Are you struggling to come to terms with the fact that your beloved pet has died or may not return because they have gone missing?
Many people experience phases of denial after a bereavement and pet loss grief is no different.
Why do we experience denial?
Denial is perhaps best described as a defence mechanism that helps to detach the mind from the pain of bereavement.
It’s not so much that it keeps your mind busy or distracts you from your loss. Denial actively seeks to tell you that you’ve misunderstood reality and your pain is misplaced because your pet is still here and well – there’s just been a terrible mistake.
It’s common to experience denial in the early minutes, hours and days after a bereavement. It’s when the feelings of grief are so raw and painful and too huge to process that the brain goes into a self-protective mode to protect against mental anguish.
Of course, denial can resurface at later times too.
What denial looks and feels like
Denial can look and feel quite different from one person to the next.
You may find yourself avoiding the reality of your pet’s death – for example, being unable to make decisions about what to do with their belongings or even their remains.
You may feel forgetful, indecisive, easily distracted or suddenly overly focused on mindless activities like scrolling through social media or watching comforting TV programmes. You might find the need to be busy all the time or tell people that you’re fine when they ask how you’re feeling.
Internally, you may feel shocked, numb, confused or even like all of your emotions have shut down.
Again, this is because denial is trying to protect you.
When a pet is terminally ill or elderly
If you’ve been caring for a terminally ill or very elderly pet, you may be able to recognise times when you’ve experienced denial already.
Perhaps your vet said your pet only had a few months to live but you looked and them and thought, “But they look fine” or “The vet must be wrong because he’s so much better this week”.
This is a natural response to facing something as big as the inevitable death of someone you love.
Denial tricks us with fictitious scenarios
One of the distressing aspects of denial is that, in seeking to protect us from pain, it can actually cause it. One way it does this is by tricking us into believing our pet is still alive but out of reach.
Bereaved pet carers often say that they’ve heard their pet moving around the house or seen them out of the corner of their eye, even though they know, intellectually at least, that their pet is dead.
For some people, this is a comforting experience but others can find it distressing. There’s no right or wrong way to respond.
People who weren’t able to be with their pets when they died might become convinced that they’re actually alive and well but living elsewhere. In this scenario, it’s common to go out looking for the pet or imagine seeing them with someone else – for example, seeing someone walking a dog that looks just like yours or noticing the double of your cat sitting in someone else’s window.
Even after being with a pet when they died, pet carers can worry about them being left alone and feeling cold while in storage at the vet’s office or after being buried.
In these situations, denial isn’t as protective and reassuring as it seeks to be.
Getting stuck in denial
It’s not unusual to get stuck in a state of denial after a bereavement. This is most likely to happen if you’re unable to go through the grieving process and express your feelings, whatever they may be.
Because pet bereavement is a type of disenfranchised grief, bereaved pet carers often struggle to find support and outlets to talk about their loss (which is one of the reasons we created The Ralph Site). It might not be possible to take time off work to grieve or observe mourning rituals such as a funeral, which can help to challenge our denial when someone dies.
You may find that people don’t mention your pet, perhaps because they don’t understand your loss or because they don’t want to upset you. This can make it easier to lock your grief away.
The problem is that denial can only work for so long.
At some point, your grief will need and, indeed, demand to be felt.
If you do feel like you’re stuck in denial, it’s important to reach out and explore ways to acknowledge your grief.
Denial can resurface
People often talk about grief in terms of five stages, as though you experience one and then tick it off a list – complete the five stages and you win at overcoming grief.
In reality, bereavement is much messier and far less linear. Most of us experience a mix of the five stages – and more – many times over even as we find a way to move forward into the next chapter of life.
It’s common for denial to resurface.
For example, you may find this happens if you start thinking about giving a home to a new pet.
Many pet carers say that they feel disloyal and don’t want their deceased pet to think that they’re being replaced. In this scenario, denial is telling them that their pet is still very much alive and capable of being put out by a usurper for their human’s affections.
It’s often the question of rehoming another animal that makes people come to the realisation that their pet has truly gone. It’s hardly surprising that it can be such an emotionally-charged decision, one that’s often far from easy.
Accepting the unacceptable
As we’ve seen, denial is a protective mechanism but it can actually keep us frozen in grief.
Eventually, healthy grieving is about moving into a state of acceptance about a loss, even when it feels utterly unacceptable.
It’s not about condoning the loss, forgetting it or leaving it behind. Instead, it’s about adapting, being vulnerable to a whole host of emotions, learning to be present in the moment, and engaging with reality as it is.
If you’re struggling with denial and pet loss grief, please know that you’re not alone. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group offers a safe and supportive community for like-minded pet carers to talk about their feelings.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support