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Why it’s okay if you’re ‘coping ugly’ with pet loss

Are you worried that you’re not coping with the loss of a pet? Do friends and family keep telling you that you should be feeling better by now or that they’re concerned that you’re not looking after yourself?

Hopefully, today’s blog can offer you some reassurance.

‘Coping ugly’

In 2008, George Bonanno, a Professor in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University who specialises in bereavement and trauma, coined the term ‘coping ugly’. 

This phrase describes the fact that we humans sometimes use behaviours that we might otherwise deem unhealthy to help us cope with grief or trauma. And, in doing this, these behaviours may actually serve a healthy function.

In your darkest, messiest moments of grief, it could be that you’re finding a way to move forward by coping ugly.

Examples of coping ugly

So, what sort of behaviours might be described as ‘coping ugly’? This will vary from one person to another.

You might be coping ugly if, since your pet died or went missing, you avoid coming home, stay in bed longer than usual, comfort eat, binge-watch hours of TV to distract yourself from thinking, drink more than usual, deliberately look at pictures of your pet to make yourself cry, laugh uncontrollably at things other people would view as ‘inappropriate’….

The list goes on and on!

Bonanno theorised that any and all of these behaviours might be considered unhealthy if they were your usual pattern of behaviour for months or years at a time. We all know, after all, that daily comfort eating or drinking to excess can harm our physical health. 

However, when you’re grieving, sometimes you just have to do what you need to move from one minute to the next (as long as it doesn’t put you or anyone else at risk of harm).

Coping ugly helps us regulate our emotions

According to Bonanno, coping ugly is a tried and tested way for people to regulate their emotions after a bereavement. It can actually be a mark of resilience – that we’re prepared to give ourselves a break and do whatever we need to cope in the moment.

So, if you’re coping ugly right now, there’s a good chance that it’s a survival mechanism. You can’t be with your pet as much as you miss them, so you’re finding temporary ways to cushion the grief, even if those ways are messy.

Should you worry about your “coping ugly” behaviours?

Psychologists often talk about coping behaviours as being either adaptive or maladaptive

Broadly speaking, adaptive behaviours are behaviours we use to cope in our environment with the greatest success and the least amount of conflict. It’s adaptive behaviours that help us meet the demands of everyday life, both practically and socially.

Maladaptive behaviours, on the other hand, offer short-term relief from uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety but have a dysfunctional and non-productive outcome long-term. Behaviours such as drug taking, overspending, eating disorders or self-harming are examples of maladaptive coping behaviours.

When you’re “coping ugly”, Bonanno points out that your coping behaviours might actually be adaptive, even if they look maladaptive on the surface.

It is important to be aware of what you’re doing, what’s driving your behaviour and how in control you feel. 

If you want to cope with your bereavement by laying on the sofa, eating biscuits and binge-watching your favourite TV series for days at a time, that’s completely understandable and more than OK if it helps you to cope. If you want to throw yourself into work or being super active, you don’t have to explain your behaviour to anyone. 

If, however, weeks have passed and you feel unable to get up off the sofa, or you’re so busy you’re starting to feel burnt out, then you may need more support.

Psychologists say that there are three signs a coping mechanism has become maladaptive – you feel:

  1. Compelled to use the behaviour even if you don’t want to
  2. Ashamed of yourself for using the behaviour
  3. You need the behaviour more often and/or need a higher dose over time

If you’re worried that your version of coping ugly has crossed into behaviours that are harmful or addictive, then do reach out for help – be it from friends or family, a bereavement counsellor or a pet loss support group.

Coping with grief doesn’t have to be pretty

Grief is messy. It looks different for everyone and affects us all in different and unexpected ways. There’s nothing pretty or easy about losing a pet who has been a much-loved member of our family.

The important thing, Bonanno believes, is noticing when you’re coping ugly and allowing yourself to recognise the feelings that might be driving that behaviour. This may help you to give yourself permission to not know all (or any) of the answers and to grieve without self-judgement. There is no one way you should feel or behave.

Bonanno reminds us that “Grief is about losing part of your identity”, the part that loved who or what we have lost. Coping ugly is a short-term way to deal with that or distract ourselves from it. It can also help us come to terms with the part we’ve lost while finding strengths in the other parts of our identity that remain.

Coping ugly creates space for distress. It takes us out of everyday life while we gather the internal resources that we need to in order to process what we’ve lost. And that’s more than OK, as long as coping ugly is part of your journey and not a place to stay long-term. 

If you need to talk to other pet carers who understand how you’re feeling, The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.

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

Time distortion: Why time doesn’t make sense after a pet bereavement

One of the strange things about grief, particularly in the early hours, days or even weeks after a bereavement has happened, is that time seems to stop working in its usual, linear way.

Familiar things – including time – suddenly feel half-formed or alien. Your emotions can be so present and turbulent that it’s hard to breathe. It’s like you’re being carried by a wave, and there’s nothing to cling to, creating both a feeling of being trapped and of being rushed away from where you want to be.

Of course, time doesn’t really change. There are still the same number of seconds in a minute and the same number of hours in a day. But, despite knowing this, many bereaved people will recognise the feeling of being out(side) of time.

If you have recently lost a pet, you may be experiencing this phenomenon. On the one hand, parts of your day may drag – just achieving basic tasks may feel like wading through treacle while wearing a lead suit! – but, at the same time, you might feel like the days are flying by. You may find yourself saying, “I can’t believe it’s been 10 days already since they left”.

You may have a sense that your past, present and future have all frozen in place and yet are pulling away from you. Equally, you may find it hard to sort events into an order. If you were with your pet when they died, what was the sequence of events? How long did you sit and hold them (if you could)? What happened afterwards?

As well as time moving strangely, you may have lost chunks of time altogether or have them in your mind but not be able to place where they fit in.

All of the above can be overwhelming, frightening even. Please be reassured that it is a natural grief response.

Time distortion is a common grief response

Why does our perception of time behave in such a strange way after pet bereavement (or, indeed, any kind of loss)?

It turns out that time distortion is a common response to losing someone you love. There seem to be several reasons for why it occurs; researchers can only speculate because we understand time through multiple senses.

  • Our emotions affect how we perceive time

Research published in 2011 found that “In everyday life, the experience of a mood changes our relationship with time. When we are sad and depressed, we feel that the flow of time slows down. Every hour seems like an eternity as if time had stopped. In contrast, the feeling of stress seems to accelerate the flow of time”.

This might explain why, following a bereavement – a period of sadness, stress, anxiety and many other emotions – our perception is that time can both fly by and stand still.

  • Sleep disruption

Your pet loss grief may be disrupting your sleep, which can quickly lead to disorientation. Sleep deprivation is associated with brain fog, slow response times, confusion, poor reasoning, forgetfulness and lack of focus – all of which can impact how you perceive time to be moving.

  • Brain fog

Brain fog itself is common in the newly bereaved and affects how we process short- and long-term memories, both of which can influence our perception of time. It’s likely that brain fog is a self-protective mechanism where your brain attempts to cushion you against reality so that you can slowly begin to process your loss. Again, the feelings of confusion and detachment associated with brain fog may affect your sense of time.

As the brain fog begins to clear, you may feel like you have lost chunks of time when your grief was most fresh. You may also feel shocked that the world can carry on as normal and that you’re out of step with what used to be your ‘normal’ life.

  • We perceive time in economic terms

Something that isn’t always discussed is that time is often closely associated with economic value. 

Many of us run our daily routines to a clock that determines when we start and finish work and how much we get paid for the work we do. Time also dictates when we go for a walk with our dogs, when we feed our pets, our leisure time and so on…

When you’re grieving, your routine can go out of sync. You may need to take some time off work as paid or unpaid leave. You may want to grieve but work for yourself, meaning that if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

All of these factors and more may affect how closely you’re watching time while you’re grieving and how that shapes your perception of it. For example, if you’ve only managed to take a couple of days off as holiday (something pet carers often have to do when faced with a loss), you may feel like time is running away from you, pushing you back to work before you’re ready. Equally, by losing some of your routines, you may find time drags unfilled.

It’s deeply embedded in our psychology to see time as either productive or wasted. And when you’re grieving and finding it hard to complete everyday tasks, you may berate yourself for time-wasting (not that you are), making you more hyperaware of its passing!

Giving yourself time

Ironically, the only cure to time distortion in grief is time. Gradually, you should find that the brain fog subsides and that your sleep improves, and you find a way to carry the memories of your beloved pet with you.

Grief doesn’t fit a timeline, and it looks and feels different for everyone. You may find that your perception of time slips unexpectedly, even years into the future, throwing you back to the moment of loss. On other occasions, time may pass far more predictably.

We understand how disorientating time distortion can be when you’re grieving, as well as the other feelings of confusion, lack of focus, disorganisation, repetitive thoughts and more. The important thing to remember is that these grief responses are normal – you need time to make sense of your loss, even if time misbehaves for a while!

And do remember that if you need to talk to other pet carers who understand how you’re feeling, The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.

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

Tips for older adults grieving the loss of a pet

If you’re an older person grieving the loss of a pet, first let us say how sorry we are for your loss.

It’s never easy to lose a beloved animal companion, but we understand that there are some specific challenges that come with experiencing a pet bereavement later in life. Today, we’d like to talk about these and give you some tips to help you at this difficult time.

Too many changes at once

The post-retirement years in life can throw a lot at you at once. Changes to your finances, new grandchildren or great-grandchildren, exploring your identity at the end of your career, watching your peers grow older, bereavements, health challenges, changes to your independence or mobility, moving house…. The list goes on!

You may not be dealing with any of these things, but there’s a good chance that you’ll have at least one or two on your plate right now.

Your pet may have helped you to navigate all of these changes, a stable and loving presence that you could rely on. It’s natural if you feel cast adrift without that quiet support.

Loss of companionship

One of the pleasures of living with a pet is that they offer companionship and lend purpose and structure to every day. This can help in different ways, whether life is quiet or busy, and is especially noticeable if you’re the only human in the house! 

Feeding times, playtime, walks, cleaning out, time together – whatever your pet’s individual needs were, activities with them and for them would have been an important part of everyday life.

Losing this can have quite an impact. You may feel that you’ve lost your identity in some way without your pet. You may also be struggling with the loss of the routine you had with them.

If your social life centred on your pet – for example, meeting up with other dog carers at the park or tending a horse at a stable – then losing this social outlet can make your grief harder to bear.

Your last pet?

One of the dilemmas we face as we get older is whether it’s the right thing to commit to caring for a pet when they might outlive us.

We’re not assuming you’re at that point or telling you that you need to bring another pet into your home (or not), but it’s important to acknowledge that this might be a question you’re grappling with – or one that you will face in the future.

As with so many of the issues facing bereaved pet carers, there are no right or wrong answers.

Many older people share their lives with animal companions having made arrangements for what should happen to the pet if they outlive their human carer. This can be a difficult but necessary conversation that should give you peace of mind if you have other pets or decide to bring another animal companion into your home one day.

If you’ve decided that the pet who died is your last, we understand that may complicate your grief, adding an extra layer of loss and resurfacing memories of past pets.

Tips to help you cope as an older adult dealing with pet loss

At this difficult time, it’s crucial that you do everything you can to prioritise self-care:

  1. Stay connected with your friends and family.

This will help you maintain the sense of connection and companionship that your pet gave you. If there are people you socialise with because of your pet, how about reaching out to them to see if you can meet up in a different context so that you’re still able to enjoy their company?

  1. Talk about your loss.

Pet loss is sometimes called a disenfranchised grief because it’s not always widely acknowledged in society; nevertheless, you have experienced a major bereavement, and it’s vital that you’re able to talk about this with people you trust. If you’re struggling to talk to your friends or family, you could reach out to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site Facebook group or speak to a trained volunteer through a service like the Blue Cross pet bereavement helpline.

  1. Stay active

Moving around as much as possible – be it going for walks, visiting friends, doing some exercise you enjoy, playing golf, gardening, or volunteering as a dog walker for an organisation like The Cinnamon Trust – will help boost your physical and mental health. If you’re new to exercise, ask your GP for a health check before you embark on anything strenuous!

  1. Ask your loved ones for their support. 

Sometimes, in the depths of grief, it can be hard to spot that we’re struggling. You could ask your loved ones to gently point out if they notice any changes in your physical or emotional health or in your behaviour. This can be a sign that you need to increase your self-care.

  1. Remember to eat.

It’s common for older adults to experience a decrease in appetite, but bereavement can make this worse and lead to some weight loss. 

If you are finding it harder to eat at the moment, you might want to switch to smaller meals and frequent snacks, so you’re not struggling to eat three larger meals a day. Think about how you can increase your calorie intake while avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat or sugars (as they can make you feel worse in the long run).

If you’re at all worried, have a chat with your GP, as it’s important that you eat sufficient nutrients even when your appetite has dipped.

  1. Volunteer with animals.

If you think the pet who died will be your last, there are still ways to keep animals in your life and make a positive difference to them. Rescue centres, sanctuaries and other organisations are often crying out for volunteers. Getting involved with fundraising or caring activities can be a great way to extend your social circle.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

Grief at any stage in life can be derailing and disorientating. It’s common to experience brain fog, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and many other emotions, often all at once! Be kind to yourself. Reinforce healthy behaviours, try to talk about your feelings, eat good food and be as active as possible. Grief doesn’t have a timeline or set rules so take away any pressure to feel a certain way.

And above all, remember that you’re not alone if you need support.

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

“Who am I now?” Loss of identity after pet bereavement

To a certain extent, we all expect to experience grief when a beloved pet dies. It’s part of the deal, isn’t it? That our happy times together will eventually come to an end, resulting in a time of great sadness.

What many of us don’t expect is the loss of identity that can occur after a pet bereavement. 

If you find yourself asking, “Who am I without my pet?” you’re not alone. Loss of identity is a surprisingly common response to a bereavement, a secondary loss can be deeply upsetting.

Why do some people experience a loss of identity when grieving? 

Each human has a sense of self, of who we are as a person. Our identity is shaped by various internal and external influences – the people we know, our relationships, our society and culture and/or ethnicity, what gives us purpose, our interests and passions, our beliefs, our life experiences and so much more.

Being a pet carer is likely to be a significant part of your personal identity, of how you see yourself and your place in the world. Knowing this, it’s understandable that losing your pet may have impacted your sense of self.

Any kind of loss can shake things up. Suddenly, the world doesn’t look the same. When your pet was alive, you had a clear role in relation to them but now that role has gone (even if you have other pets to care for), who are you? How should you define yourself if it’s not as a pet parent, guardian or carer?

These can be difficult questions. Don’t feel you have to know the answers straight away.

Your relational identity

We all have what is known as a “relational identity” (in fact, we each have multiple relational identities, based on our many emotional connections). A relational identity is about how we see ourselves in relation to someone else. 

For example, we might define ourselves as a spouse, daughter, son, sister, uncle, carer, and so on. In the same way, whatever words you use to define your relationship with your pet, the reality is that you loved them and they loved you and that shaped how you viewed yourself.

Your relational identity with your pet may have changed over time to reflect their age or changing needs. This evolution in your identity is still happening, even if you feel like you’ve lost who you are right now.

Another important factor in relational identity is the relationship we have with our wider community. This is really significant for pet carers because we often connect with like-minded people who live with similar pets. For example, your social life may have revolved around meeting other dog walkers or other horse carers at your horse’s stable. Perhaps you’re someone who enjoyed chatting online in pet-centric Facebook groups or on forums.

Without your pet, you might be finding it hard to define where you fit within these communities, which can have a knock-on effect on your identity.

Other forms of identity

We each have other forms of identity too. For example, we have a professional identity. If your pet was somehow involved in your working life – perhaps even just coming into the office with you – then losing them can shake up how you see yourself in a work context.

Equally, you may have a strong spiritual identity. Whether you believe in a specific faith or you simply see yourself as a spiritual person, dealing with a bereavement can often trigger a crisis of faith. As a pet carer, you may feel like there aren’t the same comfort or rituals for losing as pet as there would be for losing a person and that can cause some people to feel distanced from their spiritual communities.

Again, this can lead to a loss of identity.

And what of your financial identity or identity as a provider for your family, in which we include your pet? If you have had to pay a lot of vet bills recently, this may have been a source of stress and worry, as well as becoming part of your identity as a pet carer. What does it mean to your identity now these responsibilities have ended?

Even simple things like changes to your daily routine can affect how you see yourself, especially as a provider. Who are you if your day isn’t punctuated by walks, feeds, cleaning out, grooming, playing and spending time with your pet? These thoughts are all understandable.

Has your outlook been shaken by your pet’s death?

If someone were to ask you to describe your outlook on life, what would you say? Do you see yourself as optimistic, hopeful, someone who believes in the intrinsic good of other people and that life will usually turn out for the best?

Your pet loss may be challenging your world view, especially if the circumstances were sudden or traumatic. Again, this is to be expected. Give yourself time to process your loss.

How to find your identity after pet loss

For most people, the loss of identity after a bereavement is temporary, albeit distressing and something that can take time to address.

One of the most important things you can do to move forward is recognise that your identity won’t be exactly the same as it was when your pet was alive. In order to regain your sense of self, you will need to accept that you are a different person now because this loss is part of your life experience.

But different doesn’t mean bad or less than.

Hopefully, you can find meaningful ways to continue your bond with your pet. This ongoing connection can help you to integrate your identity as their guardian into your sense of self in a world without them.

Despite the loss that you’ve experienced, do know that there is hope for the future. You will find things in life, including new relationships, which bring to joy and contentment if you allow yourself to be open to them.

Try to give yourself the time and space to reflect on your loss – and this includes how it feels to have lost your identity. Some people find it helpful to write about their pet loss grief but you might find drawing, painting or sculpting therapeutic. What’s your favourite form of self-expression?

If you have someone you can talk to about your experiences, it’s important to reach out to them. They may not understand that you’re facing secondary losses such as changes to your daily routine, distance from your pet community or a loss of identity. People can often be incredibly helpful once they understand what you’re dealing with.

If you don’t have anyone in your immediate circle to talk to, a pet bereavement service (e.g. via an organisation like the Blue Cross) can help you to begin the journey of rebuilding your self-identity.

You will find yourself again

We really do understand how lost you might be feeling right now. Pet bereavement can challenge how we see ourselves and how we see our place in the world. Your pet offered unconditional love and companionship and losing this can rock your sense of self. 

Just know that the person your pet loved so much is still part of you. The essence of who you are remains. But it also makes sense that your identity might be in a state of change and that you don’t yet have a clearly defined sense of who you are without your pet.

Try not to put yourself under any pressure. You will find yourself again.

Until then, know that you’re not alone.

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

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