Why it’s okay if you’re ‘coping ugly’ with pet loss

Are you worried that you’re not coping with the loss of a pet? Do friends and family keep telling you that you should be feeling better by now or that they’re concerned that you’re not looking after yourself?

Hopefully, today’s blog can offer you some reassurance.

‘Coping ugly’

In 2008, George Bonanno, a Professor in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University who specialises in bereavement and trauma, coined the term ‘coping ugly’. 

This phrase describes the fact that we humans sometimes use behaviours that we might otherwise deem unhealthy to help us cope with grief or trauma. And, in doing this, these behaviours may actually serve a healthy function.

In your darkest, messiest moments of grief, it could be that you’re finding a way to move forward by coping ugly.

Examples of coping ugly

So, what sort of behaviours might be described as ‘coping ugly’? This will vary from one person to another.

You might be coping ugly if, since your pet died or went missing, you avoid coming home, stay in bed longer than usual, comfort eat, binge-watch hours of TV to distract yourself from thinking, drink more than usual, deliberately look at pictures of your pet to make yourself cry, laugh uncontrollably at things other people would view as ‘inappropriate’….

The list goes on and on!

Bonanno theorised that any and all of these behaviours might be considered unhealthy if they were your usual pattern of behaviour for months or years at a time. We all know, after all, that daily comfort eating or drinking to excess can harm our physical health. 

However, when you’re grieving, sometimes you just have to do what you need to move from one minute to the next (as long as it doesn’t put you or anyone else at risk of harm).

Coping ugly helps us regulate our emotions

According to Bonanno, coping ugly is a tried and tested way for people to regulate their emotions after a bereavement. It can actually be a mark of resilience – that we’re prepared to give ourselves a break and do whatever we need to cope in the moment.

So, if you’re coping ugly right now, there’s a good chance that it’s a survival mechanism. You can’t be with your pet as much as you miss them, so you’re finding temporary ways to cushion the grief, even if those ways are messy.

Should you worry about your “coping ugly” behaviours?

Psychologists often talk about coping behaviours as being either adaptive or maladaptive

Broadly speaking, adaptive behaviours are behaviours we use to cope in our environment with the greatest success and the least amount of conflict. It’s adaptive behaviours that help us meet the demands of everyday life, both practically and socially.

Maladaptive behaviours, on the other hand, offer short-term relief from uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety but have a dysfunctional and non-productive outcome long-term. Behaviours such as drug taking, overspending, eating disorders or self-harming are examples of maladaptive coping behaviours.

When you’re “coping ugly”, Bonanno points out that your coping behaviours might actually be adaptive, even if they look maladaptive on the surface.

It is important to be aware of what you’re doing, what’s driving your behaviour and how in control you feel. 

If you want to cope with your bereavement by laying on the sofa, eating biscuits and binge-watching your favourite TV series for days at a time, that’s completely understandable and more than OK if it helps you to cope. If you want to throw yourself into work or being super active, you don’t have to explain your behaviour to anyone. 

If, however, weeks have passed and you feel unable to get up off the sofa, or you’re so busy you’re starting to feel burnt out, then you may need more support.

Psychologists say that there are three signs a coping mechanism has become maladaptive – you feel:

  1. Compelled to use the behaviour even if you don’t want to
  2. Ashamed of yourself for using the behaviour
  3. You need the behaviour more often and/or need a higher dose over time

If you’re worried that your version of coping ugly has crossed into behaviours that are harmful or addictive, then do reach out for help – be it from friends or family, a bereavement counsellor or a pet loss support group.

Coping with grief doesn’t have to be pretty

Grief is messy. It looks different for everyone and affects us all in different and unexpected ways. There’s nothing pretty or easy about losing a pet who has been a much-loved member of our family.

The important thing, Bonanno believes, is noticing when you’re coping ugly and allowing yourself to recognise the feelings that might be driving that behaviour. This may help you to give yourself permission to not know all (or any) of the answers and to grieve without self-judgement. There is no one way you should feel or behave.

Bonanno reminds us that “Grief is about losing part of your identity”, the part that loved who or what we have lost. Coping ugly is a short-term way to deal with that or distract ourselves from it. It can also help us come to terms with the part we’ve lost while finding strengths in the other parts of our identity that remain.

Coping ugly creates space for distress. It takes us out of everyday life while we gather the internal resources that we need to in order to process what we’ve lost. And that’s more than OK, as long as coping ugly is part of your journey and not a place to stay long-term. 

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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