Author Archives: TheRalphSite

Nine pet loss grief myths and misconceptions

Pet loss grief is often subject to some common myths and misconceptions. These myths don’t help anyone, least of all the bereaved person.

In this week’s blog, we wanted to take a look at some of the biggest pet loss grief myths and why you need to give yourself permission to ignore them.

Myth one: Pet loss is less painful and less significant than losing a human loved one

There is no scale or measure for grief, so please ignore anyone who suggests that there is.

For many of us, losing a beloved pet is just as painful and significant as losing a human that we love. Our pets are companions who provide us with very important relationships; they share our homes and lives with us and, for this reason and many others, it’s understandable that you may feel bereft without your animal friend.

A growing body of research confirms that losing a pet can be harder than losing a friend or relative.

It’s not a competition. If you feel grief – and why wouldn’t you? – then you don’t have to justify those feelings.

Myth two: Pet loss grief devalues human life and human relationships

There are some people in this world who do not understand how we can grieve for animals. This may be because they’ve never had a pet or spent time with animal companions. It could be because they view animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling beings. It can sometimes stem from religious or cultural beliefs or even from beliefs within a family.

But these beliefs don’t have to be yours.

It is entirely possible to care for both animals and humans. The grief for one doesn’t detract from the value of the other.

Myth three: People who grieve intensely for a pet must have a problem connecting with other people

Sadly, some people believe that the only reason we might grieve intensely for a pet is because we struggle with human relationships.

But what do these people know?!

Your pet was part of the fabric of your life. They showed you unconditional love and your days were built with their needs and routine at the heart. Of course you are going to grieve.

The fact that you are able to love your pet deeply and form strong emotional attachments says a lot about your capacity for connection.

The truth is that both love and grief are indifferent to the species of the one that has died and the one that is left behind.

Besides, even if you do prefer the company of animals (and we know quite a lot of us do!), that’s your choice.

Myth four: The death of a pet is like a ‘dress rehearsal’ for grief

This myth comes up a lot, especially when we talk about how children deal with pet loss grief. People often say that it’s good for children to experience the death of a pet, as if it will prepare them for the ‘real thing’ later in life.

While it’s certainly true that many of us do encounter grief for the first time when a pet dies in childhood, it’s a myth to say that the loss is just a dress rehearsal. Many children experience profound grief for a pet that they carry with them throughout their lives.

Equally, many adults – as we’ve seen above – experience as much, if not more grief, for a pet as for a human loved one. It is wrong to try to diminish someone’s bereavement by viewing it as a practice run.

Loss is loss, in whatever form it comes.

Myth five: It’s eccentric or frivolous to spend money on a funeral or memorial for a pet

People who haven’t lost a precious pet might scoff at the idea of paying for a cremation or building a memorial garden for our animal companions.

However, one of the issues with a disenfranchised grief like pet loss is that it isn’t supported by the usual milestones and rituals created by society. There is a reason that, after a human death, we have a period of mourning, a funeral and reception/wake afterwards, bereavement cards or even bereavement leave from work. These rituals provide structure, comfort and purpose for the bereaved.

They also encourage the bereaved person’s wider network to offer support.

A growing number of people now understand that these milestones and rituals can offer great solace to a bereaved pet carer.

Myth six: There are five stages of grief

There is an enduring myth about grief for both humans and animals that the bereaved will go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In fact, these stages were defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in relation to the emotions people experience when they are dying of a terminal illness. They were later adopted as a description of grief.

In reality, grief is far less linear or organised than five neat stages. Yes, people often experience these five emotions as a result of pet loss but they are not definitive. Some research has found the most common emotion immediately after a pet dies or goes missing is guilt.

Myth seven: It’s best to get a new pet as quickly as possible

People who have lost a pet will often hear things like, “At least you can get a new one” or “Why don’t you go out and get another one? That will take your mind off how you’re feeling”.

This advice can be quite hurtful as it suggests a pet is replaceable or interchangeable. This minimises the personality and uniqueness of the pet the grieving person has lost.

There’s no doubt that this advice is well meant. Some of us do have multiple pets that offer some solace. As animal lovers, we often decide to open our homes to a new pet as soon as possible, but this is a very personal decision.

We would never dream to give this advice to someone who has lost a human loved one.

The most important thing is that you take your time and do what is right for you and your family.

Myth eight: Grief will end

Another enduring myth about grief is that it’s a linear journey that ends eventually. People often talk about finding ‘closure’ or that they should be ‘over’ their grief by a certain point in time.

In reality, grief perhaps never fully ends. There’s a powerful analogy that describes grief as learning to walk with a stone in your shoe. At first, it hurts all the time but eventually you learn how to walk differently. The stone is still there but it doesn’t trouble you as much because you’ve learned how to live with it.

Most bereaved pet carers would probably agree with this. The nature of grief does change with time. For many of us, it softens and makes room for other emotions and experiences, but it can still resurface over the years.

Myth nine: You should only hold on to pleasant memories of your pet

After a pet dies, it’s usual to think non-stop about the circumstances around their death. At this time, it can be hard to imagine ever remembering the good times again.

Again, well-meaning people may tell you to think about the good times and forget about the bad times.

For most of us, our memories find some balance with time. You may always carry some of the emotional scars of losing your pet. You may often think about their final moments or carry regrets inside of you. But, eventually, happy memories will come back to you too.

It’s this contrast between the light and dark times that tells the story of a whole life lived rather than just the highlights reel. It makes the good times more precious when they’re seen alongside the bad.

Are there are pet loss myths that bother you? Have your friends or family tried to comfort you or ‘snap you out’ of your grief with a so-called ‘wisdom’ that doesn’t fit with your feelings?

The Ralph Site is here for you. Join our private Facebook pet loss support group to talk to other pet carers who ‘get it’, who understand the depth of your loss.

You’re not alone.

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

Loving a reactive dog means grieving the dog you thought you would have

Guest post by Emma Heasman

Among all the experiences of grief that come from caring for a pet, I’ve come to realise that there is one that thousands of people struggle with even though the pet is still alive and well.

This is the grief that comes from living with and loving a reactive dog.

If you’ve recently lost a pet, you may find it callous to talk about grieving when a dog is in good health. However, anyone with a reactive dog who’s reading this article will know the grief all too well. I’m personally living it. For this reason, Shailen has kindly agreed to let me talk about it here on The Ralph Site.

What do we mean by dog reactivity?

When a dog is described as ‘reactive’ what it generally means is that the dog overreacts to certain things or situations.

Signs of this overreaction can include barking, lunging and pulling (especially if on the lead) towards the trigger, growling, signs of anxiety, hiding, snapping, and many other behaviours, some more subtle than others.

Common triggers include other dogs, men, people wearing hats or sunglasses, children, scooters, bikes, traffic and more.

You’ve probably seen the scenario, even if you haven’t lived through it personally. A dog sees the trigger – perhaps a child whizzing past on a scooter on the pavement – and goes ballistic, barking, lunging and pulling in a frenzy. Occasionally, this reactivity comes from excitement but, more often than not, it’s rooted in fear.

Taking away the ‘flight’ option

Many people with reactive dogs find that their dogs exhibit more reactive behaviours when they’re on the lead.

There’s a good reason for this.

When a dog is on the lead, we’ve effectively taken away the choice to run away from the scary thing coming towards them.

The dog can try usual ‘calming’ signals like lip licking, looking away, yawning, sudden scratching or sniffing. However, if they feel this won’t work for whatever reason, they may turn to their ‘fight’ repertoire of responses to make the scary thing go away.

This could be anything from making themselves look bigger by standing on their hind legs or lunging to barking, growling, showing its teeth, air snapping or, as the very last resort, a nip or bite.

In reality, the last thing the dog wants to do is interact with the frightening thing. They don’t want to hurt anyone or get in a fight. They just doesn’t know how else to get away.

Thanks to their impressive and sometimes loud display, people usually hurry away from the dog, taking the source of their fear away too.

In the dog’s mind, they were able to chase the scary thing away. A neural pathway is formed. See scary thing and bark.

The next time they see a trigger, they default to the behaviour that worked before. And so a pattern of reactivity begins.

And, of course, a vicious circle begins too. The more frequently the dog reacts, the less freedom they are allowed ‘just in case’ and the more time they spend on the lead. Their human companion becomes an expert at scanning the horizon for triggers but their growing anxiety reinforces the dog’s belief that scary things are around every corner.

Reactivity vs. aggression

People often believe that reactive dogs are ‘bad’, aggressive dogs. This comes with a huge amount of stigma and is largely untrue.

In reality, very few dogs are aggressive by nature. Most often, reactive dogs make a lot of noise but, given the choice, would run a mile from the object of their fear.

That big display of barking from the other side of the road is the equivalent of the dog shouting “Go away!” (or something less polite) at the top of their voice.

Sometimes, dogs give warning after warning that they’re uncomfortable with a situation but their warnings aren’t noticed, especially the more subtle signs. This leaves dogs feeling that they have to escalate their behaviour to be heard.

There’s also a phenomenon known as ‘trigger stacking’, which is when the dog copes well with the first, second or even third trigger they see but completely flips out towards a subsequent trigger. To other people, it looks like it’s an overreaction out of the blue but to the dog, their stress levels have reached saturation point. They’re telling us ‘enough is enough’.

Dogs and the modern world

Dogs and humankind are believed to have co-existed for approximately 32,000 years, developing a symbiotic relationship that has served both species beautifully.

During this time, different qualities and traits were encouraged within the various breeds. This worked brilliantly, creating working dogs who could herd livestock, help fisherman, hunt and much more.

Of course, the modern world is very different, and not as dog friendly.

Let’s take the Border Collie as an example (I have a lab/collie cross, which is why I know a bit about this).

A Border Collie is a highly intelligent breed that excels at herding and protecting sheep. They are hardwired to notice potential threats on the horizon or spot a solitary sheep straying away from the herd. For millennia, their ancestors have been honed to chase and round up livestock by stalking, staring and even nipping ankles, if necessary.

But all the qualities that make a Border Collie excel on a farm can make their life much harder in a town or city.

Now, instead of moving livestock, the dog notices bikes, scooters, joggers, cars, other dogs, children – all potentially things to be rounded up, herded or chased away.

And let’s not forget that every new sight, sound or smell might be a potential threat, which the dog’s instincts tell them to notice.

In this example, the collie does exactly what they were designed to do and barks at the stranger in the distance or tries to herd the children in the park but instead of being rewarded for their behaviour, people get angry.

This must be scary and confusing for the dog, increasing their stress levels and the chances of reactive behaviour.

Of course, not all dogs struggle with the modern world. Even taking the Border Collies from our example, many of them manage just fine with modern life.

But the point is that, for some dogs, the modern, urban environment is a struggle.

Our expectations are impossibly high. Many people believe that dogs should be seen and not heard or kept on lead in all public settings. People tend to forgive behaviours in small dog breeds that they won’t forgive in larger dogs.

Legislation like the Dangerous Dogs Act means that people can report a dog for barking at them if they argue that they were afraid the dog might try and bite them. And yet barking is such an important part of canine communication; it’s the dog’s voice but many people don’t want it to be used in public. This makes reactive dogs and their human companions particularly vulnerable to judgement.

Why are some dogs reactive?

Reactivity in dogs can come about for a vast number of reasons:

  • Genetics
  • Temperament
  • Lack of socialisation with other dogs, humans or new experiences in the first 14-16 weeks of life
  • Living in a rescue centre/being rehomed
  • Puppy farming
  • Bad experiences with people and/or dogs, e.g. a dog has been attacked by another dog
  • Injury or illness, especially if the dog is in pain
  • Food intolerances (again, if the dog feels physically uncomfortable)
  • Aversive training methods

Sometimes, several of these factors come together, stacking one on top of the other until the dog shows reactivity.

To use the example of my own dog, Willow, she was found on the street at 10 weeks old having been born and so-far raised by a stressed-out street dog. She was then put in a communal compound in a rescue centre with multiple dogs but little human contact, spayed at 12 weeks, transported by land over a four-day journey to a foster home at 16 weeks before she was finally rehomed to us in her forever home at eight months old.

Every day after she was rehomed presented her with new sights and sounds that she hadn’t been exposed to in her early months. She has always seemed nervous and timid, even though we took things at her pace. These traits and experiences were compounded by being attacked by other dogs on a walk and then hit by a man in the local park who was shouting angrily about how much he hates dogs.

Willow may have been able to easily bounce back from one of these experiences but, taken together, it was just too much for her – the last two incidents, in particular – and a cycle of reactivity began.

Of course, that’s just Willow’s case and not to say that it’s just rescue dogs – or even all rescue dogs – that are reactive. Many dogs with secure, happy puppyhoods and home lives develop reactivity too. Sometimes, it’s because of a bad experience on a walk. Sometimes, it’s because of illness or injury. Sometimes, there isn’t an obvious cause. All that is true, whatever the background, is that the dog isn’t giving anyone a hard time deliberately; they are having a hard time and deserve love and compassion.

How people see reactive dogs

Anyone with a reactive dog will have a depressingly long list of stories about the times when they have been judged, criticised and even threatened.

They may also have come into contact with so-called ‘expert’ dog trainers who subscribe to old-school ‘dominance’ training methods that are now widely frowned upon. Instead of helping, this may have exacerbated the problem.

People tend to see a reactive dog and believe one or more of the following statements:

  • The dog is ‘bad’
  • The dog’s human is bad/lazy/uncaring
  • The dog lacks training
  • The dog has been given the wrong type of training
  • The human needs to be the ‘Alpha’
  • The dog has been or is still being abused

It’s surprisingly common for people to shout out things like, “That dog shouldn’t be out in public”, “That thing should be muzzled” (if it isn’t already), “You need to show it who’s boss” and so on.

One huge issue for dog carers who have spent months working with fear-reactive dogs to reduce their anxiety is when a ‘friendly’ off-lead dog is allowed to bound over and get in the on-lead, nervous dog’s face. Then, when the reactive dog barks or lunges, the carer of the off-lead dog shouts, “You need to get your dog under control”.

What? The dog that is on a lead walking calmly at their human’s side and only reacted when their space was invaded?

What about the dog that had no recall?

While, for most dogs this might not be an issue, for a reactive dog, an interaction like this can set everyone’s progress back by months.

People are also determined to offer advice to reactive dog carers. I’d be very rich indeed if I had a pound for every time someone has said, “You should watch that TV programme with the dog trainer – he could fix your dog in an afternoon” (see here for a great article about Why TV dog trainers aren’t magicians) or “Squirt water in her face/yank the lead/tap her nose/shout ‘no’ every time she reacts and she’ll soon stop”.

The promise of quick fixes abound. But many of the suggestions just aim at stopping the behaviour without addressing the emotions causing it. If you teach a dog that they’re not allowed to bark or show signs of discomfort, you risk leaving them with no option but to bite.

Quick fixes will never work long-term. Our dogs deserve more compassion.

Often, people who have a lifetime of experience with dogs state confidently that “None of my dogs has ever been reactive because I know how to train them”. However, just a few minutes of research shows that years of canine experience are no insurance against reactivity. In fact, many of the world’s leading behaviourists only found their calling because they were faced with living with a reactive dog for the first time.

Living with a reactive dog

Most people who get a dog do so with a certain lifestyle in mind. They imagine long countryside walks or meeting up with friends and their dogs in the park. They dream about a furry best friend who loves everyone they meet and with whom they can share years of adventures.

Certainly, that was what we imagined as a family when we adopted Willow. And, to a certain extent, that was the life we had for the first 18 months together.

Sadly, reactivity can change everything.

Reactive dog carers suddenly find themselves unable to live out these dreams with their canine companion.

For their dog, a walk in a busy park is fraught with anxiety and triggers. Even a walk in the woods can go horribly wrong if their dog-reactive friend comes across an off-lead canine without enough distance between them.

Just a quick street walk can be like running a gauntlet of terror for the reactive dog – pedestrians, cyclists, bin lorries, postmen, scooters, loud noises, other dogs on leads barking from the other side of the road.

And, worse yet, it’s not unusual for a reactive dog carer to be verbally or even physically assaulted because their dog has barked at the wrong person or lunged at someone’s beloved dog (even if they were metres away and no physical harm was possible).

And each time this happens, the dog just learns that strange humans and dogs aren’t to be trusted and can be threatening.

Reactive dog carers are frequently isolated. They may not be able to visit friends and family because it’s too unsettling for their dog. They often walk alone late at night or early in the morning to avoid potential triggers. They can’t sit in dog-friendly cafes or leave their dog with a friend while they go on holiday.

Erroneous beliefs about reactivity mean that they’re regularly judged and berated for their dog’s behaviour.

And yet, in reality, a huge number of reactive dog carers are possibly more aware of their dog’s needs and more aware of dog behaviour than the carers of non-reactive dogs.

They have to be. Their dog’s life may depend on it.

Reactive dog carers have to learn a whole new vocabulary. Theirs is a world of Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT), CARE protocol, TTouch, Zebra strokes, thresholds, triggers, buckets and spoons. They spend hours setting up scent work, enrichment, parkour and other ways of building their dog’s confidence. They spend their money on hiring secure fields just so their dog can safely have a run off-lead or working with behaviourists. They spend hours on training, games and trying to rewire their dog’s emotional response to their triggers.

A very real grief

And, as they do this, at least for a while and maybe longer, they experience the most soul-consuming grief. The life they dreamed of with their dog seems impossible. Even the shortest of walks are heavy with anxiety.

Their thoughts are never quiet: Is it their fault? Would their dog have been happier elsewhere? Could they have stopped the reactivity from occurring?

They watch people play with their dogs in the distance and wonder how they will find the energy to keep moving forwards with their dog today, tomorrow, a week from now, next year.

Can they keep this up for another five, ten, even 15 years?

Because, of course, they don’t want to wish their beautiful dog’s life away.

But what are the alternatives?

According to the Dog’s Trust, reactivity and behaviour problems are the most common reasons that dogs are given up for rehoming. And the greater the scale of reactivity, the harder it is to find a new home.

Reactivity is sadly the most common reason for a dog under the age of two to be put to sleep.

Many people still believe a dog that shows aggression under stress will always be an aggressive, ‘bad’ dog when, in fact, they may just be so trigger-stacked with high cortisol levels that they weren’t able to make a good choice about their behaviour in a particular moment.

Of course, I also understand what a huge emotional undertaking it is to commit to rehabilitating a reactive dog.

Reactive dog carers clearly face some heart-breaking decisions. The grief of surrendering a healthy dog or having them put to sleep for behavioural reasons is weighed down with a staggering amount of guilt. Many people never have another dog after dealing with reactivity. Sadly, they often feel unseen and unsupported or, worse yet, actively judged whatever they decide. Mental health suffers, relationships are strained, and dogs’ lives sometimes hang in the balance.

Accepting the dog you have

If you’re a dog carer coping with reactivity, I believe that one of the most important steps forward is to begin accepting the dog you have rather than longing for the dog you wish you could have had.

Once you do that, you can start making a plan.

Even the most reactive of dogs has many amazing, beautiful qualities. Recognise them, write them down, remind yourself of them frequently. These sensitive dogs can be our greatest teachers.

My Willow, for example, is the gentlest, most patient and calm dog you could imagine at home and in a safe setting. All she wants is distance from things that scare her and time to get used to them at her own pace.

The bond between a frightened reactive dog and the people and dogs in their inner circle is one of real privilege and trust. Once you’re in, you’re in for life!

And with that trust, every party can begin to learn and grow. Your reactive dog may never be the happy-go-lucky pup playing in the park but they can learn skills to feel more resilient.

The more you learn about reactivity, the more you understand that it isn’t a sign of failure or poor care. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin a force-free behaviour adjustment programme (I highly recommend the CARE protocol as a starting point and some ‘boots on the ground’ support from a good force-free behaviourist). You can teach your dog that they never have to meet another dog or person again if they don’t want to. But, with support, they may well want to one day.

And the more we can talk about reactivity, perhaps the more we can make other people see reactive dogs in a better, more compassionate light. And maybe, too, we can see the human beside the dog and instead of judging them and making their grief and stress even heavier, we can say, “Well done. Your dog is lucky to have you in their corner”.

Resources

If you have a nervous or reactive dog, you might want to find out more about the Yellow Dog Scheme, which aims to raise awareness about dogs who need space while training, recovering from surgery or being rehabilitated.

Reactive Dogs UK is a wonderful community of 22,000+ reactive dog carers and is run by force-free behaviourists.

If you are grieving for a pet for any reason, The Ralph Site is here for you. You are not alone.

The unique challenges of pet loss grief

Pet loss grief is a type of disenfranchised grief, which is something we’ve talked about in previous blogs on The Ralph Site. This means that your relationship with your pet – or, certainly, your feelings about that relationship – isn’t always recognised by others, especially in wider society.

Pet loss grief falls in the same category as the grief caused by a miscarriage or the death of an ex-spouse, as just a few examples.

It can be incredibly hard to freely acknowledge disenfranchised grief. In this week’s blog, we wanted to take a look at some of the factors that affect pet loss grief and what we can do towards creating better understanding and support.

What role did the pet have?

One of the challenges of loving then losing a pet is that the impact of this experience can differ greatly from one person to the next.

Within a single family, there will be different levels of loss depending on the type of pet, their role in the household, the pet’s age and the age of the family members, individual relationships with the pet, routines, associations and much more.

The death of a pet can upset the balance within a household, making everyone readjust their positions and roles.

But beyond the family, people may not recognise the role of the pet. If a child, parent, partner or sibling dies, for example, even looking in from the outside, we can begin to empathise about what this might mean to the wider family. But when a pet dies, many people struggle to understand where the animal fitted in the family dynamic.

Society lacks agreement about the value of animal life

How pet loss is perceived by others will vary enormously.

Some people will never choose to have a pet in their home, therefore they may view pet loss as something we voluntarily invite into our lives. Indeed, many people believe that pet loss is an inevitable part of the whole pet ‘ownership’ experience so they can’t understand why it comes as such a blow.

Other people view animals as a commodity, a belonging over which they have ownership and that can be freely bought and sold, kept or disposed of without emotional consequences.

There are some that place more value on animals that fulfil a ‘job’ within society, such as service dogs, racehorses or farmed animals, for example. Anecdotal evidence suggests that carers of therapy dogs that are well-known in the local community often receive greater support when their dog dies than pet carers in other circumstances.

Others provide diligent care to animals but in the context of livestock that’s ultimately destined for someone’s dinner plate and they will see this in terms of a ‘natural order’.

Some care deeply for their pets but maintain a level of emotional detachment that makes their passing easier to manage.

At the same time, a growing number of us see our pets as a central, much-loved family member (more about this below), which means we may feel a depth of grief that just isn’t expected by people in the other cross-sections of society mentioned above. In many ways, The Ralph Site was created to give this final group a greater voice.

Society minimises the pain of pet loss

Sadly, we live in a society where pet loss is frequently minimised and trivialised. It may even be the butt of jokes.

Think about how often TV shows and films turn the death of a pet into a comedy of errors or joke about the bereaved person needing time off to mourn.

Research has found that the lack of societal support is a significant factor in preventing pet carers from progressing through their grief.

Some of the key observations from the research are that there is “no collective societal recognition and support of expressions of grief for animals”, as well as a “lack of societal agreement about the value of animal life”.

Worse yet, some people still believe that pet carers who openly grieve for their pets probably formed an intense emotional attachment because they are in some way “marginalised” from society or “deficient in human contact”. This reinforces an unhelpful stigma that pet loss grief is abnormal when, of course, it is anything but.

The level of attachment

Research has found that many pet carers will make the same sacrifices for their pets that they would make for a human family member.

 One study found that 80% of us would not give up a pet, even if they caused severe allergies and health problems for the carer.

Changes in society, such as a larger than ever number of child-free couples, longer lifespans, changing roles in families – including people moving away from their wider family group – and a greater understanding of animal psychology all mean that pets often serve as family members.

As we know from our lived experiences, pets provide unconditional love and companionship, a non-judgemental presence at the end of the day. Most us of feel that, in terms of a nurturing and loving connection, our pets give as much as they receive.

One researcher, Liz Margolies, has even suggested that pets can display the qualities we often look for in a mother – devotion, forgiveness, affection, an uncritical attitude, and availability – or fulfil the role of a child: “may be held, remain dependent, allow the carer to offer maternal love with less anxiety than with children, and often permit them to feel competent in their role as parent”.

Inevitably though, these deeper levels of attachment mean that pet carers experience a deeper level of grief. Society just hasn’t caught up in terms of its milestones, rituals and support. Thankfully, a number of excellent pet loss support services exist now. Hopefully, we will see more counsellors and therapists recognising the roles companion animals play in our lives so that people can access help from a wide range of sources.

The role of caretaker

Researchers Quackenbush and Graveline have observed in their extensive research into pet bereavement that the first emotion most people experience when a pet dies in guilt. This is compared to ‘denial’ in human-to-human bereavement.

This is because we take the role of caretakers for our pets and often feel that we have let them down in “either an emotional, physical or financial way”.

It’s a natural response to explore what you didn’t do for your pet or what you could have done differently. You might wish you tried a different treatment method or got a second opinion from another vet, for example. Because our pets can’t talk to us or offer their own opinions about their health or status, we have to make decisions about their life and death without their input. This can have huge emotional consequences.

How euthanasia affects pet loss grief

Another factor in pet loss grief is the availability of euthanasia. People often describe euthanasia as the ‘final gift’ we can give our dying pets but, again, research shows that the responsibility weighs heavily.

The evidence suggests that around 50% of us feel guilty for having our pets euthanised. You’re far more likely to experience guilt if you’re worried you let your pet go too soon or you’re uncomfortable with the way the vet presented the need for euthanasia. People sometimes feel pushed into a decision, especially in an emergency situation where there wasn’t time to think.

Also, if you feel your actions in some way contributed towards your animal friend having to be ‘put to sleep’, it can be hard to find solace. There’s no doubt that euthanasia informs our pet loss grief, especially in the early days, weeks and months.

Links to other relationships and experiences

Pets frequently provide a link to other relationships and experiences.

For example, you may become part of a friendly walking group with your dog and find friendship through that group but, when your dog dies, you may suddenly feel like you don’t belong.

Equally, if you’ve had a pet throughout your childhood who dies just as you hit adulthood, it can feel like the literal death of your childhood.

Someone who has lost their romantic partner may struggle with a double layer of grief when the pet they both shared passes away, especially if the pet gave them purpose and routine when their partner died (Ricky Gervais’ series After Life depicts this dynamic beautifully).

Even the loss of routine when a pet dies can have huge ramifications for the bereaved pet carer.

Conclusion

What is clear above all else is that grief of an animal’s death is a normal reaction.

There are many factors that we need to recognise to better support bereaved pet carers and to legitimise their feelings within our wider societies.

As researchers Archer and Winchester observed:

“The personal meaning of what has been lost is a good predictor of the intensity of subsequent grief.”

We need to give people space to explore and talk about the meaning of what has been lost. It doesn’t matter if the pet was a dog, cat, horse, bird, guinea pig, lizard or fish (or one of the other wonderful animals with which we share our lives). What matters is how the bereaved pet carer feels and the knowledge that they are not alone.

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

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