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.

Ten comforting pet loss books written for adults

Our recent blog article featuring ten fantastic books for children about pet bereavement proved to be a popular addition to The Ralph Site. But we know that it’s not just children who can derive great comfort from books tackling the heart-breaking topic of pet loss and grief – we adults need support too.

As a companion to this, we’ve put together the list below of ten of our favourite books about pet bereavement that are aimed at adult readers. We hope you find one or more titles helpful.

We already have a page on the main Ralph Site that lists book recommendations from other members, so do be sure to check it out here.

1.      Only Gone From Your Sight: Jack McAfghan’s Little Guide to Pet Loss and Grief

By Kate McGahan

This book is the fourth in the Jack McAfghan pet bereavement series by Kate McGahan and is written from the perspective of Jack, the author’s Afghan hound mix. Although the narrator is a dog, the contents apply to any pet and their carer.

Only Gone From Your Sight walks us through what to expect in the lead up to, at the time of and after a pet’s death. The tone is compassionate throughout and recognises that pet bereavement can be a lonely experience as other people may not know what to say or how to offer comfort.

There is a spiritual element to this book in that the author, through Jack, tells us that there are signs of our pets everywhere and that they are only gone from our sight but not gone from us altogether.

2.      Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet 

By Gary Kowalski

Many people feel self-conscious about being so heartbroken over the loss of a pet, as though we don’t have permission from society to grieve or that it isn’t right to mourn a pet as much, if not more, than a human.

The comfort of Goodbye, Friend is that it recognises that we share the intimacies of our everyday lives with our pets. They sleep near us, watch us as we get dressed for the day or ready for bed at night, hang out as we cook. They give us physical and emotional comfort every day and love us unconditionally. In many ways, we share more with our pets than with most of the people in our lives. We are bound to miss such a constant, important presence.

Reverend Gary Kowalski talks about bereavement within the context of Christianity in places but the book is open-minded about different beliefs.

3.     When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing

 By Alan D Wolfelt

“You loved your pet. And because your love was deep and profound, your grief is deep and profound. That is both normal and necessary. Never be ashamed of your grief over the death of a pet.”

This quote from When your pet dies sums up this book perfectly. It is a compassionate, realistic and gentle look at the issues we face around pet bereavement.

The book explores the unique nature of grief for a pet, remembering and memorialising a lost companion, talking to children about death and much more. There are blank pages throughout the book for workbook-style exercises that encourage you to express your feelings and memories.

4.     The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies

By Dr Wallce Sife

You’ll find this award-winning book listed on our main page of book recommendations but it’s so popular with bereaved pet carers that it’s worth a mention in this list too.

The Loss of a Pet is slightly clinical in tone, which isn’t for everyone, but it does a great job of recognising why pet bereavement is so tough and why our pets hold such a special place in our hearts.

This book is particularly important because it covers all types of pet loss, including traumatic deaths and pets going missing. It also addresses why it’s completely understandable if you decide to bring another pet into your home straight away or if you decide you’re not ready.

We love how this book normalises pet loss grief.

5.      Soul Comfort for Cat Lovers

By Liz Eastwood

This is one of the only pet bereavement books specifically about cats. It beautifully interweaves the author’s own feelings and experiences with advice from professional therapists and fellow cat lovers.

The bite-sized chapters are easily accessible through the fog of grief and cover topics such as learning to ignore people who don’t ‘get’ your loss, understanding your feelings, looking after yourself, ways to honour and connect with your cat, creating something positive out of loss, saving your memories, choosing a continued connection with your cat instead of expecting ‘closure’, and much more.

6.      Buried Deep in our Hearts

By Tracie Barton-Barrett

If self-help books aren’t your thing then you may take comfort from reading this novel, which tells the story of three women and their friends and the deep connection they have with their pets.

At its core, the novel is about the coping mechanisms we need to bridge the joys and the sorrows of caring for an animal. It makes you laugh at the funny pet antics but also addresses the lasting impact of pet loss and how we can honour our furry, scaly or feathery companions.

7.      The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss

By Russell Friedman, John W. James & Cole James

This book is a sympathetic and straightforward self-help guide written for grieving pet carers. Chapters address common myths about grief that can slow down your healing, while the book walks you through a series of exercises designed to help you work through your feelings about your beloved pet. This book considers the practical elements of pet loss as well as the emotional impact and culminates with encouraging you to write a letter to your lost friend about the times you shared.

8.      Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of your Canine Soul Mate

By Roxanne Hawn

Although the loss of every pet can hit hard, most pet carers agree that there is an occasional animal that takes the feelings of loss to a whole new level when they die. People often describe these animals as their ‘soul’ or ‘heart’ pets, creatures whom they shared a special connection.

Roxanne Hawn’s book Heart Dog recognises how devastating it is to lose a ‘heart’ pet and it’s a great comfort for anyone who feels that their friends and family just don’t ‘get’ the depth of their grief.

The author offers practical advice about dealing with the step-by-step, day-by-day acceptance of your loss. The tone is kind, understanding and never judgmental, offering you the tools and space to deal with the emptiness of losing your best friend.

This book is more suited to those of you who expected your pet to die due to old age or illness rather than a sudden, unexpected loss.

9.      The Pet Loss Companion

By Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio & Nancy Saxton-Lopez

In this beautifully written, generous book, the authors share stories from decades of experience gained from leading pet loss groups. Throughout the chapters, they perfectly capture the emotional roller coaster you may have found yourself on since your pet became ill, injured or went missing.

The book recognises that love and loss go hand in hand, especially with animals because they have much shorter lifespans than we humans. There is plenty of practical advice, examples and tools to help you during your time of grief.

Above all, there is a positive message about what our pet companions give us in their lifetimes and the huge role they play in our lives.

10.     From Empty to Empowered: A Journey to Healing from Unexpected Pet Loss

By Marybeth Haines

Although this book isn’t as well-known as many of the others on this list, it stands out because it deals with the very real trauma of unexpected pet loss. The chapters cover topics such as your reaction to shock, feelings of guilt, wondering how you will ever heal, how to move forward and more.

The tone is understanding, comforting and practical with plenty of tools to help you come to terms with the sudden loss you have suffered.

Any recommendations?

In compiling this list, we’ve tried to highlight a selection of books that cover a wide range of animals and pet loss circumstances. Some books will resonate and some won’t but we hope you find some comfort.

If there are any books that we’ve missed from the list that you have personally found helpful, do let us know so we can add the titles to The Ralph Site.

As always, know that you’re not alone.

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

Ten fantastic children’s books about pet bereavement

In one of our recent blogs, we suggested nine family-friendly ways to memorialise a loved pet. This is because children often struggle with the loss of a pet as much as we adults do and it can be helpful for them to have an outlet for their feelings.

Family pets represent friendship, unconditional love and daily routines for children of all ages. Their passing can provoke a new understanding of mortality and a maelstrom of emotions.

If you’re wondering how you can talk to your child about your pet’s death or the grief they may be feeling, there are some fantastic books written for children to help them make sense of their bereavement.

We already have a page on the main Ralph Site that lists book recommendations from other members, so do be sure to check it out here.

As a companion to this, we’ve put together the list below of ten of our favourite children’s books about pet bereavement. We hope you and your family find one or more titles helpful:

1.      When a Pet Dies (First Experiences)

By Fred Rogers

Although the pictures in this book are dated, the words are timeless. Fred Rogers gently walks young children through the experience of loving a pet that becomes ill and dies, and the emotions they might feel afterwards.

The tone is matter-of-fact but compassionate. Rogers acknowledges that grief hurts and we will want to be able to bring our pets back but that we simply can’t. The message is hopeful – there will come a day when we can remember the happy memories of our pets and know that they will always be with us because of the love we carry for them.

This is a lovely book for little ones that still offers pearls of wisdom to us big ones. We also like that it features different pets.

2.      Jasper’s Day

By Marjorie Blain-Parker

This touching book tells the story of Jasper the Golden Retriever, an old dog who is increasingly in pain with incurable cancer. His family (mum, dad and son, Riley) have to decide whether euthanasia is the ‘last gift’ that they can give their beloved companion. Before his final trip to the vet, the family gives Jasper one last wonderful day doing all of his favourite things. Jasper’s last day is the hardest day of Riley’s young life.

This picture book is ideal for helping four- to eight-year-olds understand what planned euthanasia is, why it is sometimes necessary and what they might feel about it.

3.      Saying Goodbye to Lulu

By Corinne Demas

This story is about a young girl and her ageing dog, Lulu. It tenderly describes the decline of old age as Lulu stops being able to do all the things she loved in her younger years.

When the girl’s dad says they can get a new puppy when Lulu dies, it makes her angry. She doesn’t want a new dog, she wants Lulu to be young again.

Lulu dies one day while the girl is at school. What follows is a realistic, beautifully drawn insight into the intense grief she feels. The girl misses Lulu all the time – the thump of her tail, the smell of her. In the spring, she plants a special tree by Lulu’s grave.

Eventually, the family decide to get a new puppy. The girl knows it will never be Lulu but she will love the puppy with all her heart too.

This book is aimed at four- to seven-year-olds but most ages would get something from it. Told from the young girl’s perspective, the story is gentle and honest about the feelings associated with loss.

4.      Desser the Best Ever Cat

By Maggie Smith

For those of you wanting a cat-focused children’s book about bereavement, Desser the Best Ever Cat is ideal.

In this story, the oldest daughter of Desser’s human family tells the story of his life. The words and illustrations show how the pair grew up together and the precious moments they shared.

The story shows the family preparing for Desser’s death, talking about their good and bad memories, and burying Desser in a special spot in the garden. Ultimately, the girl and her family take in a new rescue cat with whom the girl shares her memories of Desser.

This is a poignant but realistic story that doesn’t shy away from the truths of old age and death. The message is a positive one about keeping memories alive, talking about our lost pets and knowing that, when the time is right, you can give a new pet a home without forgetting your old friend.

5.      The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye

By Jane Yolen

This is another poignant story about pet loss that features the titular cat, Tiger Rose. Tiger Rose is very old and has grown too tired to live any longer. She spends her final day saying goodbye to all the joys and comforts in her life, from the children and dog in her family to her favourite shady patch in the garden.

This story is a celebration of life, which concludes with Tiger Rose taking a leap into the blue sky and becoming one with the natural world she has loved so much.

Unlike many of the other pet bereavement books on this list, it doesn’t feature Tiger Rose’s family adopting a new pet. This can be helpful if you’re all a bit fed up of people suggesting that you get a new companion as soon as possible.

6.      Tenth Good Thing About Barney

By Judith Viorst

The boy in this story is heartbroken when his cat Barney dies. His mum and dad promise that they will give Barney a funeral in the garden the next morning and his mum asks the boy to think about ten special things to say about Barney during the service. He can only think of nine.

After the funeral, the boy’s friend, Annie, says that Barney will be playing in heaven now but the boy isn’t convinced. Isn’t Barney just in the ground? The boy’s dad says no-one knows and that people believe different things. Annie says if heaven exists, there’s definitely room for a cat like Barney.

The boy is troubled by the idea of Barney being in the ground because this is what he believes. His dad takes him out into the garden where they plant seeds together. He talks to the boy about how seeds change in the ground to become plants. He says Barney will change in the ground too, becoming one with the soil and helping everything in the garden to grow.

The boy knows this is the tenth good thing about Barney and a pretty amazing achievement for a cat.

7.      The Invisible String

By Patrice Karst

This book isn’t about bereavement. It’s about the feeling of missing someone or something that we love very much when they’re not with us.

When twins, Jeremy and Liza, are scared by a thunderstorm, they don’t want to go to bed because their mum will be in a different room. Their mum gently reassures them that she’s always with them and connected to them by the ‘invisible string’ that is tied between people (and animals) who love each other.

In the story, the mum explains that when we feel a tug in our heart from missing someone, it’s the string pulling at the other end and letting us know that we’re still connected. The twins still feel the tug from their uncle who has died. The mum says people feel it for their pets too.

The message of the book is that we always carry love with us and the invisible string binds us to our loved ones, even when we can’t be together.

8.      Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children

By Bryan Mellonie

“There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.” This is how Lifetimes begins.

Using large illustrations and simple but clear explanations, this book explores how every animal, bird, tree, fish, plant and person has a lifespan, and that some lifespans are longer than others.

Lifetimes discusses how lifespans can be affected by when and where something lives. Living things can also become ill or get injured. The book reassures children that, in many cases, living things can get better but that death occurs when the body is no longer able to keep itself alive.

The beauty of this book is that death is treated very much as a natural part of living, an essential part of the life cycle. Birth and death are mentioned throughout but the real focus is on the lifetimes in between.

9.      Gentle Willow: A story for children about dying

By Joyce C Mills

Although this book isn’t specifically about pet loss, it is a tender and comforting story about death.

In this tale, squirrel Amanda and her friend Little Tree come to love Gentle Willow, a tree who grows on the opposite riverbank. Gentle Willow sings songs that sound like crystals chiming as she says good morning every day. Yellow butterflies play in her branches. Her roots make the perfect hiding place for Amanda’s acorns.

But, one day, Amanda notices that Gentle Willow is changing – her bark is covered in lumps and bumps. The tree wizards tell Amanda that Gentle Willow has an illness that can’t be cured. She will be going on a journey where she will change forms, a journey humans call ‘death’.

Gentle Willow is scared but Amanda comforts her with a story about how the yellow butterflies that dance in her leaves were once caterpillars that went into the darkness of their chrysalises and emerged in a new, better form. This comforts Gentle Willow.

After her passing, the butterflies gradually return to the place Gentle Willow once stood and the whisper of the wind through the long grass sounds like her song. This reminds Amanda and Little Tree that Gentle Willow will always be with them.

This book for nursery and primary age children gives a gentle introduction to the concept of death.

A book for pre-teens and upwards

10. Wonder

By R J Palacio

Number ten on our list is a book aimed at slightly older children – pre-teens and upwards – but will resonate with all the family.

While Wonder isn’t specifically about pet loss, this beautiful novel and its film-adaptation both sensitively explore the relationship the main character, Auggie, has with the beloved family dog, Daisy, as a key subplot.

Daisy has always been a non-judgmental friend for Auggie, a ten-year-old who has facial deformities caused by Treacher Collins Syndrome. Daisy’s death due to old age is particularly poignant for Auggie because she has given him unconditional love and been a constant presence, especially each time Auggie has recovered from surgery.

The way Daisy’s death affects the whole family feels very recognisable to anyone who has lost a family pet.

Any recommendations?

These are just a handful of the wonderful books out there written to help children make sense of pet loss and bereavement. If you’ve come across any other titles that have helped your own family, please do send us the details so we can share them with the wider Ralph Site community.

As always, know that you’re not alone.

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

Nine family-friendly ways to memorialise a pet

Are you looking for family-friendly ways to memorialise a lost pet and help your children come to terms with their bereavement?

For many kids, the death of a much-loved pet is their first experience of death and grief and something they will remember for the rest of their lives.

People often talk about children and pet loss as if the grief they feel is a dress rehearsal for a human loss further down the line. But, as many of us know, whatever our age the grief can be as real, profound and life-changing for a pet as for a person.

As such, if we can teach our children that anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness and the myriad other feelings associated with grief are all natural, we can hopefully support them now and help pave the way for the future – how they handle life, death, love and more.

At various points on The Ralph Site, you’ll find advice about children and pet loss and ideas for memorials for a lost pet companion. In this article, we wanted to look specifically at family-friendly activities you can do with children of all ages to help them process their loss.

1.      Create a jar of memories

One lovely idea – if your family is up for a bit of paper folding! – is to create a series of origami hearts (here’s a great tutorial) and write a different memory about your pet inside each heart.

Whenever one of you feels sad, from the littlest to the biggest in your family, you can pull a heart from the jar and read the special memory. This activity can help to get children talking about their favourite happy memories and offer comfort for years to come.

2.      Frame a favourite picture of your pet

Although some people find it difficult to look at photographs of a loved one after they have died, it’s worth asking your children whether they would find it comforting to have a picture of their pet near them.

Perhaps your child would like a favourite photo in a special frame on their bedside table or on a bookshelf? Would they like to decorate the frame?

3.      Put together a memory box

Choose a box of some kind, whether it’s a shoebox that your children can decorate or something more permanent, and get everyone in the family to add mementoes of your pet. This could include their favourite blanket, toy, hairbrush, collar, lead, photos and other items.

Like the jar of memories, you could write down some of your happiest or funniest memories and add them to the memory box too.

This will be a box to open up and rediscover during times of grief and reflection.

4.      Create a tribute video or slideshow

Again, this won’t sit comfortably with anyone who finds it tough looking through old photos and videos, but many families take satisfaction from editing together old videos or photos to create a highlight reel of their pet’s life set to a favourite or meaningful song.

Free video editing software such Open Shot or slideshow creators such as Adobe Spark help to make this process as easy as possible. Knowing how technologically adept most children are, we are sure this is something your kids can help with/do!

5.      Make a memory bracelet or string of beads

Another lovely idea is to buy a selection of mixed beads and give your children the opportunity to make a special memory bracelet or string of ‘meditation’ beads. Each bead could have a special significance – for example:

  • A bead that’s the same colour as your pet’s fur, feathers or scales
  • A bead that’s the colour of your pet’s favourite toy
  • A bead that represents the time of year/month your pet was born
  • A bead that makes your children think of their happiest memory with your pet
  • A bead that best represents your pet’s personality
  • A bead that reflects the love they feel for your pet
  • And so on….

This is a memorial that can be worn and touched to bring back the associations with each bead.

6.      Paint a stone

The next time you’re somewhere with lots of pebbles, go on the lookout for some smooth, flat(ish) stones that you can each paint with words, paw prints or pictures to memorialise your animal friend.

You can also buy smooth beach rocks for crafting on sites like eBay.

If your pet is buried in the garden, you could lay the stones around their grave. Alternatively, the stones could sit on a shelf indoors as a reminder of your pet’s presence.

Another idea is to paint the rocks and then hide them in your local area with your name on the back and the message “Share on FB <insert page/group name. Keep or rehide”. There are rock sharing Facebook groups all over the world now where people can share their pictures of found rocks. Here’s an article about rock sharing in Nottingham as just one example.

This is a beautiful way to tell other people about a special pet and bring a smile to their face when they find the rock.

7.      Colour a patchwork heart

Another idea for creative family members is to draw and colour a patchwork heart that depicts what you each most loved about your pet when they were alive. Give each characteristic, activity or memory a different colour and make the patches as big or as small as you want. Every heart will be unique.

For example, your heart could feature a big red patch depicting how much you loved it every time your dog wagged his tail or a big green patch for when your cat loved to sunbathe in the garden. There could be a blue patch for all the times your dog jumped into water when he shouldn’t or how he loved splashing in a paddling pool in the summer.

You can add a key underneath the heart to remind you what each colour means.

8.      Write a thank you letter to your pet

When a pet dies, it’s inevitable that our hearts turn to what we have lost. You might be questioning whether it’s worth the pain or whether you were wrong to expose your children to the inevitable grief that comes with our pets’ short lifespans.

A thank you letter to your pet can be a powerful way for you and your children to acknowledge what you gained from having loved your pet rather than what you have lost.

From companionship and cuddles to laughter and occasional embarrassment, encourage your children to write down everything they would like to thank their companion for doing and being.

9.      Plant something

If you have the space in your garden, you could create a little memorial area for your pet where you and the kids plant a special bush, tree or flowers. The act of having something to tend or seeing something grow and flourish with your care can be very comforting after a loss.

Share your feelings

Hopefully, one or more of these activities will bring you together as a family to talk, laugh and cry about the loss you have all suffered.

One of the most healing things we can do for children is showing them that we all experience grief and that there are no right or wrong emotions. Activities like these above can help to create an outlet for expressing their feelings and remind that none of you is alone in your loss.

Until next time,

Shailen and The Ralph Site team

The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Why it’s fine to ignore the five stages of grief

When talking about grief of any kind, including pet bereavement, someone inevitably mentions ‘the five stages of grief’ – in other words, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

People mean it as a comfort but feeling that you should be grieving in a certain way can be distressing, especially if you feel like you’re doing it wrong.

With how the five stages model has been (wrongly) interpreted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that grief should follow a clear progression from one stage to the next until the bereaved eventually finds peace and acceptance by stage five.

In The Ralph Site Facebook group, people often express that they should be done grieving or that they’re ‘silly’ for dwelling in one of the so-called ‘stages’ of grief. There’s a sense that they must move from stage to stage quickly and quietly and put their loss behind them, usually because other people don’t recognise the scale of the bereavement.

In reality, grief is deeply personal and rarely fits with the ‘five stages’ template. Bereavement doesn’t come with a clearly defined end point. It would be so reassuring if it did – if it could be orderly and neat – but, sadly, that just isn’t how it works.

What are the five stages of grief?

The five stages of grief were originally defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’. This was written over 30 years ago as Kubler-Ross listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses.

Over time, the five stages that Kubler-Ross identified have become a blueprint for what people believe we ‘should’ feel when we experience grief.

Even people with very little interest in psychology can usually name the five stages of grief as they’ve become part of our collective consciousness.

But this was never Kubler-Ross’s intention. She was trying to help name and normalise some of the emotions that we might experience when grieving, not what we must experience. She wasn’t trying to structure a right or wrong way to grieve or give our feelings a ‘Use by’ date. She just wanted people to know that they weren’t alone.

Forget the five stages of grief

As a bereaved pet carer, you have lost someone you love, someone who shaped the rhythms of your life, often for many years.

How you feel and express your grief will be unique to you. It will also be unique to your pet.

It certainly won’t be linear, a movement from one neat stage to the next with no stage to be revisited (see The Myth of the Grief Timeline).

You may find that you’re full of anger and a sense of injustice one day, peaceful the next, then enraged again with no warning. Your feelings may dart and stretch between guilt, confusion, joy, peace and fear from one hour to the next.

That’s OK. There is no right or wrong when it comes to grieving, although most agree that we should try to acknowledge our feelings rather than pretending our grief doesn’t exist.

As tempting as it is to cling to the five stages of grief as a checklist for what you should feel, we’d strongly recommend ignoring them. Instead, remember this:

  • Grief is different for everyone.
  • It doesn’t follow the same timeline for anyone.
  • There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
  • Grief and love are part of each other.
  • You don’t have to justify your grief – you have a right to think and feel your own thoughts and feelings.
  • There will not be a final moment of ‘closure’ but, with time, you will be able to carry your loss more easily.
  • You may feel emotions such as fear, guilt or anger – many people see these as ‘negative’ emotions but they can actually help you to make sense of your loss.
  • You will feel lighter sometimes and that doesn’t mean you don’t care.

Love never ends

There’s a beautiful saying that is shared on The Ralph Site a lot:

Grief is just love with nowhere to go.

This might be one of the truest statements about grief. And because it is love, it will never come to an end. However, like love, it will change and soften with time.

Like love, grief is too big, too all-encompassing to be neatly contained within five simple stages. Kubler-Ross knew this – towards the end of her life, she said, “I am more than these five stages. And so are you”.

People mean well when they try to give you a blueprint to grieve but your pet was one of a kind so it’s only right that your grief for them is too. The only way to do it is your own way.

Until next time, remember that you’re not alone.

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