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

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