Monthly Archives: May 2021

Moving forward, not moving on

“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.

But there truly isn’t. 

We don’t move on from grief

If you haven’t seen it, there’s a powerful TED talk from Nora McInerny filmed in 2018 in which she talks about how we can never truly move on from grief, only forward. 

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. 

In fact, grief can be present while you experience other emotions too. You can grieve for your pet and still feel happy and smile. You can be grieving and still experience joy. You can even love another pet while yearning for the one you lost.

People in The Ralph Site Facebook community often share the saying that “Grief is just love that has nowhere to go”.

How true.

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.

Just know that you are not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

The four tasks of grief

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.

Task 2: To process the pain of your grief

Grief hurts. It’s messy and complicated and involves so much more than just feeling sad. It can include guilt, anger, anxiety and even moments of happiness

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 will need to adjust your external life – this can be by changing your routines, enjoying activities that weren’t possible with your pet, taking on new responsibilities, living alone, learning new skills, or even bringing a new pet into your home.

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. 

Until that day though, you’re not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Common physical symptoms of pet loss grief

If you’ve recently lost a beloved pet, have you noticed that you’re experiencing new physical symptoms as well the emotional turmoil associated with grief?

The physical side of bereavement can add new layers of stress to an already difficult time in your life.

Before we experience grief for the first time, most of us think of it as a single emotion but, as you know from personal experience, grief is actually much more nuanced, affecting your mind and your body.

Common physical symptoms of grief

Losing someone you love can cause huge chemical shifts within your body, such as higher-than-usual amounts of adrenaline in your system. Naturally, this affects how you feel physically.

If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms since your pet died or went missing, then please be reassured that they are probably a direct response to your grief:

  • Digestive problems

You may find that you have little or no appetite at the moment. It’s also common for bereaved people to experience temporary digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain, feeling nauseated or a horrible empty feeling in the stomach.

Be gentle with yourself. Try to eat small amounts of food throughout the day, if you feel up to it, and do what you can to stay hydrated, even if it means setting a reminder on your phone to drink a glass of water.

  • Disrupted sleep

Are you finding it impossible to sleep? Or is sleeping the only thing you want to do right now? Perhaps your sleep cycles are back to front or you sleep in small bursts throughout the day?

Any kind of disruption to your usual sleep patterns will affect how you feel. Research would suggest that almost everyone who suffers from bereavement experiences some kind of sleep disruption. This can increase in people showing signs of complicated grief.

Of course, too much or too little sleep can have an impact of all areas of your life, affecting your concentration, coordination, energy levels and much more.

If you are struggling with your sleep right now, you might find this article from “What’s Your Grief?” helpful.

It is packed full of suggestions about how to make your sleeping environment more conducive to rest, adopting a bedtime routine, relaxation techniques and things to avoid.

  • Low energy

Grief is exhausting. Whether it’s because you’re eating less and struggling to sleep or because your mind is in overdrive, it’s completely understandable that you feel tired and low on energy. You may even find that your muscles feel weak.

Again, give yourself time and permission to take life at a slower pace. Rest when you need to rest. 

Some people find it helpful to set small targets for what they want to achieve in the day, even if it’s a five-minute walk in the fresh air. As counter-intuitive as it seems when you’re utterly exhausted, even gentle exercise can help to boost your energy levels.

  • Weight changes

A lot of bereaved people find that they experience weight gain or weight loss in the weeks and months after losing a loved one.

If you find you’re putting weight on, it could be because you’re eating convenience food and takeaways more (because it’s too exhausting to think about cooking) or because you’re exercising less. This can especially affect bereaved dog carers who no longer have their canine companion to encourage them to take daily walks or those who have lost a beloved horse.

On the flipside, if you’re losing weight, it may be because your appetite is non-existent or you just don’t have the energy to think about food.

Disruptions to your sleep can also affect your metabolism and lead to weight fluctuations.

As many people find pet loss hard to talk about, and experience it as a disenfranchised grief, it’s not uncommon to feel socially isolated, which can impact on your eating and exercise habits. 

If you have a loved one who will encourage you to eat healthily or come out for a walk with you, do try to reach out to them.

  • Illness

Sadly, the stress of grief can lower your body’s immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses such as colds, the flu and other viruses.

If you already had a chronic health condition before your pet died, your symptoms may temporarily worsen. This is why it’s important to look after yourself as much as possible. 

Remember, your pet wouldn’t want to see you suffer.

  • Nervousness

All of that extra adrenaline in your body can cause feelings of anxiety and nervousness, such as heart palpitations, a tingling or numb sensation in your extremities, sweaty hands, shallow breathing and more.

Essentially, your body believes it is in a ‘fight or flight’ situation. It wants to protect you from something that might hurt you, not realising that you’re already hurting.

You may find some helpful suggestions about coping with these symptoms in our previous article about anxiety after pet loss.

Grief can manifest in many physical ways.
  • Feeling hot or cold

It may seem strange but many people find that their body temperature fluctuates wildly after a bereavement. One minute you might feel chilled to the bone and then the next, you’re in the throes of night sweat.

Again, these physical symptoms are typically caused by a surge of adrenaline.

  • Aches and pains

Sadly, the stress and emotions of grief can cause genuine feelings of physical pain and discomfort, such as migraines, a stiff neck, backache, stomach ache, chest pains, joint pain or muscular aches.

Most people find that their physical aches and pains lessen over time. If you are experiencing physical pain, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP about pain relief or other treatment options.

  • Concentration problems

Are you struggling to focus on simple tasks? Are you scared to drive because you can’t concentrate and you’re slow to react?

Again, this is a common physical symptom of grief.

Many factors can affect your concentration levels. Are you sleeping? Are you eating properly? Are you constantly thinking about your pet or reliving the last time you saw them? 

Even big chemical shifts in your body can affect your concentration. During a traumatic time, for example, when your brain and body are in pure survival mode, your mind doesn’t process images and memories in the same way as it does normally. 

This can impact how you perceive what’s happening around you when you’re grieving and give you a sense of looking at life through a window or on a delay.

Coping with your physical symptoms of pet loss grief

As you can see, grief is as physical as it is emotional. If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, please do know that it’s a normal response to loss (although we understand this doesn’t make your experience any easier).

It’s important that you take care of yourself.

Rest when you can. Eat well (but little and often, if necessary). Exercise when you have the energy.

And if you want to talk about your loss, support is available.

The Ralph Site Facebook group offers a community of bereaved pet carers who offer kindness and compassion and who understand what you’re going through.

You may also find strength by reaching out to the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service.

Although it is hard to imagine it right now, the physical symptoms of pet loss grief are temporary. Over time, you will find that they improve and disappear. 

Until that time, do know that you’re not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support