We celebrate the unique place that pets have in our lives through regular features and practical advice on pet bereavement and other animal-related matters.
Pet loss support
The Ralph Site is a non-profit online pet loss support resource which provides support to pet carers coping with the loss of a beloved companion. There are a website and an active Facebook community with a public page and a private group.
Pet carers’ community
The Ralph Site aims to provide a non-judgmental and supportive place for those pet carers who have lost a much-loved member of the family. We know all too well the pain and heartbreak that accompanies the passing of your pet. And whilst these pets can never be replaced, we may find room to enrich our lives further with others when the time is right.
At The Ralph Site, we understand the special bond between you and your pets.
Although it affects us all differently, there are some universal truths of pet loss grief that may provide you with comfort during your time of loss.
Here is what we’ve learned:
Grief is part of love
Sadly, grief is an inevitable part of life, as certain as death and taxes. The only way we can ever avoid experiencing it is to live without emotional connections and the joy they bring.
Whenever we form an attachment that is so integral to our life that we can’t imagine existing without it, we are destined to grieve when we’re separated from the source of that attachment.
Some grief in life is fleeting – for example, the grief we feel when we move house, change jobs or end a romantic relationship that has fizzled out.
Other grief runs deeper, leaving us shattered and debilitated. This is the grief associated with losing a human or non-human person who we love.
Author C.S. Lewis famously wrote about grief, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”
This quote recognises that love and grief are part of each other. As painful as this is, it can also be incredibly comforting. When you feel grief, it’s because your love for your loved one is there inside of you, keeping them with you always.
While grief is universal, your grief is unique
The contradiction of grief is that while it is a universal experience, it’s also completely unique to the griever.
Even people – and some animals – who are grieving for the same pet will feel and express their emotions differently.
The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You can only do what feels right for you at any given moment.
Grief does not work to a timeline
People who have lost a pet often wonder, “When will I feel OK again?” and “When will it stop hurting?”
Unfortunately, grieving doesn’t come with an expiry date. It’s not a case of moving along a timeline and then being done.
Again, how you experience your grief will be unique to you. What is true is that most people find that they eventually learn how to live with their grief and that it softens and changes with time.
Grief is complicated (and more than just sadness)
Before you experienced grief for the first time, you probably thought of it in fairly one dimensional terms, a profound sadness overshadowing everything else.
However you lost your pet, it’s common for your initial reaction to be one of shock. People often describe feeling completely numb or disbelieving that their pet has gone.
It seems that shock is nature’s way of cushioning us against tragedy, giving us an emotional zone to transition from a state of having into a state of mourning our loss.
When a human dies, we have rituals and ceremonies around bereavement to fill this time of shock and help us function. A growing number of us are creating similar rituals around pet loss for the same reason.
Guilt is a normal part of pet loss grief
We can experience guilt after any bereavement. We might feel guilty for surviving, for going on after our loved one, for not spending more time with them while they were here… the list goes on.
Our pets can’t share their wishes with us, they are reliant on us for all of their needs (much like small children) and euthanasia is often a factor in the time and place of a pet’s passing. Our decisions can determine how and when an animal companion lives or dies.
Guilt has an important role to play. It can help us to make sense of a loss and even learn lessons for the future. At the same time, it can be a barrier to moving forward, keeping us stuck in a loop of what-ifs.
If you’re experiencing guilt following a pet loss, be gentle with yourself. Always look at your intentions. You only ever wanted the best for your friend, even if that meant making the decision to humanely end their suffering with euthanasia.
Pet loss grief is normal
There is growing acknowledgement of the fact that losing a pet can be as painful as losing a human. In fact, we sometimes grieve more deeply for our pets.
Our animal companions share our homes, our routines and are part of our close families. They unconditionally accept us at our best and our worst, bringing brightness and unconditional love to the darkest of days.
Of course, we grieve for them when they’re gone!
People who aren’t pet-orientated may struggle to understand your grief but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, more than 10,000 people called the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement helpline in 2018 (a figure that had doubled from the year before). Although we don’t have more recent figures, they are likely to have risen due to the fact that people are finally speaking more openly about their pet loss grief.
You may feel lost
It’s natural to feel loss and directionless after a bereavement. When a pet dies, it can cause a loss of routine, social life and companionship.
You may need to navigate your way through these so-called “secondary” losses and begin to figure out what your life will look like without the pet you have lost, even if you have other pets in your family.
You cannot change what has happened
When we’re grieving, our thoughts can get stuck in a loop. You might find that you keep replaying the last time you saw your pet or wishing you could go back and do things differently.
Again, this is a completely natural response to grief. The truth is that we would have a whole lifetime with our pets if we could.
One of the key processes of bereavement is accepting that your loved one has gone. You cannot change the past.
You can only control right now
In our daily lives, most of us do plenty to feel in control. In the context of our pets, we give them a great diet, exercise, enrichment, companionship, veterinary care, etc. but, despite our best efforts, we aren’t able to avert death or that moment when a pet goes missing.
Bereavement holds nothing back in this regard. It reminds us that, ultimately, we cannot control everything, which can be a scary realisation.
The most any of us can do is control what we do and how we respond in any given moment. Right now, this might mean deciding to go for a walk, eating something healthy, resting, doing something kind for yourself or even letting your tears flow.
You will survive this
When someone we love dies, including a pet, it can be hard to imagine going on without them.
Be gentle with yourself. Eventually, you will work out how to move forward and build a life that includes your grief. You won’t be broken by it, just changed.
Love never dies
Most people find that their grief changes over time.
One analogy is that it’s like learning to walk with a pebble in your shoe – at first, the pain is all you can think about but, with time and practice, you learn to walk with the pebble; sometimes you may barely notice it.
As hard as it can be to imagine it when you’re in the depths of grief, the day will inevitably come when you can think about your pet and smile. You’ll find yourself reliving old, happy memories and focusing on your pet’s life rather than how they left.
Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear that your love for your pet – and their love for you – is just as vivid and special as it ever was. It might sound like a cliché but love never dies. Because of this, your pet will always be with you.
Do you feel like you’re grieving alone for the loss of a pet? Are you struggling with a sense of physical, emotional or social isolation (or maybe a combination of all three)?
Sadly, isolation is a common consequence of a bereavement.
There are many different factors that feed into this. In today’s blog, we want to acknowledge them and also explore some steps you may be able to take to feel more connected.
Why losing a pet can leave us feeling isolated
Our pets don’t just share our homes with us, they share most aspects of our lives. They are likely to see us at our best and our worst, more than almost anyone else in the world. Losing this degree of intimacy is bound to be shattering.
If you lived alone with your pet, the reality is that you may have lost your main companion. If you live with members of your family, it could be that you all had very different relationships with the animal that has passed or that you have different ways of expressing your grief.
We can often feel isolated in grief because it’s impossible to find someone else who is experiencing the bereavement in exactly the same way as us.
Isolation due to disenfranchised grief
It doesn’t help that pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief, which means it’s a form of grief that isn’t necessarily acknowledged by our wider society.
Perhaps someone has thoughtlessly said to you, “It was only a dog/cat/horse/rabbit*” (*insert as appropriate) or “At least you can get another one”.
Although people mean well, these kinds of platitudes have an alienating effect. It’s a clear statement that the other person doesn’t understand or connect with our loss. This can make us feel alone in our grief and this sense of loneliness and disconnection feeds into isolation.
The different types of isolation
Isolation comes in different forms. If you did live alone with your pet (or you spent large portions of the day with just them), then you will almost certainly be experiencing some degree of physical isolation.
Grief can lead to social isolation too. Social isolation is best described as psychologically or physically distancing yourself from desired or needed relationships. You may be finding it too hard to be around other people at the moment, leading you to withdraw from social situations.
Equally, your pet may have been at the heart of your social life. Dog carers and horse carers, for example, tend to socialise with other dog or horse people. When a pet dies, you can end up feeling socially isolated due to a loss of routine and common ground.
Finally, many people who are grieving end up feeling emotionally isolated. We’ve already touched on this slightly.
Emotional isolation is feeling like you have no-one to talk to or confide in. If you feel that people don’t understand the depth of your grief for your animal companion, this can be a huge barrier to communication. You may feel that you can’t talk about your loss.
We should also acknowledge that grief brings up a complex range of emotions. Anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, sadness or even mistrust can all feed into isolation. You may be worried about expressing these emotions, while people around you may not know what to say to be supportive.
Every bereavement we experience in life creates a kind of ripple effect that causes secondary losses.
When a pet dies, we can suffer a loss of identity, a loss of our role as caregiver and provider, loss of purpose, loss of routine, loss of social activities or even a loss of self-confidence.
Each secondary loss will shape and layer your grief. This can feed into your feelings of isolation because no-one else can truly comprehend all that you lost with your pet.
Isolation and loneliness
Isolation in any form can make us feeling lonely.
Loneliness is best described as the perception that you don’t have the amount or quality of social interaction that you desire. This means you can be surrounded by people and still feel like you’re complete alone.
In turn, loneliness can chip away at your emotional and physical well-being and create a negative spiral that increases your sense of isolation.
Tips for coping with isolation and making connections
If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation due to a bereavement, then it’s important to recognise this.
You may be inclined to withdraw even further, believing that no-one understands your feelings and you are alone in your loss.
While the loss you have experienced is completely unique to you, please know that support is available.
Speak to other bereaved pet carers within The Ralph Site community, many of whom will be struggling with similar feelings of loneliness and isolation
Stay connected to people who are supportive – if you have people within your social circle who are supportive, look for ways to spend more time with them, even if it is just through text messages or a platform such as Zoom.
Explore ways to express your grief – it is important that your grief for your pet has an outlet. You might find it helpful to create a memorial or write about your feelings, especially if you don’t feel like talking to anyone close to you about your loss
Hold one of your pet’s belongings and talk to them – this has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of connection in people who are grieving
Find time for self-care – your physical and mental health can be affected by isolation, so it’s crucial that you prioritise your self-care by eating healthily, resting and getting some daily exercise
One of the main reasons that The Ralph Site exists is to offer a safe space for bereaved pet carers to express their grief and find support and acceptance. Just knowing that other people understand the depth of your feelings can help to ease isolation.
We think it’s important to explain some of the most well-known models of grief, simply because you might be someone who finds it helpful to understand a bit more about what you’re going through.
Grief can feel isolating and unexpected, like the most terrifying of rollercoasters. Models of grief can give a sense of normality and ground you through the ups and downs.
The Dual Process Model of Grief
In the mid-90s, clinical psychology professors Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut developed the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.
Up until then, experts had believed that grief was a linear process where you worked through various tasks and stages and eventually arrived at closure. People would talk about needing to do “grief work”, suggesting that you could only heal your grief if you faced your loss head on and completed certain tasks.
The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement suggests that grief is far more complicated.
In the Dual Process Model, Stroebe and Schut stated that there are two different types of stressors associated with grieving, which reflect different ways of behaving.
These stressors are loss orientated and restoration orientated.
Stroebe and Schut explain that when you’re grieving, you will switch – or “oscillate” – between two different modes of being.
This is why they called the model a Dual Process, i.e. “consisting of two part or elements”.
But what does this really mean?
As the name would suggest, loss-orientated stressors are anything that make you focus on your loss.
With a beloved pet, this might be seeing old photos of them, deciding what to do with their belongings, reminders of them in your daily routine or simply remembering something you loved doing together.
Loss-orientated stressors can make you feel sad, guilty, angry, anxious, depressed and many of the other powerful emotions associated with grief.
When you’re experiencing this process, you may find yourself thinking back a lot, yearning to be with your pet again, crying, reminiscing or simply wanting to curl up in bed to sleep the day away.
Stroebe and Schut believed that no-one can realistically face grief head-on 24 hours a day until they somehow feel better.
It’s too demanding, exhausting and, ultimately, unhealthy to live entirely within the loss-orientated process.
The Dual Process Model explains that restoration-orientated stressors are necessary; they enable you to get on with daily life and distract yourself from your grief sometimes. It’s so important to be able to take a small break from focusing on your pain, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
The restoration-orientated process is about rebuilding your life without your loved one, finding distractions, changing your routines, doing new things or even just completing mundane tasks like cooking a meal, going for a walk or doing some cleaning.
If you find yourself wanting to binge-watch your favourite programme on Netflix and just ignore all of your feelings for a while, the Dual Process Model says that’s natural and completely healthy.
Oscillation between the two processes
According to Stroebe and Schut, you will find yourself oscillating or bouncing between both processes. This will help you to make sense of your grief and your new reality bit by bit.
You’ve probably been doing this naturally.
For example, perhaps you got up this morning, made a cup of tea, laughed at something your partner said and then sat down to do some work. Then, suddenly, you spotted your pet’s food bowl on the kitchen side and burst into tears.
This was you moving from a restoration-orientated process to a loss-orientated process. You may swing between the two multiple times during any given day – or hour!
The Dual Process Model explains that this oscillation is vital for healthy grieving, moving you between coping with your grief and seeking respite from it.
Of course, you will sometimes experience one process more than another. When a loss is very fresh, we can feel like we’re drowning in loss-orientated stressors.
However, by necessity, the restoration-orientated process will eventually kick in.
You mustn’t feel guilty when it does. It’s a survival mechanism and a completely healthy, natural part of grief.
The Dual Process Model also recognises that grief doesn’t have a definitive end point and that it’s an ever-changing state. It’s natural to eventually spend larger chunks of time on restoration-orientated activities, only to bounce back into a loss-orientated state on an anniversary or after experiencing something that triggers a memory.
The important thing to remember is that you won’t stay stuck in that process forever.
“Moving forward” or “moving on”. They sound like such similar phrases, don’t they? But in the context of grief the difference between “on” or “forward” is huge.
When you’re grieving for a precious pet – or indeed a person who you love – people will often say things like, “Isn’t it time you moved on?” or “You’ll move on eventually” or even, “I’m glad to see you’ve moved on”.
But the idea of moving on from a loved one can be incredibly distressing.
Moving on implies leaving something behind. It suggests that the animal, for example, was a moment or place that you can put behind you when, in fact, he or she was a member of your family and you’ll never get over that loss – not in the way that moving on implies, anyway.
The connotations of “moving on”
While people who haven’t experienced grief might like to think it has an endpoint, those of us who have lost someone we love, including a pet, know that there is no cut off point for our feelings.
Grief doesn’t come with a timeline, whereas the phrase “moving on” suggests that it does.
Other vocabulary people use can suggest the same thing. You might have someone say to you, “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better now” or be party to a conversation in which someone says, “I don’t think they ever got over the loss of their <insert loved one>”. People often talk about “closure”, as though you can simply close the cover on the book of grief.
Such phrases imply that there will come a moment when the grief is done and dusted. When it isn’t, it can make us feel like there’s something wrong with us.
Although her insights came from losing a child, her dad and her husband in a few short months, her insights apply to all grief. The talk is well worth a watch.
Why it’s better to talk about “moving forward”
As McInerny tells us, it is far more compassionate and realistic to talk about moving forward after a bereavement.
When a pet dies, our love for them is still very much present. We expect them to be waiting for us when we get home or listen for the sounds of them moving around like they always did. We slip into the present tense when we talk about them because we think about them all the time and they will never just be left in the past.
Our pets help to shape us and so they are forever a part of our identities.
You would not be the person you are today without the animal you have lost. You made memories together, felt joy because of them, built your life around them.
How can you move on from someone who has fundamentally changed you?
Learning to live with grief
Inevitably though, we do have to find a way to move forward.
As much as we can feel frozen in our grief, life will keep moving and we are left with no choice but to find a way to live in the world without our loved one.
But it isn’t that our grief eventually shrinks, it’s that we learn how to grow around it.
This is the theory of Dr Tonkin’s model of grief, which is illustrated below. This model suggests that grief actually remains as big and present as it has always been but, with time, your life will begin to grow around it.
You will experience new things, meet new people, have new pets, learn new skills, visit new places, enabling the space around your grief to get bigger. This is the process of moving forward.
Grief isn’t an either/or emotion. It’s not that you feel grief and nothing else.
If we believe this, then we can move forward knowing that grief is the locket that holds our love inside of us.
And maybe that’s a special thing, to have a love that we carry always. Why would we want to “move on” and leave love in the past when we can move forward and hold it with us forever?
If you need to talk to someone about how to move forward in your pet loss grief, you can find a list of pet bereavement counsellors on The Ralph Site. Our active Facebook community also provides a safe and accepting space to talk.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Only your way.
In his book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, psychologist J William Worden outlined a model for grieving known as “the four tasks of grief”.
Many people find this model comforting, especially if they are experiencing complicated grief, because it doesn’t put a time limit on grief or prescribe linear stages.
Instead, Worden observed that there are generally four tasks that people have to accomplish to be able to move through their grief into a full and meaningful life post-loss.
The tasks don’t have to be completed in order and they don’t come with a deadline. You may need to move back and forwards between tasks and you may even need to revisit the tasks on and off in the future, even though you thought they were complete.
Worden believes that this is normal and entirely appropriate whenever someone suffers a loss, be it human or animal.
So, what are the four tasks of grief and how can they help you deal with your pet loss?
Task 1: To accept the reality of your loss
Since your pet died or went missing, you may have been wrestling with a sense of disbelief. How is it possible that they’ve gone?
You may expect your pet to be there to greet you when you come home or listen out for the sounds they made that were part of the everyday soundtrack of your life. People in the Ralph Site Facebook Group often say that they can’t bear the silence of their pet’s absence.
You see, intellectually we may recognise that our pet has died but it can take our emotions longer to catch up.
Many of the rituals that surround human death are about helping the bereaved to accept the reality of their loss. Milestones like the funeral or ordering a headstone bring the reality centre stage. In many ways, this is missing from how we mourn for a pet, although more and more of us are choosing to memorialise our pets and observe bereavement rituals.
Even so, while events such as euthanasia or collecting your pet’s ashes are rooted in reality, the sense of disbelief can continue.
This task is all about consciously acknowledging that your pet is no longer with you. This might mean talking about them in the past tense, deciding what to do with their belongings or even talking to your vet about your pet’s passing so that you understand more about what happened.
In truth, it’s emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual, which is why it feels so all-consuming.
One of the challenges with pet loss grief is that it isn’t always recognised (this is called “disenfranchised grief”). When people say things like, “It was only a dog” or “Can’t you just get another cat?”, it can make us feel unable to freely express our grief.
But no one can move on from grief by repressing it.
Task 2 of Worden’s grief model is all about allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions as you grieve without censoring them.
It can be helpful to find someone to talk to. If you don’t feel able to chat to your friends or family, you could look for a pet bereavement counsellor. Many people feel that bereavement counselling provides them with a safe space to express all of their grief reactions.
Task 3: To adjust to a world without the deceased
As you probably know from your own experience, one of the biggest challenges with grief is learning to live in a world that no longer includes your pet.
Broadly speaking, this adjustment has to take place on three different levels.
You’ll also need to adjust your internal life. This usually means a shift in how you see your identity without your daily relationship with your pet to define you.
Finally, there is usually a spiritual component to this grief task. The death of a loved one usually prompts us to think about our own mortality, the meaning or purpose of life, or our larger belief systems.
Task 4: To find an enduring connection with your deceased pet while embarking on a new life without them
This is probably the most challenging task to complete in Worden’s model and can take a long time to accomplish. As hard as it is, it’s also vital to moving forward.
When we lose someone we love, animal or human, our emotions often conspire to keep us trapped in a place of grief. Maybe it’s because our feelings of loss provide the most tangible connection to our loved one or that it feels like a betrayal to stop suffering.
But Worden cautions that if we don’t complete this task, then we can’t fully live.
Life doesn’t stop when someone we love dies. Somehow we have to find a way to keep living and finding meaning and new potential in life. Otherwise, we stay stuck in that moment of loss.
Peace and healing come from being able to give time and space to thinking about your loved one, while you continue to live with purpose and meaning. They also come from allowing your relationship with your pet to evolve through the emotional connection you still share, while also being able to make other emotional connections or enjoy new experiences.
In Worden’s model, our deep, lasting feelings for our lost pet don’t fade. They simply become a part of us. Eventually, we’re able to remember the happy times with our loved one and see the end of their life as just a small part of our lives together.
We’re able to carry them with us forever without standing still to do it.
It’s YOUR grief
We hope you find this grief model helpful. It is not a template for how to grieve and it recognises that everyone grieves differently.
If you’re feeling stuck, it can be a helpful and compassionate reminder that grieving is a process that won’t always feel so all-consuming.