If you’re an older person grieving the loss of a pet, first let us say how sorry we are for your loss.
It’s never easy to lose a beloved animal companion, but we understand that there are some specific challenges that come with experiencing a pet bereavement later in life. Today, we’d like to talk about these and give you some tips to help you at this difficult time.
Too many changes at once
The post-retirement years in life can throw a lot at you at once. Changes to your finances, new grandchildren or great-grandchildren, exploring your identity at the end of your career, watching your peers grow older, bereavements, health challenges, changes to your independence or mobility, moving house…. The list goes on!
You may not be dealing with any of these things, but there’s a good chance that you’ll have at least one or two on your plate right now.
Your pet may have helped you to navigate all of these changes, a stable and loving presence that you could rely on. It’s natural if you feel cast adrift without that quiet support.
Loss of companionship
One of the pleasures of living with a pet is that they offer companionship and lend purpose and structure to every day. This can help in different ways, whether life is quiet or busy, and is especially noticeable if you’re the only human in the house!
Feeding times, playtime, walks, cleaning out, time together – whatever your pet’s individual needs were, activities with them and for them would have been an important part of everyday life.
If your social life centred on your pet – for example, meeting up with other dog carers at the park or tending a horse at a stable – then losing this social outlet can make your grief harder to bear.
Your last pet?
One of the dilemmas we face as we get older is whether it’s the right thing to commit to caring for a pet when they might outlive us.
We’re not assuming you’re at that point or telling you that you need to bring another pet into your home (or not), but it’s important to acknowledge that this might be a question you’re grappling with – or one that you will face in the future.
As with so many of the issues facing bereaved pet carers, there are no right or wrong answers.
Many older people share their lives with animal companions having made arrangements for what should happen to the pet if they outlive their human carer. This can be a difficult but necessary conversation that should give you peace of mind if you have other pets or decide to bring another animal companion into your home one day.
If you’ve decided that the pet who died is your last, we understand that may complicate your grief, adding an extra layer of loss and resurfacing memories of past pets.
Tips to help you cope as an older adult dealing with pet loss
At this difficult time, it’s crucial that you do everything you can to prioritise self-care:
- Stay connected with your friends and family.
This will help you maintain the sense of connection and companionship that your pet gave you. If there are people you socialise with because of your pet, how about reaching out to them to see if you can meet up in a different context so that you’re still able to enjoy their company?
- Talk about your loss.
Pet loss is sometimes called a disenfranchised grief because it’s not always widely acknowledged in society; nevertheless, you have experienced a major bereavement, and it’s vital that you’re able to talk about this with people you trust. If you’re struggling to talk to your friends or family, you could reach out to other bereaved pet carers in The Ralph Site Facebook group or speak to a trained volunteer through a service like the Blue Cross pet bereavement helpline.
- Stay active
Moving around as much as possible – be it going for walks, visiting friends, doing some exercise you enjoy, playing golf, gardening, or volunteering as a dog walker for an organisation like The Cinnamon Trust – will help boost your physical and mental health. If you’re new to exercise, ask your GP for a health check before you embark on anything strenuous!
- Ask your loved ones for their support.
Sometimes, in the depths of grief, it can be hard to spot that we’re struggling. You could ask your loved ones to gently point out if they notice any changes in your physical or emotional health or in your behaviour. This can be a sign that you need to increase your self-care.
- Remember to eat.
It’s common for older adults to experience a decrease in appetite, but bereavement can make this worse and lead to some weight loss.
If you are finding it harder to eat at the moment, you might want to switch to smaller meals and frequent snacks, so you’re not struggling to eat three larger meals a day. Think about how you can increase your calorie intake while avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat or sugars (as they can make you feel worse in the long run).
If you’re at all worried, have a chat with your GP, as it’s important that you eat sufficient nutrients even when your appetite has dipped.
- Volunteer with animals.
If you think the pet who died will be your last, there are still ways to keep animals in your life and make a positive difference to them. Rescue centres, sanctuaries and other organisations are often crying out for volunteers. Getting involved with fundraising or caring activities can be a great way to extend your social circle.
- Be kind to yourself.
Grief at any stage in life can be derailing and disorientating. It’s common to experience brain fog, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and many other emotions, often all at once! Be kind to yourself. Reinforce healthy behaviours, try to talk about your feelings, eat good food and be as active as possible. Grief doesn’t have a timeline or set rules so take away any pressure to feel a certain way.
And above all, remember that you’re not alone if you need support.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support