Are you living with pet loss grief and finding it a struggle?
We’re sorry for your loss. Any kind of grief can be disorientating, exhausting and overwhelming, but pet loss grief carries its own unique challenges.
If you’re finding it hard to navigate everyday life right now, do know that this is a normal grief response. You’ve experienced a major loss and you need time to adjust.
The most important thing you can do is to be patient and kind to yourself as you process your bereavement. Sit with your feelings when they come, ringfence time – if you must – when you’re able to be present and not have to pretend that everything is OK. Reach out when you need support.
Grief wants to be felt
In the days, weeks and months after loss, grief can make it incredibly hard to navigate everyday life.
You may feel like time has stopped making sense or as though your brain is so foggy and distracted that you can barely manage things that used to be effortless. You may feel sad, anxious, angry, guilty, frozen in time, relieved or numb – or all of the above.
People often feel like they’re sleepwalking through everyday life when they’re grieving or as though they’re standing outside of reality. It can be hard to comprehend how everyone is carrying on as normal when everything changed for you in the moment your pet died.
And living with pet loss grief can be doubly hard because your animal friend may have been the one to give you comfort when you were hurt in the past.
This is one of the reasons why pet loss can hurt so much. You shared your home, your inner sanctum, with your pet and now all you can feel is their absence.
Creating your own pet loss rituals
There’s a reason that most human cultures have rites and rituals to turn to when a loved one dies. Beyond the practical need to deal with the physical remains, there’s a strong emotional or spiritual need to commemorate the passing of someone who is precious to us.
Having a funeral to arrange or memorial to organise can also give the bereaved person something to focus on at a time when nothing makes sense – a beacon and buffer in the storm of grief. With human losses, there’s usually an undertaker or someone official to say, “This is what you need to do now”. When it’s hard to focus, this guidance can be invaluable.
Many pet carers sadly miss out on the rites and rituals, as well as the guidance, associated with death, although, thankfully, this is beginning to change.
If you think it might help you, we’d definitely recommend exploring ways to memorialise your pet or bury or cremate them with some level of ceremony. If you have a local pet crematorium, for example, they may lay your pet out in a private room for you to sit with them and say goodbye. They may also give you seeds to plant in your pet’s memory (Forget-Me-Nots are a popular choice) or talk through your choice of casket or urn. Alternatively, you might want to create a memorial garden at home, collate a photobook of your pet’s life, write to them, or even create a memorial website.
Your everyday life has changed
Something that people who haven’t lost a loved pet before often overlook is that we structure our everyday lives around the needs of our animal companions. Time spent together, walks, mealtimes, grooming, healthcare, bedtime rituals – these all dictate our daily routines.
Without your pet, you may feel like your life has changed beyond recognition. This creates a secondary loss that can add to your grief.
To help you live with this aspect of pet loss grief, you might want to look at parts of your daily routine that you can continue. For example, if you’re used to walking with a dog early every morning, you could continue to go for walks but try different routes if it’s too painful to go where your pet loved.
Alternatively, you might want to make significant changes to your routine to mark this period of change. Some people find it helpful to write about their everyday life with their pet so that, as change happens moving forward, the routine is there is reflect on.
As with all aspects of living with pet loss grief, there’s no right or wrong way to deal with a loss of routine. You might need to try different things to see what you find doable. Just remember that experts advise putting off making big life decisions and changes for at least six months to a year after a bereavement. This gives your thought processes time to become clearer after the initial fog of grief.
Look after your own health
Grief can cause a surprising number of physical symptoms. Therefore, if you’re living with pet loss grief, it’s vital to prioritise your mental and physical health, even when it feels like you don’t have the energy.
Try to eat nourishing, delicious food and exercise whenever you can, even if that means just taking a gentle 10-minute walk. Reach out to people you trust, sleep when you can, be aware of your alcohol consumption or whether you’re using risky behaviours to cope.
It’s important that you don’t feel you have to grieve behind closed doors without support.
Pet loss is a kind of disenfranchised grief, which means that it isn’t always recognised by our wider society. Even when recognised, people don’t necessarily see it as having the same impact on the bereaved person as when a human loved one dies.
But the reality is that loss is loss. Losing your animal friend may have hit you as hard – or even harder – than losing a human companion. It can be incredibly tough if your support network fails to recognise this or to acknowledge the depth of your pain, even if they can’t personally understand it.
Living with pet loss grief can be especially tough because it isn’t formally covered by bereavement leave, which means you may feel that you have to carry on with everyday life straight away, even though you’re grieving.
If you do have supportive friends and family, we’d encourage you to reach out to them. Let them know that you’re in pain. If you don’t feel that your usual support network can help, you might want to think about contacting a pet bereavement counsellor or joining a support group, like The Ralph Site’s Private Facebook Pet Loss Support Group.
Just know that you are not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support