A hidden sorrow: experiencing pet bereavement as a disenfranchised grief

‘Disenfranchised grief’ is a term used to describe grief that isn’t fully or sometimes even partly acknowledged by society. There are several types of grief that fall into this category: the death of a friend, a miscarriage, giving up a child for adoption, and the death of an ex-spouse are just a few examples.

Pet loss is often experienced as a disenfranchised grief too.

An unseen pain

If you’ve recently lost a precious pet, you may feel that your own grief is not being recognised in the way it would be if a human family member had passed away. Or if a loved one has recently lost a pet, they may be struggling with this hidden sorrow right now.

This can be incredibly upsetting.

Many pet carers feel isolated and unheard at a time when they need support to cope with their loss.

As we’ve talked about in past blogs, pet loss can have a huge impact on your routines including the friendships you’ve built up around your lost companion. The end of a pet’s life may be far-reaching in terms of how it changes your own life.

Pet carers can even feel disenfranchised within the animal-loving community. For example, people who’ve lost a young pet in traumatic circumstances can be unintentionally dismissive of the pain of losing a very old animal – “They had a long life and it was to be expected”. Or dog and cat lovers may struggle to understand someone who is grieving for a small pet such as their rabbit, hamster, snake or cockatiel.

It can be a difficult arena to navigate, especially as everyone brings their own experiences to the table!

The challenges of disenfranchised grief

Research has shown that disenfranchised grief often results in complications that aren’t present during other more socially recognised times of grief.

You may feel more depressed or angry because you don’t feel able or ‘allowed’ to express your emotions about your loss.

You may not have been through the rituals and ceremonies usually associated with a bereavement. Milestones such as funerals are built into the grieving process for emotional reasons, rather than just the practical ‘disposal’ (to use a brutal term) of the physical body, but we often skip them with animals.

The rituals and ceremonies we have around death are about acknowledging the importance of the life of the deceased. They’re a way of saying goodbye and remembering the being who will no longer have a physical presence in our lives.

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee closure but it is a way of telling the world that the deceased mattered. And that your relationship with the deceased was important to you.
People sometimes feel that they have to say goodbye to their pets alone and without the support of their wider community.

Knowing this, it makes sense that disenfranchised grief is sometimes described as ‘paradoxical’. It’s intensified because of the issues mentioned above and yet made smaller by society.

Coping with our own pain

If you are reading this article because you have lost a beloved pet, there are steps you can take to help you go through this difficult journey, even if it feels like our wider society doesn’t recognise your loss.

1. Acknowledge that your love for your lost pet is true, valid and significant – Your pet mattered to you and your grief is real.

2. Remind yourself that you are allowed to grieve – When we lose someone or something we love in life, it’s OK to ask for time and space to grieve their passing.

3. Create your own rituals – A growing number of pet crematoriums are offering pet lovers the opportunity to say goodbye to their pets and to keep special mementoes such as paw prints or locks of hair. With or without this option, you may find it helpful to create your own memorials and rituals for your pet.

4. Reach out to your support network – Your friends and family may not realise how much you’re suffering right now. By asking for support, you may find that it comes from someone within your circle who has been through their own pet loss.

5. Look for ways to express your grief – Even if you feel you can’t share your grief with your wider network, many people find it helpful to write about their pets, create photo books, draw or paint, or create in some way.

6. Know that you’re not alone – I created The Ralph Site in memory of my cat, Ralph. Very quickly, people started coming forward to share their own experiences of pet bereavement and to give and receive comfort. It confirmed what I had always known – that we pet carers are not alone in the love and grief we feel. We are a community. People are always there to listen on The Ralph Site’s Facebook page and in the private Facebook pet loss support group.

How we can help others deal with disenfranchised grief

There are steps we can take to support others during their time of grief and to model a better way for how society approaches pet loss.

• Be sensitive to another person’s loss

Whatever the cause of a person’s grief, it’s not really for any of us to judge how ‘real’ or ‘appropriate’ it is. People feel what they feel. Love is love and loss is loss. We might not share the same feelings but empathy lets us recognise and understand when another person is suffering.

We must also be careful to acknowledge that, even if we’ve experienced a similar loss, other people’s grief won’t automatically look the same as our own.

• Provide validation

Validation is about letting someone know that their feelings count. Again, we don’t have to share the same feelings but it can be hugely healing to let someone know that we see their pain and understand that they have lost someone very special to them.

• Name their feelings

With disenfranchised grief, people often feel that they aren’t allowed to express their emotions. And yet naming your feelings is one of the first steps towards recognising emotions and dealing with them.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is no such thing as good or bad feelings. Grief can take us through every emotion from shock and denial to anger, guilt and fear or sadness, relief and release. There is no order to what we feel and no right or wrong thoughts.

If you know someone who has lost a pet, they might find it helpful if you give them the opportunity to name their feelings.

• Recognise that grief is a journey

Whatever or whoever the cause of someone’s grief, the bereaved will find themselves on a rollercoaster of a journey that has no set timeline.

People often expect that the journey will end at a definitive point with a feeling of detachment from the loss and closure. In reality, this is rarely the case.

Instead, people find that their feelings soften with time and they learn to live a new life born out of their loss.

Grieving serves multiple purposes. It lets us acknowledge the loss, express our emotions, adjust to a changed life, relocate the loss to a more manageable space in our minds, and adjust our philosophical beliefs.

It is important to understand that grief doesn’t stick to a schedule and to be open-hearted about the highs and lows the bereaved may go through even years after their loss.

And always remind someone who is grieving that they are not alone.

Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

2 thoughts on “A hidden sorrow: experiencing pet bereavement as a disenfranchised grief

  1. jillian oliver

    Thank you. The Ralph Site is an immense source of support and advice. I lost my beloved Dylan in a tragic accident in January, 14 weeks today. I always thought that I kept him safe 😢. The trauma and shock from his accident are beyond words and measure. The life we had together now shattered. I am lucky in that I have been supported by family and friends and by pet loss sites – this wonderful one and the Rainbow Bridge Memorial Page. What s now striking me is that recently a small number of close people clearly believe I should have moved on. “Can’t you talk yourself out of crying?”, “Well, you ll have Robin soon.” ( A puppy is coming home later this week which is wonderful, but makes things also sad because if Dylan hadn’t grown his wings there wouldn’t be a puppy.) I’ve come to realise which people I can still talk to openly and which people I have to hide my emotions from. Sunglasses were great on holiday last week as no one could tell when I’d been crying in private. Thank you for this wonderful site and the comfort it brings. Jill xx 💙🐾💔

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    1. TheRalphSite Post author

      Hi Jillian,

      Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your story. I am very pleased that The Ralph Site has been of help to you.

      I hope that things are going well with Robin and that you can form a new and loving relationship with him. This definitely does not mean that you are in any way trying to replace Dylan, it is a new relationship, not a replacement.

      Warm regards,

      Shailen x

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