New Mexico's Pet Resource SPRING 2007

THE DEATH OF AN ANIMAL COMPANION
by Steffie Grow, MSW

Millions of people now consider animal companions to be a part of their family. Animals provide joy, friendship, and unconditional love that brightens our lives and adds a dimension of fulfillment unique to these special relationships.

Given this deep connection, it is only natural that we grieve when our animal companion dies. Yet those of us suffering such a deep loss are often left feeling misunderstood and alone in our grief.

Unfortunately, ours is a culture that is uncomfortable with the multitude of emotions and reactions that accompany grief, as it often brings up our own feelings of loss. It can be difficult to be supportive of others if we didn’t receive support ourselves!

The loss of an animal companion often carries with it an additional layer of hurt when our feelings are minimized or discounted. In addition, issues such as the difficult decision to euthanize, loss through disappearance, and violent deaths through injury and accidents can complicate grief.

By having a better understanding of the grief experience, we can begin to have more compassion for ourselves and for others seeking our support.

· Recognize that grief is a natural response to loss.

It is an evolving process with many ups and downs. Try to be gentle and accepting of yourself as you experience your emotions and move through these changes.

· Grief is unique to each person and will be influenced by many factors.

These include the intensity and length of relationship, whether the death was sudden or anticipated, numerous, recent, or unresolved.

· Time alone does not heal the pain of loss.

People often ask “how long will I feel like this”? For some it can take months, for others it will be years. The intense part of grief will change and diminish, but waves of grief can occur when your memories are rekindled.

· Grief is hard work.

It is hard physically and emotionally. It can challenge your spiritual or religious faith, affect your ability to concentrate, and influence your relationships with others.

· Ritual is important.

Rituals can be powerful expressions of your love. They can be either private or shared. Donating to a charity, planting a tree, or creating an altar with a candle and photo are just some ideas for memorializing your beloved.

· Ignore the clichés, but not the good intentions.

Many people will “offer” their advice on how to cope. Particularly in regards to the death of an animal, you might hear hurtful things like: “Just get another dog”, or“ He was only an animal”. More commonplace clichés are: “She wouldn’t want you to be so sad”, or “He’s in a better place”. Most people mean well, but for those who are grieving, these words fall flat and can leave you feeling empty and misunderstood. Learning to trust and honor your feelings without approval or advice from others can help you to stay balanced.

· Get support through sharing.

Sharing your story is part of the healing process. You are fortunate if you have friends or family who are able to listen well (without giving advice). Consider joining a support group or a chat room, or seeing a counselor. A trained counselor can provide support, education, and guidance through a difficult period in your grief.

Steffie Grow, MSW is a licensed social worker in private practice with a specialty in grief counseling. She has ten years experience as a Hospice grief counselor, is a member of APLB, and is an animal lover. For questions, or to schedule an appointment, she can be reached at: (505) 660-3789 or email: grow@wildblue.net

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