘the five stages of grief’ – in other words, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
People mean it as a comfort but feeling that you should be grieving in a certain way can be distressing, especially if you feel like you’re doing it wrong.
With how the five stages model has been (wrongly) interpreted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that grief should follow a clear progression from one stage to the next until the bereaved eventually finds peace and acceptance by stage five.
In The Ralph Site Facebook group, people often express that they should be done grieving or that they’re ‘silly’ for dwelling in one of the so-called ‘stages’ of grief. There’s a sense that they must move from stage to stage quickly and quietly and put their loss behind them, usually because other people don’t recognise the scale of the bereavement.
In reality, grief is deeply personal and rarely fits with the ‘five stages’ template. Bereavement doesn’t come with a clearly defined end point. It would be so reassuring if it did – if it could be orderly and neat – but, sadly, that just isn’t how it works.
What are the five stages of grief?
The five stages of grief were originally defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’. This was written over 30 years ago as Kubler-Ross listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses.
Over time, the five stages that Kubler-Ross identified have become a blueprint for what people believe we ‘should’ feel when we experience grief.
Even people with very little interest in psychology can usually name the five stages of grief as they’ve become part of our collective consciousness.
But this was never Kubler-Ross’s intention. She was trying to help name and normalise some of the emotions that we might experience when grieving, not what we must experience. She wasn’t trying to structure a right or wrong way to grieve or give our feelings a ‘Use by’ date. She just wanted people to know that they weren’t alone.
Forget the five stages of grief
As a bereaved pet carer, you have lost someone you love, someone who shaped the rhythms of your life, often for many years.
How you feel and express your grief will be unique to you. It will also be unique to your pet.
It certainly won’t be linear, a movement from one neat stage to the next with no stage to be revisited (see The Myth of the Grief Timeline).
You may find that you’re full of anger and a sense of injustice one day, peaceful the next, then enraged again with no warning. Your feelings may dart and stretch between guilt, confusion, joy, peace and fear from one hour to the next.
That’s OK. There is no right or wrong when it comes to grieving, although most agree that we should try to acknowledge our feelings rather than pretending our grief doesn’t exist.
As tempting as it is to cling to the five stages of grief as a checklist for what you should feel, we’d strongly recommend ignoring them. Instead, remember this:
- Grief is different for everyone.
- It doesn’t follow the same timeline for anyone.
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
- Grief and love are part of each other.
- You don’t have to justify your grief – you have a right to think and feel your own thoughts and feelings.
- There will not be a final moment of ‘closure’ but, with time, you will be able to carry your loss more easily.
- You may feel emotions such as fear, guilt or anger – many people see these as ‘negative’ emotions but they can actually help you to make sense of your loss.
- You will feel lighter sometimes and that doesn’t mean you don’t care.
Love never ends
There’s a beautiful saying that is shared on The Ralph Site a lot:
Grief is just love with nowhere to go.
This might be one of the truest statements about grief. And because it is love, it will never come to an end. However, like love, it will change and soften with time.
Like love, grief is too big, too all-encompassing to be neatly contained within five simple stages. Kubler-Ross knew this – towards the end of her life, she said, “I am more than these five stages. And so are you”.
People mean well when they try to give you a blueprint to grieve but your pet was one of a kind so it’s only right that your grief for them is too. The only way to do it is your own way.
Until next time, remember that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support