Staying connected: Your continuing bonds with a pet who has died

Throughout human history, it has generally been accepted that grief is a natural part of our existence and that the bonds we share with our deceased loved ones, including our pets, continue long after the moment of death.

In this way, grief is the price of love, a normal and natural reaction to losing someone or something we value.

But in the 20th century, starting with Freud’s influential essay on mourning and melancholia in 1917, attitudes towards grief changed – not necessarily for the better. 

Freud viewed “grief work” as a process whereby the bereaved person must sever their bonds with the loved one who has died so that the survivor is free and able to form new attachments in the future. He believed this process of “letting go” should happen as quickly as possible.

Stemming from this, grief theory became about “closure”, “acceptance” and “moving on”. 

Later grief theorists of the 20th century mapped out predictable trajectories of grief, suggesting that once certain stages or tasks had been accomplished, grief would end. The most famous of these models – the five stages of grief – stems from Kubler-Ross’s text On Death and Dying.

These models have dominated conversations about grief until very recently. This is why we often find ourselves saying things like, “I don’t know why I still feel bad” or “I know I should be over this by now”.

Rejecting 20th century models of grief 

Thankfully, attitudes are changing. 

Back in 1996, a book called Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief – edited by Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman (all bereavement experts) – offered an alternative view that “a healthy resolution of grief enables one to maintain a continuing bond with the deceased”.

This book has continued to reshape attitudes towards grief over the past 25 years. 

Today, many bereavement experts believe what grievers have always instinctively known – that healthy grief includes forging a different relationship with departed loved ones and that it’s entirely natural to want to stay connected.

This is known as the Continuing Bonds theory of grief.

What is the Continuing Bonds theory?

American playwright Robert Anderson, author of the film Tea and Sympathy, famously said, “Death ends a life – it does not end a relationship”.

This is the essence of Continuing Bonds, which brings many people comfort and clarity. 

It’s a model of grief that recognises:

  • Grief is ongoing; it isn’t something that you finish with, it’s something that becomes part of you
  • While grief is ongoing, it isn’t continuous – you may experience temporary breaks in your grief and also recurrences 
  • It’s normal to stay connected to a loved one who has died
  • Our continuing bonds with the deceased explain many natural grief behaviours, such as looking at photos, keeping a pet’s belongings, creating a memorial garden, talking about our memories and more
  • Remaining connected to a loved one can help us to cope with grief
  • It’s also okay if the idea of a continuing bond doesn’t bring you comfort – everyone is different

The Continuing Bonds model says that when someone we love dies, grief isn’t about emotionally detaching from them and leaving them in the past; instead, it’s about adjusting and redefining the relationship so that the bond is able to endure in different ways throughout your life.

Your love for your pet hasn’t died

While your pet is no longer physically present in your life, the love you felt from them is still very much part of who you are. Why should anyone expect that to end?

It’s absolutely fine to look for ways that you can stay connected to your pet and continue to express the love you carry for them.

There are many ways that you might do this. You could:

  • Talk to your pet as if they were still here
  • Write a letter to your pet telling them how you feel
  • Display photos of your pet around your home
  • Incorporate your pet into special days by lighting a candle for them or watching an old video of them
  • Bring them into conversation whenever you want to 
  • Live your life in a way you know they would love

Experience your pet’s continued presence

Studies have shown that many people take comfort from experiencing their pet’s continued presence.

This can happen in different ways for different people.

If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, you might take comfort from the idea of an afterlife or the Rainbow Bridge or look for signs that your pet is still nearby. For some people, this can be finding a clump of fur somewhere they’ve cleaned many times since their pet died. Comfort might come from sounds (feet padding across the floor) or smells (dog fur after the rain) that you experience unexpectedly. Other people view white feathers as a sign that their loved one is near.

If you’re an atheist, you might take comfort from the first law of thermodynamics – i.e. that energy cannot die – it simply changes form. The energy that was your pet still exists, surrounding you. 

Every photon and particle that ever touched your pet is still in existence, its course through the universe changed forever because of that contact. The world is different because your pet lived.

Sometimes, just feeling the wind against your face or watching birds fly across the sky can be enough to help you feel your pet’s presence and reconnect with them.

The relationship changes

Research in the Continuing Bonds book by Klass et al found that the relationship we have with someone who dies changes throughout our lives, in much the way it would if they were still alive.

If you lose a beloved pet in your 20s, the way you connect to their memory is likely to evolve with your different life stages. You’ll see your relationship differently in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. Rather than creating distance, this ever-changing connection keeps the relationship present and means you can carry your pet with you at all times.

Some people struggle with this. It feels like a poor substitute for having their living, breathing companion by their side. Others find a way to move forward knowing that the relationship continues.

As ever, there is no right or wrong. The important thing is that you don’t have to “let go” or “find closure” to process grief, so ignore anyone who tells you otherwise! You can stay connected and continue those precious bonds, even as you move forward, not on.

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

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