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.
If you’ve recently suffered a pet bereavement, you may be finding life hard.
As we often mention here on The Ralph Site, our society has created lots of rituals and behaviours to help us cope when a human dies, but it can be harder to find space to grieve when you are mourning a pet.
This is why it’s incredibly important to prioritise your self-care at this time.
When you’re grieving, it can be hard to do the most basic or normal of tasks. You may even feel angry that the world can carry on as normal when you’re faced with such a profound loss.
Self-care will help you to navigate life and give you the emotional and physical resources to eventually move forward in your grief.
Here are some self-care tips to help you:
1. Give yourself time to grieve
It can be tempting to try to power through your grief. You might feel that if you ignore it and keep yourself busy, your feelings will go away.
Although there is no right or wrong way to grieve, most bereavement experts say that real healing takes place when you face your grief and actively deal with it.
For this reason, it’s important to let yourself feel all of your feelings.
You might even need to schedule this into your day. This is something known as “grief dosing” when you set aside a block of time every day during which you give yourself permission to feel your grief without censor.
You might spend this time crying, talking, looking at photos, shouting, journalling – whatever works for you.
Grief dosing doesn’t have to be an unhappy time. You could spend the time thinking about happy memories.
The idea is to give yourself space in the day to bring your emotions to the surface so that you don’t bury how you’re feeling.
2. Prioritise meeting your basic needs
Grieving takes a lot of energy. You might feel like you don’t have any left to cook dinner, go to work or even have a shower.
It doesn’t help that grief, especially in its early stages, can mess with your appetite and disrupt your sleep.
Knowing this, it’s essential that you make a conscious effort to meet your basic needs. Give yourself time to rest, even if you aren’t able to drop off to sleep. Stock up on healthy snacks so that you can graze on nourishing food little and often throughout the day. Set reminders to drink water throughout the day.
Try to get outside at least once a day, even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes.
3. Keep up your routines for other animals in your home
If you have other animal companions in your life, they’ll need you to maintain their usual routines. This is especially important if the pet that has died was their close companion as they will be grieving too.
But even if the animals had little to do with each other, most pets thrive on routine and this can help you to structure your day.
4. Reach out if you need support
Everyone grieves differently. Your grief also will depend on your unique relationship with the pet that has died or gone missing.
Unfortunately, the uniqueness of grief can often translate into isolation, simply because it feels like no one else understands exactly how you feel.
It’s tempting to retreat and spend more time alone when you’re grieving. You may feel like the people around you don’t understand or that you don’t want to bring people down with the pain you’re feeling.
However, we would urge you to reach out if you need support. There is no shame in wanting to talk.
Look for understanding, empathetic friends and family members. But please don’t despair if your usual support network isn’t able to help.
As we’ve mentioned above, most of us are familiar with the rituals we observe when a human dies. Things like sending and receiving sympathy cards, arranging a funeral or managing our loved one’s affairs all play an important role in the mourning process.
These rituals are often absent for our beloved pets.
Many people take comfort from having a memorial to visit or sit with, whether that’s a special tree in the garden or a memory box.
6. Be kind to yourself
Guilt and pet loss seem to go hand in hand, probably because our pets are so dependent on us in every aspect of their lives. Because they can’t talk to us, there will always be an element of not knowing whether we made the choices for them that they would make for themselves.
You may be going over and over the circumstances that led to your pet dying or going missing. You might feel cross with yourself or as though something you did or didn’t do caused your loss.
The thing is that it’s very hard to practice self-care if you’re constantly being unkind to yourself. It’s so important that you view yourself with kindness. What would you say to a loved one who was suffering? It’s time to show yourself the same compassion!
Recognise that your intentions towards your pet were only ever good. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be feeling the way you do now! Focus on your intentions towards your pet and know that they are what matters.
Your pet would not want you to be unkind to yourself. They loved everything about you.
7. Breathe mindfully
Grief has a way of pulling our thoughts into a loop that focuses on the past and what has been lost. At other times, it can make us worry about the future and what that will look like without our pet.
Grief doesn’t come with an expiry date. With pet loss grief, people often feel that they shouldn’t be as upset as they are or that they should quickly get over their loss. You may be having these thoughts too.
In reality, you love your pet and it’s natural that you’re mourning their loss. There is no time limit on this. It isn’t a case of one day being “done” with grieving.
So, please give yourself time. Let yourself grieve. Take away any pressure to “fix” how you feel. There is no right or wrong, no deadline, just how you feel in any given moment.
If you’ve given up a pet for rehoming, it may have been one of the hardest decisions of your life. It’s likely that you deeply loved and cherished your pet but you came to the decision that your family wasn’t the right one for them to really thrive.
As much as we would all like to make a life-long commitment to our pets, the reality is that this isn’t always possible.
Behavioural issues, a change in circumstances, poor health (yours or your pet’s), clashes within the family, work and family commitments, financial struggles – these can all feed into the decision to rehome.
Having said goodbye to your pet, perhaps to a rescue centre or foster home, you may find that you are experiencing grief that’s as strong as if your pet had died.
However, you may feel that you don’t have a right to grieve because you voluntarily surrendered your pet for rehoming or that other people don’t understand your loss.
It can be incredibly hard to talk about this and we want you to know that you’re not alone.
The grief and guilt of rehoming a pet
The grief of rehoming tends to be layered with emotions such as guilt and shame. You may feel like you’ll never forgive yourself for this decision.
Giving a pet up for rehoming is never easy and there are very few people who can do this without any misgivings.
People who have lived through this experience often say that they still reflect on it years later. However, the majority also believe it was the right thing to do, maybe because it is rarely a decision that’s taken lightly.
What’s clear is that it’s important to show yourself compassion at this difficult time.
We’ve put together some tips to help you find peace and comfort:
Acknowledge your grief
Regardless of the circumstances, you have lost a pet for whom you cared deeply. It’s natural to grieve and it’s important that you allow yourself to experience your feelings.
Loss is loss, no matter what, and your grief is valid.
Reflect on your reasons for rehoming
Most people who give a pet up for rehoming do so because they no longer feel able to adequately meet all of the animal’s needs.
It takes great courage to admit that an animal may be better off in a different environment or with different people caring for them.
Your needs matter too. Maybe you’ve been doing everything possible to care for your pet but to your own detriment or that of your family.
When you feel able, allow yourself to reflect on your reasons for rehoming. Remember, you had everyone’s best interests at heart.
Animals are survivors and far better able to live in the moment than us humans. Of course, they remember their past experiences and people but they also adapt surprisingly well to new situations.
Your pet will not be placing blame or judging you. They won’t be reflecting on what went wrong or why life has changed. Yes, they may feel worried, uncertain or even scared at first but they will soon adjust to their new normal.
Have you explored the possibility of receiving some updates about how your pet is settling and life with their new family? This may reassure you that they’re well and loved. However, in some scenarios, it is not possible to get updates.
Ignore other people’s opinions
The issue of rehoming a pet is deeply emotive. Often, the only time people will hear about the topic is on television when abuse cases and neglect provide the emotional hook for the programme.
Of course, these cases are horrendous but they are completely separate to rehoming a pet out of love and a commitment to doing the right thing for them.
It’s very easy to judge someone from the outside looking in and you may find that some people do this to you. However, you know the truth of your situation and what is right for your pet and your family.
It’s no one else’s business because they’ve never experienced your unique circumstances. Remind yourself that anyone who’s judgemental of your decision to rehome doesn’t have all the facts. Therefore, they’re judging a fictional scenario.
Know your sadness will bring someone else happiness
While you may not have been able to offer your pet the right environment for their needs, their new home will hopefully be the perfect fit.
You know how lovable and special your pet is and now someone else will get to experience great happiness because of your decision to rehome.
Don’t feel bad about feeling relief
As well as feelings of grief, guilt and more, you may also have a sense of relief, of a weight being lifted, that you don’t have to factor your pet’s needs into your daily life anymore.
This can be confusing and distressing but, again, it’s an entirely natural response to resolving what has been an ongoing source of stress.
It’s time to show yourself kindness and compassion
Right now, your thoughts are probably consumed by your pet’s welfare. You’re wondering if they’re okay, if they’re missing you, if they feel sad or rejected.
Remind yourself that you handed your pet over to someone responsible who would take care of their needs.
Your priority has to be to show yourself some kindness and compassion. What are your needs right now?
Reach out if you need to talk to someone. Rest, eat good food, exercise, do things that light you up inside.
As with all grief, you will have good days and bad days and eventually find a way to make sense of this life-changing experience.
Just know that whatever you’re feeling, it matters.
Pet loss grief is a uniquely personal experience. Even when two people are grieving for the same animal, it’s likely that each will respond differently to their bereavement.
One of the reasons for this is because, when grieving, we all tend to lean more towards one of two types of response: instrumental grieving or intuitive grieving.
What are instrumental and intuitive grieving?
In 1999, psychiatrists Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka published a book called “Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief”.
While the book was challenging gender stereotypes around grief – i.e. that men are strong and silent (“holding it together”), while women show their emotions (“distraught”) – it first raised the idea that we each have a preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving behaviours.
If you’re someone who needs to be busy to cope with your grief or you think constantly about your loss but choose not to or struggle to express it, then Martin and Doka would say that you’re an “instrumental” griever.
On the other hand, if you find that you need to express your grief emotions to other people or talk more extensively about your loss, you might well be an “intuitive griever”.
Does it really matter whether you’re an instrumental or intuitive griever?
Many would argue that putting labels on how we grieve or attempting to pigeonhole us in one of two categories is pointless or even harmful.
How can we categorise something that is unique?
Of course, grief is deeply personal. No one can tell you how to experience it, express it or process it.
When talking about instrumental vs. intuitive grief, Martin and Doka openly stated that grief is a continuum and that most of us exhibit blended behaviours from both categories.
However, what their research did highlight is that understanding someone’s preference towards instrumental or intuitive grieving can help us to provide the most effective support for that individual (and to care for ourselves after a bereavement).
If you’re an instrumental griever
If you’re more inclined towards instrumental grief, the chances are that you need to keep busy.
You may find yourself frantically cleaning your house from top to bottom to occupy your mind or working out to stay busy.
People who show more instrumental preferences often seek to problem solve. You may feel like you need to “fix” things, which can be frustrating when there is ultimately no fix for pet loss.
If this sounds familiar to you, you might benefit from finding ways to express your grief through action.
Have you thought about preparing a memorial for your pet?
If your pet died because of an accident or little known issue, is there something you could do to raise awareness or support someone else who is talking about this cause?
For instrumental grievers, it can be helpful to have something to do, as long as it’s broken down into manageable steps so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.
If you feel like you need support for your bereavement, instrumental grievers often prefer practical advice about what to do next or benefit from talking to others in an active but informal setting, such as joining a “Walk and Talk” group or volunteering for a charity.
Supporting an instrumental griever
If you’re wondering how to support someone who leans towards instrumental grief processes, then it’s important to recognise that they may appear quite calm and stoical about their loss. At least on the surface. But their feelings will still run deep.
Instrumental grievers often describe their feelings in physical terms – “I feel sick” or “It’s like I’ve been punched” – while their thoughts about their pet get stuck in a loop. It can be helpful to give an instrumental griever tasks to perform or ask for their help to fix something.
They may ask a lot of questions. This is a crucial part of their problem-solving thought processes – they need to understand what happened to their pet.
If the pet died suddenly at the vets, for example, you might want to encourage the bereaved person to discuss the sequence of events with their vet so that they can clarify why certain decisions were made.
If you’re an intuitive griever
As an intuitive griever, you may find yourself experiencing waves of strong emotions relating to your pet loss. You may have moments of intense crying; you may even scream and shout.
Give yourself the space to let your emotions flow rather than trying to stop or redirect them.
Supporting an intuitive griever
Intuitive grievers are often accused of being over-emotional or stuck in their grief. If you are supporting a loved one who is an intuitive griever, the most helpful thing you can do is to sit with them and let them talk, cry or express their emotions however they need for as long as they need.
Grief doesn’t come with an expiry date or follow a timeline.
Encourage your loved one to talk about their pet and share happy memories. This will help them to recognise that they can carry their bond with their pet forward with them.
Intuitive grievers often benefit from speaking to a pet bereavement counsellor or being part of a pet loss support group as these provide an outlet to talk.
Other factors influence how we express grief
There’s no doubt that how we express our pet loss grief is, to a certain extent, influenced by the society around us.
People who may naturally lean towards intuitive grief may feel they have to mask their emotions because those around them don’t understand how an animal can inspire such deep emotion.
The lack of rituals around pet loss can leave an instrumental griever feeling helpless.
In addition, Western society too often applies gender binary stereotypes to bereavement. Martin and Doka discussed in their research that people still tend to think of intuitive grief as being a feminine approach to bereavement, whereas instrumental grief is seen as masculine.
Experts have pointed out that when women lean towards instrumental grief, people are quick to label them as “cold and unfeeling” whereas a man displaying the same behaviours would be praised for “holding it together” or “being strong”.
Equally, if a man expresses intuitive grief, he might be labelled as “over-emotional”, whereas a woman is “understandably upset” given her relationship with the deceased.
Such stereotypes are unhelpful but it is important to understand how they might influence our behaviour following a bereavement.
It’s common to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty for grieving – especially for a pet – because it conflicts with our learned gender behaviours or cultural “norms” attached to grieving.
Please don’t feel that we’re talking about instrumental or intuitive grief with the intention of reducing to your feelings to an “either/or” concept. We want to challenge the idea that grief looks a certain way.
Our hope is that this topic might just encourage you to look for support in your grief that matches your needs, whatever they are at this time.
Although it affects us all differently, there are some universal truths of pet loss grief that may provide you with comfort during your time of loss.
Here is what we’ve learned:
Grief is part of love
Sadly, grief is an inevitable part of life, as certain as death and taxes. The only way we can ever avoid experiencing it is to live without emotional connections and the joy they bring.
Whenever we form an attachment that is so integral to our life that we can’t imagine existing without it, we are destined to grieve when we’re separated from the source of that attachment.
Some grief in life is fleeting – for example, the grief we feel when we move house, change jobs or end a romantic relationship that has fizzled out.
Other grief runs deeper, leaving us shattered and debilitated. This is the grief associated with losing a human or non-human person who we love.
Author C.S. Lewis famously wrote about grief, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”
This quote recognises that love and grief are part of each other. As painful as this is, it can also be incredibly comforting. When you feel grief, it’s because your love for your loved one is there inside of you, keeping them with you always.
While grief is universal, your grief is unique
The contradiction of grief is that while it is a universal experience, it’s also completely unique to the griever.
Even people – and some animals – who are grieving for the same pet will feel and express their emotions differently.
The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You can only do what feels right for you at any given moment.
Grief does not work to a timeline
People who have lost a pet often wonder, “When will I feel OK again?” and “When will it stop hurting?”
Unfortunately, grieving doesn’t come with an expiry date. It’s not a case of moving along a timeline and then being done.
Again, how you experience your grief will be unique to you. What is true is that most people find that they eventually learn how to live with their grief and that it softens and changes with time.
Grief is complicated (and more than just sadness)
Before you experienced grief for the first time, you probably thought of it in fairly one dimensional terms, a profound sadness overshadowing everything else.
However you lost your pet, it’s common for your initial reaction to be one of shock. People often describe feeling completely numb or disbelieving that their pet has gone.
It seems that shock is nature’s way of cushioning us against tragedy, giving us an emotional zone to transition from a state of having into a state of mourning our loss.
When a human dies, we have rituals and ceremonies around bereavement to fill this time of shock and help us function. A growing number of us are creating similar rituals around pet loss for the same reason.
Guilt is a normal part of pet loss grief
We can experience guilt after any bereavement. We might feel guilty for surviving, for going on after our loved one, for not spending more time with them while they were here… the list goes on.
Our pets can’t share their wishes with us, they are reliant on us for all of their needs (much like small children) and euthanasia is often a factor in the time and place of a pet’s passing. Our decisions can determine how and when an animal companion lives or dies.
Guilt has an important role to play. It can help us to make sense of a loss and even learn lessons for the future. At the same time, it can be a barrier to moving forward, keeping us stuck in a loop of what-ifs.
If you’re experiencing guilt following a pet loss, be gentle with yourself. Always look at your intentions. You only ever wanted the best for your friend, even if that meant making the decision to humanely end their suffering with euthanasia.
Pet loss grief is normal
There is growing acknowledgement of the fact that losing a pet can be as painful as losing a human. In fact, we sometimes grieve more deeply for our pets.
Our animal companions share our homes, our routines and are part of our close families. They unconditionally accept us at our best and our worst, bringing brightness and unconditional love to the darkest of days.
Of course, we grieve for them when they’re gone!
People who aren’t pet-orientated may struggle to understand your grief but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, more than 10,000 people called the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement helpline in 2018 (a figure that had doubled from the year before). Although we don’t have more recent figures, they are likely to have risen due to the fact that people are finally speaking more openly about their pet loss grief.
You may feel lost
It’s natural to feel loss and directionless after a bereavement. When a pet dies, it can cause a loss of routine, social life and companionship.
You may need to navigate your way through these so-called “secondary” losses and begin to figure out what your life will look like without the pet you have lost, even if you have other pets in your family.
You cannot change what has happened
When we’re grieving, our thoughts can get stuck in a loop. You might find that you keep replaying the last time you saw your pet or wishing you could go back and do things differently.
Again, this is a completely natural response to grief. The truth is that we would have a whole lifetime with our pets if we could.
One of the key processes of bereavement is accepting that your loved one has gone. You cannot change the past.
You can only control right now
In our daily lives, most of us do plenty to feel in control. In the context of our pets, we give them a great diet, exercise, enrichment, companionship, veterinary care, etc. but, despite our best efforts, we aren’t able to avert death or that moment when a pet goes missing.
Bereavement holds nothing back in this regard. It reminds us that, ultimately, we cannot control everything, which can be a scary realisation.
The most any of us can do is control what we do and how we respond in any given moment. Right now, this might mean deciding to go for a walk, eating something healthy, resting, doing something kind for yourself or even letting your tears flow.
You will survive this
When someone we love dies, including a pet, it can be hard to imagine going on without them.
Be gentle with yourself. Eventually, you will work out how to move forward and build a life that includes your grief. You won’t be broken by it, just changed.
Love never dies
Most people find that their grief changes over time.
One analogy is that it’s like learning to walk with a pebble in your shoe – at first, the pain is all you can think about but, with time and practice, you learn to walk with the pebble; sometimes you may barely notice it.
As hard as it can be to imagine it when you’re in the depths of grief, the day will inevitably come when you can think about your pet and smile. You’ll find yourself reliving old, happy memories and focusing on your pet’s life rather than how they left.
Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear that your love for your pet – and their love for you – is just as vivid and special as it ever was. It might sound like a cliché but love never dies. Because of this, your pet will always be with you.
Do you feel like you’re grieving alone for the loss of a pet? Are you struggling with a sense of physical, emotional or social isolation (or maybe a combination of all three)?
Sadly, isolation is a common consequence of a bereavement.
There are many different factors that feed into this. In today’s blog, we want to acknowledge them and also explore some steps you may be able to take to feel more connected.
Why losing a pet can leave us feeling isolated
Our pets don’t just share our homes with us, they share most aspects of our lives. They are likely to see us at our best and our worst, more than almost anyone else in the world. Losing this degree of intimacy is bound to be shattering.
If you lived alone with your pet, the reality is that you may have lost your main companion. If you live with members of your family, it could be that you all had very different relationships with the animal that has passed or that you have different ways of expressing your grief.
We can often feel isolated in grief because it’s impossible to find someone else who is experiencing the bereavement in exactly the same way as us.
Isolation due to disenfranchised grief
It doesn’t help that pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief, which means it’s a form of grief that isn’t necessarily acknowledged by our wider society.
Perhaps someone has thoughtlessly said to you, “It was only a dog/cat/horse/rabbit*” (*insert as appropriate) or “At least you can get another one”.
Although people mean well, these kinds of platitudes have an alienating effect. It’s a clear statement that the other person doesn’t understand or connect with our loss. This can make us feel alone in our grief and this sense of loneliness and disconnection feeds into isolation.
The different types of isolation
Isolation comes in different forms. If you did live alone with your pet (or you spent large portions of the day with just them), then you will almost certainly be experiencing some degree of physical isolation.
Grief can lead to social isolation too. Social isolation is best described as psychologically or physically distancing yourself from desired or needed relationships. You may be finding it too hard to be around other people at the moment, leading you to withdraw from social situations.
Equally, your pet may have been at the heart of your social life. Dog carers and horse carers, for example, tend to socialise with other dog or horse people. When a pet dies, you can end up feeling socially isolated due to a loss of routine and common ground.
Finally, many people who are grieving end up feeling emotionally isolated. We’ve already touched on this slightly.
Emotional isolation is feeling like you have no-one to talk to or confide in. If you feel that people don’t understand the depth of your grief for your animal companion, this can be a huge barrier to communication. You may feel that you can’t talk about your loss.
We should also acknowledge that grief brings up a complex range of emotions. Anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, sadness or even mistrust can all feed into isolation. You may be worried about expressing these emotions, while people around you may not know what to say to be supportive.
Every bereavement we experience in life creates a kind of ripple effect that causes secondary losses.
When a pet dies, we can suffer a loss of identity, a loss of our role as caregiver and provider, loss of purpose, loss of routine, loss of social activities or even a loss of self-confidence.
Each secondary loss will shape and layer your grief. This can feed into your feelings of isolation because no-one else can truly comprehend all that you lost with your pet.
Isolation and loneliness
Isolation in any form can make us feeling lonely.
Loneliness is best described as the perception that you don’t have the amount or quality of social interaction that you desire. This means you can be surrounded by people and still feel like you’re complete alone.
In turn, loneliness can chip away at your emotional and physical well-being and create a negative spiral that increases your sense of isolation.
Tips for coping with isolation and making connections
If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation due to a bereavement, then it’s important to recognise this.
You may be inclined to withdraw even further, believing that no-one understands your feelings and you are alone in your loss.
While the loss you have experienced is completely unique to you, please know that support is available.
Speak to other bereaved pet carers within The Ralph Site community, many of whom will be struggling with similar feelings of loneliness and isolation
Stay connected to people who are supportive – if you have people within your social circle who are supportive, look for ways to spend more time with them, even if it is just through text messages or a platform such as Zoom.
Explore ways to express your grief – it is important that your grief for your pet has an outlet. You might find it helpful to create a memorial or write about your feelings, especially if you don’t feel like talking to anyone close to you about your loss
Hold one of your pet’s belongings and talk to them – this has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of connection in people who are grieving
Find time for self-care – your physical and mental health can be affected by isolation, so it’s crucial that you prioritise your self-care by eating healthily, resting and getting some daily exercise
One of the main reasons that The Ralph Site exists is to offer a safe space for bereaved pet carers to express their grief and find support and acceptance. Just knowing that other people understand the depth of your feelings can help to ease isolation.