Grief 1 Year Later – 5 Lessons Learned

Grief 1 Year Later - 5 Lessons Learned - image  on

Beautiful Cleveland RIP

by Glynis Sherwood

Those of you who have known me for at least a year may remember that my beautiful tabby cat Cleveland died last September from nasal cancer.  I wrote a couple of articles at the time about anticipatory grief and palliative care giving.  This article is a brief retrospective of what I discovered about my own grief process in the year since his death.

1. Grief Does Not Necessarily Follow “5 Stages” 

Brilliant psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross developed the 5 stages of Grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – as a framework to help people understand and cope with their responses to loss.  Dr. Ross also recognized there is no linear, tidy or typical reaction to loss.  Unfortunately, a lot of people have been taught to expect grief to be a straight line of these five stages.  This is definitely not the case, as each person’s grief is as unique as a finger print.


I found myself going back and forth into different stages of grief, at times simultaneously. Sometimes I would feel I had passed through my grief, only to find myself grieving again the next day.  I also can’t recall having been in denial, perhaps due to knowing ahead of time that Cleveland was going to die.  I finally concluded that…


2.Grief Is Like A Spiral Or A Wave


As I mentioned, my grief has not been linear.  My grief has gone back and forth in a cyclical fashion. It has felt harder, then easier, then harder again.  Its progress feels more like a spiral. I believe this back and forth spiral is part of the process of coming to terms with the loss. Its job is to help us ‘accept’ the permanence of the loss. But to do that we have to go back and forth, until we ‘get’ it.


I also liken the movement of grief to a wave that washes in and out.  I found these waves were often brief, and if I allowed myself to ride them, I tended to feel better – or at least OK – a few minutes later. In the early days, the waves occasionally could feel like Tsunamis.  Over time, the waves became less overwhelming.


I was also reminded that grief can come out of the blue, when I was not even thinking about Cleveland.


3. It’s Important To Learn How To ‘Dose’ Your Grief


Believe it or not, grieving ‘well’ is a skill.  Fortunately, like most skills, it can be learned.  Healthy grieving involves the ability to voluntarily experience grief in doses, where we go back and forth between a loss orientation and a restoration orientation.  Accordingly, we need to learn to decide when to move towards or turn away from our grief, as we adjust to the loss and it becomes more real.  This makes the grieving process more mindful and something we choose to either confront or steer clear of  The dual skills of either facing or avoiding grief – at will –  are healthy and adaptive.  Sometimes the ability to put grief away is a welcome and helpful anesthetic from the pain of loss.


4. Many People Don’t Understand Grieving For A Pet, But A Lot Of People Do


The death of a pet can be a lonely experience.  Their lives – and our grief – are just not assigned the same value as the death of a human being.  However, the tide appears to be turning as more people grasp that ‘love is love and grief is grief’, and that non-human animals are considered to be treasured family members by their guardians.  I found that some people grasped that I was grieving the death of a family member, while others clearly did not.  It was helpful that I anticipated this, but even more helpful that I found a pet loss support group on Facebook, where people were consistently kind and understanding to others, no matter how much time had gone by.


5. Grief Challenges Our Beliefs


One of the main reasons grief can be so hard to deal with is that it makes us question our beliefs, especially dearly held assumptions about justice and fairness. Even though I knew this, I was unprepared for what I thought should happen to not take place. I believed Cleveland would receive good health care.  When this did not happen I had to come to terms with a violation of trust and feelings of abandonment by the veterinary profession.  This breach of my belief system added an additional layer of loss to the grief process.


There’s no question, sorrow changes us.  Ultimately we have to decide whether to use the experience of loss to make us stronger – to transform our lives – or to confirm our worst fears.  We will never be as innocent again after loss, but I believe one of the inherent values in grieving is to make us more resilient people who are capable of greater empathy for the losses of others.


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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Addictions Counsellor is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from long standing Grief, Loss Anxiety and Addictive Behaviors.