Absent grief: When you feel better than you expected to

Before a pet dies, it can be difficult to comprehend what life will be like without them. Most of us try not to think about these things or will say, usually with a shudder, “I can’t imagine losing them” or “I know I’ll be devastated”.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know in advance how any of us will feel and behave in the event of a bereavement.

Grief is influenced by so many factors – our relationship with the one who has died, our support network, our circumstances, our previous life experiences, other losses we’ve faced, and so much more.

Something you may not expect is to feel okay. 

What is absent grief?

Of course, if you feel okay, why would you be on a website about pet loss grief?

You probably know that it can be distressing to lose a pet you love and not be overwhelmed by grief. You might have come here wondering if something is wrong with you – shouldn’t you be more upset than you are? After all, you expected to be distraught.

Please be kind to yourself. Grief is rarely what we expect and there is no right or wrong way to feel when a pet dies.

Absent grief is defined in the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology as being “when a person shows no, or only a few, signs of distress about the death of a loved one”. But the key word in this definition is “shows”. Most psychologists believe that absent grief is actually a symptom of masked grief, incomplete grief or complicated grief (who knew there were so many forms of grief?!) and that isn’t so much absent as hidden.

While this is true for some people, you might simply be someone who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by grief.

Reasons why you might experience absent grief (or feel that grief isn’t present)

There are some notable reasons why grief isn’t always as present as we might expect:

  • You had different expectations

As humans, one of the ways we visualise the future is by referring back to what we know. Films and TV programmes, for example, tend to show grief in an often visually-obvious way (i.e. crying, sobbing, being emotionally distressed) because this is a shorthand for emotions that have to translate on camera. This means that, especially if we haven’t experienced grief before, what we’ve seen on TV  might shape our idea of what grieving looks like.

The reality can be very different. 

When a pet dies, we often have no choice but to carry on with everyday life. We can’t take pet bereavement leave from work and may feel unable to speak to our friends or family about our loss. 

Also, there are societal and cultural expectations around pet bereavement, which may influence how you feel. In the UK, for example, there’s still a hesitancy about expressing big emotions and the need to “keep a stiff upper lip”, the very definition of the mantra “Keep calm and carry on”. Other countries have similar attitudes.

Pet loss is generally an unrehearsed grief so you may feel like nothing is the way you expected.

  • Sometimes grief is quiet

We often think of grief as a single emotion that’s loud and incessant. But sometimes it’s a whisper, not a shout. It comes in quiet moments of the day and then leaves for a while. It sneaks up on us as we listen to a favourite song or walk in a favourite place. It shows up as different emotions, sometimes one at a time and other times as a jumble of many. It touches our dreams or settles on us as a heavy sigh.

In these cases, grief may not be as absent as you think, just a silent companion.

  • Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief is when you know a bereavement is possible, even inevitable, and experience feelings of loss before it happens. 

It’s very common to experience anticipatory grief when you’re a pet carer because you bring an animal into your life knowing that you will probably outlive them.

Some pet carers find they feel better than they expected when their pet dies because they’ve had weeks, months or even years to process their pet’s journey into old age and prepare for their eventual passing.

All the feelings are there but they’ve perhaps been spread out over a long period of time instead of hitting you in one go.

If you’ve had a pet who was very ill or experienced a slow decline, you may experience feelings such as relief when they die. We understand that this can come as a shock but it’s a natural grief response.

  • Shock

It could be that you’re still in shock about losing your pet. It’s common to experience a kind of brain fog after a bereavement, which is a defence mechanism that numbs you to the reality of your loss. 

It is a good idea to check in with your emotions when you can. Do you feel numb or disconnected from them? This could be a sign of shock. Or do you feel like you’re experiencing typical emotional reactions in other situations? If you feel able to access your emotions, it may simply be that your grief is absent.

  • Your relationship with your pet

When a family pet dies, we often assume that everyone in the home will experience the bereavement in the same way. However, grief responses can differ hugely within the same family and about the same pet. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps someone else in the house was the main carer, perhaps you’ve been away from home recently, maybe you’re someone who processes their feelings quietly. Often, we connect with animals because we identify with some part of their character or their preferences. This can affect how you experience grief.

It’s something of a mantra here at The Ralph Site that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your way. We’d recommend checking out the resources referenced above about masked and incomplete grief, just to reflect on whether you could be avoiding actively mourning for your pet. But it could be that your grief is genuinely absent for one or more of the reasons above and that’s your experience.

Just know you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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