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Welcome to our blog!

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!

Instrumental and intuitive grieving: What’s the difference?

Pet loss grief is a uniquely personal experience. Even when two people are grieving for the same animal, it’s likely that each will respond differently to their bereavement.

One of the reasons for this is because, when grieving, we all tend to lean more towards one of two types of response: instrumental grieving or intuitive grieving.

What are instrumental and intuitive grieving?

In 1999, psychiatrists Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka published a book called “Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief”.

While the book was challenging gender stereotypes around grief – i.e. that men are strong and silent (“holding it together”), while women show their emotions (“distraught”) – it first raised the idea that we each have a preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving behaviours.

If you’re someone who needs to be busy to cope with your grief or you think constantly about your loss but choose not to or struggle to express it, then Martin and Doka would say that you’re an “instrumental” griever.

On the other hand, if you find that you need to express your grief emotions to other people or talk more extensively about your loss, you might well be an “intuitive griever”.

Does it really matter whether you’re an instrumental or intuitive griever?

Many would argue that putting labels on how we grieve or attempting to pigeonhole us in one of two categories is pointless or even harmful.

How can we categorise something that is unique?

Of course, grief is deeply personal. No one can tell you how to experience it, express it or process it.

When talking about instrumental vs. intuitive grief, Martin and Doka openly stated that grief is a continuum and that most of us exhibit blended behaviours from both categories.

However, what their research did highlight is that understanding someone’s preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving can help us to provide the most effective support for that individual (and to care for ourselves after a bereavement).

If you’re an instrumental griever

If you’re more inclined towards instrumental grief, the chances are that you need to keep busy.

You may find yourself frantically cleaning your house from top to bottom to occupy your mind or working out to stay busy. 

People who show more instrumental preferences often seek to problem solve. You may feel like you need to “fix” things, which can be frustrating when there is ultimately no fix for pet loss.

If this sounds familiar to you, you might benefit from finding ways to express your grief through action.

Have you thought about preparing a memorial for your pet?

If your pet died because of an accident or little known issue, is there something you could do to raise awareness or support someone else who is talking about this cause?

For instrumental grievers, it can be helpful to have something to do, as long as it’s broken down into manageable steps so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.

If you feel like you need support for your bereavement, instrumental grievers often prefer practical advice about what to do next or benefit from talking to others in an active but informal setting, such as joining a “Walk and Talk” group or volunteering for a charity.

Supporting an instrumental griever

If you’re wondering how to support someone who leans towards instrumental grief processes, then it’s important to recognise that they may appear quite calm and stoical about their loss. At least on the surface. But their feelings will still run deep.

Instrumental grievers often describe their feelings in physical terms – “I feel sick” or “It’s like I’ve been punched” – while their thoughts about their pet get stuck in a loop. It can be helpful to give an instrumental griever tasks to perform or ask for their help to fix something.

They may ask a lot of questions. This is a crucial part of their problem-solving thought processes – they need to understand what happened to their pet. 

If the pet died suddenly at the vets, for example, you might want to encourage the bereaved person to discuss the sequence of events with their vet so that they can clarify why certain decisions were made.

If you’re an intuitive griever

As an intuitive griever, you may find yourself experiencing waves of strong emotions relating to your pet loss. You may have moments of intense crying; you may even scream and shout.

It will be really important to you to express your grief. This might be by chatting to friends and family or journaling about your feelings.

Give yourself the space to let your emotions flow rather than trying to stop or redirect them. 

Supporting an intuitive griever

Intuitive grievers are often accused of being over-emotional or stuck in their grief. If you are supporting a loved one who is an intuitive griever, the most helpful thing you can do is to sit with them and let them talk, cry or express their emotions however they need for as long as they need.

Grief doesn’t come with an expiry date or follow a timeline.

Encourage your loved one to talk about their pet and share happy memories. This will help them to recognise that they can carry their bond with their pet forward with them.

Intuitive grievers often benefit from speaking to a pet bereavement counsellor or being part of a pet loss support group as these provide an outlet to talk.

Other factors influence how we express grief

There’s no doubt that how we express our pet loss grief is, to a certain extent, influenced by the society around us.

People who may naturally lean towards intuitive grief may feel they have to mask their emotions because those around them don’t understand how an animal can inspire such deep emotion.

The lack of rituals around pet loss can leave an instrumental griever feeling helpless.

In addition, Western society too often applies gender binary stereotypes to bereavement. Martin and Doka discussed in their research that people still tend to think of intuitive grief as being a feminine approach to bereavement, whereas instrumental grief is seen as masculine.

Experts have pointed out that when women lean towards instrumental grief, people are quick to label them as “cold and unfeeling” whereas a man displaying the same behaviours would be praised for “holding it together” or “being strong”.

Equally, if a man expresses intuitive grief, he might be labelled as “over-emotional”, whereas a woman is “understandably upset” given her relationship with the deceased.

Such stereotypes are unhelpful but it is important to understand how they might influence our behaviour following a bereavement.

It’s common to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty for grieving – especially for a pet – because it conflicts with our learned gender behaviours or cultural “norms” attached to grieving. 

Please don’t feel that we’re talking about instrumental or intuitive grief with the intention of reducing to your feelings to an “either/or” concept. We want to challenge the idea that grief looks a certain way.

Our hope is that this topic might just encourage you to look for support in your grief that matches your needs, whatever they are at this time. 

If you need to talk, would pet bereavement counselling help?

If you need to be busy, what would give you a sense of purpose right now?

There is no right way to grieve. Just your way.

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

Twelve universal truths of pet loss grief

Although it affects us all differently, there are some universal truths of pet loss grief that may provide you with comfort during your time of loss.

Here is what we’ve learned:

  1. Grief is part of love

Sadly, grief is an inevitable part of life, as certain as death and taxes. The only way we can ever avoid experiencing it is to live without emotional connections and the joy they bring.

Whenever we form an attachment that is so integral to our life that we can’t imagine existing without it, we are destined to grieve when we’re separated from the source of that attachment.

Some grief in life is fleeting – for example, the grief we feel when we move house, change jobs or end a romantic relationship that has fizzled out.

Other grief runs deeper, leaving us shattered and debilitated. This is the grief associated with losing a human or non-human person who we love.

Author C.S. Lewis famously wrote about grief, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”

This quote recognises that love and grief are part of each other. As painful as this is, it can also be incredibly comforting. When you feel grief, it’s because your love for your loved one is there inside of you, keeping them with you always.

  1. While grief is universal, your grief is unique

The contradiction of grief is that while it is a universal experience, it’s also completely unique to the griever. 

Even people – and some animals – who are grieving for the same pet will feel and express their emotions differently. 

The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You can only do what feels right for you at any given moment. 

  1. Grief does not work to a timeline

People who have lost a pet often wonder, “When will I feel OK again?” and “When will it stop hurting?”

Unfortunately, grieving doesn’t come with an expiry date. It’s not a case of moving along a timeline and then being done.

Again, how you experience your grief will be unique to you. What is true is that most people find that they eventually learn how to live with their grief and that it softens and changes with time.

  1. Grief is complicated (and more than just sadness)

Before you experienced grief for the first time, you probably thought of it in fairly one dimensional terms, a profound sadness overshadowing everything else.

While sadness is, of course, a part of grief, the reality is much more complicated. When you’re grieving, it’s usual to feel anger, anxiety, depression, confusion, disbelief, guilt and happiness, plus much more.

  1. Grief begins with shock

However you lost your pet, it’s common for your initial reaction to be one of shock. People often describe feeling completely numb or disbelieving that their pet has gone.

It seems that shock is nature’s way of cushioning us against tragedy, giving us an emotional zone to transition from a state of having into a state of mourning our loss.

When a human dies, we have rituals and ceremonies around bereavement to fill this time of shock and help us function. A growing number of us are creating similar rituals around pet loss for the same reason.

  1. Guilt is a normal part of pet loss grief

We can experience guilt after any bereavement. We might feel guilty for surviving, for going on after our loved one, for not spending more time with them while they were here… the list goes on.

It does seem that guilt is even more present for bereaved pet carers. There are lots of reasons for this. 

Our pets can’t share their wishes with us, they are reliant on us for all of their needs (much like small children) and euthanasia is often a factor in the time and place of a pet’s passing. Our decisions can determine how and when an animal companion lives or dies.

Guilt has an important role to play. It can help us to make sense of a loss and even learn lessons for the future. At the same time, it can be a barrier to moving forward, keeping us stuck in a loop of what-ifs.

If you’re experiencing guilt following a pet loss, be gentle with yourself. Always look at your intentions. You only ever wanted the best for your friend, even if that meant making the decision to humanely end their suffering with euthanasia.

Grief is an individual journey yet there are some universal truths
  1. Pet loss grief is normal

There is growing acknowledgement of the fact that losing a pet can be as painful as losing a human. In fact, we sometimes grieve more deeply for our pets.

Our animal companions share our homes, our routines and are part of our close families. They unconditionally accept us at our best and our worst, bringing brightness and unconditional love to the darkest of days.

Of course, we grieve for them when they’re gone!

People who aren’t pet-orientated may struggle to understand your grief but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. 

According to an article in the Huffington Post, more than 10,000 people called the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement helpline in 2018 (a figure that had doubled from the year before). Although we don’t have more recent figures, they are likely to have risen due to the fact that people are finally speaking more openly about their pet loss grief. 

  1. You may feel lost

It’s natural to feel loss and directionless after a bereavement. When a pet dies, it can cause a loss of routine, social life and companionship.

You may need to navigate your way through these so-called “secondary” losses and begin to figure out what your life will look like without the pet you have lost, even if you have other pets in your family.

  1. You cannot change what has happened

When we’re grieving, our thoughts can get stuck in a loop. You might find that you keep replaying the last time you saw your pet or wishing you could go back and do things differently.

Again, this is a completely natural response to grief. The truth is that we would have a whole lifetime with our pets if we could.

One of the key processes of bereavement is accepting that your loved one has gone. You cannot change the past.

  1. You can only control right now

In our daily lives, most of us do plenty to feel in control. In the context of our pets, we give them a great diet, exercise, enrichment, companionship, veterinary care, etc. but, despite our best efforts, we aren’t able to avert death or that moment when a pet goes missing.

Bereavement holds nothing back in this regard. It reminds us that, ultimately, we cannot control everything, which can be a scary realisation.

The most any of us can do is control what we do and how we respond in any given moment. Right now, this might mean deciding to go for a walk, eating something healthy, resting, doing something kind for yourself or even letting your tears flow.

  1. You will survive this

When someone we love dies, including a pet, it can be hard to imagine going on without them. 

Be gentle with yourself. Eventually, you will work out how to move forward and build a life that includes your grief. You won’t be broken by it, just changed.

  1. Love never dies

Most people find that their grief changes over time. 

One analogy is that it’s like learning to walk with a pebble in your shoe – at first, the pain is all you can think about but, with time and practice, you learn to walk with the pebble; sometimes you may barely notice it.

As hard as it can be to imagine it when you’re in the depths of grief, the day will inevitably come when you can think about your pet and smile. You’ll find yourself reliving old, happy memories and focusing on your pet’s life rather than how they left.

Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear that your love for your pet – and their love for you – is just as vivid and special as it ever was. It might sound like a cliché but love never dies. Because of this, your pet will always be with you.

The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group is a supportive and safe space to talk to other bereaved pet carers. 

Please know that you’re not alone. 

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

Coping with isolation due to pet loss

Do you feel like you’re grieving alone for the loss of a pet? Are you struggling with a sense of physical, emotional or social isolation (or maybe a combination of all three)?

Sadly, isolation is a common consequence of a bereavement.

There are many different factors that feed into this. In today’s blog, we want to acknowledge them and also explore some steps you may be able to take to feel more connected.

Why losing a pet can leave us feeling isolated

Our pets don’t just share our homes with us, they share most aspects of our lives. They are likely to see us at our best and our worst, more than almost anyone else in the world. Losing this degree of intimacy is bound to be shattering.

If you lived alone with your pet, the reality is that you may have lost your main companion. If you live with members of your family, it could be that you all had very different relationships with the animal that has passed or that you have different ways of expressing your grief.

We can often feel isolated in grief because it’s impossible to find someone else who is experiencing the bereavement in exactly the same way as us.

Isolation due to disenfranchised grief

It doesn’t help that pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief, which means it’s a form of grief that isn’t necessarily acknowledged by our wider society.

You may be feeling a sense of isolation because your friends and family don’t recognise how losing a pet can be as painful and traumatic as losing a human loved one.

Perhaps someone has thoughtlessly said to you, “It was only a dog/cat/horse/rabbit*” (*insert as appropriate) or “At least you can get another one”.

Although people mean well, these kinds of platitudes have an alienating effect. It’s a clear statement that the other person doesn’t understand or connect with our loss. This can make us feel alone in our grief and this sense of loneliness and disconnection feeds into isolation.

The different types of isolation 

Isolation comes in different forms. If you did live alone with your pet (or you spent large portions of the day with just them), then you will almost certainly be experiencing some degree of physical isolation.

Grief can lead to social isolation too. Social isolation is best described as psychologically or physically distancing yourself from desired or needed relationships. You may be finding it too hard to be around other people at the moment, leading you to withdraw from social situations.

Equally, your pet may have been at the heart of your social life. Dog carers and horse carers, for example, tend to socialise with other dog or horse people. When a pet dies, you can end up feeling socially isolated due to a loss of routine and common ground. 

Finally, many people who are grieving end up feeling emotionally isolated. We’ve already touched on this slightly.

Emotional isolation is feeling like you have no-one to talk to or confide in. If you feel that people don’t understand the depth of your grief for your animal companion, this can be a huge barrier to communication. You may feel that you can’t talk about your loss.

We should also acknowledge that grief brings up a complex range of emotions. Anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, sadness or even mistrust can all feed into isolation. You may be worried about expressing these emotions, while people around you may not know what to say to be supportive.

Secondary losses

Every bereavement we experience in life creates a kind of ripple effect that causes secondary losses.

When a pet dies, we can suffer a loss of identity, a loss of our role as caregiver and provider, loss of purpose, loss of routine, loss of social activities or even a loss of self-confidence.

Each secondary loss will shape and layer your grief. This can feed into your feelings of isolation because no-one else can truly comprehend all that you lost with your pet.

Isolation and loneliness

Isolation in any form can make us feeling lonely.

Loneliness is best described as the perception that you don’t have the amount or quality of social interaction that you desire. This means you can be surrounded by people and still feel like you’re complete alone.

In turn, loneliness can chip away at your emotional and physical well-being and create a negative spiral that increases your sense of isolation.

Tips for coping with isolation and making connections

If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation due to a bereavement, then it’s important to recognise this.

You may be inclined to withdraw even further, believing that no-one understands your feelings and you are alone in your loss.

While the loss you have experienced is completely unique to you, please know that support is available. 

The following tips may help you:

  • Chat to a pet bereavement counsellor (the Blue Cross offers a dedicated service that helps many pet carers)
  • Speak to other bereaved pet carers within The Ralph Site community, many of whom will be struggling with similar feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Stay connected to people who are supportive – if you have people within your social circle who are supportive, look for ways to spend more time with them, even if it is just through text messages or a platform such as Zoom.
  • Explore ways to express your grief – it is important that your grief for your pet has an outlet. You might find it helpful to create a memorial or write about your feelings, especially if you don’t feel like talking to anyone close to you about your loss
  • Hold one of your pet’s belongings and talk to them – this has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of connection in people who are grieving
  • Find time for self-care – your physical and mental health can be affected by isolation, so it’s crucial that you prioritise your self-care by eating healthily, resting and getting some daily exercise 

One of the main reasons that The Ralph Site exists is to offer a safe space for bereaved pet carers to express their grief and find support and acceptance. Just knowing that other people understand the depth of your feelings can help to ease isolation.

We are here for you. You are not alone.

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

The Dual Process Model of Grief and Coping with Bereavement

What is the Dual Process Model of Grief and how can it help you? 

Let’s take a closer look.

Models of grief can provide comfort and normalise your feelings

In some of our recent pet loss articles, we’ve been talking about models of grief such as the four tasks of grief.

We think it’s important to explain some of the most well-known models of grief, simply because you might be someone who finds it helpful to understand a bit more about what you’re going through.

Grief can feel isolating and unexpected, like the most terrifying of rollercoasters. Models of grief can give a sense of normality and ground you through the ups and downs.

The Dual Process Model of Grief

In the mid-90s, clinical psychology professors Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut developed the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.

Up until then, experts had believed that grief was a linear process where you worked through various tasks and stages and eventually arrived at closure. People would talk about needing to do “grief work”, suggesting that you could only heal your grief if you faced your loss head on and completed certain tasks.

The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement suggests that grief is far more complicated.

In the Dual Process Model, Stroebe and Schut stated that there are two different types of stressors associated with grieving, which reflect different ways of behaving. 

These stressors are loss orientated and restoration orientated.

Stroebe and Schut explain that when you’re grieving, you will switch – or “oscillate” – between two different modes of being. 

This is why they called the model a Dual Process, i.e. “consisting of two part or elements”.

But what does this really mean?

Loss-orientated stressors

As the name would suggest, loss-orientated stressors are anything that make you focus on your loss. 

With a beloved pet, this might be seeing old photos of them, deciding what to do with their belongings, reminders of them in your daily routine or simply remembering something you loved doing together.

Loss-orientated stressors can make you feel sad, guilty, angry, anxious, depressed and many of the other powerful emotions associated with grief.

When you’re experiencing this process, you may find yourself thinking back a lot, yearning to be with your pet again, crying, reminiscing or simply wanting to curl up in bed to sleep the day away.

Restoration-orientated stressors

Stroebe and Schut believed that no-one can realistically face grief head-on 24 hours a day until they somehow feel better.

It’s too demanding, exhausting and, ultimately, unhealthy to live entirely within the loss-orientated process.

The Dual Process Model explains that restoration-orientated stressors are necessary; they enable you to get on with daily life and distract yourself from your grief sometimes. It’s so important to be able to take a small break from focusing on your pain, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

The restoration-orientated process is about rebuilding your life without your loved one, finding distractions, changing your routines, doing new things or even just completing mundane tasks like cooking a meal, going for a walk or doing some cleaning.

If you find yourself wanting to binge-watch your favourite programme on Netflix and just ignore all of your feelings for a while, the Dual Process Model says that’s natural and completely healthy.

Oscillation between the two processes

According to Stroebe and Schut, you will find yourself oscillating or bouncing between both processes. This will help you to make sense of your grief and your new reality bit by bit.

You’ve probably been doing this naturally.

For example, perhaps you got up this morning, made a cup of tea, laughed at something your partner said and then sat down to do some work. Then, suddenly, you spotted your pet’s food bowl on the kitchen side and burst into tears.

This was you moving from a restoration-orientated process to a loss-orientated process. You may swing between the two multiple times during any given day – or hour!

The Dual Process Model explains that this oscillation is vital for healthy grieving, moving you between coping with your grief and seeking respite from it. 

Of course, you will sometimes experience one process more than another. When a loss is very fresh, we can feel like we’re drowning in loss-orientated stressors.

However, by necessity, the restoration-orientated process will eventually kick in. 

You mustn’t feel guilty when it does. It’s a survival mechanism and a completely healthy, natural part of grief. 

The Dual Process Model also recognises that grief doesn’t have a definitive end point and that it’s an ever-changing state. It’s natural to eventually spend larger chunks of time on restoration-orientated activities, only to bounce back into a loss-orientated state on an anniversary or after experiencing something that triggers a memory.

The important thing to remember is that you won’t stay stuck in that process forever.

And, as always, know that you are not alone.

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

Moving forward, not moving on

“Moving forward” or “moving on”. They sound like such similar phrases, don’t they? But in the context of grief the difference between “on” or “forward” is huge.

When you’re grieving for a precious pet – or indeed a person who you love – people will often say things like, “Isn’t it time you moved on?” or “You’ll move on eventually” or even, “I’m glad to see you’ve moved on”.

But the idea of moving on from a loved one can be incredibly distressing.

Moving on implies leaving something behind. It suggests that the animal, for example, was a moment or place that you can put behind you when, in fact, he or she was a member of your family and you’ll never get over that loss – not in the way that moving on implies, anyway.

The connotations of “moving on”

While people who haven’t experienced grief might like to think it has an endpoint, those of us who have lost someone we love, including a pet, know that there is no cut off point for our feelings.

Grief doesn’t come with a timeline, whereas the phrase “moving on” suggests that it does.

Other vocabulary people use can suggest the same thing. You might have someone say to you, “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better now” or be party to a conversation in which someone says, “I don’t think they ever got over the loss of their <insert loved one>”. People often talk about “closure”, as though you can simply close the cover on the book of grief.

Such phrases imply that there will come a moment when the grief is done and dusted. When it isn’t, it can make us feel like there’s something wrong with us.

But there truly isn’t. 

We don’t move on from grief

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

Although her insights came from losing a child, her dad and her husband in a few short months, her insights apply to all grief. The talk is well worth a watch.

Why it’s better to talk about “moving forward”

As McInerny tells us, it is far more compassionate and realistic to talk about moving forward after a bereavement.

When a pet dies, our love for them is still very much present. We expect them to be waiting for us when we get home or listen for the sounds of them moving around like they always did. We slip into the present tense when we talk about them because we think about them all the time and they will never just be left in the past.

Our pets help to shape us and so they are forever a part of our identities. 

You would not be the person you are today without the animal you have lost. You made memories together, felt joy because of them, built your life around them. 

How can you move on from someone who has fundamentally changed you?

Learning to live with grief

Inevitably though, we do have to find a way to move forward.

As much as we can feel frozen in our grief, life will keep moving and we are left with no choice but to find a way to live in the world without our loved one.

But it isn’t that our grief eventually shrinks, it’s that we learn how to grow around it.

This is the theory of Dr Tonkin’s model of grief, which is illustrated below. This model suggests that grief actually remains as big and present as it has always been but, with time, your life will begin to grow around it.

You will experience new things, meet new people, have new pets, learn new skills, visit new places, enabling the space around your grief to get bigger. This is the process of moving forward.

Grief isn’t an either/or emotion. It’s not that you feel grief and nothing else. 

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

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

How true.

If we believe this, then we can move forward knowing that grief is the locket that holds our love inside of us.

And maybe that’s a special thing, to have a love that we carry always. Why would we want to “move on” and leave love in the past when we can move forward and hold it with us forever?

If you need to talk to someone about how to move forward in your pet loss grief, you can find a list of pet bereavement counsellors on The Ralph Site. Our active Facebook community also provides a safe and accepting space to talk.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Only your way.

Just know that you are not alone.

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