Monday, October 17, 2011

Finding Support for Pet Loss

If you are mourning the loss of a cherished pet, you may have some of the same questions and share some of the same concerns I often hear from other bereaved animal lovers:

How do I know when it is time to actually get some counseling for grief from loss of a pet?  Sometimes we wish that others would just be there for us without our having to ask. Unfortunately, when it comes to loss of a beloved animal companion, that’s not likely to happen. It’s not so much that others are cold and uncaring. If they’re not animal lovers and they’ve never had pets, or if they’ve never allowed themselves to become attached to animals as companions, there simply is no way for them to fully understand the attachment we had to the one who died, the significance of our loss and the depth of our pain.  They may unintentionally minimize our loss or, not wanting to see us hurt, discourage us from expressing our grief.  Sometimes the insensitivity of others can be even more painful for us than grief from the actual loss.

What if friends or family members say that seeking professional advice is “silly” or weird because “it was just an animal?”  As my dear friend and colleague Teresa Wagner so wisely observes, “grief is indifferent to the species lost.”  We need to know that our grief is legitimate and real regardless of anyone else's comments, behavior or opinions.  That’s why it’s important to seek the support of those who understand our experience and accept our feelings (close friends, family members, fellow animal lovers, support groups, telephone help lines, Internet websites, message boards and chat rooms, articles and books on pet loss, and grief counseling).

Some of us may be more comfortable in the role of giving care than in receiving it.  We may see the need for counseling as a sign of weakness or of mental illness, and thus are reluctant to seek the help of a professional counselor or attend a pet loss support group meeting.  But it takes strength and courage to let ourselves be cared for, and we need not bear our sorrow all alone.

Even if we’re grieving in a normal, healthy way, it is wise to use all the resources available to help recover our balance and put our life back together again. Sometimes friends and family may worry too much about us, get too involved in our personal affairs, or not be available to us at all.  Sometimes our need to talk about our loss may outlast the willingness of others to listen. When it seems that support from family and friends is either too much or not enough, attending a pet loss support group or having one or more one-on-one sessions with a grief counselor may give us the understanding, reassurance and comfort we need.

What can a pet loss support group or a session with a pet loss counselor offer that friends or family members cannot?  Not to be confused with group psychotherapy, a pet loss group lends support to those who have lost or are anticipating the loss of a beloved companion animal. It is not about curing long-standing emotional problems or changing your personality, basic values or the way you think about things. A well-run support group offers a safe, structured environment in which you can come together with other bereaved animal lovers to share your story, get your concerns and feelings validated, learn more about the normal grieving process, express and work through your feelings, and reflect with one another on the meaning of your loss.  You also have the opportunity to grow by giving help to others as well as receiving it from them.

Unlike friendship, a professional counseling relationship offers you the opportunity to relate to a caring, supportive individual who understands the grief process, doesn’t need you to depend upon, and will allow you to grieve without interference.  Pet loss counselors are those who specialize in helping people who are anticipating or coping with the loss of a beloved companion animal. They have education and special training not only in loss and bereavement in general, but in pet loss and bereavement in particular.  They understand attachment and loss as it pertains to the human-animal bond, and their focus is on helping to heal the pain that’s felt when that bond is broken. Therapists without this understanding may misinterpret the strength of your attachment to your companion animal and the depth of your grief over its death.

What happens in a session with a pet loss counselor?  Within the safety and confidentiality of a therapeutic relationship, you can share your intimate thoughts, make sense of what you’re feeling and clarify your reactions. An effective pet loss counselor is knowledgeable about the grieving process as it pertains to pet loss, helps you feel understood, offers a witness to your experience, encourages you to move forward, fosters faith that you will survive, and offers hope that you will get through your grieving. (As with any other service, if for any reason you don’t feel comfortable with the counselor you’ve chosen, you should feel free to try another.)

How do I know if I should see a pet loss counselor? Are there any signs that tell me counseling may be indicated?  Seeing a bereavement counselor is appropriate if you
  • feel uncomfortable with yourself or find yourself unable to function normally.
  • have reactions from which you can get no relief, or over which you feel no control.
  • wonder if your responses are normal, or if they’ve gone on too long.
  • have thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about or you’re reluctant to share with anyone else.
You should seek professional help immediately if you
  • feel no grief reaction at all after a major loss
  • have a history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse
  • have few sources of support
  • see life as hopeless and are feeling suicidal.
How do I go about finding the pet loss services I need?  Begin by exploring what may be available in your own community.  In Phoenix, AZ, for example, Hospice of the Valley offers a once-monthly Pet Loss Support Group on the first Saturday of every month. Ask someone in your local humane society, a pet cemetery or pet crematory representative, your veterinarian or your pet grooming specialist if they know of any pet bereavement services in your community — or even if they know of any recently bereaved clients who may be willing to talk with you. Visit your public library, local bookstore or pet supply store and ask for information and literature on pet loss and bereavement. Look for pet loss services advertised in your Yellow Pages or local newspaper, or posted on bulletin boards in your grocery store, library, church or school. Telephone help lines are springing up everywhere, some operating 24 hours a day, staffed by compassionate, understanding listeners who have loved and lost their own dear pets and are ready to help others cope with losing theirs.

The Internet has all sorts of sites offering information, comfort and support to people who are grieving the loss of a cherished pet.  Use the key words “pet loss” in your browser and you’ll find dozens of personal sites dedicated to deceased pets, touching poems written to commemorate a pet’s death, advice of pet loss experts and the interchange of helpful messages from fellow animal lovers who understand the pain of pet loss because they’ve lived it.  Nowadays there are many, many people across the country who’ve found their computers helpful in coping with the painful emotions associated with losing a special pet, and through this medium they want to help others as well.

How Can Others Help Me?  Other people aren’t going to know what you need from them unless you first figure out what you need and from whom, and let them know directly and specifically. If they’ve never experienced a major loss and know nothing about the grief of losing a beloved animal companion, you can invite them to read a book or visit a Web site on pet loss, so they’ll have a better understanding of what you’re going through.  Reaching out to others is often very difficult when you’re struggling with the grief that comes with losing your faithful friend, but the more support and understanding you have around you, the better you will cope.  No one can take away the pain of pet loss, but nowadays we do not have to endure it all alone.  If you need someone to talk to about the loss of your pet, help is no further away than your telephone or the keyboard of your computer.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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Photo courtesy of Drew Bennett

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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