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Grief And The Loss Of A Pet

We know that grieving is a complex process which includes a number of stages. These stages include: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and resolution. The stages may come in a recognized sequence or they may appear as a complex series of emotions and feelings. The length of each stage varies with each person, and often among cultures. Some people may return to a particular stage, such as anger, time and again. Others may reach resolution quite quickly. It does not mean they loved their pet any less, it is just their individual reaction to their loss. In most instances, the grieving process may continue for a few months to almost a year. Denial:When we hear bad news, some of us have a tendency to deny it. We think it really is not true, that we did not ‘hear it right,’ or ‘it cannot be as bad as that.’ This is a defensive mechanism we use in an attempt to insulate ourselves from the emotional trauma we are, or are going to, experience. Bargaining:When a human loved one is dying, many people may want to ‘bargain’ with God. If you let my loved one live, then I will… Although this is not as common when a pet dies, many people still experience this stage of grief. Owners of a dying pet may also experience a different type of bargaining such as telling their pet, ‘If you recover, I will never scold you again.’ Anger:Anger is a common stage of grief that follows denial. Anger may be towards others such as the veterinarian or another family member. It may also be directed towards oneself in the form of guilt. We may say, ‘If I had only brought her to the veterinarian sooner, she would be okay.’ Some owners may feel angry at the pet for leaving them alone. Sorrow and Sadness:Sadness is the stage we most often think of as grief. For many people, losing a pet may be one of the saddest experiences they will ever have. We mourn our loss. We may find it difficult to eat, sleep, or concentrate. We may not want to be around other people; but in reality, this is when we need understanding people the most. Talking to someone who understands our grief is a way to help the healing process begin. Caring people there can listen and help. If you do not know of anyone to talk to, you may wish to call a pet loss hotline. There are also books available written by people who understand the pain of losing a pet. Resolution:Resolution is the final stage of the grieving process. At this point, we are able to accept that our wonderful friend has died. We start focusing on the wonderful memories we have and the times we enjoyed together. At this point, we may consider looking for a new pet, not to replace our lost friend, but to have someone to enjoy life with. There still may be times when we experience deep sadness, anger, or guilt at our loss, but we can recover from these times faster, and look forward rather than backward. In addition to these stages, other emotional reactions may be seen. People can experience shock if the death of their pet was sudden and unanticipated, and may experience an emotional numbness. If a pet is missing, the uncertainty of what may have happened to the pet can produce worry and anxiety. When a pet disappears, children may be especially fearful of becoming lost or separated from their family. Ambiguous loss In an ambiguous loss, the whereabouts or cause of death of the pet is unknown. The pet may have run away or been stolen, or the owner may have needed to surrender the pet to a animal shelter. In these situations, there is seldom any ‘closure.’ The owner does not know when or if the pet has died, or if lost, whether the pet will ever come back. As a result, when to stop searching and when to start the grieving process are unsure. There may also be additional guilt associated with this type of loss. How grief is expressed In the book,The Human-Animal Bond and Grief, the authors describe five manifestations of grief. Physical:Crying, nausea and loss of appetite, inability to sleep, fatigue, restlessness, and body aches and stiffness are typical manifestations of grief. Intellectual:When grieving, people often experience an inability to concentrate, confusion, and a sense that time is passing very slowly. Emotional:As described above, many emotions can be expressed in the course of the grieving process. Irritability, a lowered sense of self-worth, resentment, and embarrassment are also common feelings. Social:Some grieving people often withdraw, may be reluctant to ask for help, and feel rejected by others. Others may show an increased dependency on other people, or an increased need to ‘keep busy’ and overcommit to activities. Spiritual:The death of a pet may result in a person bargaining or feeling angry with God. The grieving person may try to find some meaningful interpretation of the death, and question what happens to pets after they die and whether pets have souls. Help and healing It has been shown that when grief can be expressed, the time needed for healing is often less. Similarly, if the expression of grief is restricted or withheld, the healing process may take much longer. In addition to talking with others, to do┬ásomething often helps us work through our grief. By doing something positive during this time of sadness, we expand our focus by celebrating the life of the pet. Activities which may help include: Planting flowers or a tree in memory of the pet Making a charitable donation Holding a funeral or memorial service Drawing a picture, making a clay sculpture or doing needlework of something that reminds you of your pet (you could do this yourself, or have it done by a professional) Placing your pet’s nametag on your keyring Writing a poem, song, or story Composing music or a song Creating a memorial photo album or scrap book Writing a letter to your pet Framing a photograph Volunteering your time People who have a pet who has died need to talk to someone. Often family members and friends are very supportive, but in some instances, they may not understand how important your pet was to you. It is important to find someone who does understand. There are certain circumstances which can intensify the grief. If a person has recently suffered other losses, feels responsible for the death, or has never fully grieved an earlier death, the grieving process is often more complex. If the pet died of a disease similar to one which the owner or a loved one currently has or has had in the past, the grief can also be compounded. If the pet has shared a significant event in the owner’s life e.g.; was a gift from a spouse, the pet alerted the owner of a fire or otherwise ‘rescued’ the owner, or the pet has ‘gotten them through’ a difficult period in their life, grief can be compounded. When the pet was a significant source of support for the person, e.g., the person lived alone, adjusting to the death of the pet may be extremely difficult. In some instances, when the pet dies, the owner also loses a significant activity. For instance, when a working dog dies, the owner has lost not only a pet, but a co-worker, someone who has shared activities with the owner many hours of the day. People who lose an assistance dog may lose their independence and the ability to even perform simple daily activities. Some children or adolescents cannot remember life without the pet. For them, too, loss of the pet may be especially difficult, and professional help may be indicated. In all of these situations, talking to a professional experienced in grief counseling (bereavement counselors, clergy, social workers, physicians, psychologists) is often advised and can assist the healing process. Support groups, pet loss hotlines, and books on pet loss can also be helpful. By Dr’s Fosters and Smith