Monday, April 2, 2018

Pet Loss: Helping A Friend With Unresolved Grief

[Reviewed and updated June 5, 2021]

It comes with experience as we go along with our life. The more we realize on who to give our love, care and time, the more we understand ourselves for the better. 
~ Alcuizar Barredo

A reader writes: I was just surfing the net looking for info regarding pet loss in trying to help a friend of mine. I noticed your article about unhealthy bonding, and it so happens my friend is in just that situation. She called her pet her "child" and was overly attached to it during its life, excluding relationships at the expense of the pet and turning down invitations that did not include the pet as you said in the article. The pet died two years ago and she is still grieving heavily and is unwilling to move from a home that she is unhappy with due to not wanting to move away from the grave. Basically, your article describes her to a tee. I am at a loss as to how to help my friend. Can you give my any suggestions?

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of your friend's unresolved grief at the death of her animal companion two years ago. How good of you to be devoted enough to your friend to be seeking some ways that you might help. Since you know your friend better than I do, and since she is not the one who is seeking my advice, please keep in mind that I am speaking in generalities, and what I have to offer may not apply in her case.

I can assure you that, when an animal has been a constant presence in nearly every aspect of a person's life, adjusting to an environment that no longer includes the animal can be extremely disruptive and difficult. In the beginning, simple activities of daily living serve as constant reminders that the animal is no longer there. The bereaved person needs encouragement to keep things as simple as possible, to establish a structure for daily routines and to take good care of herself. Regular exercise is a useful way of relieving sadness and improving appetite and sleeping patterns. Adequate intake of water and nutritious foods that are easy to fix and digest is important. Over a long period of time, however, you would expect that eventually your friend would focus her energy back into normal activities.

If you are willing to listen, it would be helpful to encourage reminiscing and talking openly about your friend's lost animal. The pain of loss can be soothed by thinking of and talking about happy as well as sad memories. You can tell your friend that the happiness she has experienced with her cherished companion animal belongs to her forever. She can choose to hold onto those rich memories, and give thanks for the life of the animal she's lost rather than focusing only on the last days they spent together.

In the normal course of mourning a loved one, it is not unusual to experience temporary upsurges of grief. Holidays, birthdays, anniversary dates and other "triggers" can reawaken feelings of loss and produce intense emotional pain. You can let your friend know that such experiences are normal, and that over time they will become less difficult to bear. You might suggest that she plan ahead how future dates and events can be managed and experienced, in ways that not only honor the memory of her lost companion but also enable her to reinvest emotions back into life and in the living.

At this point in her grief journey, I would expect that your friend would be starting to withdraw emotional attachment to her lost animal and to find meaning in the loss. Again, if you're willing to do so, you can gently help her to identify whatever lessons she has learned from this loss and recognize what old, outdated habits and attitudes need to be changed. You might explore her readiness to reinvest emotionally in another companion animal without feeling disloyal to the one who has died. (I always caution people against jumping too quickly into a relationship with another animal before their current grief is resolved. All the pain of this loss must be identified, expressed and worked through before the person can be free to appreciate the new animal for itself, and not as a replacement for the one that was lost.) 
You might encourage your friend to find and participate in a pet loss support group. Such a support group targets uncomplicated grievers: those who have coped successfully with stress in the past, are having some difficulty with the present loss, and are expected to work through their grief without professional help. You can tell your friend that a pet loss support group is a safe, structured place where normal, healthy people bound by the experience of loss can come together on a regular basis to share their stories, get their concerns and feelings validated, learn more about grief and the mourning process, express and work through their feelings, and reflect on the meaning of it all. Unlike what happens in individual telephone counseling, participants in a support group have the opportunity to grow by giving help as well as receiving it.

If your friend has a computer and access to the Internet, you can suggest a visit to my Grief Healing web site ~ one of the many comforting places on the Web that offers information and support to people who are grieving and links the visitor to many other excellent sites as well. See also our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which include a forum for Loss of a Pet, giving your friend an opportunity to communicate with others whose situation may be similar to her own.

If you sincerely believe that you've tried all of this already, or you think that none of this would help, then I would encourage you to refer your friend for professional help. If two years after this death your friend still displays signs of intense grief (such as prolonged inactivity, despondency, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; inability to eat, sleep or carry out usual activities; prolonged withdrawal from social contacts; no signs of forward progress) then I think professional intervention is indicated. This is by no means a failure on your part or a sign of weakness in your friend. When you cannot meet another person's needs for ongoing grief education and support, one of the greatest gifts you can offer is to gently suggest that the person seek professional help. Be sure you do your homework ahead of time, however. Since your friend may not have the energy to do so, it will help (before you have this conversation with her) if you call your local library, animal shelter, veterinary clinic, animal rescue organization or pet groomer to see what, if any, pet loss support services are available in your community. If there is none available, look for bereavement services that may be offered by local hospices, mortuaries, or church groups. You might look up on the Internet the telephone numbers of pet loss counselors and support helplines and give those to your friend (see, for example, the list of suggestions on my site's Pet Loss Counseling and Helplines, Message Boards, Chats pages).

When it's time to talk to your friend, you might say something like this:

"If you think what I've said has been helpful, I can refer you to someone who can help you even more." or

"In addition to your animal's death, it sounds like there's a lot going on in your life right now and you're needing some help to sort it all out. Although I'm not prepared to help you as fully as you deserve to be helped, I care about you very much and I'd like to refer you to someone who can do that for you." or

"If you had a wound that wasn't healing, you wouldn't hesitate to seek professional help. Loss creates an emotional wound that also needs to be healed. This wound of yours doesn't seem to be healing. I know that there are people who can help you with that process. Let me give you their telephone numbers."

I don't know your friend's age or whether she lives alone, but both of those are mitigating factors. If she is an older person, you might also want to read my article, Helping Seniors with Pet Loss.

I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear, and I wish you all the best. You sound like a lovely lady, and a good and true friend.

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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