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Each week we will post blog pieces relating to pet bereavement and other animal-related topics. We hope you enjoy the blog and please share your thoughts and comments – we would love to hear from you!

Anxiety after pet loss

People often talk about the emotions of grief as being sadness, guilt, anger and denial but anxiety after pet loss is also a common response. You’re not alone if it’s something you’ve been experiencing since losing a precious pet.

What is anxiety?

The National Health Service defines anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or severe”.

Anxiety causes a range of physical and mental symptoms that can include:

  • Feeling restless or worried (or as if something terrible is about to happen)
  • Trouble concentrating or sleeping
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Panic attacks

Only you know how anxiety affects you but, whatever your symptoms, it can be very distressing.

What causes anxiety?

Like all of our feelings, including guilt and anger, anxiety plays an important role in keeping us safe.

The best way to describe anxiety is as an internal alarm system that makes us hyperalert to danger. Anxiety achieves this by giving us a boost of adrenaline designed to raise our heart rate and send more oxygen to our limbs so that we’re better able to run away if we need to.

You’ve probably heard this described as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Thanks to anxiety, we’re able to fight off a threat if we must or run for our lives in the opposite direction. It also makes us hypervigilant about spotting threats in the first place.

The challenges of anxiety

One of the problems with anxiety is that our body often triggers the fight or flight response when we’re just going about our daily business.

Research shows that some people are more prone to anxiety than others. Genetics, a chemical imbalance of serotonin and noradrenaline, health issues, past trauma and other factors can all provide a catalyst for anxiety-related disorders.

However, we also know that anxiety is a common response to a recent traumatic event, such as the loss of a much-loved pet or human family member. This is usually referred to as ‘situational anxiety’ because it can be pinned down to a specific change of situation as the trigger.

In many ways, anxiety is a logical reaction to bereavement. Something terrible has happened, something that has knocked you for six both mentally and physically. Your body recognises this and, out of pure instinct, primes itself to tackle or escape the threat.

Of course, the frustration is that the death of a loved one isn’t something we can beat or outrun.

This is where anxiety becomes redundant, only our body doesn’t know that.

Anxiety and complicated grief

When researching this blog, the general advice was that anxiety is typical within the first six months of bereavement. Over time, you will hopefully find that your adrenaline levels reduce and you can begin finding a new ‘normal’ for life without your pet.

Some experts say that if you’re experiencing anxiety more than six months after your loss or your anxiety has become severe enough to negatively affect your life, then you may be suffering from complicated grief.

Sadly, anxiety and complicated grief can be intertwined. Research shows that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to suffer from complicated grief after a bereavement. Equally, people who suffer from complicated grief are more likely to develop anxiety or an anxiety-related disorder.

This is only one school of thought. Other experts say that the six-month mark is often when anxiety first appears. Typically because it takes this long to really acknowledge the permanence of a bereavement and then begin processing it.

Anxiety lives in the future

Certainly, many people say that they felt they were coping with their loss when their anxiety suddenly kicked in.

There are a few reasons for this.

One of the main reasons is that the time immediately after a loss is typically very busy, not least with practical issues such as speaking to the vet about what will be done with your pet’s remains. You may also receive visits from friends and family or need to spend time focusing on your remaining pets or other family members and their grief.

It can take weeks or even months for the reality of a loss to sink in – this is when anxiety rears its head.

The death of a pet can spark all sorts of thoughts about the future.

We might think about our own mortality or how we’re going to cope without our pet. We could start worrying about our other animals or loved ones. It may serve us to pre-empt potential accidents or circumstances similar to those we associate with our pet’s death. We may picture the future alone or decide that we won’t ever be able to have another pet because of the pain of losing them.

In this way, anxiety is very much an emotion that lives in the future. It has the function of preparing us for an emergency that hasn’t happened yet. This makes it incredibly hard to manage because we’re dealing with things that may never come to pass or, in the case of mortality, something we can’t ever prevent.

Coping with anxiety after pet loss

Bereavement is a very personal journey with no set timeline.

The six-month mark referred to for complicated grief is just perhaps a sensible point to reflect on how you are coping with your loss.

If your feelings of grief, sadness, anger or anxiety are impacting on your ability to work, eat, sleep, concentrate or spend time with your loved ones then you may need support.

The following tips may also help you cope:

  1. Remind yourself that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that there is no time limit on your feelings.
  2. Learn a little about anxiety. You may find it helpful to understand why you’re experiencing specific symptoms, e.g. changes in adrenaline, etc. as this can help you to be objective about the sensations and thoughts you’re experiencing.
  3. Examine your grief. Are you aware of blocking particular thoughts or feelings when they come to you? Anxiety can be a bit like pressure boiling up from suppressed emotions.
  4. Make amends. Guilt is one of the toughest emotions associated with grief. You may feel you betrayed your pet by having them put to sleep or that you neglected them by not being able to stop an accident. It isn’t too late to talk (or write) to your pet asking for their forgiveness. We’re not saying you’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven but we know that guilt can make it feel like you have.
  5. Explore your relationship with your pet. After a pet dies, it’s natural to focus on the circumstances of their death but your time together was about so much more. Write down some of your favourite memories, the times your pet made you laugh, the places you went together, the peaceful moments – these can help to lessen the feelings of anxiety. Also, it can be helpful to see the relationship as continuing, even if you don’t have any religious beliefs. Your pet may be gone but the love you feel for them is alive and strong within you.
  6. Even though you may not feel like it, prioritise healthy, nourishing meals.
  7. Try to give yourself time to sleep. If sleep is eluding you, try to give yourself plenty of downtime during which you can rest. This might mean binge-watching your favourite TV programme or listening to music – whatever works for you.
  8. Anxiety can make you want to retreat from the world. As tough as it is, please do try to reach out to your support system and let those close to you know how you’re feeling. Anxiety may tell you that you’re bothering others but you’re not. Remember, like depression, anxiety lies.
  9. It can be helpful to set boundaries with your friends and family. Let them know whether or not you want to talk about your loss.
  10. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how it feels to lose a pet. If you are struggling to get support from your loved ones, reach out to a support group instead. The Ralph Site’s Facebook group is an online community of people who understand pet loss grief.
  11. Reach out to a pet bereavement counsellor or therapist.
  12. If your anxiety is affecting the quality of your life, you may temporarily need to take medication that helps to control the symptoms so that you can focus on the points above. Please contact your GP.

Your anxiety will get better

As a society, we’re taught to push away our thoughts, fears and questions about death. After a pet dies or goes missing, we feel we’re expected to file away the loss and carry on. Anxiety has other ideas. It wants us to face our loss head-on.

If you need support, please reach out for it. Many of us need help when we’re grieving and that’s part of the human experience.

The good news is that, in most cases, anxiety brought on by a situational cause such as a bereavement will diminish over time.

It often takes a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy, self-care and grief processing to move forward but move forward you will.

You may find that the more you allow yourself to grieve and to explore the impact of your loss, the more you will see an improvement in your anxious thoughts and feelings.

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

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

Coping with anniversaries and special days when a pet dies

There will always be difficult days when you’re mourning the loss of your beloved pet. Most people agree that coping with anniversaries and special days can be particularly tough.

Your pet’s birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of when you got them or when they passed away all tend to be challenging.

While these days will be etched firmly in your mind, many of these occasions will be personal to you and your family while people outside of your inner circle may be completely oblivious to their significance.

This can lead you to feel sad and angry that the world is moving on without your beloved companion.

You’re not alone if you find yourself struggling through a significant anniversary while feeling like no-one around you understands your feelings.

The anniversary of your pet’s passing

Many people say that the first anniversary of losing their pet is the most difficult. In fact, the ‘first’ anything after a bereavement can feel almost impossible to endure.

As the date draws near, it’s not unusual to find that your thoughts return to the weeks, days and hours leading up to the anniversary or occasion. This can be especially upsetting when you find yourself reliving your bereavement.

You may find that your thoughts are on a loop and that your grief feels more intense. This can be scary and confusing if you had previously felt like you were moving forward with your grief.

It isn’t always the first anniversary that’s tough though. Often we’re prepared to feel awful at this time and our friends and family may rally round to offer support. Sometimes, it can be a random number of years later that the anniversary knocks you sideways.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how you will feel. You may just need to hang on when a fresh wave of grief hits you unexpectedly.

Coping with ‘happy’ occasions

It is also hard to cope with usually happy occasions such as Christmas when you’re grieving for a pet.

People often feel like there’s pressure to be cheerful and put on a ‘brave face’ because it’s the expectation of the time of year.

Naturally, you may be worried about ruining the day for your friends and family, or cross if people close to you seem swept up in the annual Christmas cheer.

As with all aspects of grief, there’s no right or wrong to how you feel (or don’t feel). If possible, try to talk to the people around you about your thoughts and feelings so that they can understand more about your perspective.

Please don’t feel guilty if you decide to throw yourself into the Christmas spirit – that’s a normal reaction too.

Aftershocks and what triggers them

It helps to know that anniversaries and other special days often prompt bursts of grief known as ‘aftershocks’. This is when it feels as though you’re being confronted with your loved one’s death for the first time all over again.

Equally, a specific song, place, smell or time of year can unexpectedly catapult you back to the moment of your loss.

Try to remember that aftershocks are usually temporary. They’re also a natural part of the grieving process.

Facebook Memories

A very modern issue is suddenly experiencing an aftershock in response to a Facebook memory. You may have happily shared pictures and moments with your pet throughout their life but it can be quite a shock to have a memory pop up in your timeline without warning.

You may expect memories to appear on anniversaries and special days but this can still rub salt in your already painful wound.

For some people, Facebook memories eventually take on a comforting reminder of all the good times they shared with their pet.

If you’re finding the regular pictures of happier times too hard to bear at the moment though, there are a number of things you can do to ‘mute’ Facebook memories for the time being.

Anniversaries play an important role in managing grief

It is completely ‘normal’ (if such a thing exists!) to find anniversaries and special occasions difficult.

Each one marks a significant step in finding your way into your new every day without your pet. It’s a natural instinct to look back at what we had before we are able to let go. It’s also natural to take a few steps backwards to revisit what you’ve lost.

In turn, it’s understandable that you might feel angry, disloyal or guilty about hitting another milestone without your animal friend. If only we could turn back time!

Letting go is not about forgetting

One of the most crucial realisations you can make is that letting go isn’t the same thing as forgetting.

You will never forget your pet. You will always love them and carry that love with you for the rest of your life.

Believe it or not but, with time, anniversaries and special days may become positive milestones that give testimony to the fact that your pet lived and mattered. You may find that you’re able to remember your pet’s birthday or your Christmas traditions with a smile. Anniversaries may become waypoints to mark out the journey through part of your life that you shared with your pet.

Whatever your feelings, try to take care of yourself and remember that there is no right or wrong way to approach anniversaries.

Look at ways you can celebrate your pet’s life and carry forward your memories.

Ask your friends and family for support, if you can. If not, reach out to people in The Ralph Site’s closed Facebook group as there’s bound to be someone who understands how you feel.

Just know that you’re not alone.

Until next time,

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

Helping your teen cope with the death of a pet

On the main Ralph Site, there’s information about helping children of all ages cope with the loss of a pet. In this week’s blog though, we’d like to talk a bit more about helping teens cope with pet bereavement.

Why focus on teens, in particular?

Pets often play a very specific role for teenagers.

Pets are a link to childhood for teens

If you’ve had your pet for a long time, your teen may not know or remember life without them. As long as your teen has existed, your pet has been there too, as much a part of the fabric of life as parents, siblings and grandparents.

This is especially important during the transition from childhood into adulthood when teenagers live through a period of constant change. This includes their schools, relationships, emotions and bodies.

In the middle of all of this, a pet is a consistent, non-judgmental presence. They’re a link back to childhood but they’re firmly rooted in the present too.

A pet doesn’t care how your teen is doing at school or whether they’re developing acne, falling in love for the first time or revising for exams. They don’t ask questions at the end of a long school day.

To your teen, these qualities will sometimes make a pet the most appealing member of the family.

So when a pet dies, it’s understandable that this can have a specific significance for a teenager.

Your grieving teen

For many parents, knowing how to best support a grieving teenager can be challenging. Some teens show a total lack of concern about a pet who has died (at least, on the surface) while others exhibit extreme reactions.

Some teens want to talk about their grief, while others find talking difficult.

As we know from our own experiences as adults, grief can present itself in a multitude of ways from tears and sadness to anger and frustration, and most emotions in between.

It can be especially hard to know how to support a teen when you’re grieving too. This can make emotions run high, especially if you and your teen feel angry at the same time or if you’re experiencing your grief in very different ways.

To help you, we’ve put together a list of pointers for helping your teen cope with the death of a pet.

Seven ways you can help

1. Respect your teen’s need to talk to their friends

Your teen may prefer to talk to their friends about their bereavement.

Peers play a big role in the emotional and social development of teenagers and you may not be the first person they choose to talk to. They may also worry about upsetting you by sharing their feelings.

It’s important to accept that your son or daughter may be more comfortable talking to their friends. But it’s equally important to let them know that you’re there if they need you.

2. Be open about your own grief

As a parent or carer of a teen, your first inclination may be that you should hide your own sadness to protect them.

In actual fact, letting your teen see that you’re grieving can be incredibly supportive and empowering. It lets the young person know that their feelings are natural, normal and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

You can also show that grief isn’t an event but a process and that there will be good and bad days.

3. Validate your teen’s feelings

As with anyone who’s grieving, it’s important to validate your teen’s feelings, whether or not they reflect your own. Your teen is a person in their own right and the relationship they had with your pet is unique to them.

Let them know that you recognise that they’re going through a difficult experience. Name any feelings you see. Recognise how much they miss their pet.

You don’t need to offer solutions but they will appreciate an accepting presence (even if they don’t tell you!)

4. Give your teen time

When we see someone we love suffering, it can be unbearable. In the case of pet bereavement, parents often feel that they can live with their own grief but that they just want their teen to move on and feel better.

Sadly, grief can’t be rushed.

Let your teen know that there is no time limit on grief. This will help them in the face of unhelpful comments from other people such as, “Are you still upset about your cat?” or “It’s only a dog”.

One of the best things we can do for anyone who is grieving is to let them feel and talk about their bereavement without restrictions.

5. Suggest ways your teen can memorialise your pet

Some people, teens or otherwise, find it comforting to memorialise a lost pet. This can be a great way to bring happy memories into focus.

You could ask your teen whether they would like to make a photo book, create a piece of artwork, plant some flowers or even make a donation to an animal charity in memory of their lost friend.

If it’s not something they want to do for themselves, you might be able to encourage them to help you.

6. Enlist help from your teen’s wider circle

If your son or daughter is having a tough time due to their grief, it’s a good idea to let other important people in their wider circle know what’s going on. This might be your teen’s class tutor, a trusted teacher or the group leader of their favourite activity.

7. Seek professional help, if necessary

Sometimes people need professional support to cope with bereavement. If you’re worried that your teen is really struggling then you might want to talk to them about phoning a pet bereavement helpline or seeing a counsellor.

Let your teen know that asking for help from a counsellor for emotional pain is just as important as seeing a doctor when our bodies are hurt.

Compassion and comfort

One of the most important things we can do for any teen who is grieving is to model compassion in how we treat them, ourselves and other bereaved family members when a pet dies.

Pets are so special because they embody acceptance, a quality that every teenager needs in their life. If we can show acceptance too, we can provide a safe space for our teens to learn how to live with grief.

You and your teen are not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team,
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Pet loss anger: How to cope when you can’t stop feeling angry

Anger is an emotion that often goes hand-in-hand with pet loss or, in fact, any bereavement. Even though it’s a common feeling, it’s also the one that’s the most difficult to discuss or process, possibly even above guilt.

But why?

In our society, anger is often viewed as a ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ emotion that we should keep pushed down at all costs. When we think about anger, we perhaps think about it at its most destructive – rage, the emotion of uncontrolled, violent anger – rather than a normal, healthy emotion that we all have a right to express.

Pet loss anger can also be a tough emotion to deal with because it’s often directed towards someone you love or trust who was, in some way, involved in your pet’s passing. We’ll be talking about this more in a minute.

Anger is a natural emotion that keeps us safe

If you’re struggling with your anger, please remember that it’s a completely natural emotion that’s important for your wellbeing.

Psychologists believe that, at an instinctive level, anger is the emotion that helps us protect our homes and families, our food and possessions, or our relationships. We feel angry against perceived threats or when someone we love is at risk.

It’s a survival mechanism designed to protect you and the things and people necessary to your physical and emotional wellbeing.

In other words, it stops you from getting hurt.

Anger as a secondary emotion

There are other purposes to anger too.

It’s often described as a ‘secondary’ emotion that comes to the surface when we feel uncomfortable with the ‘primary’ emotion we’re actually feeling.

Feelings such as guilt, sadness and fear can all leave us vulnerable. In the case of pet loss, it’s common to be engulfed by anger because that might be preferable to expressing our deeper despair.

In this scenario, anger acts like a suit of armour or a shield. It keeps others away while we create some space to handle how we feel.

So, while experts generally agree that it’s too simplistic to break grief down into five stages, anger is most certainly a part of mourning for many of us.

Why do we feel angry after a pet bereavement?

The anger you feel following the loss of your pet may depend on the circumstances of their death or disappearance.

It’s a topic that comes up frequently in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group.

People often struggle to come to terms with losing a pet when someone else has been involved, either directly or indirectly.

This could be the vet who treated the pet, a spouse who left the garden gate open, a neighbour who hit a beloved cat with their car, a trusted dog walker, or even a child.

In each case, there are a lot of conflicting emotions to deal with.

It’s very hard when the action – or inaction – of someone you love or trust has led to tragedy.

On the one hand, you will want to comfort your loved one and reassure them that they couldn’t have predicted what would happen but, on the other hand, you may be full of anger towards them.

Your thoughts may be stuck in a loop.
Why didn’t she check the gate?
Why did he suggest that medication?
Why did she throw that stick?
Why didn’t he realise there was a serious problem?

The questions you ask will be unique to your situation but the sentiment is usually the same, a sense of injustice and blame.

Even if there wasn’t someone else involved in your pet’s passing, the anger can still churn away inside of you.

Instead, you might feel angry at yourself for not getting a second opinion, taking your dog for a walk, letting your cat outside, not shutting your hamster’s cage properly – whatever applies in your case.

Even things you did out of love can take a dark turn when you’re angry.

Suddenly, you find yourself regretting that walk in the woods, letting your cat play outside, the large rabbit run in the garden or not clipping your love bird’s wings.

My good intentions killed my pet, you think, as you blame yourself for creating a good quality of life.

“Should” and “why” are anger’s favourite words.

You might also feel angry with your pet – how could you leave me? – or angry at how unfair it is that your pet has died when a friend’s older pet is still alive – why does she get a cat that lives to 20 and yet mine wasn’t even two when she passed away?

Anger doesn’t hold back.

When you’re angry with someone you love or trust

Although anger plays an important role in protecting you and helping you make sense of what has happened, it can become a problem if it turns into rage, bitterness or resentment.

These emotions can damage your relationships.

The problem with anger that’s directed to someone you love or trust is that you lose an important part of your support network. The person you’re angry at loses it too.

Your spouse, for example, may be the person you trust most in the world but if you can’t stop blaming them for what happened to your pet, you will struggle to talk to them about your grief.

Similarly, you might become short-tempered with your children for their role in your pet’s death at a time when they need you to comfort them and help them manage their own distress and guilt.

Tips to deal with your pet loss anger

It can be hard to manage your anger when you’re grieving. Emotions are running high and it may be that other people in your circle are angry too. This can make communication hard.

We’ve put together some tips to help you express and address your anger:

1. Rationalise your pet’s passing

Anger is an emotion of the heart – it’s about feelings and putting up all of your defences in the face of a threat. And what could be more threatening than the death of someone you love?

But the problem with this is that anger doesn’t leave much room for facts and forgiveness.

Although it’s a daunting task, try to break down the circumstances surrounding your pet’s passing. Challenge your angry thoughts with a more compassionate counter-argument.

Think about what you would say to your best friend to comfort them and talk to yourself in the same way.

For example, you could counter a thought like, “If he hadn’t left the gate open then the accident wouldn’t have happened” with a statement like, “He didn’t realise the gate was still open. It could have happened to any of us. He wasn’t to know that she would run out at the exact moment a car was passing.”

Or maybe challenge a thought like, “The vet should have known that things were more serious than they looked” with “The vet is human, like me. She used the information and experience available to her to recommend a course of action and order more tests. She is unable to see into the future and did everything she could at the time.”

This will take practice.

With anger, you usually know, rationally speaking, that accidents happen or that death comes to every living creature but knowing it and truly accepting it are two different things.

2. Gather information

You may find it helpful to gather as much information as you can about your pet’s passing, especially if they were under the care of a vet when they died.

If your pet was ill before they passed away, especially if things happened quickly, then you may feel a bit blurry about the advice and information you were given. You may want to arrange to speak to your vet about what happened to understand the chain of events.

Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that this may not give you the answers you want but some people find it helpful.

3. Think before you speak

It’s easy to say hurtful things when you’re angry. While talking is crucial (see point 4), it’s best to avoid speaking in the heat of the moment. If you possibly can, try to take a moment to think about what you want to say.

4. Talk about your feelings with someone objective

We understand that talking can be really tough, especially if the person you would usually speak to was somehow involved with your pet’s death. Still, it is important to express how you feel.

If you don’t feel able to talk to your loved ones at the moment, you could always try reaching out to a pet bereavement counselling service or helpline.

You can find details of some fabulous resources here.

The great thing about talking to someone independent is that they’re completely objective. You can speak confidentially about your feelings.

Another option is to talk about your anger within the private Ralph Site group on Facebook. Lots of people have experienced the all-consuming anger and can lend a supportive ear.

5. Talk to your loved ones using “I” statements

Once you feel able to, talking to your loved ones about your feelings will help you all to heal and create a new normal without your pet.

Experts recommend using “I” statements such as “I feel angry that you didn’t check under the car that morning” instead of “You should have checked under the car before you got in it”.

Be respectful and specific, describing the situation and your feelings without criticising or placing the blame.

While you’re wrestling with anger, the person you’re angry with may be struggling with guilt and regret. Their part in your pet’s passing was not intentional – if they could turn back time, they would.

6. Recognise that being angry won’t bring your pet back

The sad truth is that you could be angry from now until the end of time but it won’t bring your pet back.

Although anger creates a helpful shield in the early days of bereavement, it can become a wall between you and the people and things that matter to you if you hang on to it.

Your pet wouldn’t want you to be angry. Animals don’t hold grudges and one of the things we love so much about them is their ability to live in the moment.

As impossible as it may feel right now, letting go of your anger will feel like a weight being lifted from your shoulders.

7. Redirect your energy

Anger is an energetic emotion so look for ways you can let it out or redirect it productively.

Some people find it helpful to go for a run or a swim when they’re feeling angry. Others take up a calming hobby, even if it’s listening to music or journaling.

If you feel that lessons learned from your pet’s death could save another animal’s life then you could channel your energy into this.

For example, if your dog died from cold water shock from jumping into a cold river on a boiling hot day, this is something you could share on social media.

If your guinea pig died from a respiratory infection, you could tell others what signs to look out for.

If your cat suffered organ failure after eating ingesting lily pollen, spread the word about what plants to include in a cat-safe garden or what flowers it’s safe to send to someone with cats.

Many people take part in fundraisers to commemorate a lost loved one. This is a great way to ensure something good comes out of your loss.

8. Know when to seek help

Anger can keep a bereavement so current that you relive your loss on a loop. The process of letting go of that anger is one of the first steps towards learning to live in a world where your pet is no longer physically present.

If you feel like your anger is out of control or just not easing then please reach out for help. Many people feel like they can’t talk about pet loss but support is available.

The Blue Cross is a wonderful organisation that offers pet bereavement support via phone, email or online.

Above all, please know that you’re not alone. Anger is a natural response to grief and most of us will experience it in our lifetimes.

Until next time,

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

Pet Loss and Depression

Pet loss and depression often go hand in hand but when should you reach out for help?

As we’ve talked about in many blogs on The Ralph Site, the death of a pet can be devastating.

People often feel that they have to keep the true extent of their grief hidden because they’re mourning an animal, not a human. However, there is growing recognition that, when a pet dies, it can be as distressing as losing a human member of the family. It can even be more distressing.

After all, we share familial relationships with our pets.

It makes sense. Our pets share our homes with us; they’re at the centre of our daily routines. They love us through the good and the bad, unconditionally. We’re responsible for them in every way and have often either seen them grow from infancy or given them a new life through rescue.

Death may come after a period of illness or slow decline for a very elderly animal. It can also happen suddenly or traumatically. Every ‘type’ of death can be difficult to accept and process, even more so if you feel like you can’t share your feelings because people won’t understand.

Another layer to pet loss is the feelings associated with euthanasia. Was it the right decision? Was it too soon? Too late? Did my pet feel like I betrayed them at the end? These are all common questions that can be distressing and feed into feelings of guilt, blame, shame, regret and others.

It is understandable that many of these issues can make you feel low after a pet bereavement.

What is ‘normal’ grief?

When a pet dies, we can worry whether our grief is ‘normal’. Maybe it’s because pet loss is often played down.

Comments such as, “It was just a dog/cat/chinchilla/hamster”, “At least you can get another one” or “Are you still upset?” can make you feel like it’s wrong to be so heartbroken.

This is often when people feel like they should be moving through their grief faster. Or they worry that their extreme pain isn’t ‘normal’.

The truth is that there is no right way to grieve for a pet, any more than there is to grieve for a person. There is also no timeline or acceptable pain scale. Some people are able to feel ‘normal’ (whatever that is for them) in days or weeks but others can take years to adapt to their loss.

Grief doesn’t come with a blueprint. It is messy and certainly not a linear process. Some days, you may feel fine and then, other days, pain may come crashing down on you out of nowhere.

If anything about grief can be normal, it’s this – the sheer unpredictability of it.

It’s okay to grieve

Our point is that it’s okay to feel sad, heartbroken, low, bereft and more when a pet dies.

Bereavement experts tell us that these feelings are completely normal but that, with time and support, we can eventually begin to accept and make sense of our loss so that we can adjust to living a life where our loved one isn’t physically present.

This takes a different length of time for everyone. It isn’t that we reach a point of closure but, instead, we create a new normal that encompasses our loss but let’s in other feelings too.

However, sometimes grief and depression go hand in hand. It’s important to reach out for help if you feel you need it.

When you might need help for depression?

After a bereavement, it’s common to see changes in your sleeping or eating patterns, for example, and your concentration may be all over the place. But if this continues, these changes to your behaviour could be a sign of depression.

You may want to speak to a counsellor or your doctor for help if you feel that:

  • You’re not able to cope with your overwhelming emotions or daily life
  • Your intense emotions immediately after your bereavement are not easing or are getting worse
  • You’re not sleeping
  • Your eating patterns have changed
  • You’re struggling to function at work or home
  • Your relationships are suffering
  • You’re self-medicating using drugs or alcohol to cope

Complicated grief

Bereavement specialists refer to a term known as ‘complicated grief’, which we’ve written about in the past. This is defined as “an intense, consuming grief with symptoms lasting for more than six months”.

Complicated grief often includes feelings of anxiety and depression. Common signs include:

  • Continued disbelief that your pet has died or emotional numbness over the loss
  • An inability to accept the death
  • Constantly replaying your pet’s death in your mind
  • Intense sorrow or feelings of bitterness or anger
  • An inability to enjoy any good memories about your pet
  • Continuous longing and yearning for your loved one
  • Blaming yourself for your pet’s death
  • Wishing to die so you can be with your pet
  • No interest in anything, including the future
  • Feeling distrustful of anyone
  • Feeling that life has no meaning
  • Feeling like you’ve lost your identity or that part of you died with your pet

If you are wrestling with any of these feelings, it’s never too early to explore professional counselling or to speak to a dedicated pet bereavement counsellor.

In some cases, medication such as short-term antidepressants can help to make life more manageable. This is something you should discuss with your doctor.

Counselling for pet bereavement

Even without depression in the mix, grief can be debilitating and should be taken seriously. Many people find it is better to ask for support before they become depressed rather than waiting for their mood to ebb even further.

Sometimes, it’s enough to talk to the people around you about your loss. A healthy diet, good sleep, exercise and keeping to your routines can all be helpful too.

Above all, allow yourself to feel sad. When we lose someone we love, it hurts – you shouldn’t have to push down those feelings or pretend that you’re fine if you’re not.

But sometimes, more support is necessary.

If you’re at all worried that you’re experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of your pet loss, please ask for help.

You can find more information about pet bereavement support on the main Ralph Site.

You may also find it helpful to chat with other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site’s Facebook group.

Your doctor will also be able to advise you about medication or refer you to talking therapies available locally.

Please know that you are not alone.

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