This coming Friday, 30th August, is "Grief Awareness Day": this was started in the USA five years ago, but it's now recognised internationally.
I'm writing about this in my column because grief at losing a pet is one of the most common and challenging issues that I encounter every day in my working life as a vet.
People experience a wide range of emotions when a pet dies. There are no rules and it is not predictable.
Some people seem to feel almost no grief, moving on as easily as if they have just said goodbye to an old car.
Other people feel sad, but accept the loss simply and easily, as a normal part of life.
A smaller but significant group of owners suffer intense and deep grief, as severe as if a close human family member had died. These are the folk who need extra understanding to help them through this difficult time.
It's easy for others to belittle this type of severe grief: the unhelpful phrase "it was only an animal" is sometimes used by friends who witness this, but this type of attitude only makes things worse. People can have as strong -or even stronger in some cases - emotional connections with animals as with people. Telling them that they oughtn't be feeling the emotions they are going through doesn't change anything, other than making them feel guilty for feeling the way they do.
The idea behind grief awareness day is to encourage people to deal with grief openly: to talk about it, to discuss how it feels, and to help people find better ways of coping with grief.
Grief is universal: we all go through loss at some stages of our lives. Yet apart from in the immediate few days after suffering a loss, we are expected to bottle this up, and not to deal with it publicly. Grief Awareness Day is an attempt to change that, to make it "normal" to talk about any grief that's being felt.
Many still mistakenly believe there are five predictable stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this process, and these emotions, are common, it's different for everyone, and there are no set rules. People suffering loss can experience a wide range of feelings linked to grief: we are all different.
Other common feelings include anxiety, fear, guilt, irritation, shame, and uncertainty. And there are many others too. It can be an emotionally turbulent time that interferes with our normal daily lives.
Our minds and emotions directly affect our bodies too, and people may also experience physical signs linked to grief. These include feeling unwell, having altered sleep patterns, changes in weight (gaining or losing), suffering headaches, and being more susceptible to colds and infections.
All of these issues linked to grief can happen days, weeks, or even months after a loss. During this time, mourners need to be gentle with themselves, accepting that it is normal to feel disturbed like this.
Things will improve in time, but during this period, grief counsellors and support groups can help by providing understanding and suggesting various ways to make it easier. It's been said that talking is the best medicine for grief, but people need to find safe places to do that talking, where they'll be properly supported.
Unaddressed grief is now recognised as a serious issue: feelings of depression and physical signs of ill health can emerge without understanding that they are linked to the loss. That's why proper recognition of the need to deal with grief is so important.
The aim of Grief Awareness Day is to publicly focus on grief. This can be done in many ways, and I'm focusing on three aspects here.
First, it can help to destigmatise grief if we all talk about our own experiences pubicly. Like many, I have suffered my own grief at losing pets. I have owned- and lost- over a dozen pets in my life, and I still feel the hurt of each death if I delve into my memories. When I think of each animal - Sheba, Honey, Spot, Gladstone, Aslan, to name a few - I feel a twinge of aching in my chest. These animals were my friends, and I still feel sad when I think of their absence. Life - of course- carries on normally, but being human involves an accumulation of losses, each of which inflicts a small wound. For me, it helps to realize that the grief is only there because I loved the animals: love and grief are two sides of a coin, and you can't have one without the other. The grief that I carry is a small price to pay for the pleasure of the companionship of these wonderful pets.
Second, I'd like everyone reading this to use this coming Friday as a day for reaching out to people they know who have suffered the loss of a pet. Just ask them how they are doing and open a discussion about the animal that's no longer with them. They may have not much to say: all may be well, but they are still likely to appreciate you remembering their pet. Or you may find that they want to talk about their pet in an unexpected way that involves expressing grief. And this may then help them more than you'd expect.
Third and finally, I want people to know that there are many online resources out there to help people suffering grief at the loss of their pet. I'm posting links on my own website for anyone who wants to know more. Visit www.petethevet.com for links to on-line grief resources.