Author Archives: TheRalphSite

Grief without belief: finding comfort without the Rainbow Bridge

What do you do when you’re experiencing grief without belief to give you comfort?

When a pet dies, some carers find solace in the idea of the Rainbow Bridge – a beautiful, lush place between heaven and earth where animals are healthy and whole again, where they play all day and never know discomfort, and where they wait to be reunited with the humans who loved them.

Other pet carers turn to their faith and/or spiritual beliefs of an afterlife to help them process their pet’s passing.

But what if you’re an atheist (i.e. you don’t believe in a god or afterlife) or agnostic (i.e. you don’t believe it’s possible to know for sure that a god exists)? What if the Rainbow Bridge doesn’t bring you comfort because you don’t believe we go anywhere when we die? 

Please be reassured that many pet carers feel this way.

How can we make sense of grief without belief to comfort us?

How do you deal with someone you love dying (animal kin or human) if you believe there is nothing beyond death? This can be a truly uncomfortable question to wrestle with.

There is something incredibly vulnerable about trying to align your logical, pragmatic views of what happens when a living organism dies with the emotional need to believe in a “greater purpose”.

Many of us end up finding comfort in the very science that tells us there is probably no life after death.

Maybe this will help you if you’re grappling with grief without belief.

Think about what we do know.

DNA

Your pet’s DNA was an astounding collection of genetic material from previous generations. Even if they didn’t have any young of their own, somewhere in the world other members of their species share some of that same DNA. This means that some of their quirks and traits continue to live on. 

If your pet was a parent, they have directly contributed their unique collection of DNA to future generations.

The Butterfly Effect

But even if we put thoughts of DNA to one side, the world is different because your pet lived.

This is the perfect example of the “butterfly effect” – the idea that something as seemingly small and inconsequential as the flap of a butterfly’s wing can lead to big, complex changes elsewhere in the world.

Because your pet existed, they shaped your days. Every time you hung out with them or even thought about them, it sent you along a different course of events than would have happened if you hadn’t thought about them. 

Maybe you are kinder, more empathetic and caring because of your pet. In turn, this means you show these qualities to other people, making someone else happy because of the kindness your pet inspired. Who knows where this might lead the people whose lives you have touched?

It’s amazing what a ripple effect a pet can cause. The world is changed because of them and that will ripple until the end of existence. 

The cyclic nature of life on Earth

None of us want to think about what happens to a loved one’s physical remains after death. However, it can be comforting to think about an animal returning to the earth and making it possible for new life to grow or come into being.

In this way, death isn’t an ending at all but simply a change in form and energy.

Speaking of energy… 

In physics and chemistry, the law of conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics) states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.

This means that the energy that was your beloved pet still exists in the universe. That energy cannot die.

There’s a stunning interview with writer and performer Aaron Freeman in which he says we should all want a physicist to speak at our funerals. Although he’s talking about human death, his words apply to our animal companions too.

Freeman says that a physicist will remind us of the first law of thermodynamics and that every particle, vibration and unit of energy that was our loved one remains in the world. Scientists have measured this and it’s a provable fact.

A physicist will tell us too that every photon that ever touched your pet is now racing around the world on a different course because of that contact. Your pet literally changed the fabric of existence!

Energy gives off heat and so, the energy from your pet can be felt in the warmth of the air around you.

Finally, Freeman concludes that when someone dies, “According to the law of conservation of energy, not a bit of you has gone; you’re just less orderly”.

There was a time before any of us existed

For some people, it’s comforting to remember that there was a time before any of us existed. We have no memory of the billions of years that came before our birth.

If you believe your pet’s consciousness ended with their death, then you can take comfort from knowing that they’re not alone waiting for you, they’re not reflecting back on their life or regretting the circumstances of their death. They aren’t lonely or suffering.

You carry everything they were or will ever be in your memories. They aren’t beyond your reach now. In fact, they’re firmly inside you to carry for the rest of your life.

Multiverses, parallel worlds and infinite possibilities

It might be a sci-fi favourite but there are a growing number of scientific theories that support the idea that we live in a multiverse, i.e. that there are parallel universes running alongside our own in which we might be living an infinite number of possible lives.

This means that your lost pet could be alive and thriving with you by their side in multiple other universes. While this might not bring you comfort (why can’t they still exist in this universe?), you might find solace in thinking of them being close by, just hidden by the veil of space and time.

A miracle of science

With or without belief in a god or an afterlife, grief is deeply personal and inevitably challenges what we know to be true. For some people, it reconfirms their beliefs. For others, it sets them on a new path.

As we always say, there is no right or wrong – only what feels right for you.

It’s understandable if you find sentiments like, “They’re in a better place now” or “They’re waiting for you at the Rainbow Bridge” upsetting. After all, is there really a better place than where they were loved and happy?

People say these things to offer comfort and because we’re all searching for a way to find some meaning out of loss.

Perhaps all we can do is remember that no one lives forever. If we did, would we ever stop to appreciate just how precious life is?

Because the truth is that the time you had with your pet was nothing short of a miracle. The odds of you both existing at the same point in time in an infinite universe are infinitesimal. How lucky you both were! Maybe this can give you comfort. Through the butterfly effect of the universe, everything conspired to bring you and your pet together and the future was changed because of it!

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

Staying connected: Your continuing bonds with a pet who has died

Throughout human history, it has generally been accepted that grief is a natural part of our existence and that the bonds we share with our deceased loved ones, including our pets, continue long after the moment of death.

In this way, grief is the price of love, a normal and natural reaction to losing someone or something we value.

But in the 20th century, starting with Freud’s influential essay on mourning and melancholia in 1917, attitudes towards grief changed – not necessarily for the better. 

Freud viewed “grief work” as a process whereby the bereaved person must sever their bonds with the loved one who has died so that the survivor is free and able to form new attachments in the future. He believed this process of “letting go” should happen as quickly as possible.

Stemming from this, grief theory became about “closure”, “acceptance” and “moving on”. 

Later grief theorists of the 20th century mapped out predictable trajectories of grief, suggesting that once certain stages or tasks had been accomplished, grief would end. The most famous of these models – the five stages of grief – stems from Kubler-Ross’s text On Death and Dying.

These models have dominated conversations about grief until very recently. This is why we often find ourselves saying things like, “I don’t know why I still feel bad” or “I know I should be over this by now”.

Rejecting 20th century models of grief 

Thankfully, attitudes are changing. 

Back in 1996, a book called Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief – edited by Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman (all bereavement experts) – offered an alternative view that “a healthy resolution of grief enables one to maintain a continuing bond with the deceased”.

This book has continued to reshape attitudes towards grief over the past 25 years. 

Today, many bereavement experts believe what grievers have always instinctively known – that healthy grief includes forging a different relationship with departed loved ones and that it’s entirely natural to want to stay connected.

This is known as the Continuing Bonds theory of grief.

What is the Continuing Bonds theory?

American playwright Robert Anderson, author of the film Tea and Sympathy, famously said, “Death ends a life – it does not end a relationship”.

This is the essence of Continuing Bonds, which brings many people comfort and clarity. 

It’s a model of grief that recognises:

  • Grief is ongoing; it isn’t something that you finish with, it’s something that becomes part of you
  • While grief is ongoing, it isn’t continuous – you may experience temporary breaks in your grief and also recurrences 
  • It’s normal to stay connected to a loved one who has died
  • Our continuing bonds with the deceased explain many natural grief behaviours, such as looking at photos, keeping a pet’s belongings, creating a memorial garden, talking about our memories and more
  • Remaining connected to a loved one can help us to cope with grief
  • It’s also okay if the idea of a continuing bond doesn’t bring you comfort – everyone is different

The Continuing Bonds model says that when someone we love dies, grief isn’t about emotionally detaching from them and leaving them in the past; instead, it’s about adjusting and redefining the relationship so that the bond is able to endure in different ways throughout your life.

Your love for your pet hasn’t died

While your pet is no longer physically present in your life, the love you felt from them is still very much part of who you are. Why should anyone expect that to end?

It’s absolutely fine to look for ways that you can stay connected to your pet and continue to express the love you carry for them.

There are many ways that you might do this. You could:

  • Talk to your pet as if they were still here
  • Write a letter to your pet telling them how you feel
  • Display photos of your pet around your home
  • Incorporate your pet into special days by lighting a candle for them or watching an old video of them
  • Bring them into conversation whenever you want to 
  • Live your life in a way you know they would love

Experience your pet’s continued presence

Studies have shown that many people take comfort from experiencing their pet’s continued presence.

This can happen in different ways for different people.

If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, you might take comfort from the idea of an afterlife or the Rainbow Bridge or look for signs that your pet is still nearby. For some people, this can be finding a clump of fur somewhere they’ve cleaned many times since their pet died. Comfort might come from sounds (feet padding across the floor) or smells (dog fur after the rain) that you experience unexpectedly. Other people view white feathers as a sign that their loved one is near.

If you’re an atheist, you might take comfort from the first law of thermodynamics – i.e. that energy cannot die – it simply changes form. The energy that was your pet still exists, surrounding you. 

Every photon and particle that ever touched your pet is still in existence, its course through the universe changed forever because of that contact. The world is different because your pet lived.

Sometimes, just feeling the wind against your face or watching birds fly across the sky can be enough to help you feel your pet’s presence and reconnect with them.

The relationship changes

Research in the Continuing Bonds book by Klass et al found that the relationship we have with someone who dies changes throughout our lives, in much the way it would if they were still alive.

If you lose a beloved pet in your 20s, the way you connect to their memory is likely to evolve with your different life stages. You’ll see your relationship differently in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. Rather than creating distance, this ever-changing connection keeps the relationship present and means you can carry your pet with you at all times.

Some people struggle with this. It feels like a poor substitute for having their living, breathing companion by their side. Others find a way to move forward knowing that the relationship continues.

As ever, there is no right or wrong. The important thing is that you don’t have to “let go” or “find closure” to process grief, so ignore anyone who tells you otherwise! You can stay connected and continue those precious bonds, even as you move forward, not on.

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

The five themes of pet loss grief

A recent review of 17 studies into pet loss grief summarised by Psychology Today highlighted what most bereaved pet carers already know and that is that grief for an animal companion can be as strong as that felt when a human loved one dies. 

The research also identified five themes of pet loss grief that influence how we feel: The relationship, the grief, the guilt, the support network and the future.

But what is meant by these?

  1. Your relationship or bond with your pet

The research reviewed shows that pet loss grief is shaped by the relationship and bond you shared with your pet.

Our animal companions see us in our most relaxed, unguarded and vulnerable moments, sharing our homes and everyday routines. In many ways, they know more about us than anyone, maybe even the other humans we live with.

Animals offer us unconditional love, even when we’re going through a rough patch in life. They give us companionship, support and even independence, in some cases.

In turn, many of us enjoy our role as a caregiver to our pets, finding happiness in nurturing another living being. 

Is it any wonder that we grieve for that loving and accepting presence in our lives when they’ve gone? 

As with any relationship in life, it’s clear that deep bonds can lead to a period of deep grief.

  1. How you feel and express your pet loss grief

Grieving pet carers consistently report experiencing psychological and physical symptoms of grief, such as feelings of emptiness, loss of appetite, sleep disruption and more.

However, other factors may affect pet loss grief too. This includes your other caring responsibilities (e.g. other non-human animals, young children, ageing parents), previous experiences with pet loss and bereavement or, for some people, the type of animal that has died.

In the absence of the mourning rituals we routinely observe when a human dies, bereaved pet carers often feel that their grief isn’t recognised or taken seriously and that they have no choice but to grieve alone. They may have to create their own ways to mourn – for example, planting a memorial garden, writing a letter to their pet or displaying their belongings as a way to remember them.

The research also shows that grieving pet carers adopt a wide range of coping mechanisms, from keeping busy and not talking about their loss to dwelling on it for long periods of time. There may also be a lot of anxiety about whether or not to welcome a new pet into their home and if this is trying to “replace” the pet who has died.

  1. Feelings of guilt

Something that comes up time and again is how guilty we feel when a pet dies, regardless of the circumstances.

There are several clear reasons for this. 

Animals are unable to verbally express their wishes to us so, as pet carers, we have to act in what we believe to be their best interests. But how can we be sure? What would an animal want if they could tell us? This is something many of us grapple with.

Our animal companions are dependent on us for everything – from the food they eat to where they sleep, how they spend their time and so much more. In many ways, this means they are as vulnerable as a human infant. Knowing this can make us fiercely protective of our animal friends and is a huge responsibility.

It’s within this context that euthanasia represents both a gift and a curse. We talk about euthanasia as the last kindness that we can show to an animal who is dying. The word itself comes from the Greek meaning “good death” and most would agree that it’s a valid choice to end an animal’s suffering. 

But it’s a decision that weighs heavy on us as pet carers. Knowing that euthanasia is an option gives us the power of choosing life or death for our non-human family members, even if it’s just bringing death forward when it has become inevitable, and that can be difficult to reconcile when your entire relationship has been about helping your pet to thrive.

What if we chose euthanasia too late? What if it was too soon? What if it was the wrong choice? Was there another option?

It’s common for pet carers to wrestle with these thoughts for some time after their pet has died, even when we know that we made the choice in order to end our friend’s suffering. Guilt is usually tied to these thoughts.

It’s also not unusual for bereaved pet carers to worry that they betrayed their pet in some way by choosing euthanasia. It can take a while to make peace with the decision.

  1. Whether you have a good support network

Although we all experience grief differently, the research shows that people benefit from having a good support network around them.

As we’ve already mentioned, one of the challenges of pet loss is finding people who are understanding and willing to listen. Pet loss is often described as disenfranchised grief because it isn’t always recognised within our wider society or personal networks.

Research from 2019 found that disenfranchised grief in pet carers can directly increase the severity of the grief and inhibit post-traumatic growth, which is a kind of positive psychological change that comes after a loss for some people because they develop a  greater appreciation of life, value their relationships more and view the world with more compassion.

People who haven’t experienced pet loss may struggle to understand your connection with your pet or they may see pets as property that can simply be replaced. Similarly, many people without pets assume that, because animals generally have much shorter life spans than humans, we go into having a pet with our eyes open, knowing that we’ll lose them someday – the assumption being that, because we know it’s coming, it hurts less.

All of the above assumptions are clearly wrong.

It’s so important for bereaved pet carers to be able to access support in order to validate their feelings. This might mean talking to a sympathetic friend, speaking to a pet bereavement counsellor or joining a support group like the private Ralph Site support group on Facebook.

Research from 2005 found that people in pet loss support groups directly benefited from being able to talk about and process their loss without embarrassment or the stigma society can still place on grieving for an animal.

Pet loss research also offers a reminder to vets that it is important for them to communicate clearly and with compassion and, even after the event, to be willing to talk through any decisions that were made around a pet’s care to help the pet carer understand what happened as fully as possible.

  1. How we see the future

Moving forward after pet loss can take time.

Some bereaved pet carers process their loss with a new appreciation for how short and precious life is. Others find themselves frozen in grief for much longer than they might have expected.

Inevitably, the question comes up of if or when to offer a home to another pet. For some people, it isn’t a choice – for example, if they need an assistance dog to live independently – but this can still lead to feelings of guilt or of it being “too soon”.

Some people find that their pet has left such a big hole in their life that a new pet is the only way to fill it. This isn’t always straight forward though as the pet carer worries that they’re trying to replace their loved one or that they’re forgetting them (not that this is true in any way).

Others struggle to imagine ever welcoming a pet into their lives again and this can cause a huge shift in identity and sense of purpose.

The future can be particularly daunting if your daily routines or social life revolved around your pet. 

Confirming what we already knew about pet loss grief

The growing body of research into pet loss grief really just serves to reinforce what bereaved pet carers already know – that the pain of pet loss is valid, real and an inevitable part of losing someone we love.

Society often views pet loss grief as an over-reaction or a substitute for other types of grief (for example, research by Liz Margolies in 1999 suggested that women become ‘hyperattached’ to pets 

It’s clear that pet loss presents some unique challenges, especially in terms of coping with guilt or finding support.

Hopefully, this recent review of the available research will remind counsellors, GPs, psychologists or social workers (or, indeed, anyone who knows a bereaved pet carer) that they have a vital role to play in helping the person to cope with their loss.

If you do need support or would like to talk about your pet loss grief, The Ralph Site pet loss support group on Facebook is there for you.

You are not alone.

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

16 things to do with the cremated ashes of your pet

Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is never easy. On a practical front, something that many of us wrestle with is the question of what to do with our pet’s ashes (sometimes referred to as “cremains”). Some people have strong feelings about wanting to keep their loved one’s ashes at home while others prefer to lay them to rest somewhere.

If you don’t feel comfortable about receiving your pet’s ashes, speak to the pet crematorium where your pet is being cremated as they will have a service where they can scatter the ashes on your behalf (usually in an unmarked woodland or similar area). You should still be able to ask for a Certificate of Cremation.

As with all things related to pet loss grief, there is no right or wrong about what to do with your pet’s ashes, only what feels right for you.

Thankfully, there are more options than ever before about what to do with the cremated ashes of your pet. Hopefully, you can find an option that feels like a fitting tribute to your lost companion. 

And remember that you don’t have to make a decision straight away – many of the ideas below can be carried out long after your pet’s ashes have been returned to you.

  1. Keep them in a decorative urn

An ever-popular option for storing cremated ashes is a decorative box or urn. These days, there are some truly beautiful urns or memorial boxes available to buy in materials such as ceramic, wood, mother-of-pearl or various metals. 

Depending on the design, you may have the option to have the urn engraved, or add a plaque or photograph of your pet. 

Urns and memorial boxes come in all shapes, styles and sizes too from rustic-style wooden urns to pristine stainless steel and everything in between. It is even possible to commission an urn that is a sculpture of your pet. 

  1. Bury the ashes

Perhaps the simplest way to memorialise your pet and lay their ashes to rest is with a garden burial. This is another popular option.

Did your pet like to lay in a sunny spot in the garden? Did they have a favourite place to explore? You could bury their ashes in this special space so that you can think of them there in happier times.

If you’re worried about the fact that you might move house one day and have to leave your pet’s ashes behind, you could have a memorial stone made that you’re able to take with you when you move.

Many people choose to plant a favourite tree, shrub or flower to mark their pet’s ashes.

Another idea is to bury your pet’s ashes within a contained plant pot so that you’re able to take them with you from home to home.

  1. Grow a memorial tree

While we’re on the subject of planting something where your pet’s ashes are buried, you might choose to grow a memorial tree.

Companies such as The Living Urn offer biodegradable bamboo urns that contain a tree seedling and will hold an animal’s ashes. This is a wonderful way to watch a living memorial to your pet grow and flourish.

  1. Scatter the ashes

Many people choose to scatter their pet’s ashes somewhere that has meaning to them. This could be a favourite walk, a favourite place or even just somewhere that always makes you feel peaceful, such as a hilltop or your favourite beach.

In the UK, there’s no explicit law against scattering ashes, as long as you get permission from the person or organisation that owns the land. You don’t need permission to scatter ashes on your own land or over a body of water.

Regulations around scattering ashes vary around the world, so you should always check your local by-laws.

  1. Perform a water burial

As there are no laws against scattering ashes over a body of water, you may decide to give your pet’s ashes a water burial.

The best advice is to choose somewhere quiet to do this, as far away from people, buildings and fish as possible and on a day when the wind is low, especially if you plan to scatter the ashes.

You can choose to use a biodegradable water urn for your pet’s cremains. These urns usually float for a while before gently submerging into the water where they safely break down and release the ashes over time.

Another option is to hold a ceremony where you gather with your pet’s friends and family at the beach and you dig a small trench near the water’s edge into which you place the ashes (people often do this in the shape of a heart or their pet’s name). You can then watch the tide carry the ashes away.

As an alternative to laying a wreath for your pet during a water burial, you could scatter something biodegradable like rose petals as you say goodbye.

  1. Have them incorporated into a piece of jewellery

It’s now possible to have some of your pet’s ashes (or fur or feathers) incorporated into a piece of jewellery. This includes rings, necklaces, bracelets, trinkets, pendants, brooches and more.

If you have a look on a site such as Etsy, you will be amazed by some of the stunning jewellery available.

  1. Include them in a piece of decorative glass

You can also have your pet’s ashes incorporated into a piece of glass. This could be a stained-glass design such as a window or a rainbow sculpture, a heart, glass pebbles, paperweights, sculptures or candle holders.

Again, a search on Etsy for “glass for ashes” is a great starting point to explore your options.

  1. Launch them into space

Would you believe that it’s now possible to have your pet’s ashes sent into space? There are a growing number of businesses around the world offering this service to humans and/or their animal companions.

This is certainly one of the more expensive options for scattering ashes but many people like the idea of looking to the skies and knowing that their pet will always be watching over them.

  1. Have them painted into a portrait of your pet

Some artists use a process where they can incorporate ashes into the ink or paint that they use. They can then paint or draw a custom portrait of your pet that includes a small sample of their ashes.

Again, a search engine search or a creative site like Etsy would be the best starting point to find someone who offers this service.

  1. Cast them in a statue

Another creative use of pet’s ashes is where they are mixed with concrete and cast into a sculpture, pebble or heart shape, for example.

Rather than being a vessel to hold the ashes, the idea is that the ashes become part of a piece of artwork that represents your pet, either as a statue of them or in a more abstract design.

  1. Add them to a piece of pottery

Similarly, there is a small but growing number of potters who can incorporate ashes into a piece of ceramic pottery (either the clay and/or glaze). This is a way to use your pet’s ashes to create a beautiful, personalised piece that brings you joy when you look at it.

  1. Keep them in a special Christmas ornament

If you’re someone who loves to decorate their Christmas tree with ornaments that have great sentimental value (perhaps baubles your children made at school) then you might want to have some of your pet’s ashes added to a special Christmas ornament.

Again, a search for “Christmas ornaments for ashes” on Etsy or a similar site is a good place to start.

  1. Add them to an hourglass

Another popular option is to keep a precious pet’s ashes in an hourglass urn. People often choose to mix the cremains with sand from their favourite beach (a great choice to memorialise a water-mad dog!) and turn the ashes into a kind of interactive sculpture.

  1. Turn them into a diamond

A diamond using carbon extracted from the ashes and/or fur of your pet is a beautiful and heartfelt way to immortalise their cremains. The diamond will be completely unique and is grown in a laboratory to your specifications. 

Various companies offer this increasingly popular service so it’s best to start with a Google search.

  1. Get a memorial tattoo

Cremation or ritual tattoos are created by infusing a small amount of your loved one’s ashes into tattoo ink. The ink is then used in the same fashion as it would be during a regular tattoo. 

Having a tattoo made with a pet’s ashes is seen by many as a way to keep a part of your loved one with you forever.

  1. Add them to a soft toy

Although it’s not a substitute for cuddling your pet, you could choose to have their ashes placed inside a memorial soft toy, such as a teddy bear, dog, cat or rabbit.

Some sellers will even make clothes for the soft toy or the soft toy itself from a pet bed or favourite blanket. 

This is a comforting way to be able to hold a pet who has died close to you and feel something soft in your arms.

These are just a few of the special ways in which you can take care of your pet’s ashes. Have you tried any of these ideas in the past? Are there any that appeal to you now?

We hope this has given you some ideas for memorialising your pet in a way that feels right for you and your family.

As always, you’re not alone.

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

What are the Seven Principles of Grief?

Pet loss grief can be confusing, overwhelming, and its depth sometimes unexpected. You may be wondering if or when your feelings of grief will come to an end or even how to start processing them.

In today’s blog, we want to share a summary of the Seven Principles of Grief as defined by John Shep Jeffreys, a psychologist who specialises in grief, loss and end-of-life concerns. 

It is a comforting overview of how we humans experience grief and a reminder that it’s a natural reaction to losing someone you love.

Principle One: There is no one right way to grieve 

We all grieve differently. In fact, even the same person may experience grief differently from one loss to another. Some people openly express their emotions, they cry and want to talk about their loss, while others want to stay busy and do anything but talk about their feelings.

So many factors affect how we’re able to express and process grief. As well as your relationship with the non-human animal who has died, you may be affected by your previous losses, stage in life, gender, lifestyle, living arrangements, other relationships, routines and more.

You may have experienced messages during childhood about whether or not it was okay to feel fear or sadness or cry in the face of loss. You may be heavily influenced by your religion, culture, social expectations, or even your friends and family and how they approach grief.

As we always say on The Ralph Site, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your way.

Principle Two: You cannot fix or cure grief

Grief is messy; it’s painful and it’s life-changing, so it’s understandable if you wish you could find a way to fix or cure yourself of hurting from your loss.

Sadly though, grief isn’t a medical complaint that can be cured. The only reliable way to move forward after loss is to feel it, grieve and mourn.

It may not feel like it but, as John Shep Jeffreys points out in the Seven Principles, the human grief reaction is actually designed to enable us to survive. Grief comes about as a result of deep attachment and it’s the ability to form deep attachments that is central to human survival as a social species.

Principle Three: There is no universal timetable for the grief journey

One of the most common questions people have after a bereavement is “How long will it take before I feel ‘better’?” The answer is “As long as it takes”.

Unfortunately, grief doesn’t have a timeline (it would be so reassuring to tick off the days on a calendar and know there was an end date, wouldn’t it?!). 

We mention this on The Ralph Site a lot because it’s so important.

We live in a society that struggles with the expression of grief, especially pet loss grief. Bereaved pet carers often feel rushed to “get over” their pet or “move on”. Comments such as “it was just a dog/cat/horse/rabbit, etc.” can reinforce the message that pet loss is something that should be put in the past quickly. Even the use of the word “it” to describe your companion robs them of their identity.

But you know better.

Pet loss can be just as hard as losing a human loved one. It’s not your responsibility to fit your healing journey to someone else’s timetable and to minimise your pain to fit in with someone else’s view of the world. 

In reality, you will probably experience some form of grief over your lost pet for the rest of your life, although the nature of your grief will change with time. You will also continue to love them and carry memories of them with you.

Principle Four: Every loss is a multiple loss

Grief is like a stone being thrown into a lake – its ripples spread out much further than you might ever imagine.

In the fourth principle of grief, Jeffreys reminds us that every loss is a multiple loss.

When your pet died, you lost more than their body and being. You lost the future together, the way you talked to them, your daily routines, what you did together and even just the way you were with them.

These secondary losses were all a vital part of life with your pet so it’s natural that you will grieve for them too.

Principle Five: Change = Loss = Grief

Change is an unavoidable part of our existence. Even if we have a quiet, uneventful life staying in the same job and living in the same house with the same people, something will change eventually, even just due to the passing of time.

Whenever we experience a change in life, it’s usually accompanied by a sense of loss as we transition from one thing to the next. This could be changing schools, taking on a new job, moving house, going travelling and many other scenarios. Even when there’s great excitement and optimism about the future, we usually have some sort of grief reaction as we say goodbye to something that was important to us.

When change and loss are brought about by the death or serious illness of someone we love, including a pet, there’s always a much stronger grief reaction. You didn’t choose this change and the losses that come with it. It takes time to process this.

Principle Six: We grieve old loss while grieving new loss

If you’ve ever come across the “Ball in the Box” analogy, you’ll know that grief never fully goes away. Every loss you’ve experienced in your life is like a ball in the box bouncing around, hitting the balls of other losses and occasionally pressing the pain button that sits on one of the walls.

When you experience a new loss, it adds a new ball to the box, one that starts off huge and presses the pain button continuously as well as jostling all the other balls in the box.

As this analogy explains, we carry our past grief with us. It’s understandable that your pet loss may have brought past losses to the forefront of your mind. 

It’s important to give your feelings about each loss space and attention, even if you’re suddenly thinking about a bereavement that happened years ago.

Principle Seven: We grieve when a loss has occurred or is threatened

Again, Jeffreys reminds us that, as a social species, humans and some other animals have evolved to develop deep bonds. It’s these bonds, first with our parents and wider family and later with friends, non-human animals, etc., that keep us safe and enrich our lives.

It is natural, Jeffreys says, to experience a grief reaction even if a loss is threatened rather than realised.

This is why pet carers often struggle with anticipatory grief when a companion non-human animal is old or terminally ill, even though they’re still alive and happy.

If you’re experiencing grief before your pet has died, please be reassured that it’s a natural response to knowing a loss might occur in the future. It’s important to be kind to yourself about feeling this.

Finding support for your pet loss grief

The Seven Principles of Grief are a gentle reminder that it is part of the human experience to grieve for a companion we love. While there are universal truths about grief that unite us, grief is also deeply personal and unique to you.

If you are struggling with pet loss grief right now, here are some tips that may help:

  • Rest, eat good food and do some exercise whenever you feel able – it’s important to look after yourself
  • Pay attention to how you’re feeling and acknowledge it – if possible, tell someone else, just to share what’s on your mind
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” things
  • Find mourning rituals that give you comfort, e.g. planting a tree for your pet, volunteering, donating to a charity in their name, lighting a candle in their memory
  • Take time off from grieving whenever you feel able – listen to a favourite song, cook a meal, meet up with a friend
  • Write down how you’re feeling
  • Reach out to a pet bereavement service or counsellor or talk to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group

You’re not alone.

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