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