Sadly, loss is a universally-experienced life event. Pet loss, however, is something only experienced by those of us who choose to live with or care for an animal.
Bereavement, grief and mourning are all common terms that we use to describe the feelings and behaviours associated with loss, whatever its nature.
People often talk about each as if they’re interchangeable. However, there are some key differences – especially between grief and mourning – that are particularly relevant to bereaved pet carers.
Let’s look at what these terms mean and why the differences matter.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement refers to the experience of having lost someone or something you love. In this case, the bereavement you have experienced is the loss of a pet.
What is grief?
Grief is perhaps best defined as our internal (psychobiological) reaction to a bereavement/loss. It includes a range of psychological and physiological symptoms that vary over time and from one person to another.
Two people can be grieving the same loss and experience it in very different ways.
As we never stop feeling sad about losing someone we love, and we never stop missing them, grief is permanent.
However, it does change with time.
Grief usually includes an acute phase, which begins shortly after a loss is experienced. In the case of pet loss, this can include symptoms such as:
- Profound sadness
- Longing to be with the pet who has died or gone missing
- Constant thoughts and memories of your pet, including how they died
- Physical symptoms such as digestive problems, trouble sleeping, low energy, lack of appetite, or various aches and pains
- Disinterest in the outer world and usual activities (thoughts turn inwards instead)
All of these emotions and physical symptoms are a natural reaction to losing someone we love.
During the acute phase, it can be difficult to think about anything but your loss and grief. You may wonder how you will ever feel happy again or able to move forward in life.
Given time though, we learn to integrate grief into our lives, growing around it.
What is complicated grief?
Given how devastating grief is and how strongly we experience it, most humans and grieving animals eventually find a way to live a satisfying and meaningful life after loss. They never forget but they do find a measure of acceptance.
Approximately seven percent of bereaved people though experience what is known as complicated grief (or “persistent complex bereavement disorder”).
This is when the feelings of loss are debilitating and don’t improve over time. For someone with complicated grief, the pain of loss can be so severe that the person has trouble resuming their own life and finding any fulfilment in it, sometimes for years after the loss.
Although it’s important to know that grief doesn’t have a time frame, bereavement experts recommend talking to a doctor or counsellor if you’re still experiencing the acute stage of grief or struggling to express your feelings six to 12 months after your loved one has died.
It may be that you need more intensive support.
Grief is not depression (but they can be linked)
It’s important to say here that people often talk about grief and depression as if they’re the same or as if depression is an inevitable part of grieving.
Yes, grief and depression can both cause profound sadness and disrupt our lives but they are fundamentally different.
Depression is a medical illness, a mood disorder that inhibits the ability to experience positive emotions. It can bias our thinking towards negatives and turn our thoughts inwards, robbing us of the sense of who we are as a person.
Grief is a natural response to losing someone you love.
But even in the depths of despair, grief allows us to experience positive emotions and memories too. We may struggle to connect with the outside world but we still want to. We also retain our sense of self. Yes, some of our dreams for the future may have died with our loved one but we still have the ability to dream.
The reason we shouldn’t confuse grief and depression is that depression typically needs treatment whereas grief needs time, reassurance and support.
Also, it helps to be aware that people who have experienced depression are more likely to experience complicated grief. Equally, complicated grief can be a sign that someone needs support for depression.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, please speak to your GP for advice.
What is mourning?
While grief is about the internal experience of bereavement, mourning is about how we express it externally.
It’s a catchall term to describe the practical rituals and psychological processes we use to process our bereavement and eventually reconnect with the world.
Funerals, memorials, crying, talking about our pet loss, journaling, looking at photos, etc., all fall under the umbrella of mourning.
Bereavement experts advise that the only way to integrate a loss into our lives is to mourn as well as grieve.
In her research into grief, M Katherine Shear says, “After mourning successfully, a bereaved person is re-engaged in daily life, reconnected to others, and able to experience hope for a future with potential for joy and satisfaction”.
However, Shear warns that mourning can be highly “aversive”.
When we mourn, we have to think about mortality, both our own and that of our loved ones. Our brains can register this as a threat and push the thoughts away, making it harder for us to process grief.
Many people in Western culture are uncomfortable with outward expressions of grief. We live in a society that prizes youth and struggles to talk about death. This can make us feel ashamed or just uncertain about how to express our innermost feelings of loss.
Another issue for pet carers is that not everyone recognises pet loss as a bereavement. This can lead to feelings of isolation. Without the rituals that usually take place after a bereavement or support from a wider network, pet carers can feel like they’re not allowed to mourn.
This can lead to what is known as incomplete grief.
Mourning your precious pet
Research shows that losing a pet can be as painful as losing a human family member. This is due to many factors including attachment bonds, a loss of routine when a pet dies, secondary losses (such as no longer seeing friends you walked your dog with), lack of validation and support, loss of companionship, loss of unconditional love, and more.
One of the main reasons The Ralph Site exists is to give pet carers like you a safe space to mourn.
Being able to express your grief is a vital part of learning how to live without your pet.
Hopefully, the more we talk about the impact of pet loss, the more society will create other opportunities for mourning.
Have you been able to mourn yet?
If you’re living with pet loss grief, it can be helpful to ask the following questions once in a while:
- Have I been mourning this death or have I restricted myself to grieving?
- Am I struggling to express my grief? If so, why?
- If I have permitted myself to mourn, what are the ways I have done this?
- Who or what has been most helpful in my mourning?
We all have preferences when it comes to how we express ourselves, including how we mourn.
Some people mourn a pet by chatting to friends or building a memorial garden, others by writing a letter or creating a photobook. Only you can decide what is right for you.
All that matters is that you do mourn as well as grieve.
As always, know that you are not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support