Before we experience grief first-hand, most of us imagine it to be dominated by sadness. One thing we don’t imagine is that we may feel relief, which is why it can be such a shock – and source of shame – when we do.
Grief isn’t predictable
People often refer to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as a blueprint for loss. “Oh, you’re in the denial phase,” someone will say, nodding sagely, and perpetuating the myth that grief can be nicely wrapped up with a clear end phase.
What people generally don’t realise is that in her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was describing the five stages of emotions terminally ill people tend to experience when talked to honestly about their prognosis (prior to this, doctors often avoided telling dying patients that they were dying). She wasn’t talking about bereavement.
In reality, bereavement is far more complicated, messy and unwilling to be neatly packaged, which is why we believe it’s fine to ignore the five stages of grief.
The truth is that grief is a vast mix of thoughts, stages and emotions; that mix is different for everyone. Bereaved pet carers may feel sadness, depression, anxiety, isolation, guilt, apathy, anger and much more. Even in the depths of grief, there can be moments of happiness, moments of peace, moments of optimism.
There are no rules.
The surprise of relief
If you’ve had feelings of relief since your pet died, it might have come as a surprise. Although relief is an incredibly common aspect of grief, people are often reluctant to talk about it or, if they do, it’s talked about in guilty whispers.
“Please don’t judge me,” they’ll say, “but is it wrong that I feel a bit relieved?”
“I loved my pet, but a part of me is relieved.”
“I feel so guilty that I feel relieved to be free from the worry.”
You might have said these things too.
Please be kind to yourself. There are many reasons why a sense of relief can be an integral part of bereavement.
Feeling relieved that your pet has died doesn’t mean you didn’t want them to live.
What is relief?
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines relief as the “removal of anxiety or pain” and “the act of removing or reducing pain, worry, etc.”
Knowing this, it seems logical that any one of us might experience relief as the result of a bereavement.
One of the reasons that relief is so common is that the death of a pet frequently marks the end of a period of illness or suffering. If you’ve been caring for a terminally ill or older pet for a long time, you may have been waiting for the train to hit, so to speak, during that period.
Waiting for something terrible to happen is exhausting. You know what’s coming, just not how or when, meaning you are always on guard. Will it be today? What if I’m not here when they need me? Will I know when it’s time? What if it’s too soon? What if it’s not soon enough?
If you knew your pet’s death was imminent for a while, you may already have done a lot of your grieving in the form of anticipatory grief.
As you may have personally experienced, caring for a poorly pet can be tough. They may have been unsettled in the evenings and overnight, needed medication around the clock, or struggled with incontinence. You might have witnessed your pet in pain, confused or distressed. Perhaps they hated visiting the vet or having clinical investigations and you’re grateful those appointments are over.
It’s a compassionate response to be relieved that these difficulties have come to an end. If your pet could have lived a happy and healthy life, that’s what you would have wanted for them, but in the absence of that hope, it’s a kindness to feel relieved that their suffering is over.
Other reasons you may feel relief after a pet dies
Something that people don’t talk about much, especially after a bereavement, is how challenging it can be to live with an animal companion whose behaviour was sometimes problematic or impacted your own quality of life in some way.
If you’ve been living with a reactive dog for years, for example, you may feel a sense of relief that you no longer have to avoid strange people or dogs when you’re outside the house or that you can invite friends over without micromanaging their visit. Even the act of sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying it can be a complicated moment of betrayal and relief if you had a dog who couldn’t cope with these sorts of social activities!
That doesn’t mean you’re relieved your dog has gone, just that those restrictions are over.
If your pet had separation anxiety, you may feel relieved the first time you’re able to pop out without worrying that your animal companion is stressed and unhappy at home.
Maybe your senior pet was experiencing cognitive dysfunction (dementia) or had lost their hearing, meaning that they would vocalise (loudly) throughout the night. It’s understandable that you feel relieved when you’re finally able to sleep.
It’s OK if you feel relieved that your own suffering is over after watching your friend struggle.
‘Good’ or ‘bad’ grief feelings
Sadly, we seem to have developed preconceptions about grief in society. Maybe it dates back to the Victorian era when widows donned their weeds and followed a strict etiquette about the ‘seemly’ way to grieve.
As such, we’ve come to view some grief feelings as ‘good’ or appropriate (mainly sadness, reflection and growth) and other feelings as ‘bad’ (anger, resentment, relief). In reality, all of these emotions are valid.
At other times in life, relief is viewed as a positive emotion – it’s what we feel when something unpleasant stops – but putting relief in the context of grief makes us feel selfish or unfeeling. That isn’t the case. Relief is still positive.
It’s compassionate to feel relieved that your animal companion’s suffering is at an end. It’s also compassionate to recognise the strength you needed to care for them and to feel relieved now that weight is off your shoulders.
Remember, if your pet could have lived happy and care-free forever, that would have been your choice. That wasn’t possible. Relief is simply recognition of “the removal of pain or anxiety”.
Ultimately, you can be both sad and relieved, angry and relieved, heartbroken and relieved – no two emotions are mutually exclusive of one another, especially when you’re coping with loss. The kindest thing you can do is to let your emotions come without judgement. Grief is both mundane (an everyday fact of life) and completely uncharted.
It’s OK if you feel relieved; it’s also OK if you don’t.
As always, please know that you’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support