When the life of a pet comes to an end, it feels like the loss of a family member. But even in our pet-loving nation, it can be hard to talk about the level of grief we feel. But this National Grief Awareness Week, we’re opening up. Our experts tell us why accepting your emotions, and talking about them, is key.
My little dog Jasper went everywhere with me. He lay beside me as I worked, slept on my bed, and even came with me on nights out to the pub. He was my best friend, my shadow, and my company throughout lockdown. A waggy-tailed, warm little lad who was full of life and love.
I knew he wouldn’t be with me forever, and as he got older, anticipatory grief began creeping in. My heart sped up when he lay still in his bed, and I’d carry him carefully to the couch he used to leap onto. And, last Christmas, as I made the traditional gift for my parents – a calendar starring their much-loved grand-dog – I tried to ignore the voice in my head telling me this could be the last one.
But even with this mental preparation, the feelings when Jasper died were new and overwhelming... and they hit hard. Studies have shown that grief can affect your immune system, raise inflammation and increase blood pressure. I didn’t feel normal, and my mental health also took a slide – everything seemed bleak.
With all of this came a sense of anxiety, and almost a sense of shame. I have friends who’ve lost parents and babies... should I be outwardly grieving an animal? I didn’t know what to do with this huge emotional pain. There’s no funeral when it’s a pet, no obituary. How would my feelings look to the outside world? “There is an acceptance within society that grieving the loss of a human being is natural,” says world-renowned therapist and author, Marisa Peer, “However, when a beloved pet dies, not everyone can understand why someone should experience the very same emotions.”
I felt this – I thought people wouldn’t understand, so I went into full-on heartbreak mode. I stopped seeing friends, and going to the gym lost all its appeal. I wondered if I’d ever get my spark back. But Christopher Spriggs and Jess Smallwood, authors of Grief, Loss and How to Cope, say this lack of interest in day-to-day life was a natural response to a significant loss. “This happens because grief blocks the activation of brain chemicals like dopamine – which gives us the feelings of motivation and desire – and oxytocin, which produces the feeling of love,” they told me. “Even the simplest of tasks like making a hot drink or going for a walk can feel overwhelming. This is normal. Talking to someone you trust can help you grieve and allow energy to return in time.”
I know that squashing down emotions is never a good idea, but still, I tried quaffing them away with wine. I don’t recommend this – the feelings only hit harder the next morning due to my jangled nervous system. “It’s no good for progression through the fog of grief either,” leading psychologist Dr Alison McClymont told me. “Drinking suppresses emotion – it numbs our pain thresholds – but it’s not a good idea for your mental or physical health in the long run. It’s a delaying tactic rather than a healer, as it’s not actually helping you to feel the emotion and process it.” Best put the kettle on, then.
Any therapist will tell you we need to work through the difficult stuff, or our mental health will suffer. Grief needs an outlet. “The only way to deal with loss is to accept these feelings and learn to process them as and when they occur,” says Marisa.
Here’s the big reveal – expert advice really does help. I talked to people about how I was feeling and about my pup in general, and as I did, I became less defensive. No one said he was just a dog, and no one made me feel stupid for grieving my pet. I cried, held the urn containing his ashes, stared at his picture and felt waves of emotion. And I started to feel a tiny bit better. There were breaks in the sadness where I remembered delightful little moments with him, too.
Anyone who has loved a dog knows they are more than ‘just an animal’. A dog (or a cat, or any beloved pet) really is a family member. And science has my back on this. Research has shown that just petting a pooch for a few minutes can raise levels of hormones that make us feel better. Pets are proven to provide purpose, stop loneliness, and even help people live longer. Their love is unconditional, and the relationship simple – they love you, and you love them. A dog-human connection is a unique bond. When all of this disappears overnight, it's no wonder the grief is so fierce. But it’s true that the only cure for grief is to grieve.
If you’ve lost a beloved pet, talk to someone who understands. The Blue Cross has a free, confidential Pet Bereavement Support Service from 8.30am-8.30pm every day. Similarly, Cats Protection has a dedicated helpline open Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, staffed by volunteers who offer emotional support.
The best bit of advice anyone gave me? Don’t feel guilty for loving another pet. As my friend put it – one day you’ll realise you have space in your heart for more animals. I couldn’t relate to that for a long time. But now the time feels right, and I’ve rescued a little pup who needed a new home. It’s made things brighter. He’s snuggling up to me as I write this – I like to think we rescued each other.
While grieving is a normal and natural process, if you’re still struggling to function after a year with overwhelmingly sad and painful emotions, you may have what’s known as persistent complex bereavement disorder. This is treatable, so contact your GP or a qualified bereavement counsellor to ask for support. Remember – processing grief and emerging on the other side is so important. Don’t be afraid to talk.