An unrehearsed grief: Why pet loss can feel so challenging

Are you struggling to cope with the loss of a pet? Have you been shocked by the depth of your grief? Do you feel like no-one around you understands how much pain you’re in?

Here at The Ralph Site, we hear bereaved pet carers talk about their sense of loss and the isolation that often comes with it on a daily basis. 

If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll see that we’ve talked about pet loss being a disenfranchised grief and what that means in past articles.

In today’s blog, we wanted to touch on this again but from the perspective of how hard it can be, when we lose a pet, to know how to grieve and the extent to which society allows us to express our feelings.

Society enables us to rehearse human bereavement

As we go through life, it’s arguable that we regularly see a blueprint or rehearsal for what happens and how we might feel or behave when a human dies.

TV programmes, films, books, plays, songs, etc. often feature the death of a character. We watch the funeral, wake and aftermath of each death play out in front of us; different but familiar all the same, due to the shared rites and rituals. 

Even if we’re fortunate enough not to experience human bereavement first-hand, we have a road map for how to behave when it happens to others. We know that we can support a bereaved person by doing things like sending a card, cooking, writing an obituary, attending the funeral, sharing our good memories, and so on.

When a human dies, in most cases anyway, people come together to support those hardest hit by the bereavement. It’s hard-wired into us to know that we can and should offer solace.

And yet, our rehearsal for what to do when someone dies rarely translates to pet loss, even though the emotions are often the same. At best, we might get a Facebook message of condolence or a hug of support from one or two friends. 

In many ways, it’s this absence of support, milestones and ritual – all things that society has evolved to help bereaved people cope – that can make losing a pet so hard to process.

How do we grieve? How do we experience our feelings if we aren’t free to express them?

A private grief?

Although things are improving and pet loss is talked about more widely, there’s still a sense that pet loss grief belongs behind closed doors, something that’s private and can only be understood by those in our pet’s inner circle.

Within the four walls of your home, the absence of your pet may be deafening, a void in your life that thunders at you day and night. But every time you step outside, you’re expected to leave your grief behind, like a coat that you must shrug off every time you leave the house.

After all, there’s a job to go to, people in the world experiencing human bereavement, tough times for everyone. People who don’t know any better will thoughtlessly remind you of this. “It was just a dog/cat/horse/rabbit”, they’ll say, as if this instantly puts your grief in perspective and will make you stop hurting.

But you know that your pet wasn’t ‘just’ anything.

You have a right to grieve

What our wider society sometimes fails to understand is that love is love and that, at the end of a life, grief comes wherever love exists. As C. S. Lewis famously said, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”

Our pets are witnesses to so much in our lives. Often, a pet can pre-date our best friends, partners or children. They can have been with us as we passed through different stages – entered adulthood, started new jobs, achieved our goals, retired, lost human loved ones and so much more.

You may be grieving for a companion who has been an integral part of your life for 10, 20 or even 30 years or longer. Alternatively, you may have lost a pet who was still young, in which case you’re grieving the lost potential of their future. 

In both scenarios, why wouldn’t you be heartbroken?

Not only has your pet died but it marks the end of the chapter of your life that you shared with them. 

It’s not just other people who don’t know how to respond to pet loss grief. As the bereaved person, we can feel really confused about how to think, feel and behave too.

Without being able to rehearse a societal ‘norm’ for responding to pet loss, we can end up putting undue pressure on ourselves about how we should respond. You often hear people say, “I don’t know why I’m still so upset” or “I know I should be over this by now”.

You may be experiencing this yourself, feeling embarrassed about crying constantly or unable to explain why you’ve suddenly lost your appetite for food and life, or why it’s hard to go into work and concentrate. You’d recognise and accept these symptoms of grief if you had lost a human loved one – and everyone around you would recognise them too.

Look to what you know about grief

The lessons you’ve learned about grief, even as a passive observer, are relevant to pet loss, even if our wider society still needs to catch up with recognising this.

Your emotions don’t care whether you’re mourning the loss of a human or non-human person. All they know is that you miss someone you love terribly and that you’re in pain.

Many bereaved pet carers find that the milestones and rituals that help with human bereavement can help with pet loss too. So if you feel like you need a funeral or memorial for your pet, then it’s definitely worth organising something meaningful to you. If you want your pet to have an obituary, write it. If you want to share your pet’s story, then tell it.

There’s no shame in struggling with pet loss. If you’re finding it hard to talk to your friends or family, please know that there are communities like The Ralph Site’s private Facebook pet loss support group where you can share your feelings and grieve openly. You may also find it helpful to speak to a pet bereavement counsellor.

There’s no doubt that pet loss is a kind of unrehearsed grief within our society. Hopefully one day our society will catch up to how devastating losing a pet can be and how bereaved pet carers need support and compassion.

In the meantime, know that you’re not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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