The three Rs of grief

Although we all grieve differently, including when a beloved pet has died, people have developed a variety of models to help explain what the grieving process may look like.

Sometimes these models can be comforting because they’re a reminder that grief is a universal experience. 

One model is the three Rs of grief.

However, when researching this article, we found that when people refer to the three Rs, they often mean different things.

Examples of the “three R” model of grief 

Grief therapist, Dr Robert Neimeyer, says the three Rs of grief are: 

  • Retelling – Sharing memories and retelling your loved one’s story or shared history.
  • Rebuilding – Figuring out how to rebuild your life without your loved one and noticing new opportunities.
  • Reinventing – Learning how to incorporate the love you feel for your loved one into the person you have become as a result of their loss so that you can move forward.

In some grief forums, people talk about three Rs of grief that happen fairly soon after a bereavement: 

  • Regrets – These might be wishing you’d noticed your pet was ill sooner, not being able to prevent an accident, wishing you’d spent more time together, and so on.
  • Re-enactment – This can be a distressing aspect of grief where you can’t stop replaying your pet’s last moments or what they looked like dead rather than being able to remember them well and happy.
  • Resentment – You might resent people who still have their pets, especially if your pet was young, or find it unfathomable that other people can be happy when you’re in so much pain.

Three Rs that are associated with coming to terms with grief are:

  • Revision – Your life may look different without your pet, but it is still worth living.
  • Renewal – You will eventually find the strength to renew your interest in the people, animals and activities you already loved, as well as make space for new loves.
  • Remembrance – The realisation that grief isn’t about letting go; it’s about a new way of holding on and cherishing the precious memories you shared with your pet without being stuck in the moment of loss.

A simple but powerful model for the three Rs of grief

Louise Knowles, Head of Mental Health and Psychological Therapy Services at The University of Sheffield, explains another model for the three Rs of grief as Recognition, Remembering and Rebuilding.

Although Knowles talks about the three Rs in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a model that translates beautifully to pet loss. 

  • Recognition

The Recognition stage of grief usually comes in the days and weeks after you have experienced a bereavement. Remember that grief isn’t linear, and you may revisit this stage often. 

It’s the process of starting to recognise and acknowledge that you have lost someone you loved very much. This could be because your pet died or went missing.

During the Recognition stage of grief, you may struggle to come to terms with your loss. It probably won’t feel real. You may imagine your pet walking into the room like they always did or expect to see them in their enclosure if they weren’t free roaming. 

You may feel shocked, numb or in disbelief. 

Time may move strangely, your brain might feel foggy or you may feel you’re in survival mode, just “coping ugly” to get from one minute to the next.

At this point in time, it’s essential to take care of yourself. Try to eat healthy meals, create a routine for your day (especially important if you’re also grieving the loss of the routine you had with your pet) and prioritise getting plenty of rest.

It will help you to process your grief if you give yourself permission to feel any and all of the emotions that come up for you during this time. Guilt, anger, anxiety, confusion and relief are all common. 

  • Remembering

As you begin to process the permanence of your loss, you may find that you want to keep revisiting old memories. You might suddenly feel the need to look at photographs and videos of your pet or talk about them as often as possible.

This is a time when you need to feel listened to and supported by the people closest to you. Pet loss grief can make some people feel isolated from their friends and family because it’s a type of disenfranchised grief, meaning it isn’t widely recognised by society. You may need to spell out to your network that you need to talk about your pet and have witnesses to your memories of them.

(If you feel you can’t speak to your loved ones about your loss, please consider reaching out to a pet loss counsellor or joining a community such as The Ralph Site’s pet loss support group).

Reminiscing has an important function to play. It helps you to create meaning from your loss and begin to remember the happy times rather than just the circumstances surrounding your pet’s death or disappearance, which may have dominated your thoughts for a while now.

Remembering also helps you to find a way to move forward in life. You’re a different person now than you were before your bereavement, but that’s an inevitable part of losing someone you love. They no longer live beside you; instead, they are part of you – remembering makes this possible.

  • Rebuilding

Once you realise that you are not the person you were before your loss, you can begin to rebuild your life to reflect the new you. 

As Knowles says in the video we linked to above, people in the rebuilding stage often make external changes to their life to reflect what’s happened to them internally. 

You may change your routine, rearrange the rooms in your house, take up a new hobby, volunteer, change jobs, move house, start a new relationship or come to a point when you’re ready to bring a new animal companion into your home.

Again, there is no right or wrong. The key to the rebuilding stage is being open to new possibilities. It’s a bit like the Revision stage mentioned in one of the models above – the point where you acknowledge that life looks different without your pet, but it still has value.

Beyond the three Rs of grief

The three Rs of grief is a fairly straightforward model to describe what we might each expect to experience following a bereavement.

In reality, you will probably move backwards and forwards through these phases over a period of months or even years.

So many factors affect how we experience grief – our circumstances, past experiences, our relationship with the one who has died, our support network, our physical and mental health, and so much more. These factors can make grief an incredibly nuanced and personal experience.

It can be helpful to remember that grief is part of love. It hurts because you loved your pet so much. How lucky you both were to share such a beautiful and enduring connection.

If you need to talk to other pet carers who understand how you’re feeling, The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.

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

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