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Grief and relationships: What happens when your loved ones struggle with your grief?

What happens when a family pet dies but the different members of your household all grieve in different ways?

Are you finding that your partner is losing patience with your grief (or vice versa)?

Is grief starting to affect your relationships with your partner or other loved ones? It’s important to recognise that pet loss grief can significantly affect our relationships. It’s a topic that we need to talk about more so that those of you who are experiencing relationship difficulties of any kind know that you’re not alone.

Everyone grieves differently

As we’ve said numerous times on The Ralph Site, everyone grieves differently. This means that losing the same pet can affect every family member differently too, looking unrecognisable from one person to the next.

Not only will your grief be influenced by your personality traits (for example, you might wear your heart on your sleeve, while your partner wants to ‘fix’ everything with a practical solution), but your grief will also be shaped by your individual relationship with your pet. If you were the main caregiver, you may feel the loss more keenly than family members who had less contact with your pet.

Grief doesn’t have a deadline

People often believe that grief has a limit, an acceptable time by which you should be ‘moving on’.

In The Ralph Site’s Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook, members frequently comment that their friends or family are putting pressure on them to stop grieving. “They say I should be doing better than this by now” or “Apparently, I’m wallowing in grief” are typical comments. Or people come into the group feeling desperately unheard; “Does anyone else feel like their partner doesn’t understand their grief?” is a common question.

Unfortunately, because grief looks so different from one person to the next, we can only base our expectations on our own experiences.

The gap between perspectives from one family member to the next can be a massive source of contention, disappointment or even outrage. Family members can end up feeling bad for various reasons. For example, your partner may see you struggling and feel guilty that they’re not more openly cut up too. They may even feel a bit resentful that you feel able to express your grief, while they don’t know how to.

Grieving each other as well as your pet

When you’ve suffered a bereavement, the people around you are often grieving too – not only for your pet but also for the life you had and the people you all were when your pet was alive.

If you’ve been hit particularly hard, your partner, children, parents or siblings may feel like they’ve lost you as well. This can be scary – will you ever come back to them? If you have loved ones who are ‘fixers’ in life, they may feel incredibly frustrated and powerless right now. It’s clear you’re suffering; all they want to do is make things better and they can’t.

You’re all on the same team

When faced with someone who’s grieving very differently to you or who doesn’t seem to be grieving at all, it’s easy to believe that they’re not on your side.

Your own frustration, fear, sadness and anger can turn your loved ones into the enemy. You might think, What’s wrong with them? Don’t they have any emotions? Why am I alone in how I feel? How can they have forgotten about him/her so quickly?

If this is happening to you, try to remember that the enemy here is actually the loss that you have suffered and the grief you’re experiencing, not your loved ones. Although it might not always seem like it, they’re on your side.

Ways to stay connected

Communicating your feelings effectively can be incredibly hard when you’re grieving. You may feel like you don’t have the mental capacity or energy to have a heart-to-heart with your loved ones.

If you can, try to state what you need or how you feel to your friends and family.

If your partner is a fixer, acknowledge, “I know you want to make this better and I love you for it but you can’t. All I ask is that you give me time”.

Or if your loved one is grieving very openly and emotionally and it’s too much for you, perhaps you can tell them, “I can see you’re hurting and I want to be there for you but I also need some space to grieve alone”.

You could remind your family that grief is a natural and healthy response to death, rather than a medical condition to be cured. Stress that there is no deadline after which your grief will end so remind your loved ones that pressure doesn’t help you. Also, if you can, let them know that you’re there for them if they need to talk too.

Reach out to your wider support network

It’s hard to see beyond grief. Sometimes, we expect our immediate family – especially our romantic partners – to take on all of our emotions as their own but this isn’t really reasonable. They may need time and space sometimes to process everything they’re feeling.

This is why it’s always a good idea to reach out to your wider support network if you can. This could be your extended family members, friends and/or a bereavement counsellor or support group. The more people you’re able to speak to, the more people can provide practical and emotional support in your life.

Practice forgiveness

Perhaps one of the most important things we can do in the face of grief is to practice forgiveness in our relationships.

We have to forgive our loved ones for not grieving in the same way as us because they are individuals too. Grief doesn’t come with a handbook for how to behave.

We also have to forgive ourselves for feeling distracted, disinterested, forgetful or ill-equipped to heal our relationships quickly and painlessly.

Forgiveness is especially important in cases of pet loss because we often blame ourselves for their death, be it through an accident, illness, natural causes or euthanasia, or if a pet goes missing.

If other family members were involved in your pet’s passing in some way, this can put a huge strain on your relationship. Is there someone that you’re struggling to forgive right now? It can be particularly hard if it’s a partner or child.

Forgive your pet too. They would have stayed with you forever if they could.

In the end, it all comes down to intentions. No-one intended for your pet to die. Your family don’t intend to grieve differently to you. They don’t intend for things to be tough between you right now.

Once you feel the truth of this, it becomes easier to forgive and find a way back to each other, even in the darkest days of grief.

Just know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Ten ideas for your pet memorial garden

With much of the world in lockdown in response to the coronavirus at the time of writing this blog (May 2020), people have understandably turned their attention to gardening to help them relax and pass the time.

If you’re looking for a way to memorialise a much-loved pet, how about creating a memorial garden (or section of your garden) dedicated to their memory? To help you plan the perfect space to celebrate the life and love you shared with your animal friend, we’ve put together a list of ideas:

1. Paint a name rock or memorial stone

If you do a search for memory garden ideas on Pinterest, you can see some beautiful ideas for how to hand-paint a rock for your memory garden. These rocks feature gorgeous, vibrant colours and can be decorated with anything at all to commemorate your pet. Paint their picture, their name, a comforting quote, flowers… the choice is yours. You could even paint a selection of rocks to place around your garden.

2. Plant Forget-Me-Nots

The tiny blue flowers of Forget-Me-Nots are said to symbolise faithful, enduring love and memories. It’s little wonder that many people chose to plant the flowers as a sign of remembrance for a pet or other loved one.

You could plant a bed of Forget-Me-Nots in your garden or confine them to a pot. They flower from May to October and grow best in damp, shady areas.

3. Paint a wooden seat or bench to sit in your garden

If you do create a memorial area for your pet in your garden, it’s important that you’re able to sit and enjoy the space. Many people feel closer to their deceased pets when they’re able to do this.

One lovely idea is to choose a wooden or metal seat or bench for your garden. You can paint wooden seats with your own design or words. There are some stunning ideas on Google Images.

4. Make a mosaic

Mosaics are another beautiful art form to use in a memorial garden. If you use materials designed for outdoors, a mosaic should last well in all weathers for years to come.

Again, a search for ‘how to do outdoor mosaic’ on Pinterest brings up hundreds of creative ideas for your garden. You could create decorations to hang from a tree, a mosaic path, mosaic bricks, a mosaic bench, mosaic tiles or anything else that fits with your space.

5. Wind chimes

As well as beautiful sights and smells in your pet’s memorial garden, you could add sound too in the form of wind chimes.

Many people find wind chimes calming and uplifting. Each gentle breeze offers up a reminder of your special pet.

6. Sun catchers

An alternative or complement to wind chimes is to hang sun catchers in your memorial garden. These can be made from glass or plastic and there are some easy home-crafting options using Mason jar lids.

Once again, Pinterest is a great starting point for ideas as a search for sun catchers shows.

7. Collar plant pot

If your memorial garden is in memory of a dog or cat, you could secure their collar around a special plant pot and fill it with your favourite shrub or flowers. Another option is to tie the collar around your pet’s water bowl and then use this as a flower pot.

It’s important to think about how your pet’s collar will stand up to bad weather. Many people use this idea indoors or in a sheltered area of their memorial garden.

8. A special tree

If you have room in your memorial garden, you could plant a special tree in memory of your pet.

The Impatient Gardener has a great article about how to choose a memorial tree and things to consider to ensure that it thrives.

9. Garden statues

These days, there are many companies and artisans who offer pet memorial statues. You should even be able to find someone who can create a personalised memorial of your pet. This could be in wood, metal, stone or other materials, depending on your tastes and budget. Etsy is a good starting point to see what sort of options are available.

10. Candles

Many cultures share the custom of lighting a candle for remembrance. It’s said to signify that the memory of the loved one still lives on and burns bright.

You can add candles to your pet’s memorial garden to illuminate it in the evenings or to light in a daily act of remembrance. There are some gorgeous outdoor candle and tealight holders available – your local supermarket may even have some inexpensive options.

You could personalise a candle holder using glass paints to create a special design commemorating your pet.

A unique space to remember your pet

There are no rules for building a pet’s memorial garden. The only thing that matters is creating a space, no matter how big or small, that gives you comfort and makes you feel close to your pet.

Many people choose to place, scatter or bury their pet’s remains in a memorial garden but, again, this is your personal choice.

We hope we have given you some ideas about what’s possible.

As always, know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Talking about pet loss grief

Talking about pet loss grief can be hard.

In fact, in our modern society, any conversations about grief can be challenging. Even when grieving for a human loved one, bereaved individuals frequently express that there’s pressure for their grief to end (or for them to at least stop talking about it!). Conversations about grief often include phrases like “I know I should be over this by now” or “I can’t believe I’m still upset” or “I know I’m being silly but…”.

Researching this topic, there certainly seems to be a deep discomfort about talking about death and loss. Bereaved people often observe that their friends and family feel socially awkward around them or even avoid them altogether, which can add another layer to the sense of loss.

Often listeners have good intentions. They don’t want to talk about grief because they worry it will make the bereaved person feel worse. What they don’t realise is that, when you’re grieving, it would be impossible to remind you about something that’s already on your mind twenty-four hours a day.

In many ways, not talking about grief just adds to the feelings of isolation and ‘otherness’. The space to talk can be an important part of making sense of what has happened.

Talking about loss in the past or present tense affects how listeners respond

According to one article from Psychology Today, a psychologist known as Dan McAdams has observed in his research that people are often most comfortable with hearing others talk about grief when it’s in a past context with a positive outcome.

In other words, it’s much easier to discuss a bereavement when the bereaved person can put it within a framework of, “I experienced this terrible loss but I came out of the other side as a stronger person”. McAdams describes this as a ‘redemption story’.

Apparently, people find it much harder to talk about grief when it’s still seen to be present. If someone says “I’m in pain and I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy again”, most humans are far more likely to struggle to be supportive. McAdams describes a life derailed by loss as a ‘contamination story’.

This sounds like a harsh description – no-one wants to see grief as something that contaminates – but the sentiment does seem to reflect what many of us experience.

McAdams suggests that people identify more closely with ‘contamination stories’, the stories of lives being turned upside down by grief, which is what makes them so much harder to hear. In turn, finding things harder to hear makes it harder to respond appropriately.

Talking about disenfranchised grief

Some people find pet loss grief harder to talk about because it’s a type of disenfranchised grief. In other words, a grief that isn’t always fully or even partly acknowledged by society.

Although there can be some wonderfully understanding individuals in the world, many people simply don’t understand pet bereavement. They believe that it’s part and parcel of caring for an animal.

And, of course, it is. We all know that our pets will probably die long before us. We take the risk of the pain of future loss in exchange for the joy we experience during our pets’ lifetimes. But knowing bereavement is inevitable eventually doesn’t make it less painful.

So what can you do if you’re finding it hard to talk about your pet loss? Or, worse yet, if you’re struggling to find someone who will listen? We’ve put together a few ideas:

  1. Accept that you are grieving – we often feel we should rush through grief but the truth is that it’s an appropriate response to losing someone you love.
  2. Recognise that people find it hard to know what to say in the face of grief – it’s not that people are uncaring, they may just not know how to support you.
  3. Be prepared to ask for what you need – you can help people overcome point two above by stating what would help you. Just saying, “I don’t need you to fix anything, I just need to talk” can take the pressure off.
  4. Feel all of your feelings – before they experience grief, people often think of it as a long period of sadness. In fact, grief contains so much more: sadness, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, anger, happiness, hope… all emotions have a place. In a stunningly honest interview, actor Rob Delaney described the fact that the rainbow of his emotions remains as varied as it was before but his grief for his two-year-old son has added a band of black.
  5. Tell your friends that you appreciate their support – your loved ones may feel like they don’t know what to do or say for the best. Let them know that they’re helping just by listening.
  6. Choose your audience – there may be people in your social circle who aren’t able to offer the support that you need right now. It’s OK to choose who you speak to about your grief.
  7. Seek help from dedicated grief support services – you may find it helpful to talk to fellow bereaved pet carers or pet bereavement counsellors. Both can provide a non-judgmental source of support from people who understand the depth of your loss. The Blue Cross pet bereavement helpline and The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group are both there for you.

Learning how to talk about pet loss grief

There’s no doubt that how we talk about grief is influenced by our cultures, our societies, our peer groups, our families and our personal experiences. As well, of course, as our relationship with the person, animal or thing (e.g. job) we’ve lost.

In many ways, the rituals surrounding human death serve the purpose of providing a roadmap for how to behave that isn’t dependent on language or even emotions. There’s a death certificate to complete, a funeral to plan, clothes to pick out for the deceased, a wake to attend and so on.

When a pet dies or goes missing, the rituals aren’t as clear, the steps not as ingrained in society. This means we have to find our own way forward in the face of loss. Without the framework of rituals, talking about grief takes on a new challenge.

Hopefully, the tips above will help.

Your grief is yours to talk about as much or as little as you need. Even if other members of your household are sharing the same loss, you will probably each talk about grief differently.

As ever, there is no right or wrong.

And if you do want to talk about your pet loss grief with other bereaved pet carers, know that The Ralph Site is here for you.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Pet loss grief and coronavirus: How to move forward while physical distancing or in isolation

In recent times, there have been a number of conversations in The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group about how the coronavirus and the need for physical distancing and isolation are making pet loss grief even harder to deal with.  These worries are likely to increase while the UK and other parts of the world are in lockdown.

As you know, grief is isolating even in normal circumstances but it may be even more so now without hugs and physical reassurance from anyone outside of your immediate household. Naturally, this is even more distressing if you live alone.

If you’re affected in any way, the first thing to know is that we’re here for you. In this article, we’re going to explore ways that you can still access support and comfort, despite being physically distanced from your usual network of friends and family.

1. Reach out for online support

Grief counsellors often recommend that mourners reach out for support, especially from face-to-face support groups. During this current coronavirus pandemic, physical group gatherings are no longer advisable. In fact, if you live in a part of the world that is in lockdown, all such groups will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Thankfully, virtual support groups are still available. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook is one such group, a community of bereaved pet carers who listen to and support one another at all times. Pet bereavement helpline services are still available – the Blue Cross helpline is a good starting point for phone and email support.

2. Stay connected

Neither physical distancing nor self-isolation mean that you have to be socially disengaged. Our relationships are more important than ever in these uncertain times, so pick up the phone, send an email or even write a letter to your loved ones.

In some ways, these methods of communication carve out the space to talk one-to-one in a way that isn’t always possible during our usually busy lives.

3. Practice self-care

Mental health organisations are understandably warning that physical distancing and isolation during the coronavirus outbreak is likely to have an impact on many people’s mental health.

It’s incredibly important that you find ways to practice self-care, more so because you are grieving and may already feel fragile.

Self-care looks different to everyone and is about more than just having a relaxing bath or reading a book. It’s essentially anything you do to refuel and protect your physical, mental and emotional health.

This might be staying in touch with your friends and family, even if you can’t see them, or making a meal plan to ensure that you eat as healthily as possible. It could be limiting the amount of news you watch or making sure that you exercise at least once a day.

4. Find moments of joy

It can be tough to find moments of joy in life when you’re grieving but even small moments each day can make physical distancing easier to manage.

Is there anything that has happened today that made you smile?

It might have been birds singing in the garden or the sun shining through your window. Perhaps it was listening to Patrick Stewart reading a daily sonnet on social media or using the enforced time at home to do a virtual tour of one of the world’s famous museums. Whatever you find joyful, now is the time to tap into it. And please don’t feel guilty for doing so – your pet wouldn’t want you to be unhappy.

5. Talk to your pet

One of the most difficult things about physical distancing is knowing that it would have been easier with your pet by your side. Whatever species, they would have been a constant and calming companion during these uncertain times.

Even though your pet isn’t physically with you any more, why not talk to them anyway? Tell them what is happening in the world and how it makes you feel, tell them that you love them or talk about your memories of happy times. If you feel self-conscious talking to your pet, how about writing them a letter?

6. Volunteer

For older people and those in at-risk groups who’ve been advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks, looking after their pets – especially dogs – may be a pressing concern. The Cinnamon Trust recently mentioned on their Facebook page that they are looking for emergency volunteers to help walk dogs or pick up food and medical supplies on behalf of pet carers who are in high-risk categories.

Is this something you could help with? Have you thought about volunteering as a way to keep animals in your life and do something positive during this tough time? Many rescues are desperate for fosterers right now. From dogs and cats to bird, rabbits and guinea pigs, there’s an animal looking for a safe space to call home, even temporarily.

7. Offer support too

It’s probably fair to say that even those people who haven’t suffered a bereavement are grieving at the moment. In some way, we all stand to lose aspects of our normal lives, although things will hopefully return to normal eventually.

In a strange twist of fate, those of us who were already grieving may be better placed to move through this surreal reality we find ourselves in. You will already have a deep understanding of how grief can make you feel; this means you can be instrumental in spreading much-needed kindness and empathy to those who are struggling.

And maybe too, other people will gain new insight into your pet loss grief too.

Maybe in their own grief for lost normality, they will recognise how the loss of a loved pet, a comforting presence and the routine that goes with caring for them, can cut so very deep.

Perhaps that could be one of the good things that comes from the coronavirus? More empathy, more patience, more support.

Whatever the future holds, we’ll remind you once again that you are not alone right now. Reach out to The Ralph Site. There is a whole community there for you.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Guilt or regret? How the differences affect your pet loss grief

We’ve talked in the past about how guilt is often something we feel after a pet dies or goes missing. It may be an emotion you’re experiencing yourself, which is what’s brought you to this site.

However, are you sure that you’re experiencing guilt and not regret? The two emotions are often talked about as though they’re interchangeable but there are actually some subtle but important distinctions that can affect how you process your grief and begin healing.

Guilt vs. regret: What’s the difference?

Look in various dictionaries and you’ll find a range of definitions for guilt and regret.

Broadly speaking though, guilt is defined as ‘the fact of having done something wrong or committed a crime’ or ‘a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as causing harm to another person’.

Regret, on the other hand, is defined as ‘a feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better’. Another definition is ‘to feel sorry or unhappy about something you did or were unable to do’.

The distinction between the two feelings comes down to intent.

Guilt is the feeling that comes from consciously choosing to do something that is morally wrong and knowing at the time that it could potentially cause harm.

Regret, however, is about wishing you could change things retrospectively but not knowing that something was wrong or could result in a mistake at the time.

Guilt or regret? Does it really matter?

There is an argument that, as guilt and regret can both make you feel awful after pet loss, the differences between the two emotions don’t really matter.

Our brains can trick us into feeling guilty even when what we’re really experiencing is regret, so sometimes it’s hard to recognise the emotions for what they really are. As difficult as it is, it’s worth spending some time reflecting on whether you feel guilt or regret. It could give you valuable insights into how you can move forward in your grief.

Guilt requires forgiveness

Ask yourself whether you intended to cause your pet harm?

The fact that you’re on a website aimed at pet loss grief suggests that you’re probably someone who cares a great deal for their animal companions. It would be hard to imagine such a person deliberately going out of their way to hurt their loved one.

But if there is something you did that you genuinely feel guilty about, there are steps you can take to come to terms with your feelings:

  • Accept responsibility for your actions
  • Take steps to make amends, if possible – even writing a letter to your deceased pet can help
  • Explore what you have learned and how you have grown since your pet passed
  • Decide to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment or your desire for retribution, whether these feelings are aimed at you or someone else
  • Allow yourself to feel remorse
  • Commit to not repeating the same behaviours again
  • Offer yourself forgiveness

Self-forgiveness is not about ignoring your grief or the reason for your guilt. Instead, it requires you to accept what happened and to show compassion towards yourself. Guilt comes from knowing that something you did wasn’t morally aligned with your values. But the fact that you feel guilt shows that you care.

Recognising regret

As a loving pet carer, it’s much more likely that you need to make peace with regret rather than berating yourself with guilt.

In fact, there’s probably not a person alive who doesn’t feel some form of regret following a bereavement.

Decisions we made, signals we didn’t pick up on, time we didn’t find can all haunt our thoughts.

Again, ask yourself that important question – did I ever intend to cause my pet harm?

Even in the most tragic of circumstances, the chances are that you never intended anything bad to happen to your pet.

Perhaps you left the garden gate open and your cat escaped into the path of a moving car. Maybe you took your dog for a walk and they were fatally injured playing with a stick. Or perhaps your hamster wriggled out of your hands as you were lifting them out of their cage and died as a result of the fall.

In each of these scenarios, you would only have had good intentions for your pet – to let them play in the garden, to enjoy their daily exercise, to experience a loving cuddle. You could never have known that your pet would die.

Sadly, accidents happen. As humans, we make mistakes. We don’t have the ability to see into the future. Sometimes different events collide to create a catastrophe, whereas they would have been harmless in isolation (a stranger driving their car, a stick laying on a forest floor). Regret is about wishing we could change things, even though we know it’s not possible.

Regrets after bereavement

Unfortunately, regrets that come about because of the death of a loved one are probably the hardest to come to terms with.

There’s no way to explain our regrets, do and not do things differently, or make amends because the opportunity has gone.

In this situation, the only option may be to make peace with yourself:

  • Acknowledge your regrets
  • Accept your limitations – as a human, you are destined to make mistakes
  • Reframe your loss by looking at what you can learn from it – what has your pet taught you? What would you want to do differently in the future?
  • Express forgiveness

Recognise that you only have regrets because you love your pet so much and that the beauty of that love will continue.

Euthanasia – where guilt and regret meet

Euthanasia is something that causes many pet carers a huge amount of regret and guilt, with the two emotions often overlapping.

It’s a decision that we know will result in our pet’s death and, therefore, it feels like we’re complicit in causing harm.

But, again, it’s important to think about your intentions.

The reality is that you’re complicit in ending harm, not causing it.

You would have agreed to euthanasia because your pet was suffering in some way. Your intention was to end their pain and give them peace. It’s natural to regret that you have had to make this decision but, hopefully, with time, you will be able to absolve yourself of guilt. You only ever had your pet’s best interests at heart.

Only you can let go of guilt

People often go to great lengths to tell someone who’s grieving that they shouldn’t feel guilty. Your loved ones won’t want you to feel bad and, in most cases, guilt is truly misplaced.

But guilt or regret, you can’t help how you feel.

An article telling you not to feel guilty won’t make your guilt vanish in an instant.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is sit with your emotions and acknowledge them. The distinctions between regret and guilt outlined in this blog may help you to find a way to grow beyond your grief, but it’s okay if they don’t.

There is no right way or wrong way to grieve, only your way.

Just know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support