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By Larry Kaufman, M.S., LMFT
"I didn't know anyone else felt as deeply as I do towards animals" a number of people have confided in me. When it comes to your love of animals, you may not be as alone as you think! Some pet owners are extraordinarily attached and dedicated to their animal companions. So when their good (or best) friends die - or otherwise leave their lives - they are heartbroken and sometimes devastated.
Since more and more animal lovers are "coming out of the closet," fewer animal lovers are feeling as alone with their intense pet-related grief. More and more animal lovers are openly talking about their deep bonds with their furred, feathered, finned, and scaled friends. Peoples' attitudes towards pet loss have really changed in the last 40 years - especially in the last decade. Despite growing enlightenment, misperceptions about pet loss still persist. These myths hinder healthy mourning. Here are some of the myths followed by the realities.
Myth: People who experience intense grief over the loss or anticipated loss of a pet are crazy, weird, or strange.
Reality: Individuals who say this, or believe this, are judgmental. Experiencing powerful feelings of distress over the loss of a loved animal companion is, usually, normal and healthy. People who have strong feelings about the loss of a pet have them because they are capable of intimate attachments and deep emotional bonding. This is something to be proud of, not something to put down.
Myth: Pet loss is insignificant when compared to the loss of human life. To mourn the loss of a pet devalues the importance of human relationships.
Reality: The loss of a beloved animal companion can be as emotionally significant, even more significant, than the loss of a human friend or relative. People are capable of simultaneously loving and caring about both animals and humans. One doesn't have to detract from the other.
Myth: It is best to replace the lost pet as quickly as possible. This will ease the pain of loss.
Reality: Animal companions cannot be "replaced." They are not interchangeable. They are all separate, different individuals with unique personalities. People need to feel emotionally ready to get another pet before they can successfully adopt a new animal into their hearts and family. Some people attempt to avoid the mourning process by rushing out to get a "replacement" pet. This isn't good for people or for the pets.
Myth: It is best to mourn alone. This is a way to be strong and independent, and not burden others with your problems. Besides, you need to protect yourself from being ridiculed for loving and missing your special animal friend.
Reality: It takes courage to reach out to others. Mourners can greatly benefit by the empathy, caring, and understanding of supportive others. But be selective about where you turn to for help since some people do not take pet loss seriously.
Myth: Resolution and closure (a bringing to an end; conclusion) to mourning occurs when you have succeeded in having only pleasant memories of your pet.
Reality: It is rare that anyone ever achieves complete resolution or closure to a profound loss. One is left with psychological scars, if not with incompletely healed wounds. It is unrealistic to expect that you will one day be left with only pleasant memories. Besides, being left with only pleasant memories is one-sided and doesn't present a balanced view of reality - not a goal that would be healthy or valuable to pursue. One cannot fully appreciate pleasant memories unless one has unpleasant memories to contrast them with.
Myth: It is selfish to euthanize your pet.
Reality: Euthanasia is a compassionate and humane way to end the intense suffering or declining quality of life of a companion animal. Viewed in this context, it would be selfish to unnecessarily prolong the suffering of a seriously ill or injured animal. Ask yourself this: Whose needs and best interests are being served - those of the owner or animal companion?
Myth: In journeying through the bereavement process mourners go through five predictable step-by-step stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Reality: Thirty-three years ago Elisabeth Kubler-Ross presented her theory on how people who are dying cope with their upcoming deaths in her pioneering book, On Death and Dying. Neither the research literature nor the observations of therapists and scholars have supported her claims. It is more accurate to speak of the mourning process as being unique for each individual. This process proceeds through three general phases - beginning, middle, and end.
Myth: The best way to cope with unpleasant loss related feelings and thoughts is to suppress and bury them. Keep busy so as to not dwell on your troubles.
Reality: Upsetting feelings and thoughts will not just go away. They will, instead, go underground (become unconscious) and later return - causing you problems. Achieve a balance by thinking and talking about what is upsetting you when you are able, but avoid overdoing it. Know your limits.
Myth: When a person starts talking with sadness about missing his/her pet it is best to redirect their attention to pleasant memories they have about the pet.
Reality: This may be an example where the listener has good intentions but will produce bad effects by his/her response. People who talk about their unpleasant feelings are looking for a receptive ear. Redirecting the conversation or changing the subject reflects the discomfort of the listener rather than the needs of the mourner.
Myth: Time heals all wounds. Just give it enough time and you will no longer feel so bad.
Reality: Time by itself does not heal the pain of grief related loss. It's what you do with your time that matters. Some people suffer the harsh or even traumatic effects of pet loss for years, or even a lifetime. A successful course of mourning requires intentional hard work.
Myth: The best way to protect yourself from the pain of pet loss is to not get another pet.
Reality: Depriving yourself of an animal companion is a very high price to pay to help insure yourself against experiencing another painful loss. Instead, you may wish to summon up the courage to put in the effort necessary to work through your mourning related psychological issues. Despite your pains of loss you can still look forward to one day sharing happiness, pleasure, and joy, with a new and unique animal companion. It is an unfortunate fact that one of the prices we pay for loving so deeply is to suffer deeply when the bonds with our cherished animal friends are broken.
Myth: Children handle pet loss rather easily. That which occurs in childhood has little carryover into adult life.
Reality: Just because children do not react as overtly as adults, or communicate directly with words, does not mean they aren't experiencing strong reactions inside. Not infrequently, the loss of a pet (whether by death or another cause) is the first significant loss the child will have experienced. The profound effects of this loss, and how parents or other caregivers handle it, might reverberate in the child for many years to come.
Myth: It is best to protect children from the upsetting truth of what has happened to their pet.
Reality: Some parents/caregivers think they are helping their child - sparing them pain - when they do not tell him or her that their pet has died. They sometimes make up a story that they gave the pet away or that the pet ran away. What the parents don't realize in doing this is that through their well intentioned lies and deceits they are undermining the trust their child has in them, and paradoxically, causing the child much more pain in the long run. Some children, for example, will unfairly blame themselves for their pet "running away."
Myth: Pets don't mourn for other pets.
Reality: Some companion animals develop strong bonds with other pets in the household and they will show some of the same kinds of symptoms of mourning as people do - such as loss of appetite, "searching" for the missed loved one, and acting depressed.
Myth: Pet loss is something you should be able to "get over" on your own. There is no need for someone to see a professional pet loss counselor in order to deal with this.
Reality: Some people have a self-interested need for you to "get over" your pet related mourning as soon as possible, before you are ready to do so. They feel uncomfortable with your distress. If, for example, you broke an arm you would go to a physician to get help. So why wouldn't you see a human-animal bond specialist to get help for a broken heart? This can be seen as an investment in your mental health and peace of mind.
Overcoming these myths can be difficult - for maintaining these beliefs does have some advantages. But those who don't work through their feelings and reactions about mourning are likely to experience a variety of physical, intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual symptoms later. It's very hard to learn new and healthier ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving, but the many benefits are worth the effort.
Lawrence Kaufman, L.M.F.T., is a professional Pet Loss and Grief Counselor, with an office in Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, Florida. He can be reached locally at 561-498-2200, or toll free, out of area, at 855-PETLOSS (855-738-5677). In addition, he can be through the contact page on his Web site at www.petlossgriefrelief.com
His Skype name is petloss. Larry does counseling in person, by telephone, and by Skype video call. He is a private practitioner with a national practice.