Anger is an emotion that often goes hand-in-hand with pet loss or, in fact, any bereavement. Even though it’s a common feeling, it’s also the one that’s the most difficult to discuss or process, possibly even above guilt.
In our society, anger is often viewed as a ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ emotion that we should keep pushed down at all costs. When we think about anger, we perhaps think about it at its most destructive – rage, the emotion of uncontrolled, violent anger – rather than a normal, healthy emotion that we all have a right to express.
Pet loss anger can also be a tough emotion to deal with because it’s often directed towards someone you love or trust who was, in some way, involved in your pet’s passing. We’ll be talking about this more in a minute.
Anger is a natural emotion that keeps us safe
If you’re struggling with your anger, please remember that it’s a completely natural emotion that’s important for your wellbeing.
Psychologists believe that, at an instinctive level, anger is the emotion that helps us protect our homes and families, our food and possessions, or our relationships. We feel angry against perceived threats or when someone we love is at risk.
It’s a survival mechanism designed to protect you and the things and people necessary to your physical and emotional wellbeing.
In other words, it stops you from getting hurt.
Anger as a secondary emotion
There are other purposes to anger too.
It’s often described as a ‘secondary’ emotion that comes to the surface when we feel uncomfortable with the ‘primary’ emotion we’re actually feeling.
Feelings such as guilt, sadness and fear can all leave us vulnerable. In the case of pet loss, it’s common to be engulfed by anger because that might be preferable to expressing our deeper despair.
In this scenario, anger acts like a suit of armour or a shield. It keeps others away while we create some space to handle how we feel.
So, while experts generally agree that it’s too simplistic to break grief down into five stages, anger is most certainly a part of mourning for many of us.
Why do we feel angry after a pet bereavement?
The anger you feel following the loss of your pet may depend on the circumstances of their death or disappearance.
It’s a topic that comes up frequently in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group.
People often struggle to come to terms with losing a pet when someone else has been involved, either directly or indirectly.
This could be the vet who treated the pet, a spouse who left the garden gate open, a neighbour who hit a beloved cat with their car, a trusted dog walker, or even a child.
In each case, there are a lot of conflicting emotions to deal with.
It’s very hard when the action – or inaction – of someone you love or trust has led to tragedy.
On the one hand, you will want to comfort your loved one and reassure them that they couldn’t have predicted what would happen but, on the other hand, you may be full of anger towards them.
Your thoughts may be stuck in a loop.
Why didn’t she check the gate?
Why did he suggest that medication?
Why did she throw that stick?
Why didn’t he realise there was a serious problem?
The questions you ask will be unique to your situation but the sentiment is usually the same, a sense of injustice and blame.
Even if there wasn’t someone else involved in your pet’s passing, the anger can still churn away inside of you.
Instead, you might feel angry at yourself for not getting a second opinion, taking your dog for a walk, letting your cat outside, not shutting your hamster’s cage properly – whatever applies in your case.
Even things you did out of love can take a dark turn when you’re angry.
Suddenly, you find yourself regretting that walk in the woods, letting your cat play outside, the large rabbit run in the garden or not clipping your love bird’s wings.
My good intentions killed my pet, you think, as you blame yourself for creating a good quality of life.
“Should” and “why” are anger’s favourite words.
You might also feel angry with your pet – how could you leave me? – or angry at how unfair it is that your pet has died when a friend’s older pet is still alive – why does she get a cat that lives to 20 and yet mine wasn’t even two when she passed away?
Anger doesn’t hold back.
When you’re angry with someone you love or trust
Although anger plays an important role in protecting you and helping you make sense of what has happened, it can become a problem if it turns into rage, bitterness or resentment.
These emotions can damage your relationships.
The problem with anger that’s directed to someone you love or trust is that you lose an important part of your support network. The person you’re angry at loses it too.
Your spouse, for example, may be the person you trust most in the world but if you can’t stop blaming them for what happened to your pet, you will struggle to talk to them about your grief.
Similarly, you might become short-tempered with your children for their role in your pet’s death at a time when they need you to comfort them and help them manage their own distress and guilt.
Tips to deal with your pet loss anger
It can be hard to manage your anger when you’re grieving. Emotions are running high and it may be that other people in your circle are angry too. This can make communication hard.
We’ve put together some tips to help you express and address your anger:
1. Rationalise your pet’s passing
Anger is an emotion of the heart – it’s about feelings and putting up all of your defences in the face of a threat. And what could be more threatening than the death of someone you love?
But the problem with this is that anger doesn’t leave much room for facts and forgiveness.
Although it’s a daunting task, try to break down the circumstances surrounding your pet’s passing. Challenge your angry thoughts with a more compassionate counter-argument.
Think about what you would say to your best friend to comfort them and talk to yourself in the same way.
For example, you could counter a thought like, “If he hadn’t left the gate open then the accident wouldn’t have happened” with a statement like, “He didn’t realise the gate was still open. It could have happened to any of us. He wasn’t to know that she would run out at the exact moment a car was passing.”
Or maybe challenge a thought like, “The vet should have known that things were more serious than they looked” with “The vet is human, like me. She used the information and experience available to her to recommend a course of action and order more tests. She is unable to see into the future and did everything she could at the time.”
This will take practice.
With anger, you usually know, rationally speaking, that accidents happen or that death comes to every living creature but knowing it and truly accepting it are two different things.
2. Gather information
You may find it helpful to gather as much information as you can about your pet’s passing, especially if they were under the care of a vet when they died.
If your pet was ill before they passed away, especially if things happened quickly, then you may feel a bit blurry about the advice and information you were given. You may want to arrange to speak to your vet about what happened to understand the chain of events.
Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that this may not give you the answers you want but some people find it helpful.
3. Think before you speak
It’s easy to say hurtful things when you’re angry. While talking is crucial (see point 4), it’s best to avoid speaking in the heat of the moment. If you possibly can, try to take a moment to think about what you want to say.
4. Talk about your feelings with someone objective
We understand that talking can be really tough, especially if the person you would usually speak to was somehow involved with your pet’s death. Still, it is important to express how you feel.
If you don’t feel able to talk to your loved ones at the moment, you could always try reaching out to a pet bereavement counselling service or helpline.
The great thing about talking to someone independent is that they’re completely objective. You can speak confidentially about your feelings.
Another option is to talk about your anger within the private Ralph Site group on Facebook. Lots of people have experienced the all-consuming anger and can lend a supportive ear.
5. Talk to your loved ones using “I” statements
Once you feel able to, talking to your loved ones about your feelings will help you all to heal and create a new normal without your pet.
Experts recommend using “I” statements such as “I feel angry that you didn’t check under the car that morning” instead of “You should have checked under the car before you got in it”.
Be respectful and specific, describing the situation and your feelings without criticising or placing the blame.
While you’re wrestling with anger, the person you’re angry with may be struggling with guilt and regret. Their part in your pet’s passing was not intentional – if they could turn back time, they would.
6. Recognise that being angry won’t bring your pet back
The sad truth is that you could be angry from now until the end of time but it won’t bring your pet back.
Although anger creates a helpful shield in the early days of bereavement, it can become a wall between you and the people and things that matter to you if you hang on to it.
Your pet wouldn’t want you to be angry. Animals don’t hold grudges and one of the things we love so much about them is their ability to live in the moment.
As impossible as it may feel right now, letting go of your anger will feel like a weight being lifted from your shoulders.
7. Redirect your energy
Anger is an energetic emotion so look for ways you can let it out or redirect it productively.
Some people find it helpful to go for a run or a swim when they’re feeling angry. Others take up a calming hobby, even if it’s listening to music or journaling.
If you feel that lessons learned from your pet’s death could save another animal’s life then you could channel your energy into this.
For example, if your dog died from cold water shock from jumping into a cold river on a boiling hot day, this is something you could share on social media.
If your guinea pig died from a respiratory infection, you could tell others what signs to look out for.
If your cat suffered organ failure after eating ingesting lily pollen, spread the word about what plants to include in a cat-safe garden or what flowers it’s safe to send to someone with cats.
Many people take part in fundraisers to commemorate a lost loved one. This is a great way to ensure something good comes out of your loss.
8. Know when to seek help
Anger can keep a bereavement so current that you relive your loss on a loop. The process of letting go of that anger is one of the first steps towards learning to live in a world where your pet is no longer physically present.
If you feel like your anger is out of control or just not easing then please reach out for help. Many people feel like they can’t talk about pet loss but support is available.
The Blue Cross is a wonderful organisation that offers pet bereavement support via phone, email or online.
Above all, please know that you’re not alone. Anger is a natural response to grief and most of us will experience it in our lifetimes.
Until next time,
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support