Although it affects us all differently, there are some universal truths of pet loss grief that may provide you with comfort during your time of loss.
Here is what we’ve learned:
- Grief is part of love
Sadly, grief is an inevitable part of life, as certain as death and taxes. The only way we can ever avoid experiencing it is to live without emotional connections and the joy they bring.
Whenever we form an attachment that is so integral to our life that we can’t imagine existing without it, we are destined to grieve when we’re separated from the source of that attachment.
Some grief in life is fleeting – for example, the grief we feel when we move house, change jobs or end a romantic relationship that has fizzled out.
Other grief runs deeper, leaving us shattered and debilitated. This is the grief associated with losing a human or non-human person who we love.
Author C.S. Lewis famously wrote about grief, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”
This quote recognises that love and grief are part of each other. As painful as this is, it can also be incredibly comforting. When you feel grief, it’s because your love for your loved one is there inside of you, keeping them with you always.
- While grief is universal, your grief is unique
The contradiction of grief is that while it is a universal experience, it’s also completely unique to the griever.
Even people – and some animals – who are grieving for the same pet will feel and express their emotions differently.
The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You can only do what feels right for you at any given moment.
- Grief does not work to a timeline
People who have lost a pet often wonder, “When will I feel OK again?” and “When will it stop hurting?”
Unfortunately, grieving doesn’t come with an expiry date. It’s not a case of moving along a timeline and then being done.
Again, how you experience your grief will be unique to you. What is true is that most people find that they eventually learn how to live with their grief and that it softens and changes with time.
- Grief is complicated (and more than just sadness)
Before you experienced grief for the first time, you probably thought of it in fairly one dimensional terms, a profound sadness overshadowing everything else.
While sadness is, of course, a part of grief, the reality is much more complicated. When you’re grieving, it’s usual to feel anger, anxiety, depression, confusion, disbelief, guilt and happiness, plus much more.
- Grief begins with shock
However you lost your pet, it’s common for your initial reaction to be one of shock. People often describe feeling completely numb or disbelieving that their pet has gone.
It seems that shock is nature’s way of cushioning us against tragedy, giving us an emotional zone to transition from a state of having into a state of mourning our loss.
When a human dies, we have rituals and ceremonies around bereavement to fill this time of shock and help us function. A growing number of us are creating similar rituals around pet loss for the same reason.
- Guilt is a normal part of pet loss grief
We can experience guilt after any bereavement. We might feel guilty for surviving, for going on after our loved one, for not spending more time with them while they were here… the list goes on.
It does seem that guilt is even more present for bereaved pet carers. There are lots of reasons for this.
Our pets can’t share their wishes with us, they are reliant on us for all of their needs (much like small children) and euthanasia is often a factor in the time and place of a pet’s passing. Our decisions can determine how and when an animal companion lives or dies.
Guilt has an important role to play. It can help us to make sense of a loss and even learn lessons for the future. At the same time, it can be a barrier to moving forward, keeping us stuck in a loop of what-ifs.
If you’re experiencing guilt following a pet loss, be gentle with yourself. Always look at your intentions. You only ever wanted the best for your friend, even if that meant making the decision to humanely end their suffering with euthanasia.
- Pet loss grief is normal
There is growing acknowledgement of the fact that losing a pet can be as painful as losing a human. In fact, we sometimes grieve more deeply for our pets.
Our animal companions share our homes, our routines and are part of our close families. They unconditionally accept us at our best and our worst, bringing brightness and unconditional love to the darkest of days.
Of course, we grieve for them when they’re gone!
People who aren’t pet-orientated may struggle to understand your grief but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, more than 10,000 people called the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement helpline in 2018 (a figure that had doubled from the year before). Although we don’t have more recent figures, they are likely to have risen due to the fact that people are finally speaking more openly about their pet loss grief.
- You may feel lost
It’s natural to feel loss and directionless after a bereavement. When a pet dies, it can cause a loss of routine, social life and companionship.
You may need to navigate your way through these so-called “secondary” losses and begin to figure out what your life will look like without the pet you have lost, even if you have other pets in your family.
- You cannot change what has happened
When we’re grieving, our thoughts can get stuck in a loop. You might find that you keep replaying the last time you saw your pet or wishing you could go back and do things differently.
Again, this is a completely natural response to grief. The truth is that we would have a whole lifetime with our pets if we could.
One of the key processes of bereavement is accepting that your loved one has gone. You cannot change the past.
- You can only control right now
In our daily lives, most of us do plenty to feel in control. In the context of our pets, we give them a great diet, exercise, enrichment, companionship, veterinary care, etc. but, despite our best efforts, we aren’t able to avert death or that moment when a pet goes missing.
Bereavement holds nothing back in this regard. It reminds us that, ultimately, we cannot control everything, which can be a scary realisation.
The most any of us can do is control what we do and how we respond in any given moment. Right now, this might mean deciding to go for a walk, eating something healthy, resting, doing something kind for yourself or even letting your tears flow.
- You will survive this
When someone we love dies, including a pet, it can be hard to imagine going on without them.
Be gentle with yourself. Eventually, you will work out how to move forward and build a life that includes your grief. You won’t be broken by it, just changed.
- Love never dies
Most people find that their grief changes over time.
One analogy is that it’s like learning to walk with a pebble in your shoe – at first, the pain is all you can think about but, with time and practice, you learn to walk with the pebble; sometimes you may barely notice it.
As hard as it can be to imagine it when you’re in the depths of grief, the day will inevitably come when you can think about your pet and smile. You’ll find yourself reliving old, happy memories and focusing on your pet’s life rather than how they left.
Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear that your love for your pet – and their love for you – is just as vivid and special as it ever was. It might sound like a cliché but love never dies. Because of this, your pet will always be with you.
The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group is a supportive and safe space to talk to other bereaved pet carers.
Please know that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support