One of the things that people often mention in The Ralph Site’s Facebook group following the death of a beloved pet is the loss of routine that comes hand-in-hand with their bereavement. It’s something that many of us don’t see coming and yet it can hit you like a high-speed train at a time when you already feel fragile with grief; another loss to mourn.
In many ways, the animals in our lives can shape our daily routines even more than the people around us.
It was a dog’s life
If you’ve had a canine family member, you’re probably used to planning your days around walks and dog-friendly places to go. I imagine you carry a stash of poo bags and treats in your bags and pockets, have a towel in the boot of the car for muddy days out, and never stay away from home for too long. You may default to practical clothes that don’t show up dog hair or that can withstand the weather on winter walks.
Your social life may revolve around your four-legged friend too. You’ve probably seen the same people on your morning walk for years or have struck up a friendship with a trusted dog walker or groomer. Maybe you and a friend always meet up at the weekend to walk your dogs together. Without your dog by your side, you may feel familiar faces are slipping away.
No more furry alarm clocks
Other animals can shape our lives just as much. You might have fed your cat at specific times or called them in from outside every night before you went to bed. Maybe you’ve been used to administering medicine to them at certain times of the day, especially if they were ill for a while before they passed away. You probably even miss cleaning out their litter tray!
An advert about pet food can be a crippling reminder of what’s missing from your shopping list and you may find yourself avoiding the pet care aisle of your local supermarket, having visited it with clockwork regularity for many years.
Perhaps your cat or dog laid beside you sleeping at night or nuzzled your face to wake you in the morning. You may have been blessed with a lap cat. The absence of them now is a constant reminder not only of the physical life that has passed but the shared life now past.
All creatures great and small
Smaller animals require commitment and dedication too, and their loss can be felt just as keenly. Whatever the species, perhaps you always cuddled your pet while you watched TV at night or spent time watching them play. Your routine probably includes cleaning out their cage, shopping for supplies, chopping fresh veg or topping up hay (or providing a more exotic variety of dinner, depending on the type of pet).
And let’s not forget that, as a pet carer, your companion will have been in the forefront of your mind for every holiday, every weekend away or evening out for the duration of their life with you. Whether you agonised about the perfect kennel or cattery, left your pet in the hands of a trusted friend or went somewhere your pet could come too, you’ve always prioritised their needs.
It’s these habits and moments that punctuate our lives as pet carers that are lost too when a pet dies, making the bereavement truly life-changing in emotional and practical terms.
Routine changes rated as major causes of stress
The Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which identifies major stressful life events, shows that the death of a close family member is the fifth greatest cause of stress. Animal lovers and bereavement experts alike increasingly acknowledge that those close family members are often pets.
But more than that, changes to your routine such as how you spend your spare time or your social activities can be significant and debilitating causes of stress.
It can be even more difficult to deal with if you feel that the people around you don’t understand how your life has changed overnight. Friends and family who don’t have pets of their own may struggle to grasp what you’re feeling. People may make clumsy attempts at seeing the bright side of the situation by saying things like, “At least you’re free to go on holiday whenever you want” or “I know you loved him/her but they were a tie, weren’t they?”
You may feel very alone as a result and, with the loss of routine, like you’ve lost the solid ground you need around you to support you at this sad time.
Dealing with your loss of routine
If you’re asking what you can do to help yourself as you grieve, you might want to try the following:
- Be kind to yourself. Grieving doesn’t have a timeline, nor is it a linear process. You may have weeks or even months in the future when you feel like you’ve turned a corner and then find yourself sobbing into your cereal one morning without knowing where the tears have come from. It’s devastating but completely normal too.
- Part of the grieving process includes acknowledging the routines, habits and literal creature comforts that you have lost. It isn’t just your pet who has gone but the life you shared with them.
- Find an ally, someone you can talk to about your feelings. If you can’t find someone among your friends or family who understands, then you can reach out to pet bereavement services for support. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook is a warm, supportive place where everyone understands the true scope of your loss.
- Think about your pet and write down your favourite memories of them, including the routines you had together.
- When a human dies, every culture has rituals to help the bereaved mark and cope with the loss. This is often absent when a pet dies. However, you could create your own rituals. Perhaps you could hold a ceremony for your lost companion or plant a tree in their favourite spot in the garden.
- Create new routines or adapt the routine you shared with your pet. If you’re used to walking your dog before work every morning, you could try maintaining this habit but perhaps walk a different route or put the emphasis more on your own fitness and wellbeing.
- Many people decide to bring a new pet into their home following the loss of a beloved furry companion. This helps them to maintain their routine and focus on the needs of the new addition. That doesn’t mean they ever forget their lost friend or skip over the grief but it can be a comfort.
- Volunteer for an organisation such as The Cinnamon Trust (in the UK) to walk a dog or care for the pets of an older person or someone who is ill. This may help you maintain aspects of your routine.
- Sit with your feelings. You may feel like the world expects you to move on from your loss straight away and that you have to ‘carry on as normal’, even when it’s your ‘normal’ that’s gone. It’s important to let yourself feel your loss so that you can begin to create a new normal.
Sadly, the life you shared with your furry friend is now past but it can and will be whole again. This quote from Elizabeth Kubler Ross may give you comfort:
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support