Talking about pet loss grief

Talking about pet loss grief can be hard.

In fact, in our modern society, any conversations about grief can be challenging. Even when grieving for a human loved one, bereaved individuals frequently express that there’s pressure for their grief to end (or for them to at least stop talking about it!). Conversations about grief often include phrases like “I know I should be over this by now” or “I can’t believe I’m still upset” or “I know I’m being silly but…”.

Researching this topic, there certainly seems to be a deep discomfort about talking about death and loss. Bereaved people often observe that their friends and family feel socially awkward around them or even avoid them altogether, which can add another layer to the sense of loss.

Often listeners have good intentions. They don’t want to talk about grief because they worry it will make the bereaved person feel worse. What they don’t realise is that, when you’re grieving, it would be impossible to remind you about something that’s already on your mind twenty-four hours a day.

In many ways, not talking about grief just adds to the feelings of isolation and ‘otherness’. The space to talk can be an important part of making sense of what has happened.

Talking about loss in the past or present tense affects how listeners respond

According to one article from Psychology Today, a psychologist known as Dan McAdams has observed in his research that people are often most comfortable with hearing others talk about grief when it’s in a past context with a positive outcome.

In other words, it’s much easier to discuss a bereavement when the bereaved person can put it within a framework of, “I experienced this terrible loss but I came out of the other side as a stronger person”. McAdams describes this as a ‘redemption story’.

Apparently, people find it much harder to talk about grief when it’s still seen to be present. If someone says “I’m in pain and I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy again”, most humans are far more likely to struggle to be supportive. McAdams describes a life derailed by loss as a ‘contamination story’.

This sounds like a harsh description – no-one wants to see grief as something that contaminates – but the sentiment does seem to reflect what many of us experience.

McAdams suggests that people identify more closely with ‘contamination stories’, the stories of lives being turned upside down by grief, which is what makes them so much harder to hear. In turn, finding things harder to hear makes it harder to respond appropriately.

Talking about disenfranchised grief

Some people find pet loss grief harder to talk about because it’s a type of disenfranchised grief. In other words, a grief that isn’t always fully or even partly acknowledged by society.

Although there can be some wonderfully understanding individuals in the world, many people simply don’t understand pet bereavement. They believe that it’s part and parcel of caring for an animal.

And, of course, it is. We all know that our pets will probably die long before us. We take the risk of the pain of future loss in exchange for the joy we experience during our pets’ lifetimes. But knowing bereavement is inevitable eventually doesn’t make it less painful.

So what can you do if you’re finding it hard to talk about your pet loss? Or, worse yet, if you’re struggling to find someone who will listen? We’ve put together a few ideas:

  1. Accept that you are grieving – we often feel we should rush through grief but the truth is that it’s an appropriate response to losing someone you love.
  2. Recognise that people find it hard to know what to say in the face of grief – it’s not that people are uncaring, they may just not know how to support you.
  3. Be prepared to ask for what you need – you can help people overcome point two above by stating what would help you. Just saying, “I don’t need you to fix anything, I just need to talk” can take the pressure off.
  4. Feel all of your feelings – before they experience grief, people often think of it as a long period of sadness. In fact, grief contains so much more: sadness, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, anger, happiness, hope… all emotions have a place. In a stunningly honest interview, actor Rob Delaney described the fact that the rainbow of his emotions remains as varied as it was before but his grief for his two-year-old son has added a band of black.
  5. Tell your friends that you appreciate their support – your loved ones may feel like they don’t know what to do or say for the best. Let them know that they’re helping just by listening.
  6. Choose your audience – there may be people in your social circle who aren’t able to offer the support that you need right now. It’s OK to choose who you speak to about your grief.
  7. Seek help from dedicated grief support services – you may find it helpful to talk to fellow bereaved pet carers or pet bereavement counsellors. Both can provide a non-judgmental source of support from people who understand the depth of your loss. The Blue Cross pet bereavement helpline and The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group are both there for you.

Learning how to talk about pet loss grief

There’s no doubt that how we talk about grief is influenced by our cultures, our societies, our peer groups, our families and our personal experiences. As well, of course, as our relationship with the person, animal or thing (e.g. job) we’ve lost.

In many ways, the rituals surrounding human death serve the purpose of providing a roadmap for how to behave that isn’t dependent on language or even emotions. There’s a death certificate to complete, a funeral to plan, clothes to pick out for the deceased, a wake to attend and so on.

When a pet dies or goes missing, the rituals aren’t as clear, the steps not as ingrained in society. This means we have to find our own way forward in the face of loss. Without the framework of rituals, talking about grief takes on a new challenge.

Hopefully, the tips above will help.

Your grief is yours to talk about as much or as little as you need. Even if other members of your household are sharing the same loss, you will probably each talk about grief differently.

As ever, there is no right or wrong.

And if you do want to talk about your pet loss grief with other bereaved pet carers, know that The Ralph Site is here for you.

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

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