“How long must I suffer like this?” is one of the first questions asked of bereavement counselors. This is a unique experience that can cause almost unbearable and unrelenting anguish. It calls for as much help as possible. Generally, deep bereavement may last from a few days to several weeks, depending on many variables. There is no criterion for how long “normal” grieving takes for anyone. This is something that can never be predicted. People mourn much more intensely for someone on whom they were emotionally dependent. Of course, this includes pets. So a rule-of-thumb answer to the question has to be that you will grieve as much as you love.
Some pet owners still fear that it is not socially acceptable to mourn for a pet as they would for a human. This causes enormous internal conflict and intimidation for them. They need compassion and supportiveness at this especially painful and vulnerable time. As a result, these isolated individuals suffer much more than they normally would. Additionally, they run the risk of suppressing these feelings to the point where it could impair the healing process. In a very real sense, the onset of this bereavement may be regarded as a type of separation anxiety. The well-established patterns of our lives are abruptly terminated by the death of a beloved pet.
Suddenly, we are left alone and in a state of shock. The unique problems that arise can seem overwhelming, and this needs to be addressed properly and quickly.
UNDERSTANDING GRIEF AND MOURNING
Understanding the psychological responses and phases of grief and mourning that other people have gone through can help us when we go through this same process. This special knowledge can be used to help the grief-stricken mourner get through the worst of it and better understand what is happening. It can serve as a “road map” when traveling through this uncharted new territory.
Many people have a culturally induced fear of death and are frightened at being so controlled by this. As a result, they are primed to cause real psychological harm to themselves when refusing to allow their true feelings to emerge. These profound feelings are real and need to be addressed, in order to heal and come to resolution.
We are products of our Western civilization, in which death, dying, and anything to do with it is perceived as bad and to be avoided. Unfortunately, we are not conditioned to cope with the death of our deceased pets until after the fact. And even then, our perceptions are distorted by that indoctrination. It scares us, and it can bring up hidden fears of our own mortality. And that may make the mourning period even worse for us.
The heartbreak we endure can be so tragic that, at first many individuals feel the need to suffer without end. It is absolutely essential to give ourselves permission to heal. Otherwise, we are “spinning our wheels” and will stay mired in our misery.
If we are unable or unwilling to give ourselves that necessary permission to heal, it is important to try to understand what is causing this. As mentioned earlier, we all carry emotional baggage that can be overwhelming at times.
Mourning pain is normal and inevitable, but continuing misery is optional. Unfortunately, there is no easy way past this. We have to go through the worst of the pain and grief, in order to put it behind us. Otherwise we can’t heal, and it will be so much worse. Then, with healing tears, we can help the loving memories come back. Mourning is all about prolonged pain and grief. That is the eternal way of all living things. This is something that is so hard to grasp and cope with, especially during the earlier stages of loss. But we learn that time does not erase the loving memories or the sadness.
That old adage about time being the healer can be very misleading. Time only dulls the sharp edge of new pain and then gives us a better opportunity to heal ourselves of the worst of it. But some of the ache remains with us forever. Yes, time does help with that transition. But it is not a cure; there is none for this.
While in the early stages of bereavement and profound grief, it may feel nearly impossible to accept that any good or healing will eventually come of this. It can be a normal response to even resent or reject any such suggestion, as though someone is trying to offer inappropriate answers, trying to proffer a “bright side”when the whole world is darkened.
Well-intentioned people try to get us to act cheery. But they don’t realize that we must go through a period of mourning and bereavement. They don’t want us to cry, but that is a necessary part of the healing process. We have to learn to be pa- tient with them (as well as with ourselves). It helps to understand their ignorance and fear of all this and can ease our irritation. At this time, you also need to schedule yourself to be with good, supportive people and distracting things. During mourning, one doesn’t feel like having any pleasure, but this is the general direction you have to lead yourself in. It is a necessary part of the process of coming out of the pain. It is also helpful to reduce the number of visual reminders left around the house. They inhibit the bereaving person from adapting, and starting new routines and adjustments. But there is resistance to letting go this way because it is feared that the pet’s memories will get lost in the process. However, that is not what happens.
Previous losses may not have been fully resolved. A second experience with death can be more painful than expected. That is because it can stir up repressed
and deep-rooted psychological issues that were never resolved. Also, the staggering blow of a pet’s death can easily trigger other issues that had been long dormant, just beneath the surface of consciousness. The experienced bereavement counselor should be able to point this out and, if it is needed, help direct the client to professional psychological counseling that is specifically designed for this kind of problem.
Mourning is always distinguished by specific and well defined reactions. It has been observed that human behavior during this time expresses itself in related phases or stages. This psychological reaction is a painfully slow process that requires time to heal. However, there are things that the mourner can do to help this along. Talking about one’s loss and feelings helps the healing. Pouring out important thoughts and emotions and sharing them with compassionate people is an essential step in this terrible passage through bereavement. It is important to vent these emotions, and it is okay to cry. In fact, that is a necessary part of the healing process.
Well-intentioned people will try to get us to act cheery. They get upset, seeing us cry. But they don’t realize that we must go through a period of mourning and bereavement. We have to learn to be patient with them (too) and their ignorance of the profundity of all this.
Repression invariably creates new problems, in addition to the loss already experienced. It will always take its terrible toll later. There are certain basic human emotions that must be vented so we can grow past them. Some people need guidance learning this. However, there are some mourners who cannot or will not control their crying, and they unintentionally end up embarrassing themselves for having imposed on others. Despite overriding grief, we still have social obligations when in the company of others.
Fortunately, we usually have the ability to control these emotions when we are not alone. The grief and confusion that follow the death of a cherished companion animal need to be better understood. When our beloved pets die, we can feel completely out of control and overwhelmed by jumbled feelings of loss and failure. This is almost always accompanied by a stunned mixture of deep personal guilt, confusion, and melancholy. But that is what mourning is about.
What we go through in bereavement for a beloved pet very often is far more intense than is understood by others. Of course, the degree of mourning and distress is determined by many individual factors, which may be impossible to comprehend at this time. But the pain is so real that it must not be belittled or discounted by anyone, including the self-conscious mourner himself.
When we live with a dear pet for any extended part of our lives, we establish patterns in our lives and behavior. These become fixed routines and a living part of us and our personal sense of security. It is our human nature to be creatures of habit.
Everyone finds comfort in following the same general systemized ways in their daily lives. This is natural and normal. But when a beloved pet dies, we are suddenly left with an enormous emptiness. Something basic and stable is ripped out of our lives, and we are never quite prepared for it. So it is a normal response to experience intense personal grief at this time.