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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!

Living with pet loss grief

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.

Finding support

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

The “fire” of grief and why pet loss can fuel growth or harmful behaviours

Have you recently suffered a pet bereavement and find yourself taking more risks? Are you suddenly less worried about the consequences of your actions or what other people think? You could be experiencing the fire!

In Cariad Lloyd’s fantastic book about grief, titled You Are Not Alone (Chapter 4), she talks about a phenomenon dubbed “the fire” that some people experience after a bereavement, describing it as “the feeling of being untouchable after a loss”.

The fire manifests in different ways for different grievers, and some people never experience it. For those that do, it can be life-changing.

Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)

You may have heard people talk about one aspect of the fire in more clinical terms – a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth” (PTG), which refers to positive psychological changes that can occur following a significant life challenge, such as a bereavement.

PTG often includes an increased appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength, better relationships with our loved ones, and a shift in priorities and values, and is thought to be the result of a complex interplay between various psychological, social and cultural factors.

Why does grief sometimes make us feel untouchable?

So, what are those factors?

Why can experiencing a bereavement can set us on a path of growth, set us alright with purpose or make us throw caution to the wind?

When you lose a beloved animal companion (or, indeed, anyone you love), you might feel that the worst possible thing has happened and that nothing else can ever be as bad. Some people describe this realisation as “liberating” or as “emboldening” them. 

You might be experiencing this yourself, this sense that life has done its worse and nothing else could be as bad or frightening. This can create a new sense of perspective and freedom to try new things. 

Sometimes, we experience the post-bereavement fire because our loss makes us realise that life is fragile and precious, and we have to grab it with both hands while we can. This can make us want to pursue our goals and dreams with greater urgency and determination because we realise nothing is guaranteed.

Also, facing the loss of a loved one might give you a newfound sense of resilience – the worst happened, and you’re still standing, even though there might be times when that feels incomprehensible. 

Many of us cope with trauma by looking for meaning and purpose that we can take away from the experience. If we can’t change a situation, how can we change ourselves to learn from it and move beyond it?

There’s something to be said, too, for knowing that grief is a sign of deep-felt love. Many people find that as the guilt, trauma, sadness and pain of loss begin to hit less often, they’re left with an overwhelming sense of love from and towards their pet, which can be incredibly uplifting.

In this way, grief can be a powerful motivator.

When the fire of grief is a problem

Of course, grief isn’t always so benevolent. 

For some people, the fire can turn from something that fuels them into something that will harm them if left unchecked.

Indeed, grief can be closely linked with risk-taking behaviours. As with most things grief-related, this can look different for different people and, again, depends on a complex range of factors.

Some grievers use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism, temporarily escaping or numbing their feelings because the loss hurts so much. The problem with this approach, as well as the risk of physical harm, is that it can delay the grieving process, storing up painful emotions for the future.

It’s also relatively common for grievers who turn to risky behaviour to do things like drive too quickly, engage in unsafe sex or skip sensible safety precautions in a range of scenarios.

Why does this happen? 

Losing someone we love is a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. If we do something that could potentially be harmful but escape unscathed, there’s an element of thumbing our nose at death and defying our own mortality.

Also, many people feel a sense of hopelessness in the face of bereavement. We can be the best pet carers and guardians, but sadly, we cannot protect our beautiful animal friends from death, whatever form it takes. This can lead people to be driven by a “What’s the point?” attitude that leads them to risk-taking behaviours.

Is the fire of grief fuelling or harming you?

If any of this article resonates with you, it could be that you are currently feeling propelled by the fire of grief.

Some people never experience this, but many of us do to some degree.

It’s important for us to recognise that some risk-taking behaviours aren’t negative. People who experience post-traumatic growth often take risks that make a positive difference in their lives – steps such as changing careers, travelling, taking up new hobbies, etc., all carry some element of risk but have a good outcome.

These kinds of risks can help people to cope or find meaning after losing a pet.

If you’ve been taking more risks recently, the key question is, are they helping you, or are they problematic? 

If a behaviour is putting you in harm’s way or affecting your ability to function, it might be that you need support to channel the fire of grief. Any behaviour can be risky if it has a negative impact on your life.

Talking about your loss can help. If you feel like you need support, you might want to reach out to a pet loss counsellor.

Some people find it helpful to talk to other bereaved pet carers. This is why we created The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support on Facebook; new members are always given a warm welcome.

Above all, we want you to know how sorry we are for your loss. Your bond with your animal friend was special. It’s important that you take care of yourself and try to recognise any risks that might be harmful to you, now or in the future. 

You are not alone. Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Feeling relief after pet loss

Before we experience grief first-hand, most of us imagine it to be dominated by sadness. One thing we don’t imagine is that we may feel relief, which is why it can be such a shock – and source of shame – when we do.

Grief isn’t predictable

People often refer to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as a blueprint for loss. “Oh, you’re in the denial phase,” someone will say, nodding sagely, and perpetuating the myth that grief can be nicely wrapped up with a clear end phase. 

What people generally don’t realise is that in her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was describing the five stages of emotions terminally ill people tend to experience when talked to honestly about their prognosis (prior to this, doctors often avoided telling dying patients that they were dying). She wasn’t talking about bereavement.

In reality, bereavement is far more complicated, messy and unwilling to be neatly packaged, which is why we believe it’s fine to ignore the five stages of grief.

The truth is that grief is a vast mix of thoughts, stages and emotions; that mix is different for everyone. Bereaved pet carers may feel sadness, depression, anxiety, isolation, guilt, apathy, anger and much more. Even in the depths of grief, there can be moments of happiness, moments of peace, moments of optimism. 

There are no rules.

The surprise of relief

If you’ve had feelings of relief since your pet died, it might have come as a surprise. Although relief is an incredibly common aspect of grief, people are often reluctant to talk about it or, if they do, it’s talked about in guilty whispers.

“Please don’t judge me,” they’ll say, “but is it wrong that I feel a bit relieved?”

“I loved my pet, but a part of me is relieved.”

“I feel so guilty that I feel relieved to be free from the worry.”

You might have said these things too.

Please be kind to yourself. There are many reasons why a sense of relief can be an integral part of bereavement. 

Feeling relieved that your pet has died doesn’t mean you didn’t want them to live.

What is relief?

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines relief as the “removal of anxiety or pain” and “the act of removing or reducing pain, worry, etc.”

Knowing this, it seems logical that any one of us might experience relief as the result of a bereavement.

One of the reasons that relief is so common is that the death of a pet frequently marks the end of a period of illness or suffering. If you’ve been caring for a terminally ill or older pet for a long time, you may have been waiting for the train to hit, so to speak, during that period.  

Waiting for something terrible to happen is exhausting. You know what’s coming, just not how or when, meaning you are always on guard. Will it be today? What if I’m not here when they need me? Will I know when it’s time? What if it’s too soon? What if it’s not soon enough?

If you knew your pet’s death was imminent for a while, you may already have done a lot of your grieving in the form of anticipatory grief

As you may have personally experienced, caring for a poorly pet can be tough. They may have been unsettled in the evenings and overnight, needed medication around the clock, or struggled with incontinence. You might have witnessed your pet in pain, confused or distressed. Perhaps they hated visiting the vet or having clinical investigations and you’re grateful those appointments are over.

It’s a compassionate response to be relieved that these difficulties have come to an end. If your pet could have lived a happy and healthy life, that’s what you would have wanted for them, but in the absence of that hope, it’s a kindness to feel relieved that their suffering is over. 

Other reasons you may feel relief after a pet dies

Something that people don’t talk about much, especially after a bereavement, is how challenging it can be to live with an animal companion whose behaviour was sometimes problematic or impacted your own quality of life in some way.

If you’ve been living with a reactive dog for years, for example, you may feel a sense of relief that you no longer have to avoid strange people or dogs when you’re outside the house or that you can invite friends over without micromanaging their visit. Even the act of sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying it can be a complicated moment of betrayal and relief if you had a dog who couldn’t cope with these sorts of social activities!

That doesn’t mean you’re relieved your dog has gone, just that those restrictions are over.

If your pet had separation anxiety, you may feel relieved the first time you’re able to pop out without worrying that your animal companion is stressed and unhappy at home.

Maybe your senior pet was experiencing cognitive dysfunction (dementia) or had lost their hearing, meaning that they would vocalise (loudly) throughout the night. It’s understandable that you feel relieved when you’re finally able to sleep.

It’s OK if you feel relieved that your own suffering is over after watching your friend struggle.

‘Good’ or ‘bad’ grief feelings

Sadly, we seem to have developed preconceptions about grief in society. Maybe it dates back to the Victorian era when widows donned their weeds and followed a strict etiquette about the ‘seemly’ way to grieve.

As such, we’ve come to view some grief feelings as ‘good’ or appropriate (mainly sadness, reflection and growth) and other feelings as ‘bad’ (anger, resentment, relief). In reality, all of these emotions are valid.

At other times in life, relief is viewed as a positive emotion – it’s what we feel when something unpleasant stops – but putting relief in the context of grief makes us feel selfish or unfeeling. That isn’t the case. Relief is still positive.

It’s compassionate to feel relieved that your animal companion’s suffering is at an end. It’s also compassionate to recognise the strength you needed to care for them and to feel relieved now that weight is off your shoulders.

Remember, if your pet could have lived happy and care-free forever, that would have been your choice. That wasn’t possible. Relief is simply recognition of “the removal of pain or anxiety”.

Ultimately, you can be both sad and relieved, angry and relieved, heartbroken and relieved – no two emotions are mutually exclusive of one another, especially when you’re coping with loss. The kindest thing you can do is to let your emotions come without judgement. Grief is both mundane (an everyday fact of life) and completely uncharted. 

It’s OK if you feel relieved; it’s also OK if you don’t. 

As always, please know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

When people won’t talk about your pet loss grief

If you’ve suffered a recent pet loss, are you feeling frustrated, isolated or hurt by the fact that people expect you to be OK or don’t think to ask how you’re coping?

This is a common experience for grieving people, but pet carers, in particular, often feel that their deep, crushing loss is destined to go unacknowledged.

As we’ve mentioned in past blogs, one of the reasons for this is that pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief, which means it isn’t recognised by everyone in our wider society. 

People can have wildly differing attitudes to pet loss; many see it as an inevitable part of keeping animals as pets. Others have never lived with an animal companion, so don’t understand the connection. As a result, people may not recognise the magnitude of your loss because it’s outside of their personal experiences or values.

Even people who have been personally affected by pet loss may have had to suffer in silence in the past, so they may not feel equipped to support you, or it may cause their own feelings of grief to resurface. 

There are other reasons that you may find people won’t talk about your pet loss grief.

People are uncomfortable with grief and loss

Whereas people used to see life and death as two sides of the same coin, many modern societies have turned death and bereavement into taboo subjects. Yes, death is a fact of life, but most of us would rather not think about it until we have to.

And while you currently have no choice but to face your loss, your wider support network may decide to keep your pain at arm’s length. It’s important to understand that this isn’t personal; it’s not a reflection of their feelings towards you or your pet. Rather, it may be because death, loss and grief make them feel uncomfortable, and they’d rather not think about what you’re going through because it’s a reminder that they too will have to deal with a bereavement one day.

They may not know what to say

People often withdraw from a person who is grieving simply because they don’t know what to say or are scared of saying the wrong thing. Your friends or family may be worried about talking about your pet because they don’t want to hurt you or bring the memories flooding back.

What they may not realise, of course, is that they can’t remind you of your pet when you’re already thinking about them all the time. It’s often only when people experience a bereavement themselves that they understand how important it is to talk about the lost loved one as a way of honouring their memory and keeping the connection between you alive.

People may not know you need support

Life is busy, and most of us have a lot going on, good and bad. Your friends and family may not have noticed that you need support, not because they don’t care but because they’re caught up in their own “stuff”.

If you need to talk about your pet loss grief, you may need to spell this out to your loved ones and actively ask for their time and support. It can be helpful to explain exactly what you need to help create shared expectations.

If your friends and family still won’t talk about your pet loss grief 

Sadly, many people who suffer a bereavement find that some of their friends disappear, either permanently or until they believe the worst of the pain is over.

This can feel like a secondary loss, adding to your grief.

As we’ve seen above, this distance is usually the result of people feeling vulnerable about their own mortality, worried about what to say, or just being busy with the demands of their own life. 

Also, they may recognise that there is nothing they can do or say to make your loss more bearable, so they decide not to try for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Being willing to recognise this can help to prevent you from feeling singled out or let down. It’s also up to you whether you decide to let go of the relationship or rekindle it at some point in the future.

The reality is that everyone deals with grief differently. Two people could be grieving the same pet, for example, but express their feelings in completely different ways. The same goes for how people support the bereaved.

Unfortunately, you may not be able to make all of your friends or family understand the magnitude of your loss. But your bereavement isn’t measured by how other people perceive it or how they respond. Your grief journey is about you and your connection to your pet and exploring what you need to help you heal – that’s what truly matters.

Finding outlets to talk about your grief

Of course, many people find talking is an integral part of the healing process. If you feel that you need to be able to talk about your pet loss grief, there are options outside of your immediate circle.

There are a growing number of bereavement counsellors who specialise in pet loss support. In the UK, the Blue Cross offers a free and confidential Pet Bereavement Support Service. You can talk to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site’s Private Facebook Pet Loss Support Group. You might also find Griefcast – Cariad Lloyd’s weekly interview podcast about grief – comforting and affirming, making you feel less alone in your experience. 

If you do have trusted people in your circle, it’s worth letting them know that you could do with a listening ear. Reassure them that you’re not looking for answers or someone to fix the unfixable; you simply need to talk and be heard.

As always, please know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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