Is my grief normal? How long will this last?
You may be surprised to have so much grief from the loss of your dog. This grief is completely normal, and may be misunderstood by the people around you. They may accuse you of overreacting. It is, after all, ‘just a dog.’ You may even tell yourself that and try to avoid working through your grief by keeping busy or attempt to ‘get rid of it’ as soon as possible.
Your grief will probably not be gone in a few weeks or even months. Because of the special relationship we have with our dogs (and other non human family members), grief for a beloved dog can often be more intense than the death of a family member, and coming to terms with the change will take as long as it takes. The good news is that you do not have to ever ‘get over’ the loss of your dog; you do not have to forget your dog.
Mourning and processing your grief will allow you to change the relationship with the tangible dog of fur and drool to a relationship with a dog within your own heart and mind. Your dog will always be there, as will your love. The sharp and painful edges, however, will dull with a deliberate, mindful practice of mourning, and the joy in the connection will return.
Other losses cause grief, too. There are many losses that we grieve, whether we are aware of it or not. If you do not consciously process that grief, it can remain dormant until the next loss, and over time, you build up a big pile of losses as time goes on, and sometimes a loss is so strong that you are forced to grieve not only that loss, but others as well. So instead of just the one loss, you are processing a “multiple loss” of the current loss plus whatever else you have lost in the past.
Some of life’s experiences that can cause grief are: Death of family or friends, including pets loss/change of a home, moving away from parents, etc. loss/change of a job or job description Birth of a child/acquisition of a dog (loss of the lifestyle that came before) Moving Loss of community due to habit or activity changes Break-ups with friends or friends moving away.
Seven Principles of Grief The idea that every loss is a multiple loss is one of the Seven Principles of Grief by J. Shep Jeffries (2007). If you want a giant overview of the grief process, I recommend you read that book. Here is his full list of grief principles: Principle One: You cannot fix or cure grief. Principle Two: There is no one right way to grieve. Principle Three: There is no universal timetable for the grief journey. Principle Four:
Every loss is a multiple loss. Principle Five: Change=Loss=Grief. Principle Six: We grieve old loss while grieving new loss. Principle Seven: We grieve when a loss has occurred or is threatened.
I think I’m losing my mind. Is that normal, too? Yes! Many people (especially ones without dogs) don’t understand that dog lovers experience real, strong grief when they lose their dogs. They may give their condolences upon first hearing of your loss, but may not realise that you continue to be in pain as time goes on, and wonder why you are still crying, irritable, or otherwise ‘not yourself’ as time passes. You may wonder, yourself, whether you should be worried about your mental state.
Here are some cognitive symptoms of grief, from J. Shep Jeffrey’s book, “Helping Grieving People” (2007, Kindle Locations 1462-1480): Responding sluggishly to questions Difficulty concentrating Loss of interest in usual activities—work, sports, games, collecting, social clubs, Loss of pleasure—avoids intimacy, entertainment, food, and social events General numbness—shutdown of reactions to social stimuli, no pain, and no joy Intrusive thoughts about the loss—constant barrage of thoughts Confusion and disorientation—difficulty with time sequences, location A sense of futility about life—”What’s the use?” and “Why bother?” A sense of helplessness—”Can’t do anything to help myself” Uncertainty about identity—”Who am I now?” and “How do I present myself to others now?” So-called “crazy” thoughts—hearing or seeing the lost loved one; feeling like they can communicate with them Mental fatigue—too tired to figure things out, mind just won’t work.
Tips for Self-Care, These are things you can do to help even if your loss was a long time ago. You will always love your dog. But if the loss was recent or tears still overcome you whenever you think of your dog, the grief may not be fully processed, and your health and relationships can suffer because of it. There are many other things to do, but here are five important ways you can take care of yourself.
Feel your feelings without shame. You grieve the loss of your dog because you are human and you truly love your dog. Your feelings are real and need to be honoured. Express your feelings and talk about the experience of your dog’s life and death or loss.
Talk to family and friends when you feel you need to. It is normal (but incorrect) for other people to assume you can move on quickly, because it wasn’t their loss. Don’t count on people to bring up your loss. You may think that avoiding it will make you feel better. Denial may help, in the short term, but it will come back to haunt you.
If your own personal network is tired of hearing about your loss, then go to a support group and/or connect with people online. You don’t have to spend any time with friends who belittle your loss, compare your loss to theirs, or change the conversation to be about them instead of you and your dog. A lot of us try to be strong and brave, but we’re not doing anyone any favours if we don’t process our grief, because it can come out in other unpleasant ways (back pain, mood swings, over emotionality, under emotionality, lack of ability to form good relationships, you name it).
Honour your dog’s life with things that will keep their memory alive. Put together a slideshow or video of your dog’s life. Make a collage for your wall with photos and/or your dog’s collar. Do a memorial ceremony where friends and family who knew your dog talk about his life and how it affected them
Give yourself permission to not grieve all the time. It’s okay to be happy even after the loss of your dog. You can set time aside to not grieve, or set time aside to grieve, whatever works for you.
Take care of your physical body. Hydrate, exercise, eat, sleep, and get out of bed. Dogs can provide companionship, exercise, and even give us a reason to get up in the morning. Without your dog, you may have to push yourself to do these things, but it will become easier over time. Without water or sleep, it's easy to fall into a downward spiral.
Melatonin and meditation can be very helpful for getting to sleep. Light exercise, like walking around the block, can have a great effect on your mood. Walking where you normally went with your dog may bring up a lot of memories with your dog. Allow yourself to feel the grief of that loss but whenever it comes to you, allow yourself to remember the joy you shared with your dog, too.
Healing Tasks for the Grieving Person or Family As I’ve said before, everyone’s grief is different, but the Jeffries book that I mentioned before lists five things that you might do as you mourn your dog’s death or loss. We simply encounter grief in waves and eventually (if we’re persistent) work our way through these five tasks in our own personal order.
Sharing Acknowledgment of Death or Loss. Really, truly understand the finality of the loss. This is where having a shrine and memorial ceremony comes in. Work on open communication about the death in your family, including children, in an age-appropriate way. Doing something together as a family to celebrate the life of the dog and mourn the loss can help heal, as can involving friends.
Sharing the Pain and Grief.Talk about the loss and keep talking. Express emotions. Feel. Don’t be surprised if your partner expresses his or her pain differently. That’s normal and does not mean s/he is a monster. Do not hold in what you are feeling in order to keep someone else from feeling bad. It’s good for both of you to talk about your guilt, anger, shame, pain, etc.
Reorganising the Family System. This is the logistical part of loss, getting used to adapting your life can be really tough. Creating New Directions, Relationships, and Goals. This is not a fast process, not a goal to reach as quickly as possible, but be aware that this is something that is healthy to do. This task might involve getting a new dog or other pet, perhaps the same breed or perhaps a different one. It might mean deciding to volunteer at a shelter to get your dog fix in some other way, or doing the traveling that you couldn’t do with your dog.
This final task is about moving on and exploring new options for your life now that the situation has changed, while still holding your dog in a special place in your heart. Task four also involves exploring the possibility of your loss as a profound self-development experience. Your dog’s final gift to you life with a dog can teach you a lot: how to live in the moment, how to enjoy the smell of fresh-mown grass or the first snow of the year to its fullest, even how to forgive. Those lessons don't stop with their heartbeats. Your dog's death can also teach you to live in the moment, give you insight into what it means to be alive, and give you an opportunity for growth. This chance to learn is a parting gift from your dog.
Joining a pet loss support group (in person or online) and reading books on grief will help you put your grief in perspective and give you a way to continue processing your grief. It’s very important to express your feelings during this time. “The outward expression of grief, or mourning, is how you externalise those thoughts and feelings and ultimately, integrate them into your life” (Wolfelt, 2004, Kindle Locations 47-48).
I find it helpful to write letters when I mourn. It's an idea from the Grief Recovery Handbook. The letter basically has 3 parts: My apologies to them anything for which I forgive them (note that forgiveness means "I accept that this happened in the past and can no longer be changed. It doesn't mean whatever happened was okay). Other emotional content I want to share, like gratitudes. I conclude with "goodbye" and their name, knowing it's the end of a physical connection, but the emotional ties live on. Finally, I read the letter to someone who will simply listen in silence, what the Grief Recovery Handbook calls "a heart with ears."
While the grieving process is not a problem to be fixed, it is a time of tumultuous emotionality, from relief and intense guilt to anger and sadness. The loss of your dog may be an opportunity to understand the grief process and to work on the unprocessed grief of other losses in your life.
Bereavement & Grief
Coping with Bereavement
The death of a loved one can be completely devastating. Bereavement can affect people in many different ways. There is no right or wrong way to feel.
You might feel a flood of emotion all at once, you may feel you're having a more positive day, then you suddenly feel worse again, and it seems as though nothing triggered it.
Powerful feelings can come unexpectedly and feel as though they are out of our control. These feelings will come in waves and we will crash, and break like the waves hitting the shore. You can be going about your daily routine when suddenly the strongest wave will completely knock you off your feet, without warning.
When it comes to grief, it can be said that there are four phases to work through. But this isn't as easy as 'work through one and move on to the next'.
Phase 1: Numbness
Numbness usually occurs early on in the grieving process.
The brain goes into defence mode to protect us from the reality of what has just happened. There are so many thoughts and feelings for us to deal with and it is impossible to tackle them all at once.
The numbness occurs to prevent us going through the intense pain of the loss of a loved one right away, almost as though the brain was pausing life waiting for things to settle down a bit to allow information to ‘trickle’ in!
Phase 2: Yearning
Yearning is a natural emotion during the grieving process. It is the overwhelming feeling of aching and longing for someone or something. Someone experiencing this emotion may wander around looking for that someone, wanting them to just appear at the front door so life can resume as it once was.
A person experiencing feelings of yearning may find themselves staring at their loved ones clothes and picking out something they remember them wearing and holding it close, just to catch a hint of their perfume or aftershave and think, just for a moment, it isn’t really happening, of course they’re not gone, they are out and will be home shortly. Every emotion may be felt and that’s okay, it is the chaos of grief.
Phase 3: Disorganisation and Despair
By this phase it can be said that we may have accepted that nothing will ever be the same again. A feeling of complete hopelessness will most definitely accompany this unwelcomed acceptance. We will feel that life will never get better so what’s the point in kidding ourselves it will! It’s possible we will remove ourselves from the company of others, things we used to do socially will be avoided.
This phase is normal and needs to be worked through. Give yourself time, and don’t rush yourself because you think you are ‘taking too long’, there is no time limit to grief.
Phase 4: Reorganised Behaviour
At the point of our loved one dying, it is only natural that we will be distraught, because to have the privilege of loving someone so very much and experiencing that love in return it will inevitably be very difficult when they are taken from us. Sadly this means that when they are taken from us we then have to feel the pain of grief. At this point, the last thing we would do is accept the fact we could, at some stage down the line, be able to live again without that special someone in your life. But the fact is, there will come a time when things will not feel so raw, when we can remember that person with a smile and laugh about silly things they did.
This is not to say that we have forgotten that person, or that you love them any less, it means that we have managed to find a special place in our life where that person will always be remembered. This place in our heart will contain them, and that will never change. What will change, eventually, is our outlook for the future. What is important is that we never move on, we get on with life.
We may feel intense anger; this could be aimed at the deceased, ourselves, the hospital or even god! This is a normal reaction, as is guilt, and these feelings will pass, so don’t fight the feelings, as bottling up our emotions is not healthy for us. But we must not think that because we have such feelings that we are bad people.
Having negative thoughts is natural, and feeling guilty for these is natural too. It is possible we may become forgetful, and less able to concentrate as we become distracted by bereavement and our grief, this is normal and we are not going mad! It is all part of the grieving process. We’ll most likely work through all of these stages, but we won’t necessarily move through smoothly from one to the next, chances are we will go back and forth into the phases. Our grief might feel chaotic and out of control, but these feelings will eventually become less intense.
Coping with grief
Talking and sharing your feelings with someone can help. Don't go through this alone. For most people, relying on family and friends is the best way to cope. If we feel we can’t talk to them, then considering counselling may be the best option.
A counsellor can give us the time and space to talk about our feelings, including the person who has died, our relationships, family, work, fears and our future. A counsellor will listen to us and most importantly hear what we have to say.
There is no time limit for seeking counselling, some of us seek help within weeks of the death, others realise they need counselling months and even years after.
Talking about the person who has died
We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died. People in our life might not mention their name because they don't want to bring up memories that may upset us. Explaining to others that we want to talk about our loved one may aid them to realise that it helps you to talk about them. But if we feel we can't talk to them, it can make us feel sad and isolated.
Anniversaries and significant occasions can be very difficult. We will never know how we are going to feel until those days arrive, but it is important that we do what we have to do to get through the day.
Taking a day off work and going out somewhere or doing something that reminds you of that person, such as taking a favourite walk.
Grief reactions - Delayed and inhibited grief explained
Delayed grief - Delayed grief does not necessarily mean that at the time of a death there is no signs of emotion, but the emotion shown may seem inadequate and rushed.
With life being busy and things needing doing, being told to be strong, carry on and keep a stiff upper lip, people feel they don’t have time to grieve or are made to feel that time should not be wasted when there are so many things to do!
Society has a lot to answer for sometimes, we are told not to cry, that weak people cry, so we don’t show our feelings and then we are called uncaring robots!
But with the world full of activity and everyone consumed with ‘life’ if we don’t cry and show our feelings now, at the time our loved one has died, it is no use to us 10 years down the line, because people associate time with recovery and healing, regardless to whether you have actually spent any of that time grieving.
If we don’t show our feelings in front of our children, they will then believe that they can’t show theirs, emotions kept inside with nowhere to go, will eventually explode like the steam from a pressure cooker, and who knows who will be on the receiving end of all that pent up steam!
The problem with not addressing grief and giving it the attention and time it deserves is that at a later date the grief will come and find you and the pain will hit you like a freight train.
The most likely time for the grief to surface is at the time of another death, it is now the grieving person will feel the grief of both losses and it could feel completely overwhelming. Delayed grief can also rear its head if there is an impending divorce, redundancy or even when the last child left at home flies the nest!
Grief needs to be dealt with one loss at a time and the pain will not go away on its own, we need to work through the stages, take what grief throws at us and heal our hearts so we can eventually remember those we love, and recall memories that were made.
Inhibited grief - Inhibited grief is where someone faced with the news that a loved one has died shows little or no emotion in response to this news, as the word suggests, inhibited means held back or restrained. They would go about their daily lives without expressing any emotions about the death of their loved one, or maybe not give the death a second thought after the funeral. It may seem to others that whilst they are working hard to deal with their grief, this person doesn’t seem to be phased at all, but this is simply not true.
Whilst suppressing the feelings associated with losing a loved one, over time this person will start to feel physically unwell. Suppressing grief is hard going on the body, causing severe stress; of course this will take its toll, and will result in the body paying the price.
The person inhibiting their grief may develop severe migraines, stomach complaints, nausea and just feel generally unwell. Research has shown that the longer the grief work is suppressed, the worse the illness’s get.