Pet Loss: Significant and Profound Loss or Much Ado about Nothing?

For those who have deeply loved and lost their animal companions, the answer is obvious and yet disturbing. There are still far too many people in our culture who minimize and trivialize the loss of a pet. They tell the grieving friend, colleague or family member, "What's wrong with you? Get over it. It was only a dog (or cat, bird, horse, etc.) Get yourself a new one! After all, it's been a month already. You shouldn't be so torn up over this."

Having been a grief counselor and a pet loss support group facilitator for many years, I have encountered a wide range of stories from people who have suffered cruel and insensitive statements from those around them, to others who receive wonderful support and unconditional love from their family and friends after the death or disappearance of a beloved animal. The truth is that grieving an animal companion or grieving the loss of a human companion can feel devastating emotionally and encompasses all kinds of feelings: sorrow, depression, anger, confusion, physical pain, guilt and a profound bittersweet love. If you add on the stress of dealing with an unsupportive work, home or social environment that makes you feel guilty or like you're an emotional misfit, the grief process becomes more difficult and complicated.

Animals, like humans, are spiritual beings having an earth-experience. Many people in my pet loss group recognize these spiritual beings as their teachers and healers. Mourning their physical absence in our lives is not only normal, but honors their incredible gifts to us. As most of us know, the grief process has no timetable and is unique to each situation and relationship. As a spiritual experience, it offers the opportunity for positive transformation of self and of giving more meaning and purpose to our lives.

Healing Suggestions

* Allow yourself to feel all your feelings. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to feel deeply. Doing breathing exercises can relax you, and allow your feelings to move more freely. Writing a letter to your pet can ease the pain in your heart.

* Stay connected to others who care about you and understand, as best they can, your attachment. Be receptive to receiving their kindness and help with daily activities, such as shopping or laundry.

* Attend a pet loss support group to help you get through the initial difficult mourning period.

* Be kind to yourself and allow yourself all the time you need to grieve. Nurture your spirit, mind, body and heart with activities, books, movies and friends that uplift and soothe your soul.

* Do your best to stay healthy, through proper nutrition, rest and exercise. This is difficult to do; imagine what your pet would want you to do.

* Honor your animal companion through a memorial service, a tree-planting, community service or helping a friend.

* Plan activities for days that will be especially difficult, such as holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.

* Some depression is a normal grief response. If you feel you are in trouble, have suicidal thoughts or plans, substance abuse problems, or long-term depression, please seek professional help at once. Call your local crisis center.

* Balance negative thoughts about yourself with positive ones, such as "I did the best I knew how for my pet." "I am a loving, compassionate guardian for my animal companions."

* Take walks or interact with nature in some way. Nature heals.

* Don't sweat the small stuff. Allow your perspective on what really counts in life to expand.

Grief is a process that affects not only spirit, but mind, body and heart. As a grief counselor, I focus on strengthening all aspects of self in order to give more balance and integration to the grief journey. As a creative arts therapist, I use a variety of tools for expression and integration that open new vistas and depth to the healing process. Grief is a sacred rite of passage, a doorway to a more loving, compassionate and purposeful life. Move with the energy of grief, rather than fighting it, and you will discover the gifts and treasures that are part of path of healing!

Marcia Breitenbach, M.A., is a licensed counselor, author, speaker, and musician living in Arizona. Check out her books and music CD's at her website

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