“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”.
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