Managing Grief and Bereavement
March 17, 2020
Grief is a very physical process, so I first encourage people to attend to what their bodies need — rest, eat palatable foods, keep moving — as emotional processes produce different physical states. The insights we gain from our emotions may take time after an initial shock, which may serve to buffer what can be overwhelming. It may feel as though time has slowed down. As emotions are felt, we can process and adapt to a "new normal."
Each grief experience is unique. People may or may not feel emotions right away, and some may feel the full spectrum of human emotion all in a short time. Grief may be complicated if there is little support or if there are difficult circumstances surrounding the death.
Strategies, resources, and book recommendations that have helped people are below.
- Share your story as much as you need to with people you trust. Sometimes, owners find the experience of pet loss grief is not always understood, so talk with others who are also animal lovers. Call a pet loss support hotline/helpline, or visit an animal loss support group/grief group (lists are below). Historically considered a "disenfranchised grief,” this term does not adequately reflect the reality that grieving owners face, a bereavement which is just as significant as the loss of a human companion.
- Journal or write a letter to your beloved pet, especially if you are a writer. Think about experiences you shared and how you grew together and as a human. Write down what you learned that you want to remember going forward.
- Make a list of the nick-names you had for your pet.
- Holding on and letting go hands exercise
- Continue the bond with your pet by keeping a tangible item (such as their favorite toy) or a ritual you shared. I've heard owners continue to visit the park where they walked to visit the special places they enjoyed together; they have found it helpful in remembering and cherishing their connection.
- Each relationship with an animal is unique, and there may be a stronger bond with one particular animal. Reflecting on the gifts your bond has given you is a positive way to celebrate your bond. Perhaps you can give back through some action that relates to this gift. Owners have decided they wanted to speak up about insights they’ve learned, foster for a change, or move into a new line of work.
- Take time to connect with a deeper side of you. Caring for a pet can be very consuming when the pet is ill, so take time to reflect on other parts of your life and what you value. Doing this honors the gifts you have in your own life.
- Grief has been described as "waves of emotion" that can be intense and occur less frequently with time. You may anticipate places or situations you know may "hit you harder" by preparing more time or having a friend to talk with before, during, or afterwards.
- Find a way to memorialize. This may be with pictures, a journal, a video, an obituary, or a finding a special resting place.
- Take the time you need, and try to keep up with life routines. Routine can be what can carries us through times of grief.
- Be attentive to your self-talk. Getting caught up in the questions that are inevitable can begin a downward spiral. Be kind to yourself. There are always questions, and that is normal. Guilt is a common, troubling emotion, but this coping strategy of self-directed anger can wreak havoc on mental health. Watch this carefully, and know that your self-compassion is a gift you can give yourself, as well. Speak kindly to yourself, especially when you are hurting.
- Visit your fond memories and share them. This is the living legacy of your bond.
- Be clear with children, for vague descriptions can create confusion for children.
- Lastly, only you can know when it is time to invite a new pet into your life and heart. The relationship you had with your beloved pet is as unique as any other relationship. Recognizing this, some people decide to open their hearts fairly soon to a new experience, and decide to pet sit, foster, or adopt. For others, it will take considerable time before entertaining the idea of a new addition to the family. Or you may decide to focus on new endeavors entirely. No matter what, your beloved pet will always hold a special place in your mind and heart.
Online resources for support or chat groups, and articles:
- Fetch A Cure
- Lap of Love
- NRV Animal Loss Support Group
- Rainbow Bridge
- Red Rover
- Virginia Pet Loss Resources
- The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice From Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups by Ken Dolan Del-Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez
- 30-Day Guide to Healing From the Loss of Your Pet by Gael J Ross
- When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing by Alan Wolfelt
- Books by Alan Wolfelt, PhD
Ultimately, allowing yourself to actively grieve can bring relief over time. Be good to yourself.
Written by Trish Haak, LCSW