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.
The reality is that pet bereavement can be as devastating as losing a human friend or family member. Research from John Archer in 1996 found that pet carers often derive more satisfaction from their relationships with their pets than with humans because of the presence of unconditional love.
Sadly, it isn’t always easy to get time off work when a pet dies and you may feel that your friends and family don’t understand the extent of your grief.
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.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk to other bereaved pet carers – it’s why we set up The Ralph Site. You will always find people to talk to within The Ralph Site Facebook pet loss support group.
The Blue Cross offers a free and confidential pet bereavement support service if you’d like to talk to someone about your loss.
Also, if you’re experiencing any of the physical symptoms associated with grief, you might want to book an appointment with your GP.
5. Create your own bereavement rituals
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.
But they don’t need to be.
Choosing a memorial for your pet can be a powerful expression of your loss. It’s a way of saying, “My friend lived and they mattered”.
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.
Mindful breathing and other exercises are a great way to bring your mind back to the present and reduce the fight-flight stress response associated with grief.
Bonus tip: Give yourself time
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.
Need to talk? Our supportive pet loss community offers a safe and compassionate space to grieve.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support