Pet loss and depression often go hand in hand but when should you reach out for help?
As we’ve talked about in many blogs on The Ralph Site, the death of a pet can be devastating.
People often feel that they have to keep the true extent of their grief hidden because they’re mourning an animal, not a human. However, there is growing recognition that, when a pet dies, it can be as distressing as losing a human member of the family. It can even be more distressing.
After all, we share familial relationships with our pets.
It makes sense. Our pets share our homes with us; they’re at the centre of our daily routines. They love us through the good and the bad, unconditionally. We’re responsible for them in every way and have often either seen them grow from infancy or given them a new life through rescue.
Death may come after a period of illness or slow decline for a very elderly animal. It can also happen suddenly or traumatically. Every ‘type’ of death can be difficult to accept and process, even more so if you feel like you can’t share your feelings because people won’t understand.
Another layer to pet loss is the feelings associated with euthanasia. Was it the right decision? Was it too soon? Too late? Did my pet feel like I betrayed them at the end? These are all common questions that can be distressing and feed into feelings of guilt, blame, shame, regret and others.
It is understandable that many of these issues can make you feel low after a pet bereavement.
What is ‘normal’ grief?
When a pet dies, we can worry whether our grief is ‘normal’. Maybe it’s because pet loss is often played down.
Comments such as, “It was just a dog/cat/chinchilla/hamster”, “At least you can get another one” or “Are you still upset?” can make you feel like it’s wrong to be so heartbroken.
This is often when people feel like they should be moving through their grief faster. Or they worry that their extreme pain isn’t ‘normal’.
The truth is that there is no right way to grieve for a pet, any more than there is to grieve for a person. There is also no timeline or acceptable pain scale. Some people are able to feel ‘normal’ (whatever that is for them) in days or weeks but others can take years to adapt to their loss.
Grief doesn’t come with a blueprint. It is messy and certainly not a linear process. Some days, you may feel fine and then, other days, pain may come crashing down on you out of nowhere.
If anything about grief can be normal, it’s this – the sheer unpredictability of it.
It’s okay to grieve
Our point is that it’s okay to feel sad, heartbroken, low, bereft and more when a pet dies.
Bereavement experts tell us that these feelings are completely normal but that, with time and support, we can eventually begin to accept and make sense of our loss so that we can adjust to living a life where our loved one isn’t physically present.
This takes a different length of time for everyone. It isn’t that we reach a point of closure but, instead, we create a new normal that encompasses our loss but let’s in other feelings too.
However, sometimes grief and depression go hand in hand. It’s important to reach out for help if you feel you need it.
When you might need help for depression?
After a bereavement, it’s common to see changes in your sleeping or eating patterns, for example, and your concentration may be all over the place. But if this continues, these changes to your behaviour could be a sign of depression.
You may want to speak to a counsellor or your doctor for help if you feel that:
- You’re not able to cope with your overwhelming emotions or daily life
- Your intense emotions immediately after your bereavement are not easing or are getting worse
- You’re not sleeping
- Your eating patterns have changed
- You’re struggling to function at work or home
- Your relationships are suffering
- You’re self-medicating using drugs or alcohol to cope
Bereavement specialists refer to a term known as ‘complicated grief’, which we’ve written about in the past. This is defined as “an intense, consuming grief with symptoms lasting for more than six months”.
Complicated grief often includes feelings of anxiety and depression. Common signs include:
- Continued disbelief that your pet has died or emotional numbness over the loss
- An inability to accept the death
- Constantly replaying your pet’s death in your mind
- Intense sorrow or feelings of bitterness or anger
- An inability to enjoy any good memories about your pet
- Continuous longing and yearning for your loved one
- Blaming yourself for your pet’s death
- Wishing to die so you can be with your pet
- No interest in anything, including the future
- Feeling distrustful of anyone
- Feeling that life has no meaning
- Feeling like you’ve lost your identity or that part of you died with your pet
If you are wrestling with any of these feelings, it’s never too early to explore professional counselling or to speak to a dedicated pet bereavement counsellor.
In some cases, medication such as short-term antidepressants can help to make life more manageable. This is something you should discuss with your doctor.
Counselling for pet bereavement
Even without depression in the mix, grief can be debilitating and should be taken seriously. Many people find it is better to ask for support before they become depressed rather than waiting for their mood to ebb even further.
Sometimes, it’s enough to talk to the people around you about your loss. A healthy diet, good sleep, exercise and keeping to your routines can all be helpful too.
Above all, allow yourself to feel sad. When we lose someone we love, it hurts – you shouldn’t have to push down those feelings or pretend that you’re fine if you’re not.
But sometimes, more support is necessary.
If you’re at all worried that you’re experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of your pet loss, please ask for help.
You may also find it helpful to chat with other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site’s Facebook group.
Your doctor will also be able to advise you about medication or refer you to talking therapies available locally.
Please know that you are not alone.
As always, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support