Our pets are a part of our family. When their time comes to cross the rainbow bridge, it can feel like a part of our heart and our family is now missing, much like a human member.

Unfortunately, our friends, family, and community members who are either not animal people or have never had pets before may not understand the extent that the loss of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends can have on us. Pet owners may be subject to sayings such as: “It’s just a dog,” “Just get another one,” or “I’m not sure why you’re still so upset about this loss .”These sayings and attitudes are considered disenfranchised grief: the grief that may not fit with the “social norm .”While these phrases and attitudes may be well-meaning by the other party, for pet owners, it adds further pain and invalidation of their loss.

The impact of losing a pet is extremely similar to that of losing a friend or family member. As such, the grieving process is also similar. If you are unfamiliar with it, there are five widely accepted “stages” of grief. (I’ll explain why stages are in quotation marks in a second). The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

These stages were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 and have since been vastly researched and supported, however, some suggest there are 7 stages. What some do question, however, is the progression of these stages. Kubler-Ross and many others suggest that we experience these stages in a linear fashion, one after another. In our experience, both personally and with clients, these stages are much less like an assembly line and more like a game of pinball. We may start at depression, bounce to anger, to denial, back to depression, dwell on acceptance for a time, and then return to bargaining. Often, clients may experience guilt or shame as they progress through what they believe to be a linear process of grieving, as they may think that they are taking too long on one particular stage or are losing progress made.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s grieving and healing process looks vastly different. Additionally, it can be complicated, impacted, or lengthened by the messages of disenfranchised grief we receive from others.

What’s most important to keep in mind after the loss of a pet is that you are not alone. Many others have experienced a similar situation as you and may still be experiencing that same grief and loss. They, and many others, are here for you.

If it feels like the grief is becoming too much, there are virtual and in-person support groups for people just like you who are experiencing and have experienced pet loss and are waiting to hear from you.

– Charles Westholm, MSW, LGSW