Although grief is a normal and natural reaction to losing anyone or thing in life that matters to us, including a much-loved pet, we all handle grief differently.
Some people process grief head-on, giving all of their emotions space to be expressed, while others try to deal with their grief intellectually, shutting down their emotions or refusing to process their grief at all.
Could you be experiencing masked grief?
Masked grief is about trying to push down or supress the feelings of grief in the hope that they’ll eventually go away of their own accord. Someone who is masking their grief will usually try to act as if life has carried on as normal, exhibiting what they perceive to be “normal” behaviour.
Does this strike a chord with you?
It’s common for a disenfranchised grief like pet loss and masked grief to go hand-in-hand. This is because people feel that their grief isn’t viewed sympathetically by our wider society and so they try hard to hide it away.
If you’ve had people say to you, “It was only a dog/cat/rabbit/horse…” or “Are you still upset?”, you may have felt that you have no choice but to mask your grief and pretend you’re fine.
The problem is that grief can’t go away without help, so it starts to make its presence felt in other, usually unhelpful, ways (we’ll talk more about this in a moment!)
No one teaches us how to grieve
In The Grief Recovery Method’s article about masked grief, they point out that it’s rare to find a person who’s been taught how to grieve and pet loss is usually unrehearsed.
When we experience emotional hurt and loss as a child – even if it’s over a broken toy or saying goodbye to our favourite teacher – no one really lets us sit with and express how awful it feels.
Parents will say things like, “Don’t cry” or “It’s OK, we’ll get you another one” or “Well done for not making a fuss”. Of course, they mean well. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone we love suffer but, unfortunately, this just teaches us that it’s not appropriate to get upset or that we should stuff down sad and unhappy feelings.
In many societies, men, in particular, learn that they should mask their emotions, especially big and challenging ones like grief. They’re told that “Boys don’t cry” or that they should “Man up”. These kind of cultural norms and gender stereotypes can have a toxic and lasting effect.
The problem with masked grief
The thing is that grief demands to be felt. It isn’t designed to be shut down.
You loved your pet. The pain of losing them reflects that.
When we allow ourselves to feel grief, finding the capacity to move forward eventually stems from processing whatever feels emotionally incomplete as a result of the loss. You may feel your pet’s life – and your time with them – came to a premature end, for example, or that you didn’t do everything you intended together.
If you can somehow discover and complete what’s unfinished emotionally, you may feel more peaceful and able to move into the next chapter of your life without carrying anything that may harm you later on.
With masked grief though, the suppressed emotions become a melting pot that’s waiting to boil over.
All of the stored emotional pain that’s been secreted away pushes to get out. Your body will feel it, even if you don’t let yourself feel the emotions.
Your physical symptoms could be a sign of masked grief
Masked grief often manifests as physical symptoms a long time after the loss has occurred. Ongoing problems such as headaches, digestive issues, a stomach ulcer, sleep disturbance, rashes, heart palpitations or high blood pressure are red flags that you are holding grief tightly inside.
It’s common for people experiencing masked grief to seek medical advice for these symptoms, not realising that they’re a manifestation of emotional pain.
Of course, there are many medical conditions that cause similar issues so it is important to get them checked out. At the same time, do let your doctor know that you have suffered a bereavement as they may want to consider masked grief as a potential cause.
Other symptoms of masked grief
Masked grief inevitably manages to impair your ability to behave “normally” in everyday life. It might not happen overnight but cracks in your behaviour will usually start to show. This can lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms such as eating or drinking too much, taking unnecessary risks, addiction, destructive behaviour in relationships and more.
In some cases, people who experience sadness or grief – especially men who were raised to believe they shouldn’t be vulnerable – are more likely to channel those feelings into emotions that are seen as more socially acceptable. For instance, getting angry or behaving aggressively. Men are often taught that emotions to do with dominance and strength are more masculine and, therefore, more appropriate.
Women, on the other hand, are often told that they’re “too sensitive”, “too emotional” or “hysterical” for expressing their emotions, so may mask their grief with destructive behaviour to protect against this kind of criticism.
Usually, these behaviours are a sign that there’s emotional turmoil under the surface.
The difference between managing and masking your grief
We all have to manage how we express our grief to a certain extent. No one wants to burst into tears at work or in the middle of the weekly food shop. The dual process of grief model also tells us that, in order to cope with a bereavement, we all need to take a break from grieving or distract ourselves at times.
The difference is that managed grief still has an outlet. While you hold in your tears at work, you might still come home and sob for your pet and how quiet the house is without them.
With masked grief though, the emotions stay firmly buried. It’s not that they’re being managed, it’s that they’re being denied.
Ironically, masked grief tries to hide emotions but ends up creating more.
Your pet loss grief is valid
It’s important for you to know that your pet loss grief is valid, natural and normal. We’re sorry if anyone has ever made you feel otherwise.
Accepting loss and moving forward requires you to go through an emotional journey. There is no shortcut through or around this. As we’ve seen, grief must be felt. You can either give it permission or it will find a way to make you feel, even when you least expect it.
Masked grief can be complex. You may need support from your GP and/or an experienced bereavement counsellor. If this is affecting you, please do reach out. You deserve to feel whole and well.
You can’t and won’t ever forget your pet and you won’t ever stop having feelings about them. By allowing your grief the space to be felt, you will find a way to carry forward your memories and emotions in a way that can no longer harm you or shut you off from new and good things.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support