The Emotional Journey of Pet Loss

A beige cat sleeping on a wooden bench in a garden.

Pet grief is individual. The bond shared between and pet and owner is special and unique. For some owners, losing a pet can equate to losing a family member. And of course, the grieving process will be different for different people too. It can take days or years for some owners to come to terms with their grief – and this is all perfectly natural. However, each person experiencing grief will typically progress through the same cycle of emotions.

The Kübler-Ross cycle was developed to explain the emotions of people facing their own death but it has now been adapted to help explain how to approach and process death in general. This cycle of five stages offers a good way to visualise the emotional journey owners experience when processing the death of a pet. Friends and family can also use it to help grieving owners understand their emotions and provide additional support.

Although the Kübler-Ross cycle is often illustrated as a linear process, many people might experience these stages at different times and in a different order. Additionally, not all of the stages may be experienced. Here’s a short overview of the emotional journey of grief, which can apply to pet loss:

  1. Denial

This is often regarded as the first stage of grief. In the immediate aftermath of the loss of a pet, feeling numb is normal. It’s usual to feel that the situation can’t possibly be happening. Some people may carry on with usual activities as if nothing has happened and although it might seem that they have fully processed their loss, they may just be experiencing denial that their pet is gone.

Denial is a perfectly natural emotion to experience during a traumatic episode. It offers a way to cope and makes survival possible, helping pace feelings of grief. As the reality of the loss is accepted then the process of healing can begin.

  1. Anger

Death can be cruel and unfair. Being angry is natural when processing the death of a pet. It’s common to look for someone to blame for the emotions. Guilt is also common during this stage. Although perceived as an ugly emotion to experience, it’s important that any anger is expressed, rather than bottling it up.

  1. Bargaining

This is the ‘what if’ stage. Pet owners experiencing grief may look back over their time with their pet and consider all the actions and scenarios they experienced; looking for something that they could have done differently to change the outcome. It can be hard to accept that there is nothing which can change what’s happened. This stage gives owners a gentle reprieve of their grief. Speaking with friends, and family or contacting a support group can help owners come to terms with their loss and accept the reality of the situation.

  1. Depression

At this point, the reality of the situation will have sunk in. The pain experienced by owners after the loss of a pet can come in intense waves over an extended period. Life can feel like it no longer holds any meaning with feelings of deep sadness and longing. This stage is the most visible to those around a grieving pet owner. Good communication with friends and family is important during this stage.

Remember it is perfectly natural to experience sadness whilst grieving.

  1. Acceptance

Once the loss has been accepted, the sadness will begin to lift. However, just because there’s acceptance it doesn’t mean waves of sadness won’t appear in years to come. This stage merely marks the chance to begin to move on. With this may come a plan to get a new pet – but it’s important to only take that step when the time is right.

If you have suffered pet loss, no matter what stage of the grief cycle you’re at, you won’t feel like this forever. Whilst you will never forget the impact your pet had on your life, you can carry them in your memories as you make new life experiences.

Suggested reading

How to cope with isolation after the loss of a pet
When Your Pet Dies: How to Tell the Kids

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