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Grieving the loss of a pet

Liz_zoeBy Elizabeth Keating

Elizabeth is a psychotherapist, and also works as a grief counsellor. She has a special understanding of the relationship between humans and animals, and often helps those of us going through what is always a traumatic experience of losing our beloved animal family members.

To lose someone you love is very stressful, especially if it was unexpected. When that someone is not a human, this love and subsequent loss is not always sensitively treated by others. Mostly, only those who have experienced a deep connection with a (non-human) animal can begin to appreciate what you are dealing with. Find those people and let them help you. Love is love. And grief is grief

What exactly is grief?

Grief is our reaction to the physical separation from someone we love. It is a natural process that is experienced uniquely by everyone. So there is no right or wrong way to grieve (though it is possible to get stuck). Because grief is not really talked about, many people are surprised by the intensity of the pain, for example, and don't know what to do to release it. However, everyone has grieving instincts that guide them to express their grief. For example, one person might feel the urge to put away everything that reminds them of their cat or dog, horse or rabbit (for now). While another person might want to keep everything close, as a tangible connection, until their loved animal's absence is less of a shock. If you can, lean into your grieving instincts by not overthinking them, but by following them.

Grief can affect our abilities temporarily


It is very natural to experience disruptions in more than one area of functioning because of grief. Your physical body may experience any of a wide variety of temporary changes:
  • Early waking
  • Broken sleep
  • Sleeping too much
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Change in appetite (either increased or lessened)
  • Digestive upsets
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
(It is advisable to get physical symptoms checked by a doctor in case the stress has triggered a physical condition.)

Your social self might want different things, e.g., you might want to withdraw from others, for a while or you want seek constant companionship. You might get no pleasure for things that previously brought you joy. Your motivation to do anything might be out the window. This feels a lot like depression but should pass with time and active grieving. If it does not, consult a mental health professional, as in some cases, grief can trigger depression and other mental health conditions. Your mind might have some difficulty with standard tasks, such as concentrating or remembering. And depending on what you believe, your spiritual self might struggle with the fact that a loving God or Creator would allow this to happen. These are all reactions to the shock your whole system has had. It reminds me of the aftermath of a tsunami. Each person will experience a different mix of these grief reactions. And there is no schedule for when they should end. The best thing to do is to be patient with this process and to be gentle with yourself.

Practical things that have helped others:
  • Eat nutritious food
  • Get any kind of cardiovascular exercise
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Sit down and rest when your body is tired
  • Get a massage
  • Avoid alcohol as much as possible
  • Be in Nature. It is healing to be surrounded by flora and fauna.
Grieving requires actions

Every time we do something to express our grief we inch forward on what is known as our grief journey. Crying and telling your story to others are two of the most obvious, and probably, involuntary ways we grieve. But there are as many grieving actions as there are creative people in the world. Here are some ways that others have found meaningful:
  • Plant a tree or flower in honour of your loved animal.
  • Keep a journal to allow you to express your thoughts and feelings and to also track the course of your grief journey.
  • While they are still fresh, write down all the good memories you have of your cat, anecdotes and favourite traits in a nice blank book. These memories fade with time so it can be comforting to turn through the pages of such a personal book.
  • Put some of his or her hair or a feather or anything else you want in a precious box or locket.
  • Light a candle.
  • Frame photographs.
  • Make a donation to an organisation that works on behalf of animals.
  • Volunteer for an animal organisation.
  • Foster an animal who needs a temporary home.
  • Create an online memorial on a sensitive website.
There are many other ways to do something that is either comforting or meaningful. Just let yourself do the things that feel appropriate for you. We are all different. This is good to remember when people are giving you advice on how to deal with this big change in your life. What worked for your friend, might not work for you.

Finding support


It is vital to talk to people who can be sensitive to your loss. Even if there is just one person who seems to understand, make use of them. And the online community might offer a resource of support if there is nobody in your immediate circle. As human beings, we have a need to tell our story, usually multiple times. We need others to know what we are dealing with. It is part of the process of making it real. For at first, the shock usually numbs us and we just feel stunned. This is a protective response that gives us time to get used to this change.

After a loss, your job is to protect your grieving heart from the possiblity of thoughtless words from people who cannot understand. Try to be selective about who you talk to about this very personal loss. Don't feel obliged to tell anyone who asks why you seem to be different. I know one person who says that she lost a family member. This is not a grief that is universally appreciated as significant, but I can tell you, as a professional and as an animal lover, that this is real grief. We need support when we lose someone we love, no matter whether they had two legs or four (or anything else).

Context


When any loss happens, it happens in the context of everything else that's going on in someone's life. Your ability to deal with this real loss is affected by whatever else you must deal with (and if you feel unable to cope, it is vital to reach out for help to any trained mental health professional who respects your loss). Looming exams, financial strain, elderly parents or anything else that was causing you stress before this happened are real factors too. As human beings, we can only deal with so much. I think of it as a battery that is charged that then runs down. Certain things recharge our batteries. You know what boosts yours. And stressful life events run them down. It's important to know this as you deal with your loss and figure out how much charge is left in your batteries. Self care is important all the time, but especially at a time like this. If you make time for the things that feel nurturing to you, it will ease your stress.

Staying connected


It is a common myth that we must forget those we have lost. To grieve someone we must remember them. You might remember your Loved Animal by thinking about him or her each morning as you start your day. You might just say their name from time to time. You might sit by the tree you planted in honour of this creature who gave you unconditional love. And though it might sound strange, you could try writing a letter or several, over the years, to express your thoughts and feelings directly to him or her. This can provide relief and there is no reason not to do it. If it feels healthy to you, listen to your grieving instincts. If you are concerned that you are not making progress or you are unsure about whether things are moving in the right direction, I welcome calls and emails.

Finally, one of the best ways to remember and stay connected to your loved animal is to think about the traits they displayed and incorporate one trait into your personality. For example, your cat may have been patient, and you find yourself lacking it. Your dog may have been very loving, and you find it difficult to show your affection easily. Your horse may have been playful, something we can forget to do as adults. Or your turtle may have shown a dogged determination to complete a journey, something that you wish you had. Selecting a trait you admired and then adopting it yourself means you do not leave your loved one behind. You take them with you, in a way that has meaning, for the rest of your life.

©
Elizabeth Keating, Strong Tree Psychotherapy, 2010. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth Keating
, MA, MA (in Counselling), is a psychotherapist serving Dublin, Cork and the surrounding counties. She has done group and individual counselling for people grieving their Loved Animals since 2004. Most recently, she was a bereavement counsellor in Chicago for three years before returning to Ireland. If you have any questions about your reaction to your loss or want to schedule an individual or family counselling session, you can speak confidentially to Elizabeth at (087) 657 6965 or email StrongTree@ireland.com
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