Frozen in time: Understanding incomplete grief

At The Ralph Site, we will always reassure you that there is no right or wrong way to grieve for a lost pet. Our only hope is that, with time, the nature of your grief will change and make room for happy memories of your furry, feathered or scaly loved one.

If this doesn’t happen, it could be that you’re stuck in a state known as ‘incomplete grief’. Incomplete grief is when someone isn’t able to or decides not to express, confront or even experience the feelings caused by a loss. It’s sometimes described as an emotion ‘frozen in time’.

Pet loss and incomplete grief

After a pet dies, people often feel they can’t talk about their grief because their friends and family won’t understand.

Phrases such as “I can’t believe you’re still upset. It was just a cat/dog/guinea pig…” or “At least you can get another one” diminish the right of the pet carer to grieve.

With no bereavement leave for pet loss, we have to go straight back to work with no funeral or other rituals to mark our precious pet’s passing.

Life moves on. It’s common to feel grief has to be pushed to one side or that it isn’t ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to grieve for long after losing a pet. These are just a few of the many reasons that pet loss grief often remains incomplete.

The symptoms of incomplete grief

Arguably, it can be difficult to distinguish incomplete grief from so-called ‘healthy’ grief at first.

Most grief experts agree that the symptoms of intense grief following a bereavement can still be experienced for up to two years after a loss.

It’s if they continue for longer that you might be dealing with incomplete grief.

So, what are the symptoms you might experience if your grief is frozen in time?

  • Sudden bouts of tears
  • Hypervigilance (always on the lookout for bad things happening)
  • Depression or numbness
  • Bursts of rage
  • Anxiety
  • Reliving your pet’s final days on a loop
  • Denial of your loss or minimising your feelings or their validity (“I know I shouldn’t still be upset” or “I’m not sad, I’m just tired”)
  • Guilt
  • Blame
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Being afraid to lose anything related to your pet or, conversely, throwing away every single reminder
  • Responding excessively to other people’s trauma as if it were your own

Incomplete grief can cause physical symptoms too – it’s most often associated with some chronic pain or illness (e.g. back pain, migraines, tics, muscle stiffness), obesity or eating disorders, digestive or bowel problems.

Six of the most common signs that your grief is blocked

In an article for Psychology Today, clinical social worker Bob Taibbi discusses six of the most common symptoms of incomplete grief:

1.      Irritability or explosions of anger

If you find yourself feeling constantly on edge or irritated by the smallest of things or you occasionally explode with anger over something that normally wouldn’t bother you, it can be a sign of pent up grief.

It’s a lot like a pressure cooker with no safe release – at some point, it has to let off steam.

2.      Continued obsession or missing your loved one

Of course, it’s inevitable that our thoughts will continually go to our lost pet when we’re grieving. But most people find that, with time (and it’s different for everyone), good memories eventually creep back in too. The grief remains but it gives space to other emotions.

With incomplete grief, however, your thoughts can get stuck in the moment of loss. You experience your pet’s final moments on a loop without reprieve. You can’t think of the life they lived or begin to create a life without them – all you see is the moment you last saw them.

3.      Hypervigilance and fear of loss

After a bereavement, it’s natural to feel fearful and vigilant about potential threats. You have experienced something so distressing that your brain goes into overdrive to protect you.

The problem with incomplete grief is that the sense of impending doom, that something awful is about to happen, can persist for months or even years.

If you feel constantly afraid, even though the worst has already happened and your pet has gone, you might need support to express your grief.

4.      Behavioural overreaction

When struggling with incomplete grief, people often go to one of two extremes, either becoming overly dependent on other people – or another pet – for reassurance and security or pushing everyone away.

Both responses are about self-protection and preventing future loss and pain. The problem is that these extremes can affect your relationships with people and with animals.

5.      Self-harming or high-risk behaviours

Many people turn to self-harm or high-risk behaviours to push away having to deal with feelings of grief. This can manifest as overeating, drinking too much, drug use, becoming a workaholic, not caring about your safety, or even doing high-risk sports in an unsafe way.

6.      Apathy or numbness

Another symptom of incomplete grief is a low-level but ongoing state of depression, apathy or numbness. It’s like someone has laid a heavy, muffling blanket over all of your emotions in an effort to suffocate the grief.

How to cope with incomplete grief

If you think you might be suffering from incomplete grief, you might want to try the following:

  • Say what you wish you could have said to your pet

When a pet dies, we don’t always have the opportunity to say goodbye or to tell them what they mean to us. We don’t get to say that we’re sorry or that we would have saved them if we could.

But just because your pet is no longer here doesn’t mean that you can’t speak to them.

Many people find it helpful to write a letter to their pet, telling them everything they wish they could have said at the time.

  • Acknowledge and move towards what you’re avoiding

Incomplete grief often involves avoidance, of emotions, of memories, of topics of conversation, or even of people and places.

For example, you might feel that you can’t face looking at pictures or videos of your pet. You might avoid places you loved walking your dog or the sunny spot in the garden where your cat used to hang out in the spring.

If other family members try to talk about your pet, you might go silent, change the conversation or walk out of the room.

It can be helpful to name the things you are avoiding out loud, either to yourself or to someone you trust. Even better, think about ways that you can start moving towards that you’ve been trying not to face.

  • Look at how you can break your current thought or behaviour patterns

If your thoughts have been stuck in a loop since your pet died or went missing, it’s important to try to break the cycle in some way.

You can do this by challenging your thoughts. With a thought like, “He wouldn’t have got out of the garden if I had checked the gate was locked”, remind yourself that “I did not let him into the garden with the intention of harm. I let him into the garden to have fun and enjoy the fresh air. I let him in the garden because I wanted him to have a good quality of life”.

Similarly, if you’re using certain behaviours to manage or avoid your grief, you will need to look at how you can break the patterns.

If you spend the evening bingeing sweets and biscuits in front of the telly, for example, could you swap your treats to a healthier alternative or increase your activity by going for a walk before you sit down for the evening?

It can be really tough to do this alone so how about enlisting the help of a friend or family member as an accountability partner?

  • Consider counselling

Overcoming incomplete grief isn’t easy. Many people find that they are better able to manage all aspects of grief with professional support such as counselling.

There are dedicated pet bereavement counsellors throughout the UK.

The Blue Cross also runs a fantastic Pet Bereavement Support Service and helpline. Alternatively, most regions have self-referral counselling services or support that is accessible via your GP.

Your grief can change

Your pet would not want you to be frozen in the moment of their death.

You shared so much that was good and joyful when they were alive. Believe it or not, that positive relationship can continue even though they’re gone. Your pet can continue to enrich your life through the memories you made together.

Although you may be experiencing incomplete grief right now, with time and support it will be possible for your grief to evolve and thaw so that it’s free to be expressed.

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

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