“I feel so guilty for feeling happiness during grief.”
Most of us experience this thought at some point after pet loss or, indeed, any bereavement. You may be struggling with it yourself.
Grief before we experience it
Before we experience grief for the first time, most of us have a fairly rigid expectation of what it should look like.
We believe that grieving people are constantly sad. We might even expect a never-ending stream of tears or feel slightly horrified when the bereaved person smiles.
Immediately after a bereavement, many people do find themselves in a constantly sad state of mind. In the moments after your pet died or went missing, you may have felt like you would never feel anything but sadness again.
Until you laughed for the first time.
Happiness during grief comes as a shock
The first time you laugh after a bereavement can knock the breath out of you and even make you feel a bit queasy.
It can be a complete shock.
You might ask yourself, how can I be laughing when he’s gone? Does this mean I’m getting over him?
The same goes for looking forward to something or feeling a moment of peace or joy.
The guilt that you felt something other than loss can be overwhelming.
Once it rears its head, you may feel like you need to hang on to your guilt because it will pull you back to thinking about your loss. Many people believe this is the only way to keep their loved one present.
The problem with guilt is that it keeps you stuck. And in the case of bereavement, it keeps you stuck in the exact moment that your pet left your life.
Happiness – even just small flashes of it – is perhaps our mind’s way of trying to unstick us.
Grief forces feelings to co-exist
As we talk about time and again on The Ralph Site, grief isn’t a linear emotion or experience, which is why it’s fine to ignore the five stages of grief.
In his book A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis wrote, “For in grief nothing stays put. One keeps emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.”
In other words, you will bounce between many different emotions – often repeatedly – as you process your bereavement and begin to make sense of your loss.
And the thing with the human brain is that we can experience multiple feelings at the same time.
It’s entirely possible to feel heartbroken and happy or sad and relieved. The existence of two or more emotions at the same time doesn’t cancel any one of them out – they’re all valid, real and appropriate.
Grief, perhaps more than any other experience, forces emotions to co-exist. People often feel two completely opposite emotions in a single moment.
For example, if you have a living pet companion, you may find yourself appreciating and laughing at their antics more because your sadness about your deceased pet has highlighted how precious each moment is.
Of course, dealing with conflicting emotions can be hard. For most of us, the biggest fear about feeling something positive after a bereavement is that we’re beginning to ‘move on’ and leave our lost loved one behind.
Let yourself feel all of your emotions
It may not come easily but there’s something very liberating about accepting that happiness and grief can exist at the same time.
This means that you can feel all of your emotions, good as well as bad, without worrying that you’re betraying your pet in some way by ‘letting go’.
In reality, your grief will probably stay with you forever, even though it will evolve and reshape many times. But life, with its relentless forward motion, will push you to move with it and gradually experience more than just sadness.
Your pet would want you to be happy
As we’ve often said, one of the most wonderful animal traits is an ability to live in the moment.
Your pet wouldn’t want you to stay stuck in sadness. They would want you to be happy.
Another perspective that you might find helpful is that your pet deserves to be remembered through your happiness too. When they were alive they bought you joy, comfort, companionship and so much more. That’s why you miss them so much. It seems unfair perhaps to wrap their memory in sadness – at least long-term – when they only ever gave happiness.
If the roles were reversed and your pet had had to go on living without you, I’m sure your one wish would be for them to live a full and happy life. It’s what they would wish for you too.
Happiness during grief can be a gift
Many people are eventually able to find strength from pet loss. A pet’s passing is a sharp reminder that life is short – there is no shame in finding happiness in the time we’re here.
All being well and with time, you will stop feeling guilty about laughing and feeling joy.
Hopefully, you will be able to smile at your happy memories of your pet and they’ll suddenly feel present again – a loved one who lived, not just the loved one that died.
Until that time, know that you’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support