What are the Seven Principles of Grief?

Pet loss grief can be confusing, overwhelming, and its depth sometimes unexpected. You may be wondering if or when your feelings of grief will come to an end or even how to start processing them.

In today’s blog, we want to share a summary of the Seven Principles of Grief as defined by John Shep Jeffreys, a psychologist who specialises in grief, loss and end-of-life concerns. 

It is a comforting overview of how we humans experience grief and a reminder that it’s a natural reaction to losing someone you love.

Principle One: There is no one right way to grieve 

We all grieve differently. In fact, even the same person may experience grief differently from one loss to another. Some people openly express their emotions, they cry and want to talk about their loss, while others want to stay busy and do anything but talk about their feelings.

So many factors affect how we’re able to express and process grief. As well as your relationship with the non-human animal who has died, you may be affected by your previous losses, stage in life, gender, lifestyle, living arrangements, other relationships, routines and more.

You may have experienced messages during childhood about whether or not it was okay to feel fear or sadness or cry in the face of loss. You may be heavily influenced by your religion, culture, social expectations, or even your friends and family and how they approach grief.

As we always say on The Ralph Site, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your way.

Principle Two: You cannot fix or cure grief

Grief is messy; it’s painful and it’s life-changing, so it’s understandable if you wish you could find a way to fix or cure yourself of hurting from your loss.

Sadly though, grief isn’t a medical complaint that can be cured. The only reliable way to move forward after loss is to feel it, grieve and mourn.

It may not feel like it but, as John Shep Jeffreys points out in the Seven Principles, the human grief reaction is actually designed to enable us to survive. Grief comes about as a result of deep attachment and it’s the ability to form deep attachments that is central to human survival as a social species.

Principle Three: There is no universal timetable for the grief journey

One of the most common questions people have after a bereavement is “How long will it take before I feel ‘better’?” The answer is “As long as it takes”.

Unfortunately, grief doesn’t have a timeline (it would be so reassuring to tick off the days on a calendar and know there was an end date, wouldn’t it?!). 

We mention this on The Ralph Site a lot because it’s so important.

We live in a society that struggles with the expression of grief, especially pet loss grief. Bereaved pet carers often feel rushed to “get over” their pet or “move on”. Comments such as “it was just a dog/cat/horse/rabbit, etc.” can reinforce the message that pet loss is something that should be put in the past quickly. Even the use of the word “it” to describe your companion robs them of their identity.

But you know better.

Pet loss can be just as hard as losing a human loved one. It’s not your responsibility to fit your healing journey to someone else’s timetable and to minimise your pain to fit in with someone else’s view of the world. 

In reality, you will probably experience some form of grief over your lost pet for the rest of your life, although the nature of your grief will change with time. You will also continue to love them and carry memories of them with you.

Principle Four: Every loss is a multiple loss

Grief is like a stone being thrown into a lake – its ripples spread out much further than you might ever imagine.

In the fourth principle of grief, Jeffreys reminds us that every loss is a multiple loss.

When your pet died, you lost more than their body and being. You lost the future together, the way you talked to them, your daily routines, what you did together and even just the way you were with them.

These secondary losses were all a vital part of life with your pet so it’s natural that you will grieve for them too.

Principle Five: Change = Loss = Grief

Change is an unavoidable part of our existence. Even if we have a quiet, uneventful life staying in the same job and living in the same house with the same people, something will change eventually, even just due to the passing of time.

Whenever we experience a change in life, it’s usually accompanied by a sense of loss as we transition from one thing to the next. This could be changing schools, taking on a new job, moving house, going travelling and many other scenarios. Even when there’s great excitement and optimism about the future, we usually have some sort of grief reaction as we say goodbye to something that was important to us.

When change and loss are brought about by the death or serious illness of someone we love, including a pet, there’s always a much stronger grief reaction. You didn’t choose this change and the losses that come with it. It takes time to process this.

Principle Six: We grieve old loss while grieving new loss

If you’ve ever come across the “Ball in the Box” analogy, you’ll know that grief never fully goes away. Every loss you’ve experienced in your life is like a ball in the box bouncing around, hitting the balls of other losses and occasionally pressing the pain button that sits on one of the walls.

When you experience a new loss, it adds a new ball to the box, one that starts off huge and presses the pain button continuously as well as jostling all the other balls in the box.

As this analogy explains, we carry our past grief with us. It’s understandable that your pet loss may have brought past losses to the forefront of your mind. 

It’s important to give your feelings about each loss space and attention, even if you’re suddenly thinking about a bereavement that happened years ago.

Principle Seven: We grieve when a loss has occurred or is threatened

Again, Jeffreys reminds us that, as a social species, humans and some other animals have evolved to develop deep bonds. It’s these bonds, first with our parents and wider family and later with friends, non-human animals, etc., that keep us safe and enrich our lives.

It is natural, Jeffreys says, to experience a grief reaction even if a loss is threatened rather than realised.

This is why pet carers often struggle with anticipatory grief when a companion non-human animal is old or terminally ill, even though they’re still alive and happy.

If you’re experiencing grief before your pet has died, please be reassured that it’s a natural response to knowing a loss might occur in the future. It’s important to be kind to yourself about feeling this.

Finding support for your pet loss grief

The Seven Principles of Grief are a gentle reminder that it is part of the human experience to grieve for a companion we love. While there are universal truths about grief that unite us, grief is also deeply personal and unique to you.

If you are struggling with pet loss grief right now, here are some tips that may help:

  • Rest, eat good food and do some exercise whenever you feel able – it’s important to look after yourself
  • Pay attention to how you’re feeling and acknowledge it – if possible, tell someone else, just to share what’s on your mind
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” things
  • Find mourning rituals that give you comfort, e.g. planting a tree for your pet, volunteering, donating to a charity in their name, lighting a candle in their memory
  • Take time off from grieving whenever you feel able – listen to a favourite song, cook a meal, meet up with a friend
  • Write down how you’re feeling
  • Reach out to a pet bereavement service or counsellor or talk to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group

You’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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