“Who am I now?” Loss of identity after pet bereavement

To a certain extent, we all expect to experience grief when a beloved pet dies. It’s part of the deal, isn’t it? That our happy times together will eventually come to an end, resulting in a time of great sadness.

What many of us don’t expect is the loss of identity that can occur after a pet bereavement. 

If you find yourself asking, “Who am I without my pet?” you’re not alone. Loss of identity is a surprisingly common response to a bereavement, a secondary loss can be deeply upsetting.

Why do some people experience a loss of identity when grieving? 

Each human has a sense of self, of who we are as a person. Our identity is shaped by various internal and external influences – the people we know, our relationships, our society and culture and/or ethnicity, what gives us purpose, our interests and passions, our beliefs, our life experiences and so much more.

Being a pet carer is likely to be a significant part of your personal identity, of how you see yourself and your place in the world. Knowing this, it’s understandable that losing your pet may have impacted your sense of self.

Any kind of loss can shake things up. Suddenly, the world doesn’t look the same. When your pet was alive, you had a clear role in relation to them but now that role has gone (even if you have other pets to care for), who are you? How should you define yourself if it’s not as a pet parent, guardian or carer?

These can be difficult questions. Don’t feel you have to know the answers straight away.

Your relational identity

We all have what is known as a “relational identity” (in fact, we each have multiple relational identities, based on our many emotional connections). A relational identity is about how we see ourselves in relation to someone else. 

For example, we might define ourselves as a spouse, daughter, son, sister, uncle, carer, and so on. In the same way, whatever words you use to define your relationship with your pet, the reality is that you loved them and they loved you and that shaped how you viewed yourself.

Your relational identity with your pet may have changed over time to reflect their age or changing needs. This evolution in your identity is still happening, even if you feel like you’ve lost who you are right now.

Another important factor in relational identity is the relationship we have with our wider community. This is really significant for pet carers because we often connect with like-minded people who live with similar pets. For example, your social life may have revolved around meeting other dog walkers or other horse carers at your horse’s stable. Perhaps you’re someone who enjoyed chatting online in pet-centric Facebook groups or on forums.

Without your pet, you might be finding it hard to define where you fit within these communities, which can have a knock-on effect on your identity.

Other forms of identity

We each have other forms of identity too. For example, we have a professional identity. If your pet was somehow involved in your working life – perhaps even just coming into the office with you – then losing them can shake up how you see yourself in a work context.

Equally, you may have a strong spiritual identity. Whether you believe in a specific faith or you simply see yourself as a spiritual person, dealing with a bereavement can often trigger a crisis of faith. As a pet carer, you may feel like there aren’t the same comfort or rituals for losing as pet as there would be for losing a person and that can cause some people to feel distanced from their spiritual communities.

Again, this can lead to a loss of identity.

And what of your financial identity or identity as a provider for your family, in which we include your pet? If you have had to pay a lot of vet bills recently, this may have been a source of stress and worry, as well as becoming part of your identity as a pet carer. What does it mean to your identity now these responsibilities have ended?

Even simple things like changes to your daily routine can affect how you see yourself, especially as a provider. Who are you if your day isn’t punctuated by walks, feeds, cleaning out, grooming, playing and spending time with your pet? These thoughts are all understandable.

Has your outlook been shaken by your pet’s death?

If someone were to ask you to describe your outlook on life, what would you say? Do you see yourself as optimistic, hopeful, someone who believes in the intrinsic good of other people and that life will usually turn out for the best?

Your pet loss may be challenging your world view, especially if the circumstances were sudden or traumatic. Again, this is to be expected. Give yourself time to process your loss.

How to find your identity after pet loss

For most people, the loss of identity after a bereavement is temporary, albeit distressing and something that can take time to address.

One of the most important things you can do to move forward is recognise that your identity won’t be exactly the same as it was when your pet was alive. In order to regain your sense of self, you will need to accept that you are a different person now because this loss is part of your life experience.

But different doesn’t mean bad or less than.

Hopefully, you can find meaningful ways to continue your bond with your pet. This ongoing connection can help you to integrate your identity as their guardian into your sense of self in a world without them.

Despite the loss that you’ve experienced, do know that there is hope for the future. You will find things in life, including new relationships, which bring to joy and contentment if you allow yourself to be open to them.

Try to give yourself the time and space to reflect on your loss – and this includes how it feels to have lost your identity. Some people find it helpful to write about their pet loss grief but you might find drawing, painting or sculpting therapeutic. What’s your favourite form of self-expression?

If you have someone you can talk to about your experiences, it’s important to reach out to them. They may not understand that you’re facing secondary losses such as changes to your daily routine, distance from your pet community or a loss of identity. People can often be incredibly helpful once they understand what you’re dealing with.

If you don’t have anyone in your immediate circle to talk to, a pet bereavement service (e.g. via an organisation like the Blue Cross) can help you to begin the journey of rebuilding your self-identity.

You will find yourself again

We really do understand how lost you might be feeling right now. Pet bereavement can challenge how we see ourselves and how we see our place in the world. Your pet offered unconditional love and companionship and losing this can rock your sense of self. 

Just know that the person your pet loved so much is still part of you. The essence of who you are remains. But it also makes sense that your identity might be in a state of change and that you don’t yet have a clearly defined sense of who you are without your pet.

Try not to put yourself under any pressure. You will find yourself again.

Until then, know that you’re not alone.

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

Absent grief: When you feel better than you expected to

Before a pet dies, it can be difficult to comprehend what life will be like without them. Most of us try not to think about these things or will say, usually with a shudder, “I can’t imagine losing them” or “I know I’ll be devastated”.

The problem is that it’s impossible to know in advance how any of us will feel and behave in the event of a bereavement.

Grief is influenced by so many factors – our relationship with the one who has died, our support network, our circumstances, our previous life experiences, other losses we’ve faced, and so much more.

Something you may not expect is to feel okay. 

What is absent grief?

Of course, if you feel okay, why would you be on a website about pet loss grief?

You probably know that it can be distressing to lose a pet you love and not be overwhelmed by grief. You might have come here wondering if something is wrong with you – shouldn’t you be more upset than you are? After all, you expected to be distraught.

Please be kind to yourself. Grief is rarely what we expect and there is no right or wrong way to feel when a pet dies.

Absent grief is defined in the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology as being “when a person shows no, or only a few, signs of distress about the death of a loved one”. But the key word in this definition is “shows”. Most psychologists believe that absent grief is actually a symptom of masked grief, incomplete grief or complicated grief (who knew there were so many forms of grief?!) and that isn’t so much absent as hidden.

While this is true for some people, you might simply be someone who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by grief.

Reasons why you might experience absent grief (or feel that grief isn’t present)

There are some notable reasons why grief isn’t always as present as we might expect:

  • You had different expectations

As humans, one of the ways we visualise the future is by referring back to what we know. Films and TV programmes, for example, tend to show grief in an often visually-obvious way (i.e. crying, sobbing, being emotionally distressed) because this is a shorthand for emotions that have to translate on camera. This means that, especially if we haven’t experienced grief before, what we’ve seen on TV  might shape our idea of what grieving looks like.

The reality can be very different. 

When a pet dies, we often have no choice but to carry on with everyday life. We can’t take pet bereavement leave from work and may feel unable to speak to our friends or family about our loss. 

Also, there are societal and cultural expectations around pet bereavement, which may influence how you feel. In the UK, for example, there’s still a hesitancy about expressing big emotions and the need to “keep a stiff upper lip”, the very definition of the mantra “Keep calm and carry on”. Other countries have similar attitudes.

Pet loss is generally an unrehearsed grief so you may feel like nothing is the way you expected.

  • Sometimes grief is quiet

We often think of grief as a single emotion that’s loud and incessant. But sometimes it’s a whisper, not a shout. It comes in quiet moments of the day and then leaves for a while. It sneaks up on us as we listen to a favourite song or walk in a favourite place. It shows up as different emotions, sometimes one at a time and other times as a jumble of many. It touches our dreams or settles on us as a heavy sigh.

In these cases, grief may not be as absent as you think, just a silent companion.

  • Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief is when you know a bereavement is possible, even inevitable, and experience feelings of loss before it happens. 

It’s very common to experience anticipatory grief when you’re a pet carer because you bring an animal into your life knowing that you will probably outlive them.

Some pet carers find they feel better than they expected when their pet dies because they’ve had weeks, months or even years to process their pet’s journey into old age and prepare for their eventual passing.

All the feelings are there but they’ve perhaps been spread out over a long period of time instead of hitting you in one go.

If you’ve had a pet who was very ill or experienced a slow decline, you may experience feelings such as relief when they die. We understand that this can come as a shock but it’s a natural grief response.

  • Shock

It could be that you’re still in shock about losing your pet. It’s common to experience a kind of brain fog after a bereavement, which is a defence mechanism that numbs you to the reality of your loss. 

It is a good idea to check in with your emotions when you can. Do you feel numb or disconnected from them? This could be a sign of shock. Or do you feel like you’re experiencing typical emotional reactions in other situations? If you feel able to access your emotions, it may simply be that your grief is absent.

  • Your relationship with your pet

When a family pet dies, we often assume that everyone in the home will experience the bereavement in the same way. However, grief responses can differ hugely within the same family and about the same pet. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps someone else in the house was the main carer, perhaps you’ve been away from home recently, maybe you’re someone who processes their feelings quietly. Often, we connect with animals because we identify with some part of their character or their preferences. This can affect how you experience grief.

It’s something of a mantra here at The Ralph Site that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your way. We’d recommend checking out the resources referenced above about masked and incomplete grief, just to reflect on whether you could be avoiding actively mourning for your pet. But it could be that your grief is genuinely absent for one or more of the reasons above and that’s your experience.

Just know you’re not alone.

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

Can music help with pet loss grief?

Since the beginning of human civilisation, every culture has used music in some way during times of loss. This includes folk songs or classical requiems right through to modern songs about bereavement and grief.

There are many reasons for the use of music as a way to process grief. Perhaps the most significant is that it’s a tool for emotional expression, one that sits somewhere between words and feelings, with an unmatched ability to transport us to a moment of time or memory.

If you’re wondering how to cope with your pet loss grief right now, here are just a few reasons to turn to music for solace and expression:

  1. Music can help us feel and express big emotions

Whether you write your own music or listen to your favourite songs, music has a way of cutting straight to the core of our emotions. There is something freeing about this. You don’t need to explain your pet loss grief to anyone – the feelings are there in the arrangement of notes.

Equally, music can influence our emotional state. If you are feeling the raw emotions of grief right now, you might want to explore how you can use music to channel it. Grief can feel like an emotional experience that’s too big for words but, for some people, using music can be a way to contain it, explain it or set the big emotions free.

  1. Music gives you a safe space to grieve

For many people, listening to music provides short three- to four-minute windows of time where there is permission to feel whatever emotions a particular song evokes. Just knowing that a song will end can be enough to feel every beat deeply.

  1. Music helps us to honour and connect with memories of our pet

Are there particular songs that remind you of your pet? Perhaps there’s a song that was popular when they joined your family or one you listened to a lot while you spent time with them? Maybe there are certain songs that sum up your pet’s personality or tell an aspect of their life story?

Music often has a magical quality that enables us to travel through time, so it can be comforting to create a playlist that’s all about connecting with your precious memories of happy times with your pet.

  1. Music is good for our bodies and minds

Perhaps it’s because music sits in a space somewhere between words and feelings that it’s able to speak to us both physically and mentally. 

A study from John Hopkins University found that listening to music can reduce anxiety, lower your blood pressure, relieve pain and improve your sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory.

Singing along to a favourite song, writing a song to express your creativity or just having a dance in the kitchen or walking/running to music can give your body and mind a much-needed boost when you’re grieving.

  1. Music helps you reconnect with yourself

When a much-loved pet dies, you experience more than one loss because it often signals a loss of routine, changes to your social and home lives, and a loss of companionship too. In the face of your bereavement, it’s understandable if you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself.

Grief undoubtedly shifts our sense of identity and, as pet carers, our identity is often closely tied to our role as their guardian.

Listening to music can help you reconnect to your true self, a gentle reminder of who you are and what matters to you. This ability to find and ground you, even in the chaos of grief, highlights how special music can be.

  1. Music can give you a break from grieving

As much as music can help you to connect with and process your feelings of grief, sometimes it serves the opposite purpose and provides a moment of escapism. Think about a song that has always made your heart soar – put it on, turn it up and give yourself full permission to think of nothing as you lose yourself in the music.

  1. Music can help you to say goodbye

Humans have always used music during life’s big rites of passage. There’s a reason why songs are sung at funerals, for example, even if the funeral doesn’t have a religious focus. 

When someone dies, music can help us honour them, celebrate them, say goodbye, lift ourselves up and even take a step towards healing. Maybe it’s because music speaks to the things we share in life, rather than the things that set us apart.

  1. Music can help you transform your grief

We humans often use creativity to express our big emotions and experiences. Music is perhaps one of the oldest, purest and most enduring ways that we know to turn the pain of loss into something beautiful.

You might want to write a song about your pet, create a playlist dedicated to them, or dance in celebration of their life – it’s your choice.

Songs to help with pet loss grief

We did think about listing some songs that can help soothe you at a time of pet loss (and maybe that’s a topic for another blog!) but we recognise that music tastes are deeply personal. 

You will have songs that you love, songs that remind you of your pet, and songs that never fail to speak to your deepest emotions. Equally, you might feel like you’ll never enjoy listening to music again.

As with all aspects of pet loss grief, there’s no right or wrong – only what works for you. Just know that you’re not alone.

(And if you do have a song that has helped you with pet loss grief in the past – or is helping you right now – we’d love it if you could share it in the comments below so that it inspires other bereaved pet carers in our community).

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

Toxic positivity and its impact on pet loss grief

It feels like people are talking about “toxic positivity” a lot at the moment and challenging the “positive vibes only” attitude that’s been pervasive in recent years (especially on social media), recognising that it actually does more harm than good.

Today, we wanted to talk about the impact of toxic positivity on someone experiencing pet loss grief.

What is toxic positivity?

Essentially, toxic positivity is the idea that, regardless of the circumstances, you should only ever have a positive, happy or optimistic outlook, ignoring things that are painful until they’re forced to go away.

Toxic positivity is the attitude that you should dust yourself off, smile and be grateful for what you have because “there’s always someone worse off”. 

Well, yes, of course, there will always be someone somewhere who is “worse off” (however we rank these things) but that doesn’t make your pain less valid!

This kind of positivity is toxic because it ignores or denies the messier parts of being human. It tells us that happiness is good but other emotions are bad and shouldn’t be expressed.

But the thing is that life isn’t relentlessly happy, something you know only too well, having experienced a loss in your own life. Grief is part of the fabric of human existence and when we don’t face difficult emotions in life, they almost always come back to bite us!

Toxic positivity and grief

There’s no doubt that grieving is hard and it brings up some challenging emotions. Anger, guilt, sadness, regret – these can all be difficult to process and for others to be around. But these are all important feelings that you have a right to experience and express.

The discomfort around grief, of not knowing what to say to make things better, makes people lean on toxic positivity. 

You may well have had people say things to you like, “It’s a blessing in disguise” or “They’re in a better place” about your loss. Worse still, many pet carers hear sentiments such as, “At least you can get another” (as though you’re shopping for a new mobile phone!) or “At least it wasn’t someone in your family who died” when, actually, your pet was very much part of your inner circle.

While usually well-meaning, these phrases – designed to put a positive spin on things – can leave you feeling unseen, unsupported and alone in your grief. 

This can lead to you masking your grief and experiencing:

  • Shame and avoidance
  • Anger
  • Mental health problems
  • Other negative stress responses such as anxiety and depression
  • Faking happiness to appease others

Grief is not something you can power through. The pain you’re experiencing is a huge neon sign that you have feelings that need to be felt and will not be pushed away indefinitely by a fake smile.

Internalising toxic positivity

A major problem with toxic positivity is that we can end up internalising it and believing that we should behave in certain ways.

You may find yourself trying to avoid the hard emotions you’re feeling or downplaying them (“I don’t know why I’m still upset” or “I know there are worst things happening in the world” or “It’s silly that I’m this upset about an animal”). Perhaps you’re keeping yourself busy, avoiding coming home, working harder or socialising more because you feel you have to focus on the positives.

But the truth is that grief needs to be felt. It’s the only way to move forwards.

What about toxic negativity?

It is worth pointing out that toxic negativity affects how we grieve too. Many of us end up feeling like we have to stay stuck in our pain, frozen in the moment of loss, because it’s the only way to stay close to our pet, the last reminder we have of them.

There’s also the fear that if we feel anything other than sadness or let go of our guilt or anger, then we’re somehow betraying our pet or forgetting how much we loved them.

This isn’t true at all. Love never dies.

Not all positivity is toxic – it can be healthy

There’s a huge difference between toxic positivity and a healthy, genuine positivity that does help people cope with grief.

Healthy positivity allows you to acknowledge and feel the hard emotions in life while recognising that there is space for good things too, if not today then one day.

Positivity in grief is being able to say, “I am heartbroken that my pet died and the future may not look the way I want it to but I know that I will be able to experience joy and purpose again”.

Those who push toxic positivity would have us believe that the only way to be whole and well in life is to be endlessly happy, to the exclusion of everything else, but that’s peddling a lie. If you think about your relationships, the things you’ve accomplished in life, and what gives your life meaning, it’s probably a messy mix of highs and lows. That’s the human condition.

True positivity can co-exist with pain. It doesn’t categorise emotions as good or bad because it understands that emotions simply ARE. 

The key to being positive in a healthy way is to have compassion and empathy for all of your feelings. It’s about saying, “My pain is valid. I don’t need to justify my grief to anyone else and I have a right to experience and express it”.

With time, healthy positivity will help you develop coping mechanisms for your pet loss grief that strengthen and support you rather than harm you. It will inspire you to find purpose in your life and to create a new relationship with your pet through the memories you carry with you.

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

Have you been struggling with grief brain fog since your pet died?

Since your pet died or went missing, has thinking a coherent thought been like wading through treacle? Are you experiencing brain fog that manifests as memory loss, confusion or an inability to concentrate?

Do you walk into a room and forget what you’re there for, miss appointments, struggle to stay organised or feel distracted?

If so, please be reassured that, as scary as it feels, all of this is a natural response to grief and should be temporary.

Why do we experience brain fog when we’re grieving?

Brain fog is such a common symptom of grief that it even has its own name: Griever’s fog

One reason it happens is because bereavement is a trauma, even if it’s expected. In response to this trauma, the body produces the stress hormones – cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline – because it believes you need to be ready for “fight or flight” at a moment’s notice.

As evolved as we humans think we are, our bodies and brains still have a fairly primitive response to stress; bereaved or about to run for your life from an attacker, our stress hormones can’t tell the two apart!

But when your body and mind are flooded with these hormones, it can affect your ability to remember things, concentrate or make decisions (because who needs to remember what they came into a room for when they’re running away from an attacker?!)

Even without the stress hormones as a factor, bereavement is such a huge emotional event to process that it’s completely understandable if you’re struggling to track the more commonplace things in life.

Brain fog is your brain’s way of protecting you

It seems that Mother Nature has gifted us with brain fog as a kind of protective mechanism for coping with a bereavement.

By dulling your senses for a while, brain fog acts as a cushion between your thoughts and reality, giving you an almost-surreal space to begin to process your pet loss. In fact, common grief reactions such as shock, numbness, confusion and disorientation are all connected to the brain fog induced by stress hormones.

Our stress hormones can affect our ability to create short-term memories (which is why you might forget whether or not you’ve eaten today) or to turn short-term memories into long-term ones, which can be why it’s so hard to remember the days following a bereavement.

In addition, activity in parts of the brain such as the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) decreases – or changes – at a time of stress or trauma because the body needs to channel its resources to survival rather than laying down new skills or memories.

Of course, pet loss grief can also disrupt your sleep, appetite, immune system and mood (a lot of that being down to those stress hormones too). These are all factors that can affect your ability to concentrate or enjoy life the way you did before your pet died.

How can you improve your grief brain fog?

You may not have noticed how foggy your brain felt until you tried to do “normal” things like carry out a task at work or even cook a meal.

Griever’s fog can impact everything, from how we perform in our jobs to our ability to connect with our friends and family.

For this and many other reasons, it’s important that you show yourself as much self-care as possible, despite your current sense of shock.

In most cases, grief-triggered brain fog eventually goes away on its own. This can take days for some people and weeks or months for others.

If you are at all worried that your brain fog is getting worse over time, we recommend that you have a chat with your doctor. It could be a sign that you’re experiencing complicated grief, which is when the intense feelings of grief persist for so long that you end up feeling stuck and need support to move forward.

In the meantime, the following tips may help you:

  • Give your grief space to exist – You loved your pet very much and your grief is a natural expression of that. Unfortunately, you can’t think your way through grief; you need to feel it.
  • Connect with supportive people – This could be friends and family or other bereaved pet carers (for example, in The Ralph Site Facebook Group).
  • Acknowledge that your life is on a different path to when your pet was alive – The surreal nature of brain fog can keep us wanting to go back to before our loss (after all, this new state of mind doesn’t feel real). It’s important to recognise this.
  • Seek bereavement support – You might find it helpful to speak to a pet bereavement counsellor or support line.
  • Set reminders for yourself – If it’s making you feel anxious that you’re forgetting appointments or even whether you’ve eaten today, you could set reminders in your phone. A free app like Todoist can help you track what you need to do and when.
  • Be gentle with yourself – You are feeling physically and emotionally vulnerable right now. Sadly, bereavement leave doesn’t formally exist for bereaved pet carers but if you’re able to take some time off, it might help you navigate the worst of the brain fog.
  • Ask people to follow up with you if you’ve made plans together – If you’re meeting up with a friend and struggling to remember the arrangements, you could ask them to message you beforehand with a reminder.

Grief brain is real

Grief brain is certainly real. If you’re finding it hard to keep track of conversations or to read or watch TV or complete tasks at work, we hope this will reassure you that it’s a natural response to loss. We understand this doesn’t make the brain fog less distressing but maybe you can find some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. Give yourself time. Be kind to yourself. Reach out for support if you need it. One day, the fog will lift. Until then, take things a day at a time.

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