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The Ralph Site - pet loss support

Welcome to The Ralph Site Blog

Hello, and welcome to The Ralph Site Blog.

We celebrate the unique place that pets have in our lives through regular features and practical advice on pet bereavement and other animal-related matters.

Pet loss support

The Ralph Site is a non-profit online pet loss support resource which provides support to pet carers coping with the loss of a beloved companion. There are a website and an active Facebook community with a public page and a private group.

Pet carers’ community

The Ralph Site aims to provide a non-judgmental and supportive place for those pet carers who have lost a much-loved member of the family. We know all too well the pain and heartbreak that accompanies the passing of your pet. And whilst these pets can never be replaced, we may find room to enrich our lives further with others when the time is right.

At The Ralph Site, we understand the special bond between you and your pets.

Thank you for your support.

 

Pet loss due to relationship break-up

Pet bereavement isn’t always tied to the death of a pet – instead, you may face being parted from a beloved animal or have lost them already, due to the end of a relationship. This can be just as heartbreaking as a physical death and incredibly complicated to navigate the practicalities and your feelings.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 42% of marriages in England and Wales now end in divorce but you don’t have to be married for the end of a relationship to be just as devastating. As 46% of households have pets, it’s fair to say that a huge number of animals have their lives turned upside down when their human companions decide to go their separate ways.

Who gets the pets?

One of the big questions at the end of the relationship is “Who gets the pets?” If the animal in question was your partner’s before the relationship began, then the pet may stay with them by default.

But if your pet(s) came into your life during your relationship or if you have become the main carer to a pet that was originally your partner’s, things may not be as straightforward.
At this emotional time, it can be heart-breaking and overwhelming to have to make a decision about your pets but it is important. You might want to ask the following questions:

  •  Who currently looks after the pets’ needs the most?
  •  Who does the feeding, walking, cleaning, vet’s appointments, etc.?
  •  Who can provide the most suitable accommodation?
  •  Will your work hours change and, if so, what will happen to the pets while you’re at work?
  •  Who will be better able to provide for your pets financially?

As hard as it might be to discuss these things while emotions are running high, the animal’s well-being must come first.

Dogs and cats are particularly affected by a relationship breakdown because they are excellent at reading our feelings and react to any stress and upset around them. While you work out where your pet will live, try to maintain as much as their routine as possible and minimise how much you row in front of them.

If your dog is going to have to move house with one of you, try to visit the new house and area as much as possible before the move so that they can become familiar with their new surroundings.

If you notice your pet acting withdrawn, lethargic, over-protective, aggressive or disinterested in life, it can be a sign that they are struggling with their change in circumstances and you may need to consult a vet.

Gone but still living

One of the hardest aspects of losing a much-loved pet due to the breakdown of a relationship is the knowledge that they have gone from your life but continue to live in the world without you.
Many people say that at least with the physical death there’s a sense of an ending that doesn’t come with the loss of a pet due to the end of a relationship.

Instead, you may be feeling a whole range of emotions. Your grief probably feels as raw and overwhelming as it would had your pet died. You may be mourning the loss of your dreams, your plans and the routines that shaped your life. You may also miss your pet’s special brand of comfort, companionship and unconditional love.

This can be a lonely time. Other people may not understand the depth of your grief, arguing that at least the animal you love is alive and well, even if you can’t be with them.

You may be wrestling with feelings such as guilt and jealousy. Will my pet think I’ve abandoned them? Will they be properly cared for without me? Are they missing their old life? Is someone else getting to share their life with my pet? Do they even notice that I’ve gone? At least if they had died, I could say goodbye.

These are all common and completely natural thoughts and questions. It’s tough knowing that you can’t sit down with your pet and explain what’s going to happen and why.

It can also be confusing to pull apart how much of your grief is for the end of your relationship and how much is for your lost pet. You may feel that you have to separate your feelings but the truth is that your losses – your pet, your partner, the life you shared together – are part of each other.

To see or not to see?

Whether you will be able to see your pet in the future will depend on the circumstances of your break-up.

In some cases, there is no choice but to sever ties with an ex, even if it means losing contact with a precious pet. It can also be distressing to see a pet used as collateral to score points against each other. You may decide to walk away in order to spare your pet from any further distress.

Some couples disagree so much about who gets to keep the pets that they decide to rehome the animal altogether. If you feel that neither of you is adequately able to meet your pet’s needs because of your change in circumstances, it might be kinder to find a new family for your pet, albeit a last resort.

If the end of the relationship has been amicable, you may be able to come to an arrangement about visitation rights so that you’re both still able to enjoy time with your once-shared pets. Some former couples agree to regular access or to turn to one another when they need a pet-sitter.

But for many people, this arrangement is too painful. It can be difficult to keep seeing an ex-partner and to move on when you’re still in touch. It can also be heart-breaking to live on the periphery of a pet’s life when you were once the centre of their world.

Only you can decide what feels right for you. It’s OK if you need to put reminders of your pet to one side and say goodbye forever but it’s also understandable if you want to maintain contact.

Allow yourself to grieve

As with all grief, there is no right or wrong way to do it; you don’t have to follow a timeline. You may feel that you’re not allowed to grieve because your pet is still alive but a loss is a loss, no matter how it occurs.

In many ways, the nature of the loss is a footnote because it doesn’t change the nature of the pain. Like any bereaved pet carer, you need to be kind to yourself, sit with your feelings, and take small steps through the pain from surviving into coping and healing.

Talk about your grief – whether it’s with friends and family or in a group like The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook where you’ll find other people who have experienced similar loss.

No-one can ever take away the life, memories and – most importantly – the love that you shared with your pet. Over time, your grief will shift away from the pain of what has gone to gratitude for what you had but it will take time.

Planning for the unthinkable – writing a pet prenup

When a relationship is going well, it can be hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when you’re dividing up your life and moving on. It may be harder still to think that you might be at loggerheads with your current partner about who gets to keep the pets you share together.

Unfortunately, many former couples have to face this reality.

It might seem unthinkable now but one recommendation is to sit down with your partner while your relationship is in a good place and talk about what you would want for your pets in the event of a break-up. Hopefully, it will never happen but if it does and emotions are running high, it can be helpful to have a written plan agreed in happier times.

This can be done informally or more formally as part of a prenuptial agreement (before you get married) or cohabitation agreement (if you don’t intend to marry).

If you did end up having to go to court to resolve who your pets will live with, it’s important to know that they are viewed in the same way as inanimate property under UK law. If you’re not married, a court may make a custody decision using strictly legal principles, such as awarding the pet to the person who bought him/her. If you’re married, the court may be more inclined to look at who devoted the most time to caring for the pet.

Discussing these sad circumstances now could save you all heartache in the future.

Whatever the nature of your loss, do know that you’re not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

The big loss of a small pet

When people talk about pet bereavement, the focus often feels like it’s on the loss of a dog or cat but for those of us with small pets, we know that their loss can leave a huge hole in our lives too.

Whether you’re grieving the death of a tiny Russian hamster or a house-trained rabbit, or it’s your pet budgie or snake that has passed, your companion’s size, lifespan or even their furriness is not a measure of your grief.

As we explored in a recent article, the loss of a pet can bring massive disruptions to your daily routines, adding to your sense of loss, but there are other reasons small pets matter too and it helps the grieving process to acknowledge them.

Unconditional love

One of the greatest joys of caring for an animal is that they provide a non-judgemental presence in our lives. Human relationships are fraught with risk – what if the people we love reject us? Or disagree with us? Or their feelings towards us change? Or we disappoint them in some way?

These worries can shape how we behave and how much of ourselves we reveal.

With animals, there are none of these concerns. Animals, whatever their species, live in the moment and, as such, they don’t share our anxiety for the future. We are what they know and understand and they don’t search for anything other than what we’re able to give them in the here and now. They accept us for who we are, even our flaws, which is extraordinarily freeing – the very definition of ‘unconditional love’.

Loss of companionship

As a pet carer, it’s likely that your small pet gave you companionship. It may even be that because of problems such as anxiety, depression, physical illness or even your age, your pet was your only regular companion. Even the smallest of pets can be great therapy animals for adults and children alike, providing a calm and constant source of companionship when living in the world feels lonely or overwhelming.

You may not have needed to hold your pet to benefit from their company – just hearing a hamster in his/her cage or enjoying the wheeks and chatter of guinea pigs can make a house feel like a home.

Even if you’re surrounded by people or in great health, the companionship of a pet can be just as important. Your small pet may have been an oasis of peace after a busy day at work or an accepting friend who didn’t expect you to always be the entertainer of your social group.

The passing of your ‘life witness’

Many people describe their lost pet as someone who was a witness to their life.
Your small pet may have seen you grow from a teenager to a young adult or been there to witness you becoming a parent for the first time. They might have lived in different houses with you or been in your life when you changed jobs. Perhaps you associate them with a significant relationship or event.

Of course, it’s not just the big milestones that our pets are there to witness. Perhaps it’s even more emotional that they are simply part of our everyday lives, part of the fabric of our days and years within the comfort of our own homes.

A member of the family

Many adults share their lives with small pets and are grief-stricken when their comparatively short lives come to an end, but your small pet may also have been important to your children. In fact, for many young people, it’s the death of a family pet that is often their first introduction to death and bereavement.

If you have a child who’s struggling with this loss, you might find our article about helping a child through the grieving process helpful, especially in terms of some age-appropriate tips.

Your grief is allowed

People often talk about pet bereavement as a disenfranchised grief because our society doesn’t always recognise the impact that the death of a pet can have.

Those of us mourning the loss of a small pet can feel particularly lonely in the face of other people’s apparent lack of sympathy. You may feel that, in other’s eyes, because your pet only had the prospect of a short lifespan, you should have expected their death and been prepared for it. Well-meaning friends may say, “It was just a degu – why not get another?” or “It costs more to take them to the vet than it does to replace them” (yes, this has been said to members of The Ralph Site) as if the animal you loved was just a commodity to swap and change with another.

If you are mourning a pet commonly associated with phobias – rats, mice, snakes and tarantulas all spring to mind – it may feel like other people are struggling to understand your attachment.

Whatever the circumstances, your grief is allowed. You don’t have to justify it to anyone and you don’t have to get over it overnight. The same advice applies to bereaved small animal carers as it does to those with cats and dogs – give yourself time, be kind to yourself, commemorate your lost companion, talk about them, celebrate them and remember that, while their life may have been short, it still mattered.

There are some lovely small pet carers in The Ralph Site’s Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook so please do remember that support and an understanding ear is out there if you need it.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Animals in the news this month (Nov 2017)

In the last week of every month we take a look back at the crazy creatures and amazing animals that have made the headlines in recent weeks. Here’s a reminder of what November’s headlines told us about some of the animals that share our planet:

New Zealand’s ‘first cat’ tragically killed

Sad news from down under this month, as Paddles, feline companion of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was hit by a car outside her home. Paddles had become something of a social media sensation once her mum was elected in October, as she was polydactyl (having opposable thumbs). She also unwittingly took part in the congratulations call made to the official residence by President Trump, mewing loudly in the background throughout! The cat had previously been adopted from the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and her family are encouraging donations to the charity in her memory.

Red squirrels return

Happier news from Scotland this month, as we learn that red squirrel numbers are enjoying a healthy increase throughout northwest Scotland. The native population had been badly affected for many years by disease and competition from the grey squirrel, prompting the introduction of 85 red squirrels into three sites early last year. Ongoing population monitoring shows that the steady rise in numbers seen in recent years continues. It is believed that there are now around 138,000 red squirrels thriving across Scotland. Historical records suggest there were once as many as 3.5 million red squirrels in the UK, with numbers falling to an all-time low of just 27,000 in 2007. It’s great to see the conservation focus paying off, as this beautiful native species goes from strength to strength once more.

Perils of plump pooches

A survey published this month finds that 90% of Brits do not know how many calories their dogs should be eating each day. Inadvertent overfeeding and treating pets without reducing their daily food intake accordingly are causing an obesity problem that threatens dogs with increased risk of developing arthritis. Thirteen percent of carers also admitted being more than a little vague with the facts when asked by their vets about how much their pet eats! Vets warn that, depending on the breed, overfeeding can take as much as four years from a dog’s lifespan, as well as bringing on diabetes and other health problems. If you want reassurance about your pet, don’t forget that your local vet practice will be happy to give advice on his / her ideal weight, and the nurses can help devise diet regimes to keep your dog happy and healthy.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Sleep disruption from grief

As members of The Ralph Site community, sadly each of you knows about bereavement all too well. One commonly experienced symptom of loss is the disruption of normal sleeping patterns. So we thought it might be useful to look at how this might manifest itself, and more importantly, suggest things you can try in order to take matters back into your own hands.

Almost everyone will have problems sleeping at some point in their life – a period of stress at work, physical discomfort or worrying about loved ones can all play havoc with sleep. Usually, the disruption is short-lived, but prolonged sleep problems can negatively affect your mood, energy level and productivity at work, as well as putting a strain on relationships. Such sleep problems can be categorised as follows:

  •  Insomnia – difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the night or waking much earlier than usual
  • Oversleeping
  • Night terrors
  • Sleepwalking – aside from putting you in danger of physical harm, regular sleepwalking will result in a reduction in the quality of sleep, so that you feel tired all the time

Like most sleep problems, those resulting from feeling lost and low after the death of a pet will eventually lessen with time. However, there are some simple steps you can take to hasten this process. So that your sleep patterns return to something more like normal and you begin to wake refreshed and ready to face each new day again:

  • Establish a routine. Wherever possible, try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day – this will help your body associate the time between with sleep. Only go to bed when you feel tired enough to sleep. This may be later than you’re used to but if it means you fall asleep quicker, your body will benefit from the same amount of sleep without your anxiety levels rising as you lay in bed watching the minutes tick by.
  • Make your sleeping environment comfortable and quiet. Collect plenty of blankets and pillows in case you feel cold and remove any disturbing noises – earplugs can help if you have a partner who snores, or you may wish to move to another room altogether. Blackout blinds will keep the room dark, or a nightlight will take the edge off the darkness if that bothers you.
  • Relax before you go to bed. Tempting as it is to check your social media one last time, experts recommend switching off phones and tablets half an hour before retiring. Instead, why not choose a relaxing book – most people find that reading in bed soon makes them feel tired.
  • Catch up on lost sleep in the day. Sometimes a power nap can be just the thing to revive flagging energy levels. But take care to make sure they don’t become a regular feature at set times – this will have a detrimental impact on the normal sleep routine you’re trying to establish.
  • Pay attention to your diet and exercise regime. You might wish to avoid stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine in the evenings. Also, try not to eat and drink too much after 8 pm – a full stomach can prevent you falling asleep, whilst a full bladder will wake you up in the early hours.
  • Keep a sleep diary. Jotting down details about how you’re sleeping can identify patterns – perhaps you have problems sleeping after eating certain foods, or at particular times of the month.
  • Try a herbal remedy. A few drops of lavender, valerian, passionflower or lemon balm on your pillow can help relax your body and mind into a restful sleep. Try adding a few drops to your bathwater and taking a long wallow with calming music and candlelight – that could do the trick.

Of course, prolonged sleep problems can sometimes have more deep-seated causes. For example, persistent oversleeping may be linked with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Professional help may be useful in addressing and overcoming these if so.

You can find lots more general advice on how to sleep better on various websites including the NHS Choices website.

Until next time, best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

How the loss of routine makes the death of a beloved pet life-changing in every way

One of the things that people often mention in The Ralph Site’s Facebook group following the death of a beloved pet is the loss of routine that comes hand-in-hand with their bereavement. It’s something that many of us don’t see coming and yet it can hit you like a high-speed train at a time when you already feel fragile with grief; another loss to mourn.

In many ways, the animals in our lives can shape our daily routines even more than the people around us.

It was a dog’s life

If you’ve had a canine family member, you’re probably used to planning your days around walks and dog-friendly places to go. I imagine you carry a stash of poo bags and treats in your bags and pockets, have a towel in the boot of the car for muddy days out, and never stay away from home for too long. You may default to practical clothes that don’t show up dog hair or that can withstand the weather on winter walks.

Your social life may revolve around your four-legged friend too. You’ve probably seen the same people on your morning walk for years or have struck up a friendship with a trusted dog walker or groomer. Maybe you and a friend always meet up at the weekend to walk your dogs together. Without your dog by your side, you may feel familiar faces are slipping away.

No more furry alarm clocks

Other animals can shape our lives just as much. You might have fed your cat at specific times or called them in from outside every night before you went to bed. Maybe you’ve been used to administering medicine to them at certain times of the day, especially if they were ill for a while before they passed away. You probably even miss cleaning out their litter tray!

An advert about pet food can be a crippling reminder of what’s missing from your shopping list and you may find yourself avoiding the pet care aisle of your local supermarket, having visited it with clockwork regularity for many years.

Perhaps your cat or dog laid beside you sleeping at night or nuzzled your face to wake you in the morning. You may have been blessed with a lap cat. The absence of them now is a constant reminder not only of the physical life that has passed but the shared life now past.

All creatures great and small

Smaller animals require commitment and dedication too, and their loss can be felt just as keenly. Whatever the species, perhaps you always cuddled your pet while you watched TV at night or spent time watching them play. Your routine probably includes cleaning out their cage, shopping for supplies, chopping fresh veg or topping up hay (or providing a more exotic variety of dinner, depending on the type of pet).

And let’s not forget that, as a pet carer, your companion will have been in the forefront of your mind for every holiday, every weekend away or evening out for the duration of their life with you. Whether you agonised about the perfect kennel or cattery, left your pet in the hands of a trusted friend or went somewhere your pet could come too, you’ve always prioritised their needs.

It’s these habits and moments that punctuate our lives as pet carers that are lost too when a pet dies, making the bereavement truly life-changing in emotional and practical terms.

Routine changes rated as major causes of stress

The Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which identifies major stressful life events, shows that the death of a close family member is the fifth greatest cause of stress. Animal lovers and bereavement experts alike increasingly acknowledge that those close family members are often pets.

But more than that, changes to your routine such as how you spend your spare time or your social activities can be significant and debilitating causes of stress.

It can be even more difficult to deal with if you feel that the people around you don’t understand how your life has changed overnight. Friends and family who don’t have pets of their own may struggle to grasp what you’re feeling. People may make clumsy attempts at seeing the bright side of the situation by saying things like, “At least you’re free to go on holiday whenever you want” or “I know you loved him/her but they were a tie, weren’t they?”
You may feel very alone as a result and, with the loss of routine, like you’ve lost the solid ground you need around you to support you at this sad time.

Dealing with your loss of routine

If you’re asking what you can do to help yourself as you grieve, you might want to try the following:

  • Be kind to yourself. Grieving doesn’t have a timeline, nor is it a linear process. You may have weeks or even months in the future when you feel like you’ve turned a corner and then find yourself sobbing into your cereal one morning without knowing where the tears have come from. It’s devastating but completely normal too.
  • Part of the grieving process includes acknowledging the routines, habits and literal creature comforts that you have lost. It isn’t just your pet who has gone but the life you shared with them.
  • Find an ally, someone you can talk to about your feelings. If you can’t find someone among your friends or family who understands, then you can reach out to pet bereavement services for support. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook is a warm, supportive place where everyone understands the true scope of your loss.
  • Think about your pet and write down your favourite memories of them, including the routines you had together.
  • When a human dies, every culture has rituals to help the bereaved mark and cope with the loss. This is often absent when a pet dies. However, you could create your own rituals. Perhaps you could hold a ceremony for your lost companion or plant a tree in their favourite spot in the garden.
  • Create new routines or adapt the routine you shared with your pet. If you’re used to walking your dog before work every morning, you could try maintaining this habit but perhaps walk a different route or put the emphasis more on your own fitness and wellbeing.
  •  Many people decide to bring a new pet into their home following the loss of a beloved furry companion. This helps them to maintain their routine and focus on the needs of the new addition. That doesn’t mean they ever forget their lost friend or skip over the grief but it can be a comfort.
  • Volunteer for an organisation such as The Cinnamon Trust (in the UK) to walk a dog or care for the pets of an older person or someone who is ill. This may help you maintain aspects of your routine.
  • Sit with your feelings. You may feel like the world expects you to move on from your loss straight away and that you have to ‘carry on as normal’, even when it’s your ‘normal’ that’s gone. It’s important to let yourself feel your loss so that you can begin to create a new normal.

Sadly, the life you shared with your furry friend is now past but it can and will be whole again. This quote from Elizabeth Kubler Ross may give you comfort:
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support