The “fire” of grief and why pet loss can fuel growth or harmful behaviours

Have you recently suffered a pet bereavement and find yourself taking more risks? Are you suddenly less worried about the consequences of your actions or what other people think? You could be experiencing the fire!

In Cariad Lloyd’s fantastic book about grief, titled You Are Not Alone (Chapter 4), she talks about a phenomenon dubbed “the fire” that some people experience after a bereavement, describing it as “the feeling of being untouchable after a loss”.

The fire manifests in different ways for different grievers, and some people never experience it. For those that do, it can be life-changing.

Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)

You may have heard people talk about one aspect of the fire in more clinical terms – a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth” (PTG), which refers to positive psychological changes that can occur following a significant life challenge, such as a bereavement.

PTG often includes an increased appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength, better relationships with our loved ones, and a shift in priorities and values, and is thought to be the result of a complex interplay between various psychological, social and cultural factors.

Why does grief sometimes make us feel untouchable?

So, what are those factors?

Why can experiencing a bereavement can set us on a path of growth, set us alright with purpose or make us throw caution to the wind?

When you lose a beloved animal companion (or, indeed, anyone you love), you might feel that the worst possible thing has happened and that nothing else can ever be as bad. Some people describe this realisation as “liberating” or as “emboldening” them. 

You might be experiencing this yourself, this sense that life has done its worse and nothing else could be as bad or frightening. This can create a new sense of perspective and freedom to try new things. 

Sometimes, we experience the post-bereavement fire because our loss makes us realise that life is fragile and precious, and we have to grab it with both hands while we can. This can make us want to pursue our goals and dreams with greater urgency and determination because we realise nothing is guaranteed.

Also, facing the loss of a loved one might give you a newfound sense of resilience – the worst happened, and you’re still standing, even though there might be times when that feels incomprehensible. 

Many of us cope with trauma by looking for meaning and purpose that we can take away from the experience. If we can’t change a situation, how can we change ourselves to learn from it and move beyond it?

There’s something to be said, too, for knowing that grief is a sign of deep-felt love. Many people find that as the guilt, trauma, sadness and pain of loss begin to hit less often, they’re left with an overwhelming sense of love from and towards their pet, which can be incredibly uplifting.

In this way, grief can be a powerful motivator.

When the fire of grief is a problem

Of course, grief isn’t always so benevolent. 

For some people, the fire can turn from something that fuels them into something that will harm them if left unchecked.

Indeed, grief can be closely linked with risk-taking behaviours. As with most things grief-related, this can look different for different people and, again, depends on a complex range of factors.

Some grievers use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism, temporarily escaping or numbing their feelings because the loss hurts so much. The problem with this approach, as well as the risk of physical harm, is that it can delay the grieving process, storing up painful emotions for the future.

It’s also relatively common for grievers who turn to risky behaviour to do things like drive too quickly, engage in unsafe sex or skip sensible safety precautions in a range of scenarios.

Why does this happen? 

Losing someone we love is a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. If we do something that could potentially be harmful but escape unscathed, there’s an element of thumbing our nose at death and defying our own mortality.

Also, many people feel a sense of hopelessness in the face of bereavement. We can be the best pet carers and guardians, but sadly, we cannot protect our beautiful animal friends from death, whatever form it takes. This can lead people to be driven by a “What’s the point?” attitude that leads them to risk-taking behaviours.

Is the fire of grief fuelling or harming you?

If any of this article resonates with you, it could be that you are currently feeling propelled by the fire of grief.

Some people never experience this, but many of us do to some degree.

It’s important for us to recognise that some risk-taking behaviours aren’t negative. People who experience post-traumatic growth often take risks that make a positive difference in their lives – steps such as changing careers, travelling, taking up new hobbies, etc., all carry some element of risk but have a good outcome.

These kinds of risks can help people to cope or find meaning after losing a pet.

If you’ve been taking more risks recently, the key question is, are they helping you, or are they problematic? 

If a behaviour is putting you in harm’s way or affecting your ability to function, it might be that you need support to channel the fire of grief. Any behaviour can be risky if it has a negative impact on your life.

Talking about your loss can help. If you feel like you need support, you might want to reach out to a pet loss counsellor.

Some people find it helpful to talk to other bereaved pet carers. This is why we created The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support on Facebook; new members are always given a warm welcome.

Above all, we want you to know how sorry we are for your loss. Your bond with your animal friend was special. It’s important that you take care of yourself and try to recognise any risks that might be harmful to you, now or in the future. 

You are not alone. Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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