As I work with people in deep grief after the loss of a cherished pet, I hear many questions again and again. One of them is: “How long will I feel this way?”
The intensity of the pain is so great that you may be surprised by it, and may wonder how long you can stand to feel such a deep sense of loss. On the one hand, you may be hoping that this emotional suffering is close to ending. On the other hand, you may not want to feel the pain end, because you fear that this would signal you have “moved on,” and you are not ready for that yet.
The answer to the question, “How long will I feel this way?” is an unsatisfactory one, because it offers no clarity. Grief takes as long as it takes. It is highly individual.
Kubler-Ross is famous for delineating “stages of grief,” but she never meant to imply that these stages follow a linear progression. Rather, they are part of the myriad feelings that grievers experience: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. You may find you experience more than one of these at a time, that you loop back and experience some or all repeatedly. You may not experience all of them.
At the end, however, comes Acceptance, which offers some level of peace. There is no way to rush to Acceptance and skip all the feelings and difficult emotional experiences that must come before it. The people in your life who love you and want you to be happy might like to push you along towards Acceptance, but it doesn’t work that way.
Grief has a life of its own. Grief takes its own time.
The reason it takes a long time to get to Acceptance is that you have invested your love in a dear fellow-creature who played, no doubt, many roles in your life. This may be an animal friend who was also an emotional support. Perhaps he or she saw you through important milestones in your life. When you give your heart and then lose your loved one, a wound is created that may feel as if it will never heal.
In addition, you may go through a long period of time when you don’t really want to heal yet. And that is okay. There is a wise part of you that knows that you need to take your time through this transition to life without your animal companion.
Sometimes there is an emotional block to healing. For example, you might feel that you would be disloyal if you would begin to heal. In time, it will make sense to you when you read or hear: “Think of how your pet would want you to feel, and try to feel that way.” But when confronted with that statement before you are ready, you will feel that it doesn’t apply to you, or that it is a cruel and insensitive statement.
If your friends, family, and others in your life are pushing you along, expressing surprise (“You’re still upset about that?”), know that this usually stems from one of two reasons:
1) They love you and are uncomfortable seeing you sad.
2) They have not allowed themselves to fully grieve their own losses, and seeing you do it makes them aware of their own pain which they would rather push away.
In either case, other people’s problem with your grief is not your problem, and has nothing to do with you , really. If they don’t want to listen or support you in your sadness, or don’t know how to, be sure to find support—in a professional counselor, a pet grief group, and/ or in a pet grief helpline.
Finally, “how long you will feel like this” isn’t so much the point, as “what supports can you put in place to help you walk this grief road?