When you’re grieving for a much-loved pet, it can be hard to know how to cope or to visualise a time in the future when you’ll be able to get through the day without crying or feeling intense emotional pain.
Many people find that mindfulness exercises can help them.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is perhaps best described as the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever you’re doing at any given moment, free from distraction or judgement. When you’re in a mindful state, you are aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.
Why is mindfulness so important when you’re grieving?
As you know from personal experience, grief can be intense, painful and complicated, bringing up a range of strong emotions.
For most of us, our instinct is to think, “How can I ‘get over’ my grief as quickly as possible?” or “What can I do to stop feeling like this?”
It’s completely understandable that we feel this way. Grief is possibly one of the most distressing states to experience in life, even though it is an inevitable part of being human.
In order to cope, many of us try to avoid our feelings of grief altogether or, on the flipside, get stuck in how sad we feel without our precious pet.
Mindfulness can offer a third option that is healthier in the long-term.
The practice of mindfulness isn’t designed to take your pain away or end your grief. However, it can give you some tools to sit with the truth of your loss in a non-judgemental, self-compassionate way.
Accepting the impermanence of life
In many ways, mindfulness is about accepting that nothing in life is permanent, nothing lasts forever.
The painful truth is that, as soon as someone has life, their death is inevitable and unavoidable.
Equally, when you love someone, you will eventually lose them in some way, either through death or a change in circumstances. Therefore, grief and loss are an integral part of love.
It’s incredibly painful to think about this. We want to go on forever with our loved ones by our side.
The problem is that when you start to think about situations or emotions being permanent – of them going on forever – you can become stuck. If you see the past as permanent, you can get bogged down by always looking backwards and trying to return to a previous stage in life when your pet was alive and well.
If you believe the future is already fixed and permanent, it becomes easy to believe that your grief will exist in its current, intense state forever. This can feel hopeless.
Mindfulness challenges these beliefs.
It tells us that impermanence is at the core of our existence. Things are constantly changing, so all we can truly know is what is happening here and now, in this exact moment.
If we can accept impermanence within our grief, we can embrace the idea that we won’t always feel as heartbroken as we do right now. This perspective enables us to recognise that, with time, our grief might change and soften and make room for other things in our lives.
Mindfulness exercises for beginners
We’re not mindfulness experts here at The Ralph Site but we do know that simple mindfulness exercises can help you to move through your grief rather than getting stuck where you are right now.
Here are a few ideas for you to try:
This is an exercise that you can do at any time, anywhere.
Mindful breathing is designed to bring you back to the here and now, connecting you with your physical being and letting thoughts flow in and out of your mind without getting caught up in them.
With this exercise, you need to breathe from the diaphragm, paying attention to the rise and fall of your chest. Breathe in slowly through your nose and then breathe out through your mouth, feeling the warmth of your breath as it leaves your body.
Try to focus on counting your breaths rather than thinking about anything else. Thoughts will pop into your mind and that’s OK – you’re not trying to avoid them. Acknowledge anything that you think. Don’t tell yourself off for thinking about your sadness, guilt or anger. They’re natural feelings when you’re grieving.
If you find your thoughts focusing on your grief, try to shift what you’re thinking about by going back to counting every breath and concentrating on each number.
Need more guidance? You might find this mindful breathing meditation helpful.
Some people find it helpful to couple mindful breathing with a visualisation exercise called ‘Leaves on a stream’.
As you concentrate on your breathing, close your eyes and imagine a stream flowing through a forest. Leaves are falling from the trees surrounding you. When a thought pops into your mind, grab a falling leaf and attach the thought to it. Then, let the leaf fall into the stream and watch it float away.
Any thought counts – from what you plan to cook for dinner tonight right through to memories of how your pet died. The key here is to recognise the thought, name it and then let it flow away from you.
Doing some physical activity can be a great way to lift your mood when you’re grieving. A walk somewhere in nature is even more beneficial because it’s a visual reminder of the cycle of life and death.
Walk through the woods in the autumn, for example, and you’ll see the leaves falling from the trees and decaying on the ground where, only months before, they were green and plenty. It’s a gentle way of reinforcing the impermanence of life.
You also recognise that spring and summer will come again. There are happy times ahead.
Before you start your walk, spend a couple of minutes standing still with your eyes closed. Pay attention to your senses. What can you hear? Perhaps children are playing in the distance or a dog is barking. Maybe you can hear the wind blowing through the branches of the trees.
What can you smell? Does the ground smell damp? Is there a fragrance from nearby flowers in the air? Maybe someone nearby has lit a bonfire or, if you’re walking on the beach, can you smell salt from the sea?
What can you feel? Is the breeze blowing on your skin? Is your hair dancing about in the wind? Maybe your cheeks and toes feel cold or you’re so warm that you can feel a trickle of sweat running down your back.
Is there anything you can taste in the air around you? Maybe it’s raining or the breeze tastes like sea spray.
By concentrating on the things you can experience in your immediate location, it will help to ground you in the present moment.
Open your eyes and take in what you can see. Notice the different colours, shapes and textures.
Once you start walking, try to notice how it feels each time one of your feet hit the ground. What is the path like? Can you hear your shoes crunching fragile leaves? Are you walking on soft sand? If so, what does it feel like to sink into it with each step?
Every couple of minutes, try to switch your focus from one sense to another. For example, you could spend two minutes thinking about what you can see, then two more thinking about what you can hear, and then what you can taste and so on.
As we’ve explored in past blogs, it’s common to feel guilty or angry when a pet dies. These emotions can make it hard to be kind to yourself, especially if you feel you were in some way responsible for your pet’s death (see our blog about self-forgiveness).
This mindfulness exercise encourages you to practice self-compassion.
When you’re grieving it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts, a loop of blame and feelings of loss. This exercise aims to break the cycle and replace those difficult thoughts.
Choose a short, kind and meaningful phrase to say to yourself. It could be “I am not my thoughts”, “May I find the courage to move forward without you” or even “May I forgive myself”.
Try to repeat this phrase multiple times a day – you can say it in your head or out loud. Sometimes out loud is more effective because your brain actually hears the words and begins to process them as reality.
Many people have what can only be described as a deadline for when they should be done grieving. We often hear people say, “It’s been six months and I should be feeling better by now”.
Every time this thought pops into your head, try visualise the date disappearing from a calendar and bring your thoughts back to the here and now.
Focus on your breathing and what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell in this exact moment.
Grief does not move in a straight line; it doesn’t come with an expiry date. Instead, it looks more like a rollercoaster track with highs and lows and many times round the same loop.
Other mindfulness resources
People from all walks of life find mindfulness a useful tool for making life more manageable, especially after a bereavement.
You might want to try popping a mindfulness app on your phone to help you practice different mindful exercises: Headspace and Calm are both popular apps.
The NHS.UK website has some links to further mindfulness resources: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/
You can also find some helpful links through the mental health charity, MIND: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/mindfulness/how-to-learn-mindfulness/
As always, know that The Ralph Site is here for you. Join our private Facebook pet loss support group to talk to other pet carers who ‘get it’, who understand the depth of your loss.
You’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support