College of Veterinary Medicine
Pet Memorial Program

The grieving process

People are often surprised and concerned at how their grief impacts them. Since there is not much grief training in our culture, we are not familiar with what to expect to feel after experiencing a major loss. 

It is important to understand that grieving is a holistic and pervasive experience that impacts a person physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Don’t be afraid of your grief symptoms. They are merely a testimony to the importance of the relationship that you have lost. 

Be gentle with yourself as you go through these phases, as grief is nature’s way of healing a wound. You will probably find that there are three fairly distinct phases to your grieving: 

1. Numbness: (also shock, denial, or a sense of unreality). In this first phase, our minds slowly begin to adjust to the new reality that we have lost a loved one. Because this is such a difficult time, thinking about or experiencing the grief constantly would be too painful. So, we vacillate between knowing and not knowing, or believing and not believing that the loss has happened and is a reality. Give yourself time to come to terms with the loss. It can last from hours to several weeks. 

2. Disorganization: This is a time of personal chaos, as we try to adjust to the world without our lost loved-one. During this phase, we are intensely aware of the reality of the loss, but would do almost anything to escape it. Strong emotion and exhaustion permeate this time and grievers find it difficult to participate in many of their normal activities. The experiences of anger, extreme sadness, depression, despair and jealousy of other’s who haven’t experienced such a loss are all a normal part of grieving. It is during this time that a person slowly understands all the implications of the loss, and figures out how to live again. This experience may last from days to a year or more. 

3. Reorganization: (also recovery, reconciliation and acceptance). The disorganized, disrupted time a person experiences slowly finds a new balance point. The grief process slowly progresses and the person in mourning becomes aware that the physical signs of grief are fading and that the exhaustion isn’t as profound. Although the pain of the loss remains, the unbearably quality of it begins to lift. Hope returns. Life seems possible again.

These are the stages of grieving and mourning. It is important to know that everyone's experience of grief is unique to them and their loss. Following are some of the normal symptoms of grief that some people have reported: 

Normal Experiences During the Grief Process

  • depression / hopelessness
  • guilt and remorse:  “if only I’d….”
  • exhaustion or fatigue, feeling drugged
  • anxiety, panic, fear that nothing will be the same again
  •  feeling out of control or overwhelmed, as if you’re “falling apart”
  • anger or irritability
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • disinterest in life, feeling nothing matters or has meaning
  • dreams, hallucinations or visions, often about the deceased pet
  • erratic appetite
  • bargaining with, or anger at God
  • aching
  • comparing the loss to others’ losses
  • confusion, feeling unwilling or incapable of making decisions
  • feeling disconnected from family or friends
  • disbelief
  • feeling "crazy"
  • distortions in time
  • easily distracted
  • embarrassment about feelings

Normal Signs of Grief

Because grief can be so painful, and may seem overwhelming, it frightens us. Many people worry if they are grieving in the "right" way, and wonder if the feelings they have are normal. 

Most people who suffer a loss experience one or more of the following:

  • Feel tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest.
  • Have an empty feeling in their stomach and lose their appetite.
  • Feel guilty at times, and angry at others.
  • Feel restless and look for activity but find it difficult to concentrate.
  • Feel as though the loss isn't real, that it didn't actually happen.
  • Sense the loved one's presence, like finding themselves expecting the person (or pet) to walk in the door at the usual time, hearing their voice (or bark), or seeing their face.
  • Wander aimlessly, forget, and don't finish things they have started to do.
  • Have difficulty sleeping, and dream of their loved one frequently.
  • Assume mannerisms or traits of their loved one.
  • Experience an intense preoccupation with the life of the deceased.
  • Feel guilty or angry over things that happened or didn't happen in the relationship with the deceased.
  • Feel intensely angry at the loved one for leaving them.
  • Feel as though they need to take care of other people who seem uncomfortable around them, by politely not talking about the feelings of loss.
  • Need to tell and retell and remember things about the loved one and the experience of their death.
  • Feel their mood changes over the slightest things.
  • Cry at unexpected times.

These are all natural and normal grief responses. 

It is important to make time to grieve, cry, and talk with others when you need support.

Also see:
Supporting people who are grieving
Surviving pet loss
Breaking the power of guilt