Dealing with grief
This article isn’t about ‘how to grieve’. Everybody grieves differently and you need to grieve in a way that is right for you. Grief is a product of love, but we all experience grief in different ways, at different times and for different reasons. Sometimes when we lose a rat, that grief is immediate - we cry at their passing or when we get home, or when it starts to sink in. Sometimes, it isn’t until weeks later that we realise how much we miss them. And sometimes, we keep a brave face and soldier on. You have to grieve in your own way.
Grief is natural
One of the most valuable lessons I think we can all learn is that sometimes, it is ‘okay’ to be ‘not okay’ and this is one of those times. You aren’t okay, you’ve lost someone you love. And right now, you mustn’t feel guilty about grieving. Grief is healthy and it is right - and however you choose to grieve, don’t feel it is wrong or not enough or too much. Losing any animal is hard, they are our family, our friends, our support, the one we confide in, and when losing a rat, that is sometimes compounded by other people’s attitudes. We’ve all heard it, and sometimes people try to help by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time: “It’s just a rat.” Yet some of my best friends are and were ‘just a rat’. But those saying this are usually trying to help, trying to make you feel better, however painful it might seem.
Your rat was lucky - you cared deeply about them. Why else would you be reading this article? However hard it is to see that right now, your rat was cared for and I am sure they knew this - rats are sensitive, intelligent animals and they pick up on how we’re feeling - your rat knew that you cared. He or she was lucky - so many rats never experience this. You gave them a wonderful gift, for however long they were with you.
Bereavement is part of sharing our lives with animals
This painful time is something that we accept when we take any animal into our lives, and with rats it is something we are forced to accept. Their lives are so short compared to many other pets and this makes people like you special. You know that the pain of loss will come sooner than most other animals, but you are still prepared to love rats. You’ve been prepared to sacrifice a portion of your happiness, proportionally more than many other people would, to love and care for that rat. That makes you brave, loving and strong. Sometimes we aren’t able to give our rats the life we would like them to have, whether they are rescues who spent a lot of their life in difficult circumstances, or rats who passed away far too soon due to ill-health or accident, or rats that we wished could’ve lived longer, healthier, differently in some way. But take a few minutes to think about the good in your rats life - the happy times your rat had. Be thankful for this.
Take time to remember
Be prepared to give yourself time. With time, the memory of your rats passing will become a small part of their life - a life that you can look back on and remember with joy. Many people find that doing something to remember or celebrate the life of their rat is a very healing experience. Perhaps you could plant a tree in memory of your rat? If you don’t have a garden, you could try taking a long walk in the countryside and taking sometime to just sit and remember your friend. Try making a scrapbook with pictures and momentos of your lost rat. Many people find making a video with photographs or videos a very nice way to remember them. You could of course share that here if you would like. Taking some time out of your daily life to give yourself this opportunity to come to terms with things is important.
Where you lay your rat to rest is a very personal decision. In some cases, you may not have been able to bring your rat home (perhaps because you were too upset at the vets) - it can be very helpful to take some time to say good-bye to your friend. Perhaps draw a picture or write a poem. There are some very talented artists around - perhaps you are amongst them. Perhaps you didn’t yet know it. Sometimes drawing a portrait of your lost rat can be helpful.
Many people chose to bury their rats in their garden - perhaps you could plant a tree over them? If, like me, you don’t have a garden, you could bury your rat somewhere special to you. All of my rats are buried in a nearby woodland. They are laid to rest in ‘normal’ cardboard boxes with some of their own bedding, a few treats and something of mine that meant a lot to me and somehow was connected to them. Depending on your own beliefs, you could say a quiet prayer, or give thanks for their life in a way that feels right for you. If your rat has been cremated, you may choose to keep them around you or scatter their ashes somewhere that feels right.
One lovely way to remember your rat, if finances allow, is to donate a small sum to an animal rescue group or any charity that you feel appropriate. Perhaps you could use the lost rat's share of the ‘treat budget’ or ‘toy fund’ to send a small amount to help other animals in need?
Your other rats
Throughout all of this, remember your other rats. They have lost a friend. Rats will often grieve for their lost cage-mate. Pay special attention to all of your rats right now. Sometimes those most affected by the loss are not the ones you would’ve expected. I know from my own experience that there are bonds in groups that only became apparent after a rat was lost. Extra cuddles, extra games and playing all can help cheer up depressed rats. Try and treat them with extra sensitivity as they may not be themselves because of this. Remember that rats are incredibly sensitive, social animals and their world has just changed in a very dramatic way. The hierarchy might too have been changed as a result. In my own experience, I find the companionship of my own rats one of the most healing things. I am not alone in my grief and we help one-another through by loving and caring for each other. Rats do bond so closely with their owners and care about us.
Sometimes you might be tempted to get another rat. This might be a very conscious decision to give a remaining rat company, or perhaps you hear of a rescue that you can now help. Be sensitive and careful of your own feelings right now. In some ways, this is a bad time to introduce new rats. As mentioned earlier, your current group will still be adjusting to the loss and it might be a time when a new hierarchy is forming. It can be much better to let things settle down first. Also, it is very important to wait 2 weeks after the loss of any rat to ensure that no infectious disease is present that might have caused the death.
Taking home a new rat is a decision that must always be taken carefully, with a lot of thought about all the implications. When very upset, you might not be able to think clearly so do give yourself time. That said, sometimes rats find us when we least expect them to. But do not allow yourself to be rushed into any decision and make all decisions based on what is right for you, your current rats and any new rats on a long term basis. Getting a new rat might be a good distraction from your grief for a few days, but it will also take up a lot of your time, and your current rats need you now more than ever.
Ask for help
In the meantime, don’t feel guilty about asking for support. The obituary forum here, or Your Rats, or Rat Related Chit Chat are all good places to ask for support, to talk to people who understand and listen, or to just talk about your friend and remember them however feels right for you. There are also confidential services that you can talk to. The Blue Cross offers a confidential Pet Bereavement Support Service (details of which can be found here).
Author: Katie Dorr
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