Category Archives: Blog

Welcome to our blog!

Each week we will post blog pieces relating to pet bereavement and other animal-related topics. We hope you enjoy the blog and please share your thoughts and comments – we would love to hear from you!

The three Rs of grief

Although we all grieve differently, including when a beloved pet has died, people have developed a variety of models to help explain what the grieving process may look like.

Sometimes these models can be comforting because they’re a reminder that grief is a universal experience. 

One model is the three Rs of grief.

However, when researching this article, we found that when people refer to the three Rs, they often mean different things.

Examples of the “three R” model of grief 

Grief therapist, Dr Robert Neimeyer, says the three Rs of grief are: 

  • Retelling – Sharing memories and retelling your loved one’s story or shared history.
  • Rebuilding – Figuring out how to rebuild your life without your loved one and noticing new opportunities.
  • Reinventing – Learning how to incorporate the love you feel for your loved one into the person you have become as a result of their loss so that you can move forward.

In some grief forums, people talk about three Rs of grief that happen fairly soon after a bereavement: 

  • Regrets – These might be wishing you’d noticed your pet was ill sooner, not being able to prevent an accident, wishing you’d spent more time together, and so on.
  • Re-enactment – This can be a distressing aspect of grief where you can’t stop replaying your pet’s last moments or what they looked like dead rather than being able to remember them well and happy.
  • Resentment – You might resent people who still have their pets, especially if your pet was young, or find it unfathomable that other people can be happy when you’re in so much pain.

Three Rs that are associated with coming to terms with grief are:

  • Revision – Your life may look different without your pet, but it is still worth living.
  • Renewal – You will eventually find the strength to renew your interest in the people, animals and activities you already loved, as well as make space for new loves.
  • Remembrance – The realisation that grief isn’t about letting go; it’s about a new way of holding on and cherishing the precious memories you shared with your pet without being stuck in the moment of loss.

A simple but powerful model for the three Rs of grief

Louise Knowles, Head of Mental Health and Psychological Therapy Services at The University of Sheffield, explains another model for the three Rs of grief as Recognition, Remembering and Rebuilding.

Although Knowles talks about the three Rs in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a model that translates beautifully to pet loss. 

  • Recognition

The Recognition stage of grief usually comes in the days and weeks after you have experienced a bereavement. Remember that grief isn’t linear, and you may revisit this stage often. 

It’s the process of starting to recognise and acknowledge that you have lost someone you loved very much. This could be because your pet died or went missing.

During the Recognition stage of grief, you may struggle to come to terms with your loss. It probably won’t feel real. You may imagine your pet walking into the room like they always did or expect to see them in their enclosure if they weren’t free roaming. 

You may feel shocked, numb or in disbelief. 

Time may move strangely, your brain might feel foggy or you may feel you’re in survival mode, just “coping ugly” to get from one minute to the next.

At this point in time, it’s essential to take care of yourself. Try to eat healthy meals, create a routine for your day (especially important if you’re also grieving the loss of the routine you had with your pet) and prioritise getting plenty of rest.

It will help you to process your grief if you give yourself permission to feel any and all of the emotions that come up for you during this time. Guilt, anger, anxiety, confusion and relief are all common. 

  • Remembering

As you begin to process the permanence of your loss, you may find that you want to keep revisiting old memories. You might suddenly feel the need to look at photographs and videos of your pet or talk about them as often as possible.

This is a time when you need to feel listened to and supported by the people closest to you. Pet loss grief can make some people feel isolated from their friends and family because it’s a type of disenfranchised grief, meaning it isn’t widely recognised by society. You may need to spell out to your network that you need to talk about your pet and have witnesses to your memories of them.

(If you feel you can’t speak to your loved ones about your loss, please consider reaching out to a pet loss counsellor or joining a community such as The Ralph Site’s pet loss support group).

Reminiscing has an important function to play. It helps you to create meaning from your loss and begin to remember the happy times rather than just the circumstances surrounding your pet’s death or disappearance, which may have dominated your thoughts for a while now.

Remembering also helps you to find a way to move forward in life. You’re a different person now than you were before your bereavement, but that’s an inevitable part of losing someone you love. They no longer live beside you; instead, they are part of you – remembering makes this possible.

  • Rebuilding

Once you realise that you are not the person you were before your loss, you can begin to rebuild your life to reflect the new you. 

As Knowles says in the video we linked to above, people in the rebuilding stage often make external changes to their life to reflect what’s happened to them internally. 

You may change your routine, rearrange the rooms in your house, take up a new hobby, volunteer, change jobs, move house, start a new relationship or come to a point when you’re ready to bring a new animal companion into your home.

Again, there is no right or wrong. The key to the rebuilding stage is being open to new possibilities. It’s a bit like the Revision stage mentioned in one of the models above – the point where you acknowledge that life looks different without your pet, but it still has value.

Beyond the three Rs of grief

The three Rs of grief is a fairly straightforward model to describe what we might each expect to experience following a bereavement.

In reality, you will probably move backwards and forwards through these phases over a period of months or even years.

So many factors affect how we experience grief – our circumstances, past experiences, our relationship with the one who has died, our support network, our physical and mental health, and so much more. These factors can make grief an incredibly nuanced and personal experience.

It can be helpful to remember that grief is part of love. It hurts because you loved your pet so much. How lucky you both were to share such a beautiful and enduring connection.

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

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