The thing about grief is…We knew it was coming. Between the hearing loss, increasing difficulty standing up, and longer naps, the inevitable was unavoidable: our beloved 14-year-old dog, Oliver, was nearing the end. And yet, we kept being soothed by the sweet sound of his nails on the floor, his big stretches and sighs, and his legendary joy of food and walks. Less than a year before, he even fended off a coyote attack. But this past March when he had an acute onset of inability to walk straight, stand on his own, or even comfortably lie still, my husband and I knew we had to do the most challenging thing. We had to help our best friend onto the next chapter. We had to help him die. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, arguably the most well-known resource on grief in modern culture, popularized the “Five Stages of Grief:” denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For many years, the prevailing thought was that these steps happen in order. Subsequent experts have expanded on Kubler-Ross’s work, recognizing that these stages are rarely linear or time-limited and often describe more nuanced emotions and experiences. 

As one of my patients wisely said recently, “Grief is a process you can’t wiggle out of.”

Anyone reading this who has grieved anything—the loss of a job, a pet, a relationship, a parent, a child, a friendship, a stage of life—knows there is no predicting the order of these feelings nor how intense or lasting they may be. Knowing Ollie’s death was coming, I had the benefit of knowing all kinds of emotions would arise. And—with some planning and tremendous support from friends, family, and coworkers—my husband and I could fully feel into those spaces. 

Grief is an intricate and deeply personal journey when facing the loss of someone or something significant. It is an amalgamation of emotions that ebbs and flows, intertwining love and loss. It cannot be fixed or resolved. Instead, it is a profound and necessary expression of our love for what we have lost. The journey through grief is unique to each individual, influenced by personal beliefs, depth of the bond, and nature of the loss. In the case of losing my cherished pet, grief continues to surprise me. As pets often do, Ollie had become a beloved member of our family, offering unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, and companionship that is difficult to put into words. Having his bodily presence removed from our life so quickly shocked our daily rituals. 

Self-compassion, patience, and willingness to confront the depth of emotions support the process of navigating grief. On days when life requires that I go to work, grocery shop, take care of our other dog, or do any mundane housework, it can be challenging to hold all of this. I intentionally carve out time to let myself grieve Ollie, whether looking through photos or talking with my husband about fun times we had together. This dedicated time is essential because I believe if I didn’t make time for it, it would make time for itself (likely in the most untimely circumstance.) Instead, I embrace the tears that flow and permit myself to feel the profound sadness that engulfs me. I also allow myself to laugh and giggle at happy memories and don’t feel guilty that my grief sometimes looks happy. I can begin to navigate this uncharted territory by acknowledging and validating my emotions. There isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve; we must find what works for us as individuals.

Building a supportive network is another helpful component of managing grief. In my case, I find solace in the comforting presence of family and friends who understand the unique bond I shared with Oliver. They offer a compassionate ear and a shoulder to lean on, allowing me to express my deepest sorrows and fondest memories. Sometimes we might feel that our grief is a burden for others to bear, but in reality, the people who love us want to help us process it. Being able to talk to various people may also offer different perspectives, which can help ease the worry that you’re burdening any person too much. Go for a walk, see a movie, share a meal — whatever! Just do something fun with your friends. They still love you even if your heart is hurting. 

Seeking professional help is also a valuable step in experiencing grief. Grief counseling or therapy can provide a safe space to explore the complex emotions that arise during this process. My therapist has helped me with some of the more unwieldy components like disappointment and anger and helped me identify coping strategies and tools to navigate the overwhelming emotions within my day-to-day life. I am grateful to have access to a therapist, and having her on my team for several years before Ollie’s death helped us get into the substance of my grief without needing to give lots of history.

Self-care also plays a vital role when grief visits. During this time of intense emotional upheaval, it has been crucial to prioritize my well-being. Engaging in activities that bring solace and comfort, such as taking long walks in nature, practicing yoga, or trail running with friends and my other dog Piper helps me find moments of peace amidst the pain. Taking care of my physical health by eating well and getting enough rest allows me to build resilience and endure challenging days. I remind myself that grieving is exhausting, and self-compassion is paramount during this tender time. I also find myself just lying on the couch, doing nothing. That’s not a regular thing for me, but there’s no “normal” in grief. 

When we got Ollie’s ashes back, the crematorium provided thoughtful and helpful pamphlets about death. Rather than scoff at them, I read them through. One of the most beneficial suggestions was to plant the little flower seed packets of forget-me-nots they sent home and to write Ollie a letter: explaining to him all the things I was feeling, why we made the decision we did, and all the things I’d remember about him for the years to come. 

So, even though I have probably gone through all of Kübler-Ross’s grief stages, they’ve certainly not been in order, and they’re not limited to denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve also had some joy, guilt, and peace thrown in. No matter what you might be grieving, know: it is a personal journey and there is no “right” way to do it. I encourage you to find what feels right to you.

This blog post was written by Elizabeth Frost, PA and Clinical Director for Integrative Family Medicine of Asheville.