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Coping With Pet Loss

We've learned a lot over the years about coping with pet loss. In short, the passing of a beloved pet can bring up an unexpected number of strong emotions. There's sorrow, of course; but there can also be anger, guilt and remorse, and anxiety or agitation. And let's not forget the physical symptoms of grief: loss of appetite, headaches, digestive problems, pain, fatigue and other stress-related complaints. Successfully dealing with pet loss involves being self-aware and self-empowering by:

  • Improve and strengthen our coping mechanisms
  • Change our thinking
  • Engage in positive behaviors
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve our stress tolerance

Dealing with the Physical Symptoms of Pet Loss Grief

The relationship between grief and physical distress has been the focus of many scientific studies. While it can be rather baffling to diagnose, grief can literally cause you physical distress. Getting in touch with your body is the only way to appraise the degree of physical suffering you may be experiencing, and the best way we've found to do that is the practice of body scanning.  

The body scan is not only a fairly-easy way to get in touch with your body; it can help you to release pent-up emotions, and trains your power of attention. You can begin the practice by lying down on the floor, a yoga mat, or your bed. Start by focusing your attention on the crown of your head and then move slowly down your body.Take your time; attempt to locate tightness or pain, assess your energy level and your level of hunger. It's a slow, meditative way to be fully connected to your self.  (It's always good to start with a guided practice to get a sense of how to move your attention along the body. We recommend reading Elizabeth Scott's "Body Scan Meditation: Why and How" or National Public Radio's "A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation". (See Online Sources below for complete citations.) 

About Crying

Charles Dickens, in his classic novel Great Expectations, wrote “We need never be ashamed of our tears.” Truer words were never penned; tears are a natural way we release sorrow and pent up energy.

Kathleen Doheny, in the WebMD article, "Why We Cry: The Truth about Tearing Up", quotes Dr. Stephen Sideroff who argues crying serves an emotional purpose. A staff psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Sideroff stated, "It's a release. There is a buildup of energy with feelings. Crying is a natural emotional response to certain feelings, usually sadness and hurt. But then people (also) cry under other circumstances and occasions." For instance, he says, ''people cry in response to something of beauty. There, I use the word 'melting.' They are letting go of their guard, their defenses, tapping into a place deep inside themselves." In short, crying is one of your body's most efficient ways of coping with pet loss.

Coping with the Emotional Aspects of Pet Loss Bereavement

"The one thing we all have in common as people is that we are emotional creatures," writes Dr. Reji Mathews, in the guide, "SOS for Emotions: Tools for Emotional Health". A member of New York University's Counseling and Wellness Services department, Dr. Mathews continues, "This is both a gift and sometimes a curse.The good news is that we can be active in maintaining and fostering our emotional health in good times and bad through a variety of practical strategies." That's very good news to anyone struggling with the emotional effects of pet loss grief. What are some of the possible emotional symptoms? Here's a brief list:

  • Increased irritability
  • Numbness
  • Bitterness
  • Anger
  • Detachment
  • Preoccupation with loss
  • Inability to show or experience joy

According to him (and many others in the wellness field) we can do the following things to manage our emotions (not the least of which is recognizing, responding to, and caring for our emotions):

  • Improve and strengthen our coping mechanisms
  • Change our thinking
  • Engage in positive behaviors
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve our stress tolerance

Basically, here's how things work: your thoughts create feelings, feelings create behaviors, and behaviors reinforce thoughts. It's really a cycle, which needs to be seen and (if the cycle is detrimental to your overall well-being) broken or otherwise changed. Dr. Mathews offers readers what he calls the STOPP technique for handling overwhelming situations and changing a negative thought-behavior-reinforcement cycle. Fundamentally, you shouldn't act (or react) to anything immediately. Instead, you should take a deep breath, slow down enough to observe your thoughts, and ask yourself a series of questions:

  • What exactly am I reacting to?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is there another way of dealing with this?
  • Is it fact or opinion?
  • What meaning am I giving this situation?

Managing your emotions then becomes a matter of pulling back and viewing "the bigger picture", and then practicing new coping skills to help you to:

Improve the moment. Find special meaning in the situation and (if you're so inclined) engage in prayer or meditation. Do your best to relax. If possible, take on only one thing at a time. And always encourage yourself through positive self-statements ("I'm strong and can handle this.")

Engage in self-soothing activities. What are your special interests? What activities make you feel better? Renew your interest; spend time in focused creative activities. Listen to, or play, music you love; use aromatherapy, spend time in nature. Enjoy a delicious meal. As much as possible, do the things you love.

Learn acceptance.Once you can truly accept the loss of your pet; you no longer waste your energy on denying (or somehow distorting) reality. This allows you to focus on the moment, and opens the door to a welcome sense of gratitude (for the time you shared with your pet and the relationship which continues on). There's another important level of acceptance, and it's found in your experience of now. When you're caught up in your grief and the feelings are hard to handle:

  • Accept your grief as it is
  • See it as a normal reaction to the loss of your pet
  • Refuse to judge the experience as good or bad
  • Recognize you don't have to fight it or try and stop the feelings
  • Understand it will pass

Working Your Grief and Moving Toward Healing

We mentioned "grief work" in both "Grieving the Loss of a Pet" and "Pet Loss Quotes", and we use it to mean everything we can do(the emphasis is on doing) to help us to put our losses into perspective while weaving them into the fabric of our lives. Here are some basic suggestions to help you in your pet loss grief work:

Rather than attempting to cover up your feelings, be real. If someone asks you how you are doing, answer honestly. (Remember that there are people around you who may not feel pet loss grief is valid ("He was only a dog"). So be prepared.

Put yourself in situations that can trigger your grief. Often, grievers hesitate to do anything that might make them express their grief by crying. When you feel strong enough to handle the emotional challenge, take the risk. Do the work; in the long run, you'll feel better.

Attend a pet loss grief support program or group.Sharing the story of your loss with others can really help in moving you through your bereavement. Check with your local ASPCA or Humane Society for the schedule of pet loss grief support services.

A list of some of the other things you can do includes:

  • Journal your thoughts and feelings
  • Write a letter (or letters) to your pet
  • Talk to your pet
  • Plant a memorial garden
  • Write a song or poem about your pet
  • Talk about your pet to others
  • Surround yourself with photographs of your and your pet
  • Create a ritual
  • Access your own creative outlets

For more grief work suggestions, read the Steps You Can Take to Heal section of our article, "Grieving the Loss of a Pet".

How We Can Help

If you're having a hard time coping with pet loss, we invite you to call us at 916-348-4000. We can not only offer sympathy, but empathy; after all, we've personally known the heartbreak of pet loss. And while those are valuable; the most important thing we can offer you are connections to additional local, regional, and national pet loss grief support resources.

Sources:

Scott, Elizabeth, "Body Scan Meditation: Why and How: Release Tension with this Targeted Meditation Technique", updated 2014, accessed 2014

Valentine, Vikki, A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation, National Public Radio, 2007, accessed 2014
 
Doheny, Kathleen, "Why We Cry: The Truth about Tearing Up", WebMD, 2009, accessed 2014
 
Mathew, Reji, "SOS for Emotions: Tools for Emotional Health, NYU Student Health Center, 2012, accessed 2014

 

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