Retiring Your Assistance Dog

More than 7,000 assistance dogs are hard at work every single day in the UK. These amazing dogs have been specially chosen and trained to offer emotional and/or physical support and independence to their handlers.

This might mean acting as a person’s eyes or ears, helping with practical tasks at home, detecting seizures before they happen, calming someone who has panic attacks or providing many other life-changing services.

If you have an assistance dog or emotional support animal at home, you’ll know better than anyone what a positive impact they have had on your life.

Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, even the most beautiful of partnerships.

Over the next few blogs, we’ll be exploring some of the issues around pet loss that specifically affect people with assistance animals.

This week, we’re looking at the decisions and feelings you might face when it’s time for your assistance dog to retire.

Do all assistance dogs have to retire?

Being a working or service animal of any kind can be physically and emotionally demanding. Dogs, for example, are carefully chosen for their ability to carry the load required of them.

But just like humans, dogs eventually begin to age and slow down. There typically comes a point when even the most enthusiastic of service dogs lose their working capability, meaning they can no longer provide you with the support you need.

Retirement gives these special dogs a chance to enjoy their twilight years as a pet rather than as a working companion. After a lifetime of faithful service, of doing their job to the best of their ability, they can kick back and relax while the role of assisting you is passed down to a younger pup.

When is the right time for retirement?

Unlike us humans, dogs don’t reach an official retirement age, complete with pension. It can be hard to pinpoint when the moment for retirement has come.

You know your dog better than anyone else in the world so, if your instincts are telling you that retirement is looming, you’re probably right.

Many assistance dogs work until around age 10, with some retiring before and a few retiring after. It will really depend on your dog’s health, personality, their working role and your ability to care for an older dog.

The best advice is to gradually wind down your dog’s working life rather than going from all to nothing overnight (unless a vet recommends an immediate stop due to health issues).

As your assistance dog will have come from an organisation, they should be able to help you manage this transition period so that retirement comes gently rather than as a massive, unexpected change for your companion.

By taking things slowly, the organisation can begin finding you the best possible match for a new assistance dog to take over this vital role when the time comes. They can also help you explore the best retirement option for your pooch.

Signs to look out for

The following signs often show that a dog is nearing retirement:

  • They don’t seem as happy or enthusiastic about working or going out
  • Their mobility isn’t what it once was – they seem slower or more accident prone
  • The dog is having behavioural or memory issues
  • They’re missing your cues for familiar tasks
  • They become less flexible about changes to routine or lose confidence doing things they once took in their stride
  • They want to sleep more than in the past
  • They lack energy after a full night’s sleep
  • Your dog has been diagnosed with a long-term health condition

If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it is probably time to start thinking about the options for retiring your precious friend.

Common retirement options for assistance dogs

Keeping your dog

In many cases, assistance dogs live out their days as a pet in their lifelong home.

Your dog may not be able to carry out working tasks any more but they can be an ongoing source of emotional support and companionship long into their retirement.

If that’s an option for you then it’s definitely worth exploring.

But what if you’re unable to keep your dog?

Although most people would prefer to keep their assistance dog until the end of the animal’s life, it isn’t always possible.

Caring for an older dog can be physically and emotionally demanding. Due to the nature of your disability or your personal circumstances, you may not be in a position to look after your assistance dog into his or her old age.

Could you clean up toileting accidents or administer medication as needed?

Another situation that sometimes crops up is that former assistance dogs struggle to accept the presence of a new assistance dog in the home. After years of faithful service, it can be hard to watch another dog come in and take over the working role. In these situations, a change in living arrangements might be better for both dogs.

You may also be in housing where assistance dogs are allowed but pets aren’t.

In these situations, you may need to consider rehoming your retired companion, especially if you’re involved in training a younger assistance dog to ensure you have the support you need.

Rehoming the dog with friends or family

A good compromise to keeping a retired assistance dog at home is having him or her adopted by a close friend or family member who can provide a loving home but will also ensure that you continue to see your dog. The bonus is that your dog will already know and have a bond with their adoptive family, which can make the transition from working dog to retiree easier.

Returning your dog to the provider organisation for rehoming

Some organisations that train and provide assistance dogs have a clause in their contract with the handler that requests the dog is returned to them for rehoming once they reach retirement age.

If this is the case, you should have been made aware of this from the outset and have this agreement in writing.

You can also ask the organisation to rehome your retired dog if your circumstances mean you can’t keep them with you.

Organisations that work with assistance dogs usually have a waiting list of people who want to adopt retired assistance dogs or an agreement with the people who raised the dog as a puppy to give them first refusal in the event of the dog being rehomed.

Even knowing that your assistance dog will go to a fantastic home can be tough. It may feel like a bereavement. Please speak to the organisation concerned to find out how you will be supported through this process.

Will you still be able to see your retired companion?

Will you receive regular news and updates from their adoptive family?

Coping with your dog’s retirement

Retiring an assistance dog can be an incredibly emotional experience, even if they don’t have to be rehomed.

You and your dog have spent years together learning each other’s needs and cues in a way that few people will ever experience. Your furry friend has given you independence, peace of mind and unconditional support. It may be that you’ve never been apart.

And now that phase of both of your lives is coming to an end.

The best advice we’ve heard from other assistance dog carers who’ve seen a faithful companion retire is to celebrate the fact that they’re getting to retire as a sign of a job well done.

Instead of thinking about what you stand to lose or have lost, try to think about all the things you gained from each other and how, if you plan to have a new assistance dog, your past experiences will make you a better trainer, handler and carer.

Your ageing assistance dog is starting a new chapter where they can relax and take life at a gentler pace. Hopefully, they have many good years ahead in a loving home, whether that’s with you or with an adopter.

It can be hard to imagine ever loving or trusting another assistance dog the way you love your current companion and you’re bound to make comparisons. Remember, a new assistance dog will be different but different doesn’t mean better or worse. You’ll share a new adventure together and teach each other new things.

You’ll never forget your previous assistance dog; your heart will just double in size to love your new companion too.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be tears and hard times for a while. Try to tap into the support available to you. Talk about retirement options throughout your companion’s life so you’re prepared when the time comes, whatever the future holds for you both.

Look at ways to make the transition from working life to retirement as gentle and easy as possible – again, ask the organisation who provided your dog for advice about this.

The Ralph Site Facebook group is always there for support about any aspect of pet loss, including those who have had their assistance dogs rehomed upon retirement.

Until next time,

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

Dealing with flashbacks after the death of your pet

The sudden and unexpected death of a pet can be devastating, especially if it happens in traumatic circumstances.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon to hear through The Ralph Site Facebook group about precious pets that have died as a result of being hit by a car or attacked by another animal.

In such circumstances, some pet carers find that they experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for a long time after the loss of their companion.

It can be debilitating, frightening and lonely, especially if people around you don’t understand the extent of your anguish about the death of your pet.

Do know that flashbacks can be managed with time and support.

Why do flashbacks happen?

In researching thisblog, we found a fantastic video on The Loss Foundation’s website that explains why flashbacks occur after bereavement or othertraumatic events.

We thought it might be helpful to summarise the explanation here.

The human brain has two memory systems that help us make sense of our inner and outer worlds.

System one acts like a camera, taking snapshots of everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste and feel throughout the day, including our emotions.

System two takes these snapshots and puts them in order, filing them in a sort of photo album that we can flick back through in the form of memories. Once a snapshot is consigned to the photo album, we know it is in the past.

However, when something traumatic happens, something that causes an elevation in our emotions, the blood flow to our brain rushes to memory system one – the camera – so that we can capture every detail of what’s happening.

The evolutionary reason for this is so that we can identify something potentially dangerous before it occurs in the future and stay safe.

While memory system one is working overtime in response to a traumatic event, memory system two – the photo album – pretty much shuts down so the brain can focus on keeping us alive.

Of course, this means that the snapshots from the camera don’t get filed away as they’re taken.Instead, they float around in our brains, unprocessed and unsorted.

This means that a traumatic event can resurface at any time in the form of flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. Many people find they have one or more triggers to their flashbacks. This might be a specific smell such as petrol, rain or cutgrass; a sound such as a car engine, a door slamming or the screeching of tyres; or even a sight such as a certain colour car, the build of a person, or an item of clothing.

Even the briefest of contact with one of these triggers can bring all the snapshots from the trauma back into focus but as if it’s happening again rather than in the past. This is because we’re viewing it through the lens of the camera again rather than inthe photograph album.

Overcoming flashbacks

Using this analogy, it makes perfect sense that flashbacks occur after a highly emotional, traumatic event. Our own brains want to protect us from future hurt and yet, ironically, keep us reliving a heartbreaking event, in this case, the loss of a pet.

The good news is that it is possible to overcome flashbacks. Once the event is over, memory system two eventually comes back online and is open to sorting the unfiled snapshots from your trauma. It may be a slow process but your responses to the trauma can change.

There are a number of techniques recommended to help you overcome flashbacks.

  • Acknowledge and sit with a flashback

This is easier said than done, we know, but many bereavement experts recommend consciously accepting a flashbackor intrusive thought rather than trying to block it or push it away.

This might mean saying out loud that, “I keep seeing the moment when….” and explaining what you see in your flashback. Talk about how it felt at the time, the events leading up to thatmoment, your thoughts, the panic, or how you felt afterwards.

By doing this, you can help memory system two make sense of the jumbled snapshots that haven’t been filed. It’s a way of saying, “This goes here” and building up a complete view of what happened.

We should note that many people find this approach is most helpful when done with the support of a trained counsellor as there is some risk of the frequency and intensity of flashbacks increasing in the early stages before they become more manageable.

  • Write it down

If you don’t want to talk about your pet’s passing or you feel you’re struggling to find a listening ear, it can be effective to write down what you see during a flashback and where it fits in to the chain of events around your pet’s death.

This is a tangible way of ordering the images in your head, almost like captioning the snapshots so you can understand them later.

  • Catalogue your triggers

As your flashbacks or intrusive thoughts occur – or afterwards, if that’s easier – try to step back and see if you can pinpoint a trigger. You might have lots of triggers, so be sure to keepa list.

Your next task is to challenge your trigger. Yes, you heard the car coming down the road before your pet was hit but that doesn’t mean all cars will be involved with a traumatic accident. Thousands of people drive cars every day and don’t cause a pet fatality.

Your own car helps you get from A to B, you have never driven it with the intention to cause harm.

The idea is to rationalise the snapshots so that your brain begins to understand that, although a bad thing happened on one occasion involving your trigger, it doesn’t mean something bad will happen every time you cross paths with the same thing.

  • Highlight the differences between now and then (or create differences)

This approach is the equivalent of encouraging your brain to ‘spot the difference’ between a snapshot from today compared to a snapshot from your traumatic memory.

Take a moment to remind yourself that the weather is different, the season has changed, the formation of parked cars on the road is different, or that you can hear different sounds in the garden.

If walking into a room at home reminds you of your pet’s passing then you could try moving the furniture around or hanging your pictures in different places. Small changes can help to remind your brain that the traumatic snapshots come from the past, not the here and now.

  • Lower your stress levels

Many experts say that flashbacks can be reduced by concentrating on activities that relax your body and mind. There are several strategies to do this.

  • During a flashback, you might find it helpful to repeat a phrase such as, “I am at home. This is a memory” or “This isn’t happening now. The flashback will be over soon” as a way to bring you back into the present.
  • We read one article where a man experiencing flashbacks repeated “Doctor Foster went to Gloucester” to himself during a flashback and visualised Doctor Foster falling into a puddle as a way of distracting his mind. Another guy played “Always look on the bright side of life” on his phone every time a flashback started.
  • Some people find it effective to focus on a particular item such as a clock, chair or picture that isn’t associated with the trauma and keeps them anchored.
  • Concentrate on exercises that bring your breathing under control as this will help you to feel more relaxed.
  • Visualise your flashback as though you’re watching it on a cinema screen – add in audience members, popcorn, a fire exit, the low hum of chatter. You can then begin distancing yourself from the memory by pausing the film, rewinding,fast-forwarding or even turning it to black and white.
  • Relaxationtechniques such as imagining that you’re flying over the sea or through aforest can also help distract and calm your mind.
  • Aftera flashback, try to do something that distracts you for at least half an hour.This might be reading a book, watching something ‘mindless’ on TV, listening tomusic, dancing round your living room, phoning a friend or going for a briskwalk.

Don’t suffer in silence

As with any traumatic event, if you feel that you are struggling to cope with your feelings, especially as a result of flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, please don’t suffer in silence. Help is available.

Many people find comfort from being able to talk to others in The Ralph Site Facebook group. There are also some excellent pet bereavement counsellors. Your doctor may be able to refer you to someone who specialises in PTSD and flashbacks.

Your thoughts and feelings are normal, the brain’s response to a terrible event, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait to feel better. Yes, time is a great healer but so is support and a community by your side.

Until next time,

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

Life after euthanasia for bereaved pet carers

The decision to have a pet ‘put to sleep’, to choose euthanasia to end their life, is one of the hardest decisions a pet carer may ever have to make.

Even when an animal is suffering and has no hope of recovery, the decision is rarely as clear cut as you might expect. Will tomorrow be a better day? Is it too soon? Have I left it too late? Will they think I’ve given up on them? Will I be able to be strong for them?

These thoughts are all common.

If you’re faced with this heart-breaking decision, we have a number of pages dedicated to information about euthanasia on The Ralph Site. We’d recommend these if you’re worried about what to expect, whether or not you should be present or the aftercare of your pet.

In this blog, however, we wanted to take a look at life after euthanasia for bereaved pet carers. It might be helpful to know that, whatever your thoughts and feelings, you’re not alone.

Common feelings after euthanasia

Some people experience a strong sense of peace, of having chosen a final kindness for their pet after euthanasia. We often talk about putting an animal ‘out of their misery’ and this can be the case when a pet has been very unwell or badly hurt.

But, for others, euthanasia can raise a whole host of difficult thoughts and feelings that are extremely traumatic for the bereaved pet carer. This is something that comes up a lot in The Ralph Site Facebook group.

Common feelings after euthanasia include:

  • Guilt (“I shouldn’t have given up”, “I should have noticed something was wrong sooner”, “I should have asked for a second opinion”)
  • Worry that it was too soon or too late
  • Repetitive thoughts about the pet being stressed and scared at the end
  • Fear that the pet wanted to live and their trust in us was betrayed
  • Worry that there might have been a different, unexplored avenue of treatment that was overlooked

So often, people worry that if they’d have done something different, their pet might still be alive. In the pain and fog of grief, it can be hard to reflect objectively on the reasons for choosing euthanasia.

Also, if your pet became ill or injured unexpectedly, you may feel that you didn’t have time to think about what to do. If you followed your vet’s advice, you may question whether it was the right course of action.

Many people in The Ralph Site Facebook group also talk about replaying their pet’s final moments in their mind over and over again. This can be relentless at first or even for some time afterwards. They can worry that they’ll never be able to remember the good times again.

Every person is different but many of us experience emotional or behavioural responses to having a pet put to sleep.

Other feelings you may find yourself experiencing include:

  • Denial
  • Disorientation
  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Anger
  • Regret

Many people talk about feeling like they’re ‘going crazy’ or that they’ll never be the same again. It’s usual too to focus on all the lost moments you will never share with your pet.

You may have a disconnected feeling where you emerge from the moments after your pet has died to find that the world is carrying on with no understanding of what you’ve just lost. This can be even more pronounced with euthanasia.

Grief can affect how we behave. Some people find they can’t move their pet’s possessions – water in a bowl is left to evaporate, blankets in a bed stay tangled from the last sleep, toys are scattered around the house – while other people pack everything away immediately, feeling that they can’t bear the constant reminders of their loved one.

Some people struggle to sleep in the bed without their pet snuggled by their side, while others just want to sleep every day away.

You may feel a compulsion to talk about your pet, to memorialise them or to recount the details of their death as much as possible. Equally, you may find yourself withdrawing from people because you don’t feel anyone can understand your loss.

People may reassure you that euthanasia was the last gift and kindness you had to give your pet but you may feel like it was less of a gift and more of a poison chalice.

My point in discussing these thoughts and feelings is to reassure you that there is no such thing as a ‘right’ response to euthanasia or bereavement. Every feeling I’ve mentioned here has been experienced many times over. You are not alone.

The most important thing to remember is that, whatever led you to the decision that euthanasia was the best option for your pet, you were trying to do the right thing for them. Vets do not recommend euthanasia lightly and will always advocate for an animal if they think there is an alternative. You knew your pet best and did not want them to suffer. Letting them go is a selfless act when forever wouldn’t be long enough together.

Many people wish that their pet could give them forgiveness or send them a sign that they understand why euthanasia was necessary. In the potential absence of this, the forgiveness has to come from within and that can take time.

If you are struggling with life after euthanasia, please do reach out for support. There are some wonderful pet bereavement counsellors out there and many, many people within The Ralph Site community who understand your feelings.

Above all, be kind to yourself and know that you are not alone.

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


Could you be suffering from Compassion Fatigue?

For all the joys of loving an animal, caring for an older pet or one that is very sick can be exhausting and traumatic.

Equally, if you work in a care setting such as rescue centre or veterinary practice, you may find yourself feeling worn down or eventually disconnected from the seemingly never-ending stream of animals that need help and support.

You may find yourself feeling literally sick of caring so much or wondering if you have the strength to keep going down a path that may not have a happy ending.

These feelings are so significant and potentially debilitating that they’ve been given a name, Compassion Fatigue.

This condition is defined as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue can include but are not limited to:

  • Excessive blaming (of self or of others)
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Isolation from other people
  • Compulsive behaviours such as overspending, overeating, gambling, etc.
  • Poor self-care
  • Legal or financial difficulties
  • Recurring nightmares or flashbacks to a traumatic event
  • Chronic physical ailments such as recurring colds or digestive problems
  • Apathy, sadness or depression (no interest in activities the person would normally find pleasurable)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • Preoccupation
  • Denial about behaviour or feelings

People suffering from Compassion Fatigue because of their job may find themselves the subject of a higher than usual number of complaints or may be more vocal about what’s broken within the care system of which they’re a part. This can lead to more days off work, friction with other colleagues, tasks not being fulfilled and many other problems that lead to a further decline in working conditions.

Even if your Compassion Fatigue comes from circumstances at home, such as caring for a terminally ill or older pet, it can cause problems within the wider family and put the fatigued carer under even more stress.

Why does Compassion Fatigue happen?

When you think of the stresses and strains of caring for one or more animals in distress, it’s easy to see why Compassion Fatigue can set in.

If you know your pet’s life is coming to an end, you can feel like you’re living with a death sentence. There’s a huge amount of pressure to enjoy every day and yet you know that your worst fears are lurking around the corner.

At the same time, caring for an ill pet can be physically demanding and the source of significant financial worries, even if you have pet insurance.

You may feel isolated in your anticipatory grief, unable to share with people who don’t understand your feelings for your pet.

For people who work with animals in care settings, there is often the added frustration of knowing that resources are stretched to the limit and that the help you can offer is limited. And that, every day, more animals will come through the door needing your help.

It is exhausting to know that, for all the good in the world, some humans are capable of terrible neglect and abuse, the result of which is seen in animal rescue centres throughout the world. This can darken your world view.

It is perhaps inevitable that people feel they have to protect themselves from the overwhelming feelings associated with these situations or that they become highly fatigued.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project points out that many of us who care for animals have the kind of personalities that need to feel like we’re helping others and that this is where our self-worth comes from. We may have been taught from an early age that we should put the needs of others before our own in order to be a good person.

Where this message can be damaging is if we forget to take care of ourselves while we’re caring for others. You can’t give from an empty well.

How can you come back from Compassion Fatigue?

Does having Compassion Fatigue mean that it’s time to stop bringing pets into your home? Is it time to stop volunteering at your local rescue centre? Do you need to stop fostering pets in their twilight years?

Absolutely not.

Compassion Fatigue can be overcome.

The first step is awareness. Experts say that if you think you might have Compassion Fatigue, you’re probably right. The key is to be aware and to acknowledge your feelings, no matter how difficult they might be.

If you have Compassion Fatigue, it means that you’re a deeply caring individual with huge amounts of love and empathy. You’re also human. It’s okay to be exhausted, to feel stress or to face significant emotional challenges on a daily basis and to need support to manage it.

As with a condition like depression, one of the most important steps you can take to address your Compassion Fatigue is to prioritise your own self-care. Take time to eat well, exercise regularly, write about your feelings, get as much sleep as possible, and prioritise making time for activities that you enjoy, even if it’s hard to feel enjoyment at the moment.

If you feel you need the support of your doctor or a mental health professional, make an appointment to get the ball rolling.

It is also important to set boundaries and say no if something is too much for you. Ask for help from your friends, family or colleagues and talk about how you’re feeling. Make time for the people in life who lift you up and who fill the well inside of you, instead of the ones who leave you feeling drained.

A blessing and a curse

Ultimately, Compassion Fatigue is both a blessing and a curse. The curse comes from the symptoms, in the trauma and burnout that can leave you feeling low and disconnected from the animals you love so much.

It’s also a blessing because it’s a nudge to bring your life into balance and prioritise your self-care. With the right approach and support, it’s possible to continue caring for others in the most terrible of circumstances but to feel whole.

As always, know that you’re not alone.

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

Writing your pet loss grief

This week’s blog is a guest contribution from freelance copywriter, Emma Heasman, who became a member of The Ralph Site community when her beautiful cat, Stone, passed away in July 2016.

As a freelance writer and someone who has felt compelled to write for as long as I can remember, it’s perhaps no surprise that I’ve turned to writing to help me with my grief every time I’ve lost a beloved pet (or person, for that matter).

Like the animals we’re mourning, I find writing to be a non-judgemental outlet for my feelings. I don’t have to share it with an audience unless I want to. All I know is that writing makes my feelings tangible. The very act of putting pen to paper or even tapping away on the keyboard gives me something that I can touch and feel, which makes my grief feel more manageable than when it’s raging away inside of me with no outlet.

For this reason, I asked Shailen if I could share an exercise for grief writing that those of you who express yourselves through the written word might find helpful:

  1. Write every day, even on the days you don’t feel like it

Some writers suggest writing for 15 minutes every single day. In her famous book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggested that everyone should write ‘morning pages’, i.e. three long-hand, stream of consciousness pages first thing every morning.

Either way, the idea is to let the words fall out of you, almost without thought. Whatever is on your mind, however you want to express your feelings, whatever you need to say about your loss, this daily writing commitment can stop you bottling things up.

  1. Use a pen and paper

As I mentioned above, there’s something more tangible about writing long-hand on paper. Evidence suggests that we better retain what we physically write compared to what we type, so long-hand can be a great way of actually connecting with your grief and acknowledging the truth of the words you write.

Grief writing isn’t about creating a work of art for others. Your handwriting can be furious, untidy, hurried, slow or careful, whatever reflects your current mood; it may even change from one line to the next – there’s no right or wrong, only what you feel in that moment.

But, if you’re like me and you spend a lot of time in front of the computer or you don’t have the patience for writing these days, typing your words is fine too. The key is to just give shape to what’s in your heart without overthinking it.

  1. Forget about spelling and grammar

I am well-known for worrying about good grammar and accurate spelling – after all, it’s part of my job. My children joke about me being the ‘Grammar Police’, but I also know that writing that comes from the heart doesn’t have to adhere to grammar rules or be perfectly spelt.

Grief writing exercises are about the words you want to say to and about your lost pet. They are for your eyes only, not to pass an exam. Your pet certainly wouldn’t care about missing commas or spelling mistakes!

  1. “I remember” and “I feel”

I once read some great advice about grief writing that said to begin each new section with the words, “I remember” or “I feel”. This will encourage you to put your feelings and memories – the good and the bad – into words.

If you run out of things to say before the end of the 15 minutes or three pages suggested above, write “I remember” or “I feel” again and see what springs to mind.

  1. Anything goes

My experience with pet bereavement is that some people find it hard to understand how the loss of an animal can leave such a massive hole in your life or be the source of so much grief. This means that pet carers often find themselves censoring what they feel or hiding their emotions about the depth of their loss.

With this grief writing exercise, I want you to know that anything goes. You can say whatever words come into your mind from the smallest or lightest of memories to the darkest of despair.

Write about the happy days, the memories of a thousand wonderful hours together. Write about the bad days too, including the times your pet was poorly or did something mortifyingly embarrassing! You might even find yourself writing about their death.

Nothing is off limits. There are no rules. It’s OK to cry as you write but it’s also OK if you don’t feel like crying. The exercise is to just let your feelings come, whatever they may be.

Don’t stop before you hit your target of writing for at least 15 minutes or three pages. It’s important that you keep going, even when you don’t want to, because in many ways this reflects the journey of grief where we have no choice but to continue.

Remember, you don’t need to share your grief writing with anyone. There is no audience. You may not even want to read what you’ve written right now. That’s OK. There’s no pressure, no judgement, no expectations.

And please know that through The Ralph Site and all of the wonderful resources and people in this community of animal lovers, you are not alone.