Why the types of grief can impact your pet loss experience

If you’re new to The Ralph Site, first let us say that we’re so sorry for the loss that has brought you here. We hope you find comfort and support within these pages and from our wider community.

Today’s blog is about the different types of grief and why it can be helpful to recognise them.

Isn’t grief simply grief, you might be asking? How can there be different types? Why does the type of grief matter? Is pet loss grief different from other forms of grief? Is there a right way to grieve?

These are all common questions.

Yes, when all things are said and done, grief is simply grief. It’s a collection of emotions and physical symptoms that we experience when someone or something we care about deeply leaves our life, often forever. Grief, they say, is love that has nowhere to go. It’s the love that’s left behind.

And, no, pet loss grief isn’t different than grief triggered by another loss (although it can present some unique challenges), and there isn’t a right way to grieve. 

However, the different types of grief, as defined by psychologists, can influence your experience, the support you receive, how your grief manifests, how long you remain in the early stages of loss, and more.

Being aware of the type of grief you’re experiencing can help you identify what you might be struggling with or even when you might need the support of a bereavement counsellor.

So, we thought you might find it helpful if we highlight the different grief types with links to resources here on The Ralph Site.

Seventeen types of grief

  1. Abbreviated grief

As the name suggests, abbreviated grief refers to a short-lived period of mourning following a bereavement, after which a person can move forward relatively quickly.

If you’re experiencing abbreviated grief, you may feel shocked at how quickly you’ve been able to fill the void left by your pet. For some people, this can trigger a feeling of guilt or cause them to question their relationship with the loved one they lost.

Abbreviated grief often happens when a person has been through a long period of anticipatory grief (more about this below). It may be that you came to peace with your loss before your pet died, perhaps because they were elderly, terminally ill, or for a plethora of other reasons.

Remember that grief isn’t a competition. It isn’t measured by its length, its depth, how it shows up, or anything else. It’s unique to you.

  1. Absent grief

Absent grief is when the bereaved person doesn’t experience the feelings typically associated with grief.

There can be many reasons for this, such as differing expectations, previous losses, shock, and more.

Experts do warn that grief can appear to be absent if we refuse to acknowledge or continue to deny a loss, and that it might, in fact, be a type of incomplete or complicated grief.

In this scenario, absent grief is about repressing difficult feelings and struggling to meet grief head-on. A total absence of grief can cause people to become stuck or for grief to surface at a much later date. 

On the other hand, grief can be absent due to religious or philosophical beliefs about the afterlife. Equally, if your pet has been suffering, you may feel that death has set them free, which can prompt relief instead of grief.

If you would have expected to feel something about your pet loss but don’t, you may want to speak to an experienced bereavement counsellor to explore this.

  1. Anticipatory grief

We’ve already mentioned anticipatory grief above, and it is a grieving state that affects many pet carers. It describes the grief that you feel before your pet dies because you know you have the loss ahead of you.

Those of us who share our lives with animal companions know that their lives are much shorter and that they’re likely to die before us. Knowing this doesn’t make the end of a pet’s life any easier for their caregiver.

Anticipatory grief can make it hard to live in the moment because your mind occupies the future where the loss has happened. On the flip side, though, anticipatory grief can inspire you to make precious memories and say everything you want to your pet.

People who have been through a long period of anticipatory grief sometimes find that they’re able to accept their loss relatively quickly because they’ve done so much of the emotional processing ahead of time.

  1. Chronic grief

Chronic grief is a form of complicated grief (see below) that is persistent and long-lasting and that may need professional support to address.

Symptoms of chronic grief can include a loss of identity or feeling that a part of oneself has died; a marked sense of disbelief about the death; avoiding reminders about the loss; intense emotional pain related to the death; difficulty with reintegration into everyday life (e.g., struggling to connect with friends, pursue any interests, or plan for the future); emotional numbness; a feeling that life is meaningless; and intense loneliness.

If you’re experiencing chronic grief, these symptoms will last much longer than what is expected based on cultural, social, or religious norms. 

This can be tricky to identify because, as we always say on The Ralph Site, grief doesn’t come with a time limit and, in many ways, lasts forever. With chronic grief, people tend to stay in the early stages of grief, where the loss consumes every moment and part of their being.

  1. Collective grief

This is typically when a loss affects a family, a group, or a community. We often see outpourings of collective grief after a terror attack, a natural disaster, or even when someone in the public eye dies. 

In the case of pet loss, you may need to navigate your way through the collective grief of your friends and family. This can help to create a sense of all being “in it together”. Alternatively, it can sometimes present relationship challenges when everyone is experiencing their grief differently.

  1. Complicated grief

We’ve mentioned complicated grief above. It’s a phrase generally used to describe grief that deviates from what psychologists would see as “the norm” or “typical” when someone suffers a loss. 

Complicated grief can include chronic grief, absent grief, or delayed grief. It can leave the mourner feeling frozen in the moment of loss, unable to connect with the loss at all, or unable to function for a prolonged period due to the loss overshadowing everything else.

  1. Cumulative grief

If you’ve experienced other bereavements in the past, you may find that your recent pet loss has brought those other losses to the surface, too. 

Cumulative grief is often a factor if you’ve experienced multiple losses within a short time period as you may not have had a chance to process your feelings about one loss before being faced with another.

  1. Delayed grief

As the name suggests, delayed grief can take its time to show up. This often happens if you have other things to deal with, such as a significant life event, which means you must put your feelings on hold to cope.

People experiencing delayed grief may look as though they’re reacting disproportionately to their current situation because others fail to recognise that they are finally feeling the loss they suffered at any earlier time.

  1. Distorted grief

Distorted grief tends to be characterised by overwhelming anger that the bereaved person desperately needs to direct somewhere, be it at another person or people, the world at large, or even at themselves.

If you’re experiencing distorted grief, you may feel permanently angry, show hostility towards others, use self-harming behaviours, or seek conflict. It is important to seek support.

  1. Disenfranchised grief

Disenfranchised grief happens when the bereaved person feels that their pain and loss aren’t recognised by our wider society. 

Pet loss sometimes falls in this category because people don’t understand the depth of feeling or, having not experienced it themselves, diminish the loss by suggesting, for example, that an animal companion can be replaced.

Bereavements such as a miscarriage, the death of an ex-partner, or the loss of a much-loved colleague often fall in this category, too.

We talk a lot about disenfranchised grief here on The Ralph Site because it can make bereaved pet carers feel unseen or isolated, and it’s vital that we recognise it.

  1. Exaggerated grief

Exaggerated grief is also known as “persistent complex bereavement disorder”. According to Love to Know, it “refers to a group of symptoms that persist in high intensity for at least six months after a loss is experienced and with an individual also experiencing difficulty with acts of daily living and functioning”.

When someone is experiencing exaggerated grief, they’re likely to exhibit noticeable and disruptive behaviours that can include substance abuse, thoughts of self-harm and suicide to return to the loved one, hyper-focus on the deceased individual and the circumstances surrounding their death, prolonged feelings of shock, or extreme and unusual fears.

Depression and PTSD are often associated with a complex bereavement disorder, and it is important to seek professional support.

  1. Incomplete grief

Bereavement experts say that it can take people anywhere from six months to two years to move through the most debilitating aspects of grief. With incomplete grief, the bereaved person’s emotional state gets stuck at some point. This makes it difficult to come to terms with the loss. 

If you find yourself reliving your pet’s final days on a loop or becoming depressed, anxious or hypervigilant, it could be a sign that you need support in order to adjust to life without your loved one.

  1. Inhibited grief

Grief is deeply personal and can be difficult to express. Many of us live in societies that find death hard to talk about, and people are often scared of saying the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything at all.

Inhibited grief can come about when you make a conscious effort to keep your grief private. Instead, you present the outward appearance that everything is fine. This might be because you want to make other people feel comfortable or because you don’t want to worry your friends and family.

However, it’s important to recognise that grief wants to be felt and experienced. There is a risk that hiding grief can repress and prolong it.

  1. Masked grief

Masked grief happens when you try to ignore or suppress your feelings in the hope they’ll go away of their own accord. You may be experiencing masked grief if you’re desperately trying to carry on as if nothing has happened.

The problem is, as we mentioned with inhibited grief above, that a bereavement demands to be felt. All that love you have for your pet is still there, wanting acknowledgement and acceptance. 

If you’re experiencing masked grief, you might notice physical or emotional symptoms that don’t obviously seem connected to your loss. This is because the grief is still there behind the mask as it’s trying to push its way into your reality.

  1. “Normal” or “healthy” grief

We’ve put the words “normal” and “healthy” in speech marks here because we don’t want to imply that there is a correct way to grieve and that if you don’t fall into this grieving type, you’re somehow getting things wrong.

What this phrase means is that grief is the most natural response in the world to losing someone you love. It’s something we’re all destined to experience. The only way to avoid grief is to avoid making emotional attachments with anyone or anything.

And because loss is an inevitable part of the human condition, we’re surprisingly capable of experiencing it, processing it, and eventually finding a way to move forward and find satisfaction in the life that comes after a loved one dies. That doesn’t mean we don’t care or that the love we feel diminishes in anyway; it’s just that we’re hardwired to adapt.

The common and typical symptoms of grief include:

  • Strong feelings of sadness or sorrow
  • An inability to focus and a temporary disconnection from everyday life
  • Consuming thoughts of who or what you’ve lost
  • Feelings of a loss of purpose or intention in life
  • Denial of your loss
  • Sleep disruption
  • Changes to appetite

With “normal” or “healthy” grief, the bereaved person will go on an emotional journey that will enable them to come to terms with their loss eventually. 

Normal grief also enables us to find a way to maintain an emotional connection with a beloved pet after their death.

  1. Secondary loss

Secondary loss is perhaps best seen as a type of cumulative grief. It describes the kind of grief that happens when the initial loss triggers other losses, too. Dog guardians, for example, may find that they lose the routines or parts of their social life that revolve around their dog, as well as grieving for the dog themselves. 

Losing a much-loved animal companion can also trigger a loss of identity. Again, this is a secondary loss that only adds to the pain of the original bereavement.

  1. Traumatic grief

As the name suggests, traumatic grief is the result of trying to process losing a loved one to a horrifying, violent, or sudden death. It can lead to the bereaved person experiencing flashbacks or feeling guilty for surviving or not being able to prevent the loss of life.

If you are experiencing traumatic grief, you may benefit from speaking to a trained bereavement counsellor.

Conclusion

Grief is a universal experience and yet so deeply personal that it can look and feel completely different from one person to another.

You may feel like the types of grief labelled above are irrelevant to your own grief. On the other hand, maybe you find it reassuring to know that there’s a name for what you’re feeling.

As we mentioned in our introduction, it can be helpful to know when you might need support from a trained bereavement counsellor, especially if you’re using harmful coping mechanisms.

Grief is messy, common, and yet exquisitely unique. We want you to know that you’re not alone, whatever your grief.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

How long does pet loss grief last? Understanding the endless journey.

How long does pet loss grief last? If you’ve experienced a bereavement, you may be asking yourself this question a lot, wanting to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

This question has no straightforward answer because grief is, in many ways, an everlasting presence in our lives. Why? Because it’s a manifestation of love, and if love can never truly die, then neither can grief. 

We can reassure you though that pet loss grief eventually becomes manageable. 

It changes, ebbs and flows, and sometimes it’s more intense than at other times. But, with time, you will be able to enter the next stage in your life and experience happiness and good things once again.

In this blog, we’ll explore the enduring nature of grief, its manifestations, and the signs of incomplete grief to be aware of.

Grief as a manifestation of love

Grief is often described as the price we pay for love. It’s an emotional response to the loss of someone or something we deeply care about. Pet loss grief falls under this umbrella.

The profound pain and sorrow you’re feeling is a testament to the love you had for your lost animal friend. Just as love has no expiration date, grief too, is not bound by time. It’s a reflection of the love that we carry within us.

Endless love, endless grief

The idea that grief is forever may sound daunting, but it can help to recognise it as a natural part of the human experience (and the experience of many other sentient beings).  

That doesn’t mean we have to like it, of course, but it does mean that we can try to accept it.

The only way to live a life without grief is to avoid making any attachments or caring about anything. And that is a loss in itself. 

Recognising the universal and yet deeply personal nature of grief can help us to sit with it rather than thinking it’s something we have to cure or exorcise. 

Sitting with grief can help us to see that when we lose someone or something we love, our love doesn’t suddenly vanish. It transforms into grief, taking up residence in our hearts and minds. Grief doesn’t simply fade away, but it evolves into something different over time. 

In this way, perhaps it’s better to think of it as “endless grief, endless love”.

The ebb and flow of grief

The good news is that grief rarely stays at the same intensity forever. It might sound trite, but life goes on. As it does, grief has to learn to coexist and make space for other feelings too. Sometimes it pushes to the front, but other times, it manages to sit quietly in the corner of your mind.

In this way, it resembles an ocean. Some days, it might feel like a gentle, manageable tide, while on others, it might surge like a tsunami. 

The intensity of grief varies from person to person and can change from moment to moment. It’s unpredictable, and it’s OK to have good days and bad days.

Signs of Incomplete Grief

It might sound contradictory when we’ve said that grief never entirely ends, but it is possible to become frozen in the more intense early stages of grief or to experience something known as incomplete grief. Another term is complicated grief.

These concepts refer to an ongoing, prolonged struggle to express, confront or even experience the feelings related to loss.

Bereavement experts say that if you recognise these signs in yourself or a loved one more than six months after your loss, it might mean that you need to seek further support and healing:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness that disrupt your everyday life

If your sadness remains unyielding, engulfing daily life and disrupting your ability to function, it might be a sign of incomplete grief. 

  • Social withdrawal

It’s very common for grief to make people withdraw from their social circles. You may have experienced the isolation of pet loss at some point. It’s important to recognise that if this withdrawal persists over an extended period, it may be a sign of unresolved emotions.

If you’re struggling to connect with your friends and family or even work colleagues, you may need to seek pet bereavement counselling or let a trusted person in your circle know how you’re feeling.

  • Intense anger or guilt

Unresolved grief can manifest as intense anger or guilt towards oneself, the deceased, or others involved in the situation. Again, we’ve talked in past blogs about guilt and anger being part of pet loss grief. It’s if these feelings aren’t subsiding or being less invasive over time that you might need to talk them through.

  • Physical symptoms

Grief can sometimes lead to physical symptoms such as chronic headaches, digestive issues, or sleep disturbances. When these symptoms persist, they may be related to unresolved grief. 

  • Inability to find joy

While it’s natural to feel sad after a bereavement, an ongoing inability to experience joy or happiness, even in small moments, can indicate incomplete grief.

  • Excessive avoidance

If you find that you’re avoiding places, people, or activities associated with your pet, it may be another sign that you’re frozen in your early grief. Facing these triggers is an important step in the healing process.

  • Overwhelming preoccupation with the deceased

Continuously obsessing over your pet may hinder the healing process. Of course, it’s hard to define when this becomes problematic. After all, most bereaved people are preoccupied with who or what they have lost. You may find yourself playing out different scenarios, thinking about your pet’s final moments, worrying about where they are now (physically or spiritually), and more.

Again, a sign of incomplete grief is when these thoughts stay at a high level of intensity for a prolonged length of time to the exclusion of other thoughts and feelings.

  • Difficulty in moving forward

If some time has passed since your pet died or went missing, and you’re struggling to adapt to life without them to the extent that you cannot set future goals or make plans, you might need support to move forward.

Finding ways to manage your pet loss grief

Although grief may be eternal in some form, it can become more manageable over time. Here are some strategies that may help you to cope with your pet loss grief:

  • Seeking support

Connecting with friends, family, or a support group can provide a safe space to share your feelings and gain emotional support.

  • Professional help

Grief counselling or therapy can provide you with tools to cope with your loss and navigate the grieving process. 

If you’re in the UK, you might want to call the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Helpline to talk about your feelings. If you’re outside of the UK, Google should be able to point you to local counselling and bereavement services.

  • Self-care

Prioritising self-care is essential during times of grief. This includes taking care of your physical and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to simply sit with your feelings and let them come without judgment about how you “should” be feeling. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

  • Honouring memories

We frequently mention this in our blogs (for good reason!), but you may find solace and acceptance through creating a memorial, keeping a journal, or finding meaningful ways to remember your pet.

  • Allowing time

Grief is not something that can be rushed. Allowing oneself the time to heal and not putting pressure on the timeline is crucial. 

  • Setting small goals

Gradually setting achievable goals can provide a sense of purpose and direction. This is especially important if your grief is having a prolonged impact on your ability to function and experience life in all of its richness. 

Make your goals small and break them down into even smaller steps if you need to. 

  • Accepting change

Grief transforms the way we perceive and live life. As much as you want to return to a time when your pet was alive and well, accepting this change can help in finding new meaning and purpose. This lights a path to brighter days ahead, even in the darkest moments of loss.

The ever-present but ever-changing nature of grief

Grief is a complex and enduring emotion that cannot be neatly confined within a specific timeframe. While it may never completely fade, your life will eventually grow around it, so you’re able to carry it in a way that feels less painful.

Indeed, many people come to see grief for the love that it truly is. In this way, it becomes a companion who carries precious memories rather than something to ignore or run from.

While it’s important that you don’t put pressure on yourself to have grief “done and dusted” by a specific deadline, do keep the signs of incomplete grief in mind as time goes on. Seeking support and employing coping strategies are integral steps in healing and finding a new sense of normalcy.

In the end, grief may be an eternal companion, but it can also be a reminder of the love we once shared. It’s a testament to the deep connections we form in our lives and the enduring impact those connections have on our hearts and souls.

As always, please know that you are not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Navigating grief together: How to help your loved one support you

If you’ve recently lost a pet or are facing an imminent loss, you probably recognise that grief can be all-consuming and isolating in its nature. In many ways, this is because we all experience and express grief differently, which can make it hard to connect with people who are outside of that experience.

Pet loss is often described as a disenfranchised grief because our wider society doesn’t always recognise its impact. There may be people in your circle who have never shared their lives with an animal companion or who have but didn’t have the same connection, and therefore struggle to understand how much you have lost. 

Other people may not know what to say.

Indeed, the latter is common. People often find grief uncomfortable and confronting. It’s a reminder that life ends. You might find that your friends don’t say anything because they don’t know what to say or because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. Or you might find that, when people try to comfort you, it doesn’t offer comfort at all.

This can all add to the sense of being isolated and unseen in your grief.

This blog, however, seeks to recognise that having the support of your friends and family is incredibly important when you’re grieving. It will help you to feel loved, accepted, and grounded at a time when you may feel anything but these things.

So, today, we want to explore ways that you can encourage your friends and family to support you at this difficult time.

Understanding grief

As much as we wish there was a secret formula to understanding and curing grief, the reality is that it is unique to everyone and that it isn’t an ailment to cure. 

Your feelings about the loss of your animal companion will depend on many things, from the relationship you shared to your routines, stage of life, past experiences, personal circumstances, and so much more.

Grief can cause a vast array of emotions – often several emotions at the same time! – including sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety and even relief. What you feel can change from one minute to the next. You may feel distracted, exhausted, physically depleted, tearful, numb – there’s often no way to predict what will come next.

No one else can know your grief, but they can create a space for it.

Why friends and family sometimes struggle to support us

In the face of the uncertain and unique nature of grief, people often find it challenging to know how to provide effective support. 

As we’ve mentioned above, sometimes it’s as simple as being frightened of saying the wrong thing. 

Other times, there’s a lack of understanding about the grieving process. People who haven’t experienced a bereavement before often imagine that grief looks like tears and obvious sadness and may not recognise other emotions as grief. 

The mistaken idea that there are fixed stages of grief means that people in your circle may expect you to move through your emotions in a pre-determined order and then find it jarring when you don’t. This can feed into the idea that you’re someone doing grief in a ‘wrong’ way (which you aren’t!).

People can also feel very uncomfortable around grief. Your loss might remind your friends and family that they will lose their own animal friends one day too. Death is also a stark reminder that life is short, and this can be a frightening prospect. 

Communicating your needs

At this time, we’d encourage you to use open and honest communication with your friends and loved ones. They don’t have to share or understand your loss in order to show empathy.

The important thing is to be clear about what you’re feeling or what you need in order to feel supported.

In the maelstrom of grief, it’s easy to assume that other people will instinctively know that you need support and exactly what that support looks like but often that’s not the case. Even though it’s exhausting to do so, it can be helpful to be clear and definite about what you need. 

A simple statement like, “I would really like to talk about my pet. I don’t need you to try to minimise my pain or fix things because that isn’t possible. I just need you to listen” can open the door to a heartfelt conversation.

Educating your support network

Your friends and family may find it helpful to learn a bit more about grief. You could encourage them to read some of the blogs here on The Ralph Site as they talk about the emotional and practical impact of pet loss.  

There are also many fantastic books and podcasts about grief, as well as pet loss grief.

What friends can do to help when you’re grieving

Of course, only you know what support you would find helpful. However, below we’ve listed some ways that friends and family can typically help when you’re grieving. Hopefully, these ideas might help you to start a conversation:

  • Listening without judgement

This is probably the number one thing that anyone can do when supporting a bereaved person. We humans often have a desire to fix things, but grief isn’t fixable. There aren’t short cuts; it won’t magically go away. 

The kindest thing your friends and family can do is simply be with you and listen without judgement.

  • Offering practical assistance

Grief is exhausting and it can be all-consuming. Practical things like eating well, exercising or managing a home can be challenging. Let your friends and family know if you need someone to step in and cook a meal or help you in some other practical way.

People will often say, “Let me know if I can help with anything” but most of us never follow up on this kind of offer because it’s too vague. Equally, people may not step in to help if they don’t understand what help is needed. It can be really useful to say to your friends, “I need X, Y or Z”.

  • Being present and available

It can be hard to ask the people around you to be present and available because, of course, everyone has commitments, and you may be worried about being seen as a burden. 

There’s no denying that grief can make a relationship feel off-balance. You may feel like you’re constantly off-loading on your friends or that they’re getting bored or frustrated with you. Do let your loved ones know that their support is appreciated and that you value them showing up and being available at this time.

Coping with insensitive remarks

Despite their best intentions, people may sometimes say hurtful things.

When a pet dies, it’s sadly very common for people to say things like, “When are you going to get a new one?”, “At least it was just a cat/dog/guinea pig, etc.”, “At least it wasn’t a human” or even, “Are you still upset?”

The fact that so many people use the word “it” to talk about a sentient being unfortunately speaks volumes about the fact that people see pets as possessions or commodities that can be easily replaced.

Thankfully, your animal friend has given you the lived experience to have a more empathetic perspective.

And hopefully, this perspective can help you to forgive unintentional mistakes. It’s very unlikely that your friends and family mean to say something hurtful. They’re probably just trying to provide a fix because they don’t know how else to make things better.

Seeking professional help

If your friends and family aren’t able to offer the support you need to come to terms with your loss, you may find bereavement counselling helpful, especially talking to an experienced pet bereavement counsellor.

In the UK, the Blue Cross has a dedicated pet bereavement support service. If you’re outside of the UK, a Google search should help you to find support more locally.

We created the private Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook to give you a safe space to talk to other bereaved pet carers. The people in this group understand how distressing pet loss can be. 

If you are struggling to find support from your friends and family, then we urge you to reach out. You will find other bereavement resources on The Ralph Site.

Conclusion

According to the American Psychological Association and other experts, people are better able to come to terms with a bereavement if they have a good social support network. 

It can be a steep learning curve for everyone. You’re trying to learn how to exist in this new place of loss, while your friends and family are learning how to support you. Patience is needed as everyone is learning to navigate this challenging journey together, whatever their role in your life.

If you’re struggling to tell your loved ones how pet loss grief is affecting you, please do direct them to this website or our public Facebook page so that they can learn more about how life-changing pet loss can be for bereaved pet carers.

If you’ve found ways to connect with your social circle during a time of grief or you’ve supported a friend after a bereavement and have tips to share, we’d love you to leave a comment.

As always, please know that you are not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

When you were not able to say goodbye to your pet

Were you unable to say goodbye to your pet before they passed? 

Sadly, many pet carers end up in a situation where their pet passes away at home or outside without them, goes missing, or dies at the vets. The latter can be due to complications before, during or after surgery, for example, or because the vet’s investigations have unexpectedly revealed a serious health condition. 

Death without closure

We, humans, like to have closure. We tend to see things in a linear way, understanding that life has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Before we experience a bereavement for the first time, most of us believe that grief is something you work through until you find closure and are able to move on. 

In reality, bereavement is far more complicated. There is no true end to grief, it simply becomes something that we learn to live with, and that becomes more bearable and less of a shock with time.

And as much as we would like to be able to plan or predict the end of a pet’s life, it isn’t always possible. 

Unfortunately, when we’re not able to say goodbye to a loved one, such as a precious animal friend, it can intensify the feeling of having unfinished business or no hope of closure.

This is often distressing.

If you weren’t able to say goodbye to your pet, you may find that you’re struggling with feelings of guilt, anger or remorse. 

For some people, not being able to say goodbye contributes to states of frozen or incomplete grief. This is because the parting wasn’t what you’d imagined or wanted or what you felt you both deserved. 

There’s a good chance that you didn’t know you would never see your pet again the last time you were with them. This can cause feelings of regret.

Be kind to yourself

When a parting is sudden or unexpected and you’re not able to be with your loved one to say goodbye, it’s common to replay the circumstances in which they died and focus on thoughts of “If only I had done X, Y or Z”. 

In The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group, people often say that they wish they’d gone to the vet sooner or recognised how poorly their pet was or that they hadn’t gone out/gone to bed/gone on holiday. 

There’s always something we wish we could change.

If you’re having these thoughts, the important thing to remember is that you’re viewing the situation with hindsight and judging yourself using information you have now but didn’t have at the time.

You did the best you could with what you knew, and your intentions came from a place of love. You wouldn’t be reading this article if they didn’t!

Even if you did make a mistake that contributed to your pet dying or you not being able to be with them at the end of their life, please show yourself compassion. 

What would you say to a friend in the same situation?

No doubt you’d be kind to them. You’d tell them that they’re human and that humans make mistakes sometimes. You’d encourage them to exercise self-forgiveness and to learn from their mistakes.

Now is the time to treat yourself with the same kindness you would show a friend.

Steps to help you say goodbye

Having the opportunity to say goodbye is an integral part of the healing process when we lose someone we love. Even when we know the outcome isn’t what we would choose, most of us are hardwired to seek out a resolution.

While you’ve been robbed of the opportunity to be with your pet physically for their final breath, it is still possible to say goodbye. After all, your animal companion was so much more than a physical being. They were a unique personality, a member of your family, part of your daily routines, a friend and confidante, and saying goodbye will be gradual.

What you may also discover is that, in the process of saying goodbye, you actually learn that many of the qualities your pet had – and the love you feel for them – will continue to live on inside of you. In this way, goodbye isn’t as final as you might think.

Here are some ways you can say goodbye to your pet without being with them: 

  • Focus on the times you were with them

As we’ve said above, your pet was and is so much more than their physical being or when, how or why they died. Before their death, they had a rich and beautiful life. You shared at least some of that with them.

We know that you’re hurting because you couldn’t physically say goodbye and that your thoughts may be stuck on “if only…”, but each time you think a negative thought about what you weren’t able to do or say at the end, see if you can counter the thought with a positive memory of what you were able to do at other times in their life.

This should help you see that you were there for your animal companion so many other times that mattered.

  • Create a memorial

Saying goodbye plays an important role when we’re grieving. It helps us to transition from a reality where our loved one was alive to a reality where they’re not. 

It’s one of the reasons that almost all cultures have death rites and rituals.

This can be missing from pet loss, even when everything about our pet’s end of life goes as we would have imagined.

Many people take comfort in creating a memorial for their pet. You might want to bury them in your garden so you can spend time near their physical remains. You might want to scatter their ashes under a favourite plant or in a favourite place.

Some people choose to create a memorial in their home in their pet’s favourite spot or in a chosen corner. 

There are no right or wrong approaches. All that matters is that you’re able to create a space where you feel close to your pet.

  • Find ways to honour your loved one

A great deal of comfort can come from being able to say, “This animal lived, and they mattered, and the world was better – I was better – because they were in it for a time”.

One way to say this is to find ways to honour your pet. 

Making a donation, showing kindness, talking about them, fostering an animal, sponsoring someone, celebrating your pet – these are all valid ways to honour their memory. Just choose what feels right for you.

  • Write them a letter

When you haven’t been able to say goodbye, it can be helpful to write a letter to your pet, saying all the things you would have wanted to say if you were with them.

You could bury the letter with your pet or have it cremated with them, if there’s still the opportunity to do this. Alternatively, you could burn it, bury it, rip it up, or keep it somewhere special. Again, the choice is yours.

  • Go to a special place

If you had a pet who went outside, did they have a favourite place? Is there somewhere you spent a lot of time together?

You may feel closer to your pet in a place that meant a lot to you both. Some people visit a special place to talk to their lost loved one, reflect on the past, tap into happy memories, grieve, celebrate happier times, and say goodbye.

  • Create something to express your feelings

We talked in a recent blog about how alternative therapies can be helpful for processing a bereavement. If you’re someone who enjoys painting, sculpting, knitting, sewing or, indeed, any kind of crafting, you could make something to express your feelings of loss and to say goodbye to your pet.

Some people find it healing to create a photobook or scrapbook of their pet’s life and precious memories of time spent together.

  • Talk to others

For many of us, being able to talk about our grief is one of the most helpful ways to process our feelings. If you have a good support network with your friends and family, you might want to talk to them about how difficult it has been to not be able to say goodbye to your pet.

You may feel that you need more formal and experienced support in the form of a pet bereavement counsellor. This can provide you with a safe space to talk about every aspect of your pet loss.

Alternatively, a community like The Ralph Site’s private Facebook pet loss group is the ideal place to connect with other bereaved pet carers, many of whom may share your feelings about being unable to say goodbye, even if their circumstances were different.

Goodbye is more than a word 

As much as Hollywood loves a poignant death scene and a tearful last embrace, the reality is that it isn’t always possible to be with a beloved pet when they die. 

But goodbye is so much more than a word. 

With pet loss, it’s a slow letting go of your animal’s physical presence, while you realise that the memories will always be with you.

Eight alternative grief therapies that may help with pet bereavement

Pet loss grief affects all of us differently, but alternative grief therapies can help you to cope, especially if you’re finding it hard to get support from your friends and family or you feel you need an extra level of support.

“Successful” mourning

Research suggests that we can achieve what’s known as “successful mourning”, which is when we navigate our way through grief into a state of mind where we’re able to “imagine a satisfying future” without our loved one, if we have a good support network and healthy coping mechanisms.

Although it seems uncomfortable to think of mourning in terms of success, this definition just describes being able to re-engage with daily life and reconnect with others (animal and human), and to be “able to experience hope for a future with potential for joy and satisfaction”. In this state of mind, grief integrates with your reality and transforms into acceptance.

So, what are the alternative grief therapies that can help you to achieve this state? Here are eight suggestions that many bereaved people find helpful:

  1. Journaling and writing

We’ve written a few different articles about journaling and writing as a way to process pet loss grief. It’s such an effective therapeutic method that we feel it’s worth mentioning again.

Keeping a grief journal or writing letters to your deceased pet(s) can be a cathartic way to process your emotions and memories. It allows for reflection, expression of thoughts and feelings, and can serve as a private space to connect with your grief and find solace.

If you’re not sure how to get started, you can find 50 grief journal prompts here that will hopefully inspire you. 

Also, Sue Ryder, a bereavement support organisation, has an online grief journal tool that you might want to use if you prefer typing to pen and paper. 

  1. Art therapy

Engaging in art therapy can be a powerful way to express and process emotions related to grief. 

Creating artwork, such as painting, drawing, or sculpting, allows for self-expression, reflection, and healing. You can use art therapy individually or in a group setting led by a qualified art therapist. It’s even something you can try at home.

It helps to give yourself permission to express your emotions freely through different artistic mediums. No one is going to judge your artistic skills – this type of therapy can be most effective when you let go of the idea that you must create “good” art and you instead allow yourself the space to explore what it is you want to express.

  1. Music therapy

Listening to or creating music can be another incredible therapeutic outlet for grief. 

Music has the power to evoke emotions, provide comfort, and serve as a form of self-expression. Participating in music therapy sessions or creating personalised playlists of meaningful songs can be healing.

When writing our blog about how music can help pet loss grief, we found that music is proven to reduce anxiety, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep quality and put you in a better mood. 

  1. Meditation and mindfulness

Practicing meditation and mindfulness techniques can help calm the mind, reduce stress, and promote emotional healing. These practices encourage focusing on the present moment, acknowledging emotions without judgment, and cultivating self-compassion.

Most of us want to rush through grief, to come out the other side to a time when our loss doesn’t hurt as much. But the thing about grief is that it demands that we feel and experience it fully. There aren’t any shortcuts and, indeed, attempting to bury grief can actually prolong it.

Meditation and mindfulness practices can help you to sit with your grief and make peace with its presence.

There’s a wonderful piece of writing by Donna Ashworth called “Love Came First” that sums this up beautifully. Please do check it out.

  1. Nature therapy

Spending time in nature, whether it’s walking in a park, sitting by a lake, or walking in the hills, can have a calming and grounding effect. Connecting with the natural world can provide a sense of peace, solace, and perspective during the grieving process.

There’s something about seeing the cyclical patterns of the natural world; the changing seasons, the cycle of life and death, and even the resilience of nature can all serve as metaphors and prompts for reflection, potentially providing hope in the face of loss.

  1. Acupuncture and acupressure

Traditional Chinese medicine practices like acupuncture and acupressure can help restore balance and promote relaxation. These therapies involve stimulating specific points on the body to release blocked energy and alleviate emotional and physical distress.

Acupuncture Associates says that acupuncture and acupressure can help as an alternative grief therapy because grief is not solely a psychological experience; it creates a physical response too. Acupuncture can improve common physical grief symptoms such as pain, high blood pressure and low appetite. 

  1. Animal-Assisted Therapy

If you feel ready and able, then interacting with animals, such as therapy dogs or cats, can offer emotional support and help alleviate feelings of grief. As you know from experience, spending time with animals can provide a sense of companionship, unconditional love, and a soothing presence during challenging times.

Of course, it’s important that you feel comfortable with being around other animals now. After losing a pet, many people find it too painful, so this might not be the right fit for you. On the other hand, you might find it cathartic. 

If you do want to explore animal-assisted therapy, even if it’s an informal arrangement rather than a dedicated service, then there are a number of options open to you, such as volunteering at an animal shelter, connecting with an animal-assisted therapy organisation, borrowing a pet through an organisation like The Cinnamon Trust (and helping a pet carer at the same time), or even fostering a pet.

  1. Support groups and retreats

Participating in grief support groups or attending grief retreats can provide a safe and supportive environment to share experiences, receive guidance, and connect with others who are also navigating a loss. These group settings offer a sense of community and understanding.

Google is a good starting point for finding local groups. There are also online support groups and services, including The Ralph Site’s private pet loss community on Facebook.

With more people recognising the impact of pet loss, there is a growing number of pet bereavement counsellors and support services, including the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement helpline.

It’s your grief

Hopefully, these alternative grief therapies will give you avenues for support and help you to create healthy coping mechanisms at this tough time. Many bereavement experts recommend approaching alternative therapies as complementary to traditional grief support and counselling. 

You might find that consulting with a healthcare professional or therapist who specialises in grief and alternative therapies can help you determine which approach would be best for you.

It’s worth exploring different options to see what resonates. 

More than anything else, know that you are not alone.

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