Monday, April 25, 2022

Pet Loss: Seeking Support From A Group

[Reviewed and updated May 24, 2023]

A reader writes: Based on your experience facilitating a Pet Loss Support Group, I'm hoping can you answer some questions for an article I am writing. For instance, how important is it for people who have lost a pet to seek help from a support group? What are some of the more common reasons they have for going to a pet loss support group? And how do they usually feel by the time they get to the support group?

My response: Seeking group support for pet loss depends on the individual. Some folks are more comfortable expressing themselves in a group ~ others prefer to share their feelings one-on-one in a more private setting. That's why it's useful for a pet loss service to offer both a telephone helpline (for individual counseling) and a support group. Some people are willing to utilize both sources of help ~ they call the helpline and also come to the group. 

Unless they've attended a support group for some other reason in the past, most folks don't know what to expect when they come to a pet loss support group, so without conducting some sort of survey, I can't really tell you what gets them in the door. Usually someone has referred them or they've read a brochure or they've heard about the group from someone else, and they are in so much pain they're willing to do anything that might offer some comfort and some relief. Most people come with the blind faith that it just might help. What brings them back (if the group is run well) is the discovery that they can come together with other bereaved animal lovers in a safe, structured environment where they can share their stories and get their feelings validated. They can learn more about the normal grieving process, express and work through their feelings, and reflect with one another on the meaning of their loss. Unlike what happens in individual counseling, they also discover that they have the opportunity to grow by giving help to others in the group.

How people feel by the time they attend a group depends on the individual, what happened to the pet and on where the person is in the grieving process. In any given group, there might be someone whose pet is terminally ill and the person is anticipating the pet's death or struggling with the awesome and painful decision of whether to have the animal euthanized. (Common concerns: How will I know when it's time? How many more diagnostic tests or procedures can I afford, when the outcome will be the same regardless of what I do? How much time and effort am I willing and able to put into caring for my dying animal? How much pain and suffering should I expect my pet to endure, just so I can keep them here with me for a little while longer? How can I make the most of the time we have left together? What should I tell my children? What will I do with my pet's remains after death?)

Sometimes a person attends the group because the pet has gone missing (it may have escaped from the home or yard, run off while the owner was traveling somewhere, been taken in by a stranger, or even outright stolen). This person harbors the same feelings as if the animal had died: sorrow, longing, denial, anger and guilt. But this grief is complicated by the need to keep hope alive, which constantly interrupts the grieving process and makes it far more difficult to resolve. It's like a wound that cannot heal.

Attendees may be in an acute state of grief if the animal died very recently, or if the death was accidental, sudden or otherwise unexpected. Acute grief reactions can be very frightening; oftentimes people think they're going crazy or losing their minds ~ and they certainly never expected to feel this way over "just a pet".  Oftentimes I'll hear, "I didn't react this way when my parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle/close friend died."  Acute grief manifests itself in all dimensions: physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, spiritually.

Still others are in a state of chronic grief ~ like Mister Bo Jangles in the song sung by Sammy Davis, Jr:  "His dog up and died, up and died ~ and after twenty years, he still grieves". 

So I cannot tell you how any individual person "usually feels" ~ what I do tell attendees in my support groups is that everyone is different (different personalities, different coping skills and styles, different support systems, different relationships with their companion animals, different circumstances surrounding their animals' illness or death, etc.), that everyone's grief journey is different, that there is no right or wrong way to do this, that there is only their way, which they must discover for themselves, that there is no specific time frame for grief. I tell them that certain reactions and feelings are common and even universal, and to learn about them is helpful because then you have some idea of what to expect ~ but I always make the point that everyone's grief is as different and as unique as their fingerprint. I tell them never to compare their grief to anyone else's, because the very worst grief is the grief each one of them is experiencing right now. And for all the reasons I've just cited, I always tell them that although we all can share our experiences in our group with one another, we do not give unsolicited advice ~ because no one set of "rules" applies.

In some cases, loss of a companion animal is even more distressing than the loss of a human loved one. Animal lovers often feel embarrassed or uneasy about expressing their grief, or are left with the feeling that they don't have a legitimate right to grieve. Our culture isn't very comfortable with the subject of death anyway, and very few of us know how to cope with the pain of loss and grief in general, much less with that of a beloved pet. So there isn't much support "out there" for grieving animal lovers (most of whom feel as if they've just lost their very best friend or closest family member, and no one else gives a hoot!), and they usually feel very isolated and alone. Many "non-animal" folks simply don't recognize the closeness of the relationship with a pet, or the significance of the loss. And there aren't any formal and public rituals when a pet dies, where sorrow, tears and fond memories can be expressed and shared. So there's little opportunity either to talk about the loss of a pet or to receive empathy and support from others.  Perhaps most painful of all, some religious beliefs may lead a person to conclude that such pain over a dead pet is exaggerated or unjustified, which only adds to the guilt they're already feeling.

I believe it's essential for people who are grieving the loss of their beloved animal friends to understand why they feel the loss so intently. Once they examine and come to understand their attachment to the animal, they feel less crazy, more normal, less afraid of their own reactions, more hopeful that they will make it through this grief journey, and better able to explain themselves to others, if they choose to do so.

People get attached to their pets for many different reasons.The one most people give most often is companionship. With their constant presence, availability and devotion, pets are our best source of unconditional love, sometimes becoming for us the ideal child, parent, mate or friend. For an in-depth discussion of this topic, I invite you to read Pet Loss: Why Does It Hurt So Much?

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Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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