If you’ve recently lost a pet or are facing an imminent loss, you probably recognise that grief can be all-consuming and isolating in its nature. In many ways, this is because we all experience and express grief differently, which can make it hard to connect with people who are outside of that experience.
Pet loss is often described as a disenfranchised grief because our wider society doesn’t always recognise its impact. There may be people in your circle who have never shared their lives with an animal companion or who have but didn’t have the same connection, and therefore struggle to understand how much you have lost.
Other people may not know what to say.
Indeed, the latter is common. People often find grief uncomfortable and confronting. It’s a reminder that life ends. You might find that your friends don’t say anything because they don’t know what to say or because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. Or you might find that, when people try to comfort you, it doesn’t offer comfort at all.
This can all add to the sense of being isolated and unseen in your grief.
This blog, however, seeks to recognise that having the support of your friends and family is incredibly important when you’re grieving. It will help you to feel loved, accepted, and grounded at a time when you may feel anything but these things.
So, today, we want to explore ways that you can encourage your friends and family to support you at this difficult time.
As much as we wish there was a secret formula to understanding and curing grief, the reality is that it is unique to everyone and that it isn’t an ailment to cure.
Your feelings about the loss of your animal companion will depend on many things, from the relationship you shared to your routines, stage of life, past experiences, personal circumstances, and so much more.
Grief can cause a vast array of emotions – often several emotions at the same time! – including sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety and even relief. What you feel can change from one minute to the next. You may feel distracted, exhausted, physically depleted, tearful, numb – there’s often no way to predict what will come next.
No one else can know your grief, but they can create a space for it.
Why friends and family sometimes struggle to support us
In the face of the uncertain and unique nature of grief, people often find it challenging to know how to provide effective support.
As we’ve mentioned above, sometimes it’s as simple as being frightened of saying the wrong thing.
Other times, there’s a lack of understanding about the grieving process. People who haven’t experienced a bereavement before often imagine that grief looks like tears and obvious sadness and may not recognise other emotions as grief.
The mistaken idea that there are fixed stages of grief means that people in your circle may expect you to move through your emotions in a pre-determined order and then find it jarring when you don’t. This can feed into the idea that you’re someone doing grief in a ‘wrong’ way (which you aren’t!).
People can also feel very uncomfortable around grief. Your loss might remind your friends and family that they will lose their own animal friends one day too. Death is also a stark reminder that life is short, and this can be a frightening prospect.
Communicating your needs
At this time, we’d encourage you to use open and honest communication with your friends and loved ones. They don’t have to share or understand your loss in order to show empathy.
The important thing is to be clear about what you’re feeling or what you need in order to feel supported.
In the maelstrom of grief, it’s easy to assume that other people will instinctively know that you need support and exactly what that support looks like but often that’s not the case. Even though it’s exhausting to do so, it can be helpful to be clear and definite about what you need.
A simple statement like, “I would really like to talk about my pet. I don’t need you to try to minimise my pain or fix things because that isn’t possible. I just need you to listen” can open the door to a heartfelt conversation.
Educating your support network
Your friends and family may find it helpful to learn a bit more about grief. You could encourage them to read some of the blogs here on The Ralph Site as they talk about the emotional and practical impact of pet loss.
There are also many fantastic books and podcasts about grief, as well as pet loss grief.
What friends can do to help when you’re grieving
Of course, only you know what support you would find helpful. However, below we’ve listed some ways that friends and family can typically help when you’re grieving. Hopefully, these ideas might help you to start a conversation:
- Listening without judgement
This is probably the number one thing that anyone can do when supporting a bereaved person. We humans often have a desire to fix things, but grief isn’t fixable. There aren’t short cuts; it won’t magically go away.
The kindest thing your friends and family can do is simply be with you and listen without judgement.
- Offering practical assistance
Grief is exhausting and it can be all-consuming. Practical things like eating well, exercising or managing a home can be challenging. Let your friends and family know if you need someone to step in and cook a meal or help you in some other practical way.
People will often say, “Let me know if I can help with anything” but most of us never follow up on this kind of offer because it’s too vague. Equally, people may not step in to help if they don’t understand what help is needed. It can be really useful to say to your friends, “I need X, Y or Z”.
- Being present and available
It can be hard to ask the people around you to be present and available because, of course, everyone has commitments, and you may be worried about being seen as a burden.
There’s no denying that grief can make a relationship feel off-balance. You may feel like you’re constantly off-loading on your friends or that they’re getting bored or frustrated with you. Do let your loved ones know that their support is appreciated and that you value them showing up and being available at this time.
Coping with insensitive remarks
Despite their best intentions, people may sometimes say hurtful things.
When a pet dies, it’s sadly very common for people to say things like, “When are you going to get a new one?”, “At least it was just a cat/dog/guinea pig, etc.”, “At least it wasn’t a human” or even, “Are you still upset?”
The fact that so many people use the word “it” to talk about a sentient being unfortunately speaks volumes about the fact that people see pets as possessions or commodities that can be easily replaced.
Thankfully, your animal friend has given you the lived experience to have a more empathetic perspective.
And hopefully, this perspective can help you to forgive unintentional mistakes. It’s very unlikely that your friends and family mean to say something hurtful. They’re probably just trying to provide a fix because they don’t know how else to make things better.
Seeking professional help
If your friends and family aren’t able to offer the support you need to come to terms with your loss, you may find bereavement counselling helpful, especially talking to an experienced pet bereavement counsellor.
In the UK, the Blue Cross has a dedicated pet bereavement support service. If you’re outside of the UK, a Google search should help you to find support more locally.
We created the private Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook to give you a safe space to talk to other bereaved pet carers. The people in this group understand how distressing pet loss can be.
If you are struggling to find support from your friends and family, then we urge you to reach out. You will find other bereavement resources on The Ralph Site.
According to the American Psychological Association and other experts, people are better able to come to terms with a bereavement if they have a good social support network.
It can be a steep learning curve for everyone. You’re trying to learn how to exist in this new place of loss, while your friends and family are learning how to support you. Patience is needed as everyone is learning to navigate this challenging journey together, whatever their role in your life.
If you’re struggling to tell your loved ones how pet loss grief is affecting you, please do direct them to this website or our public Facebook page so that they can learn more about how life-changing pet loss can be for bereaved pet carers.
If you’ve found ways to connect with your social circle during a time of grief or you’ve supported a friend after a bereavement and have tips to share, we’d love you to leave a comment.
As always, please know that you are not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support