by Erin Wasson (MSW, RSW)-Clinical Associate Social Work, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. When a beloved family pet dies it can be really hard. For many of us, our pets are a place of unconditional love, acceptance, and immense joy. After the loss of a beloved pet, we are often left with memories of the life we have shared with them, and immense pain where our love for them remains. The following article is to help normalize the grief we feel around losing our pets, and to talk about some of what you can expect around grief and loss. Part two of this article will discuss when additional support might be needed.
“So, what is grief?”
Grief occurs in response to the loss of a loved one and is a normal and natural reaction. Anyone can experience grief, however, individuals are unique in how they respond to a loss. Bereavement is the period of sadness that comes as a result of a loss (4) , with some people identifying as bereaved after a death. When I’m working with clients, we often talk about how we are changed by death. Instead of trying to force ourselves to “get over it” we instead talk about learning to live alongside the loss. The process we undertake after a loss is called mourning. This term refers to the actions we undertake to manage grief. The way we mourn is impacted by our beliefs, religious practices, cultural customs, and traditions (4) . For some people this means engaging in ceremonies or other means of celebrating their pet. Some examples of things I recommend to clients or that clients have shared as being helpful include:
Creating a tribute to your pet- Some people do this online others create a space in their home that holds special items and photographs, Pick out a special urn, or jewelry to hold your pets cremated remains, Plant a tree, Pick out a special place to scatter your pets cremated remains, Hold a funeral for your pet, Place a stone in your yard or garden as a memorial, Ask your veterinarian if they can provide ink or clay paw prints, or order a kit yourself to do so as part of saying goodbye, Consider whether you want to get a commemorative tattoo
However you mourn the loss of your pet, it is important to know that outward expressions of grief vary from person to person. Make sure that you are following your own instincts and choosing the actions that feel right for you.
There are many different ways that that we can see and feel our reactions. Most often our reactions to grief can be observed in our emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors (4) . Emotions are our natural instinctive state of mind and are derived from our circumstances, our mood, or our relationships with others. Some common emotional reactions to grief include: guilt and self-blame, anger, loneliness, fatigue, shock, helplessness, yearning, emancipation, and relief (5) . When we have to hold one or more of these emotions in ourselves at one time, it can be challenging. This is especially true when the emotions themselves are not typically experienced together. A common example of this is when an older pet needing much care passes away. Frequently, owners will tell me that they feel relieved that they do not have to worry about their pet any longer. However, this feeling is swiftly followed by a sense of guilt because they would have cared for them for as long as possible, if it meant that their pet still had good quality of life. In these circumstances, I often remind people that they can “feel guilty without being guilty”. I also talk with people about the challenge of being a steward for our animals, and making end of-life choices for someone who cannot speak for themselves. This is a particularly hard role for a pet owner and a decision that is never entered into lightly. It is also a decision that most pet owners will have to make at some time, as we almost always outlive our pets. The best way we can support someone through this process is by demonstrating empathy.
The four key means of showing someone empathy include:
Perspective Taking, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes Staying out of judgment and listening Recognizing emotion in another person Communicating that you recognize their emotions (6)
Denying someone’s feelings during a time of grief and loss is not helpful, even if we are trying to make them feel better. It is important to allow someone to feel the way they need to as they lean into and turn towards their loss.
Thoughts are our ideas and opinions produced by thinking and experiencing. They are the way our minds communicate where our attention is being held. Some common thought reactions during a time of grief include: disbelief, confusion, preoccupation, sense of the deceased’s presence, or thinking you see or hear your pet (5) . It is not uncommon for someone to say to me “I still sometimes see them out of the corner of my eye”. We need to remember that we spend a concentrated, habitual period of time with our animals. It is not uncommon for our minds to be preoccupied with thoughts of them after they die. As a result, it is important that we are gentle with ourselves and others when going through a period of grief. In particular if a death is unexpected, sudden, or traumatic, it is important to allow the mind to catch up with the reality of our circumstances, as we come to terms with the experience of loss.
Finally, our bodies are also carriers of grief. Some common body sensations include: nausea, a “pit” in the stomach, tightness in one’s throat or chest, hypersensitivity to noise, a surreal or disconnected feeling, breathlessness, muscle weakness, lack of energy, tension in the face, the emergence of tears, as well as other reactions (4,5,7,8). Everyone is different in this regard, but for some people, sensation in the body is uncomfortable. It is good to remember that grief is housed in our bodies and that these manifestations of grief are common. However, if these sensations ever feel unmanageable or scary, it is ok to ask someone for help.
The way grief is expressed and the behaviors we engage in can change from person to person. These grief reactions may contribute to crying, trouble sleeping, a change in appetite, absent-mindedness, social withdrawal, dreams and nightmares, avoiding reminders or keeping keepsakes of the deceased, and trying to stay busy (8,9). Expect that you will have ups and downs and that your feelings may change from day to day. It is important that if we are supporting someone who is grieving that we don’t make assumptions about how they do so, especially if it looks different from our own grief processes. When it comes to members of the same family, it can be a surprise that we all grieve differently. Making sure that we make room for each other’s processes during a time of loss, is a good way to ensure everyone is adequately supported. A common example in families where people grieve differently from one another is often in the management of belongings. Often one person in the family wants to keep all of the belongings of their pets and another needs to pack everything away immediately. Having good conversations among family members, and leaving room for different reactions from different people, can be really useful in circumstances like this. It is good for family members to check in with one another. Avoid making assumptions about why someone is behaving the way they are, and instead ask. It is through communicating about our behaviors, that we can seek to understand why someone’s needs or reactions are different than our own.
Some of us may count ourselves lucky to have a number of people in our lives who understand the depth of the relationship we had with our pet, and who support us in exactly the ways we need. Others of us may feel lonely and isolated in grief, especially if we feel like the people around us do not understand our loss. When someone says to us “It’s just a cat/dog”, it is not helpful and can leave us feeling as though we can’t share how sad we are. This type of grief is known as disenfranchised grief and is experienced by people who have a loss that cannot be publicly acknowledged or is not socially supported.(10) Having good supports around you can make all the difference in the length, intensity, and your ability to cope and manage with grief. Resources Navigating pet loss can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be made harder by doing it alone. Your grief around the loss of your animal is no less valid then anyone else’s grief experience. Be gentle with yourself and make sure to ask for what you need from those who can provide it.
Contact the resources below if you need support. Alberta Health Services Access Mental Health – Helping you find the information or service that is right for you. https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/services/page11443.aspx Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line (24/7 telephone service offering help for mental health concerns for Albertans 1-877-303-2642
References 1. Clements PT, Benasutti KM, Carmone A. Support for bereaved owners of pets. Perspect Psychiatr Care. 2003. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6163.2003.tb00676.x. 2. Carmack BJ. The Effects on Family Members and Functioning After the Death of a Pet. Marriage Fam Rev. 1985;8(3):149-161. doi:10.1300/J002v08n03_11. 3. Packman W, Field NP, Carmack BJ, Ronen R. Continuing bonds and psychosocial adjustment in pet loss. J Loss Trauma. 2011;16(4):341-357. doi:10.1080/15325024.2011.572046. 4. Canadian Cancer Society. Grief and Bereavement. http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancerinformation/cancer-journey/advanced-cancer/grief-bereavement/?region=on. Published 2019. 5. Schweibert P. grief watch. Normal Reactions to Loss. https://griefwatch.com/normal-reactionsto-loss/?SID=8snvnb8iabhiu577bpq1ge4767. Published 2019. 6. RSA Shorts. Dr. Brene Brown, “The Power of Empathy.”; 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz1g1SpD9Zo. 7. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Society. Coping with Grief: Strategies for People Living with ALS. https://als.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Coping-with-Grief-Manual-English.pdf. Published 2016. 8. Smith, M., Robinson, L., Segal J. Coping with Grief and Loss. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-grief-and-loss.htm?pdf=13250. Published 2018. 9. Worden JW. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. Second. New York: Spring Publishing Co.; 1991. 10. Doka KJ. Disenfranchised grief. Bereave Care. 1999. doi:10.1080/02682629908657467.
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