How do you feel about looking at photos of your lost pet? Does it make you sad or provide you with some comfort?
After a bereavement of any kind, people tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to wanting to look at photos or videos of their departed loved one: those who find them essential to the grieving process and those that find them far too distressing.
As with most responses to grief, there really is no right or wrong here, only what is right for you.
How photos can help in a time of grief and loss
There are many reasons to look at photos and videos of a pet who has died or gone missing as you work to process your grief.
- Photos keep your pet at the heart of your family
Your pet was an important part of your immediate family and it’s likely that many of your daily habits and routines revolved around them. Being able to look at photos and videos can be a comforting way to continue giving your pet a physical presence in your home.
- Organising photos of your pet can be cathartic
For some people, looking at and organising photos of a pet or loved one who has died can be a healing activity. It reminds them of happy memories and connects them to their life before their loss.
Creating this visual memorial also gives them a job to occupy their mind during the first days and weeks of grief. Some bereaved pet carers, for example, create a photobook of their pet, telling the story of their life.
- Photos keep your memories alive
Often, when a pet dies (or, indeed, any loved one), we reach a point where we become terrified that we’re forgetting how that animal looked or sounded or how they behaved. Patterns on their fur or feathers, the shape of their nose or the pads of their paws – these memories can start to fade, which can be distressing.
Our brains are a bit like filing cabinets, storing memories of our loved ones in different drawers and compartments. Sometimes, a photo or video is the key we need to unlock those memories and bring them back. It’s a powerful reminder that everything still lives inside of us (we just may need a prompt!)
- Photos of happier times take you beyond how your pet died
Photos can serve as a precious reminder of your pet’s unique quirks and personality traits, taking you back to what they were like before injury or illness touched them.
This can be especially powerful if you’ve been living with an elderly or terminally ill animal companion for a long time. Sometimes, it takes old photos to show us how poorly our pet had really been.
As pet carers, we often get trapped in a cycle of thoughts about how our pet died or went missing, especially if their final moments were traumatic.
But the end of your time together is just a fraction of your pet’s life story.
Photos and videos show us the bigger picture.
- Photos are conversation starters
Photos and videos are conversation starters. This is important if you want to talk about your pet but can also help to encourage children and other family members to express their grief and memories.
Browsing through photos can remind you of funny stories (e.g. the day your dog ate your child’s birthday cake off the kitchen side while you were prepping the party in the lounge!) and encourage you to express a whole range of emotions.
Looking at pictures, you may remember and share things that you haven’t thought about in years.
When photos cause you pain
If you currently find looking at photos or videos of your pet too painful, please don’t beat yourself up about it. Many people feel this way.
You may feel that photos:
- Trigger your grief, especially feelings of anxiety
- Keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forwards
- Remind you of what has been lost
- Distract you from taking care of yourself
- Become a source of obsession (e.g. “I’ll forget what they looked like if I stop looking at photos every day”)
If you are feeling this way, you may decide to save the digital photos of your pet somewhere other than your phone, or to pack away physical pictures until you’re ready to see them again.
Dealing with photos on social media
Do you fall to pieces every time a picture of your pet pops up on social media?
Features like Facebook Memories can be tough for the bereaved. You log in to your newsfeed each morning only to be faced with pictures of happier times when your pet was alive and well.
If this is something you’re struggling with, you’ll be relieved to know that you can change the settings.
If you’re viewing Facebook on a desktop, click on ‘Memories’ in the left-hand column of your newsfeed. You can then change the Notifications to turn off Memories altogether. There is also an option to block certain dates or people, but this feature isn’t always effective for hiding pet memories.
The former option of not being shown any Memories is usually the best option for bereaved pet carers.
Photos take on new meaning over time
Whatever your feelings about looking at photos of your lost pet now, it’s likely that those feelings will change over time.
Most people eventually reach a point when they can look at photos and take comfort from the precious memories they captured.
In turn, this can help to shift your focus from all that you have lost to everything your pet gave you during your time together.
If you ever want to share photos of your pet with people who understand your pet loss grief, do feel free to post them in The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook.
Remember, you are not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support