by Dr. Francesca Matthews


The stages of grief


The recognised stages of grief are:

  • (Shock and Disbelief)
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • (Guilt)
  • Depression
  • Acceptance


Depending on the sources reviewed, there are 5 – 7 stages of grief described. They are a guide to the order of feelings when you are grieving, but they are not hard and fast rules. We are all human and did not read the text book first.  Grief is a very individual process.




Denial is a natural response to the shock of death. Initially denial is an easier way to deal with the loss than to deal with the feelings associated with the loss. However, eventually we all have to face the loss in order to heal.




The next stage, anger, includes all emotions relating to your unhappiness about your loss. It is important to accept the anger, express it safely and use it to help you move on.  





Bargaining is the stage when you might attempt to make deals with yourself or a God you believe in to try and reduce the loss.




Guilt can be a significant area in grieving the loss of a pet. Guilt because your pet was able to run out on the road and be hit by a car or guilt because you made the decision (however right it was) to euthanase him or her can be overwhelming. Guilt can be soul destroying. It is important to work through the guilt. If you are experiencing severe guilt, talking about it is important. Another pair of ears listening can often help rationalise your feelings.




Depression is that feeling of hopelessness and great sorrow. You feel very low and lethargic and struggle to complete even basic daily tasks. There are many levels of depression and if you find yourself unable to move on from this stage help may be required.




Acceptance comes when you feel you can deal with all those feelings of extreme sadness and loss, integrate those feelings and continue to live and look forward. Your loss will always be part of you but it is rationalised and you are now able to function again without the grief overwhelming you. Intense periods like those experienced following the loss of a loved one is often one of self growth and development too.


How long does each stage of grief last?


There is no time limit for each stage of grief. Some people progress through the stages very quickly and for others it may take a long time. What is important is that you do move through the stages at your own pace. The loss of one loved one might be able to be dealt with more quickly than another. If you find yourself languishing and not progressing through the stages, you should seek professional help from a grief counsellor.


There is a difference between an old pet being put to sleep and a sudden and unexpected death.


Let’s say you have an old dog who has been slowly deteriorating over the past few months and you know that you are going to need to make a decision to put your beloved dog to sleep.


The grieving for this pet has often already started before the day of euthanasia.

Denial can occur in those days when you keep holding onto your pet, even if your more rational side knows that putting him or her to sleep is the right thing to do.


Anger and bargaining can also occur before the sad day as you get angry about why your pet is getting old and frail and you are even having to make a decision about his or her ongoing life.


The floods of tears and hopelessness associated with depression are often shown at the time of euthanasia and can carry on for hours, days or weeks before final acceptance.


On the other hand, your young cat runs out onto the road, is hit by a car and dies at the scene. In this case you were not expecting and preparing for this event as your cat was young and fit.


Grieving in this case has not started and is more likely to start at denial. It doesn’t mean the grieving will be any longer or shorter, just that all stages will occur after death.


If you are feeling the grief so intensely that you feel you are getting stuck in a deep hole that you can’t get out of, it is essential to seek professional help.


Some tips on dealing with your loss


If euthanasia is required:


If you are in the position where you have to make a decision to put your pet down, make sure that you make the decision in your own time if at all possible, rather than feeling forced into it. Unless your pet is in extreme distress or uncontrollable pain, there is usually time to start coming to grips with the situation before making the decision. This helps to reduce feelings of guilt and doubt over whether you did the right thing later.


Ensure the best environment for the euthanasia. Discuss this with your veterinarian. Depending on the situation it may be a house call but equally it may be a veterinary clinic. This will be dependent on your pets' condition and its general demeanour, as well as your feelings on the best place. In some cases the veterinarian may recommend sedation or placing an intravenous catheter prior to the event, so that when the time comes there is less chance of struggling caused by your pet sensing your emotional state. You should discuss this with your veterinarian and be comfortable with the plan.


Other tips


If your pet dies at home, the body will be able to go to the veterinary clinic (taken by the veterinarian, if a house call for euthanasia was done) who will then arrange burial or cremation. However you may wish to consider a pet funeral company coming directly to your home to pick up your pet and taking it straight to the crematorium (or deliver your pet yourself), rather than the additional trip to the veterinary clinic. This service is available in a number of the larger centres in New Zealand.


Plan a funeral.

This does not need to be a funeral in the human sense (although it can be), but a ceremony that acknowledges your pet's passing. In some cases, people decide to let the veterinary clinic choose how to dispose of your pet's body. But just because you had to do this, it doesn’t mean a memorial can’t be held. Remember your pet is in your heart more than any other place. If you have ashes or the body then a small ceremony can be centred around this. Planting a tree, scattering the ashes at your pet's favourite park for a dog or sleeping spot for a cat and everyone present saying a few words can be very healing.


Remember the good times

Remembering the good times bytelling stories, especially funny ones about your pet’s quirks can create smiles and laughter which are all great healers. Bringing out old photos can help memories of the good times too.


Seek grief counselling.

This is especially important if you do not have a good network of supporting people around you. Especially when it comes to the intense grief around the loss of a pet, not everyone is able to understand this and offer the right support. If you don’t have this, a pet grief counsellor can help. Also don’t forget that the veterinary nurses at your veterinary clinic are also very understanding when it comes to the loss of pets and may be able to offer some help just talking about your sadness and loss. However, they are not trained grief counsellors and may need to refer you to a grief counselling service.

Need some help dealing with your loss? There is a qualified pet grief counsellor available in Christchurch. Click here to visit her website

Pet loss and children


Include children in the process. Explain what has happened and why everyone is upset.


Avoid saying "put to sleep" or "Rover died in his sleep" or "God took him" because this will make the child fear sleeping and fear God.


Explain that the pet won’t come back - death is permanent.


Give the child lots of hugs, cuddles and reassurance – they need to know that just because the pet has died, it doesn’t mean everyone around them is going to die too.


Keep the normal routines in place as much as possible, especially around meals and bedtimes so the child feels secure.


Understand that children respond to the loss of a pet differently. It depends on their age and also their attachment to the pet. Some children will ask questions, appear to accept what’s happened and then ask to watch TV or play outside. Others will be very sad and more profoundly affected. Accept that both reactions are normal. If you are unsure how to respond to your child in this situation, there are many books in the library on grief or you could seek the help of a professional grief counsellor.


Do other pets grieve when their friend dies?


Yes, I believe they feel the loss and grief too. Some feel it very intensely, others not so much. This could be related to the relationship between the pets, but also to your reaction and emotional state.


As a child we had 2 cats – a brother and a sister. The sister was very timid and went missing, presumed hit by a car after a very huge thunderstorm. For months after she disappeared, her brother, sat by the front gate and ‘waited’. Sitting by the front gate was not something he had ever done before that day. I am convinced that he was grieving for his lost sister and hoping she would return.


If you can, allow remaining pets to see and sniff the body of the recently departed pet. This allows them to have a grasp that they are gone. Animals do know the difference between live, sick and dead animals.


Like with a child, try and keep the pet's routine – food, walks, where it sleeps and so on normal. Any change in these will add to the pets anxiety.


When should I get a new pet?


This is another very personal decision. For some people the right time is very soon after the loss, for others it is not until many years later. It is best to wait until you have fully grieved for your lost pet first, as immediate replacement will not fill the void.


When you do feel ready to choose a new pet, try not to think of it as a replacement for your loss but as a new addition to the family that will bring its own personality, love and quirks. It does not replace your loss, but brings more love and happiness, alongside your loss.


There are many good pet loss and grief websites, which offer gems of information which may help you in your loss. There are also a number that offer a space for you to record your grief or read about others grief which can help you to understand that what you are feeling is normal and you are not alone.

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