This post is in memory of Saffy, Dolly, and Pixie – my furry little lifesavers.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Whether you know me personally or only through my social media or the content of my blog, I’d like to think you know that I’m the type of person who is forever looking on the bright side of difficult situations. And I think this is because I’ve experienced how it feels to allow myself to only see the difficulty of everything. To concentrate on the hardship and fail to find hope. And I now know what damage that can cause me to do to myself. I know it can leave me feeling as though I’d rather be dead than continue to experience it. And so, I’d like to take this Day as an opportunity – not to concentrate on the devastating impact of the loss of three very important pets since creating I’m NOT Disordered – but instead, to talk about the lessons I’ve learnt from the loss of Saffy, Dolly, and Pixie; in the hope that it will benefit others going through a similar hardship…
DON’T BE ASHAMED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR SADNESS
This lesson came particularly when my lop-eared, Lionhead bunny Pixie was put to sleep in April this year (you can read more about her death here). Prior to losing Pixie, both of the most notable pets passing (Saffy and Dolly) were cats and for some reason, I think that even people without pets can be more empathetic to someone who’s lost their cat than they would for the death of a rabbit. I think that with rabbits mostly being classed as a ‘small animal’ a lot of people (especially those who haven’t owned a rabbit) see them as less significant.
When I bought Pixie in September 2017 ( you can read more about adding her to the family here), the visual hallucinations of rabbits had just come back and spotting her in my local Pets at Home, I had the impulsive idea that maybe holding her would help me. I knew that I couldn’t touch my rabbit hallucinations because every time I got closer, they moved away. So, I thought that in holding and stroking a real rabbit, maybe I’d feel more grounded. And I was right; the next day I returned, bought Pixie and took her home where she continued to help me. She continued to bring me back to earth when all my mind seemed to want to fly away and ignore all of the very really challenging moments and situations.
I think that Pixie having this very pure, and incredibly meaning in my life and my mental health journey, was a hugely contributing factor to how devastated and broken I felt when she was put to sleep. However, that lack of empathy with people not appreciating the importance of a pet like a rabbit, left me hesitant to ask for help or support because I was so convinced no one would understand. I think that it probably stems from the fact that rabbits are usually seen as an ‘easy’ pet and perfect for children – which couldn’t be any less true! Rabbits are high maintenance, and their life span makes them actually, a huge commitment that should only be entered into with a full knowledge and understanding (admittedly, something I didn’t have in getting Pixie).
After a few days, I came to the realisation that if I didn’t speak up and talk about the loss and how I felt, it might become overwhelming and unmanageable for me to cope with it by myself. And after so long of not self-harming, I was really worried that if I continued to fight against my tears and block out my feelings, I’d become unsafe again and this spurred me on to be open and honest about my sadness – the cause of it, my thoughts around it… everything! And speaking up, supported my belief and thought that Pixie deserved to be known by people. She deserved to be spoken about and the power and impact of losing her, was worthy of words.
DON’T SET TOO HIGH EXPECTATIONS OF YOURSELF
In losing all three pets – Saffy, Dolly, and Pixie – I developed various expectations of myself in terms of my grief and the thoughts and feelings I predicted I might experience and the ways I would cope with them.When Saffy died in 2016 (you can read more about her death here), my expectations were kind of the opposite to what you may assume – I expected that I would be devastated and at risk of being unsafe. But actually, I was ok. Of course, I was sad and upset, but it wasn’t to the intensity I had expected; and therefore, it didn’t really lead to any self-harm or other unsafe behaviours/coping strategies.
Then, when Dolly died, I was already completely consumed by my mental illness and the hallucinations were so powerful that I actually expected losing Dolly to be a real turning point. I thought that losing a best friend (as she was to me) would really motivate me to make some drastic changes. I thought that the loss would encourage me to ask for help and support when I was struggling and before the point of my feeling unsafe. That didn’t happen. Instead, I found Dolly’s death to be a motivation to feel suicidal and to act on those feelings. I remember being adamant in saying that I wanted to join her. And then, the turning point finally came, and I began to see that actually, Dolly definitely wouldn’t want me to be there (in the nicest way possible obviously!). She wouldn’t want me to use her death as a reason to do these things.
Before Pixie died, my mental health had been stable for a fair few months so I knew there were two possibilities here; her death could either make my recovery, or break it. Losing her could have easily left me feeling panicked as to whether the hallucinations would return now that my greatest coping mechanism was gone. Fortunately, the eventual change in my way of thinking with Dolly, was probably one of the greatest things to safely help me through Pixie’s death. It was as though that mindset was already tried and tested so I knew it would help this time too.
Another expectation in losing Pixie – which wasn’t about my mental health and is something I haven’t spoken about before – was that I would end up rehoming Emmy… From the beginning of adding Emmy when Pixie and I had just been grieving for Dolly together, I realised that as important and wanted and loved as she instantly was, I didn’t have a massively special relationship or bond with her in the same way I felt I did with Pixie. So obviously losing Pixie, made me worry that Emmy wouldn’t be the best company in the grief. Ironically, I think that Pixie and I going through Dolly’s death cemented our relationship and that meant that Emmy and I grieving together really solidified our bond too; and I was left feeling the exact opposite of the expected loneliness!
THE BEST WAYS TO COPE WITH GRIEF
“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
J. K. Rowling
In going through over two years of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (I recently blogged about the Therapy here) I learnt so many coping skills which I mistakenly thought would only really be applicable to the hallucinations, memories of the trauma, and any suicidal or unsafe thoughts and feelings. I didn’t realise that you could use these skills and apply them to so many different scenarios in life. Scenarios which might have no real connection to the trauma, the hallucinations, the self-harm… Scenarios like grief.
Of course, in learning that you can use these skills elsewhere in life, it takes some effort and time to find out how to edit them and make them appropriate to this other situation. However, the impact these skills can have on my safety and happiness, really make all that hard work totally worth it.
So, my two favourite DBT skills are self-soothe and distract, and they come from the second module in the Therapy which is named ‘Distress Tolerance.’ These two skills teach you that activities (of any nature really) can aid you in maintaining a safe, stable, and happy state of mental health.
You can use distracting activities such as exercise, arts and crafts, reading etc to focus your mind on something other than all of the reason it has created for you to be struggling. It’s important that you know that in doing this, the activity which you find helpful doesn’t define you or the significance and importance of your grief. If reading a book reduces your difficult and upsetting thoughts around your loss, that doesn’t mean those thoughts were ‘small’ or that they couldn’t have led to dangerous and risky behaviours. The important thing is that you simply acknowledge what has helped and try it if you have another similar experience.
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Using self-soothing activities should be aimed at pleasing at least one of your five senses (taste, touch, hear, see, and smell). This could mean having a bath, eating chocolate, or wrapping yourself up in a cosy blanket! And again, it’s important that you realise and recognise that just because something like this has helped, it doesn’t dismiss your grief and the power and importance it has in your life.
I think that other than the worry your struggle has been trivialised, one big difficulty in using these two skills, is the belief that you don’t deserve any respite from thinking about your loved one. It’s about believing that the pet (in this case) wouldn’t want you to spend your life thinking about their absence. They’d want you to be distracted and happy and to do something you enjoy.
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The next method of coping with the loss is by reaching out and asking for help and support from others – whether that be a friend, family member, organisation…
A difficulty I initially had here, was the thought that asking for help was a sign of ‘weakness’ and that it would destroy any beliefs that I could be ‘strong’ and that I could get through this myself. Fortunately, whilst I was brought up with my Mum as a single parent, I was taught not to be ashamed to ask for help and to actually, see recognising that you need help, as a strength.
Another worry around asking for help came from my multiple experiences of feeling let down by organisations, services, and their staff, over the years of my mental health journey. I remember so many instances where I’ve called the Crisis Team, or my Community Psychiatric Nurse and they’ve either just not returned my phone call or have said something which has left me feeling even more unsafe. There’s also a ton of occasions where Paramedics, Police, and A&E staff, have treat me with a huge stigma and discrimination against mental health. I obviously was left holding a huge disregard for all other professionals and staff within these teams and services because I was convinced, they would all agree and treat me with the same disrespect. And this made asking for help very challenging and something which I was incredibly reluctant to do.
However, this mindset changed when I began to view asking for help as providing me with the ability to say, ‘at least I tried’ and in ‘trying’ I occasionally came across some very decent, helpful, useful people from these organisations who really shaped and changed my judgement and views on them. Talking or being with those brilliant members of staff gave me the courage to speak up when a member of staff was unhelpful and hopefully in doing that, that person will change their ways.
There aren’t many services available particularly for people who have suffered the death of a pet, but Cats Protection have some amazing resources and a helpline…
Another way to cope with the loss of a pet is by indulging in the memories of him or her. This very obviously needs to be adjusted and tailored to you as an individual because sometimes it might be the complete opposite of what you need (so keep that in mind!).
For me, thinking about the good, happy, fun memories (mainly of Pixie and Dolly because they were the pets, I took the most photos of) is a great way to push back any horrible, sad memories of the time around their passing (both were poorly and in and out of the Vets for about a week before having to have them put to sleep).
Replacing the bad memories with good is something I’ve done for a long time and is primarily around the abuse anniversaries – November 20th and April 20th. I like the idea of those dates no longer being defined by my abuser and the things he did to me; so that he no longer has any control or power over entire days and periods of my life. Whilst what happened to me was so significant and important, he doesn’t deserve to have any claim over how I feel on a particular day. I do. So, I take those dates which he tried to ruin and manipulate, and I make them into mine. My days where I can celebrate great memories and not be consumed and overwhelmed by negative, saddening ones.
In focusing on lovely memories with my pets, I’ve had to really work to find a balance between enjoying those moments again, and yet still dedicating time to recognise that their new importance and meaning comes from the loss and the grief. I have to remember not to lose myself in those memories and forget that when I leave them, that pet won’t be here.
“To live in hearts, we leave behind is not to die.”