Many of us have furry friends (cats, dogs, and other critters) that become beloved parts of our family, and we are devastated when they die, either by accident, sudden illness, or old age. It is very sad, and we often wonder if we can ever get past the grief. Also, if our pets die from an accident, we also can be consumed by guilt.
This post offers hope in what may feel like a hopeless situation. Much of what is presented here appears in earlier posts. So, please take the time to read all the way through and peruse earlier posts. You will be glad you did.
Cultural Myths: Nonsense That Keeps Us Trapped in Grief’s Grip
While grief is a normal and natural part of life, we are not well equipped to deal with it. Our cultural response to loss is primarily intellectual and discourages us from dealing openly with its emotional impact. The intense emotions are uncomfortable, and friends and family may not know what to say. Thus, people who are grieving are encouraged to not feel bad, quickly replace the loss, grieve alone, give it time, be strong for others and/or keep busy. These strategies may help the people around us feel better, but they do nothing for those who are grieving, except to isolate us and encourage us to suppress our feelings. If you really think about it, many of these cultural beliefs are pure nonsense. Don’t fall for it!
Time Heals. This is my personal favorite, and the one that I am on a mission to banish. Time does NOT do anything but pass. It is what we do with our time that can help or hinder our journey through grief. Notice, the action belongs to us, not to time. So, it also follows that…
Grief is NOT a Life Sentence. Our culture teaches us that we are bound to our grief for life, as if grief was an unending condition or a permanent appendage. Our society further teaches us that some losses are too hard, too deep, or too profound to ever get over.
What this belief also implies is that grief has all the power, and that we must give up on the idea of our ever being happy again. We are taught to suppress our sadness, deny our feelings, and act as if we are happy. As a result, grief accumulates and becomes a heavier and heavier burden.
Consider what Eleanor Roosevelt is often quoted as saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In other words, grief cannot hold us in its grip, unless we give it permission to do so. Although it is not easy and can be scary, we can choose to cut the bonds that hold us tightly to our grief by facing grief head on, taking the difficult journey through grief, and replacing long-held unhelpful beliefs and strategies for dealing with grief with new approaches that allows us to heal and move on.
May people confuse emotional reactions to memories as grief. It is not the same thing. Successful grieving means we learn to integrate this experience into our lives. We may still have memories that make us said. This is normal. And, no, we are not the same, but change is always a part of our lives. If you think about it, every day is “a new normal.” Change is how we grow. The direction we grow is up to us.
Guilt and Forgiveness
As we all know and often lament, our culture is big into blaming and shaming. It has become an Olympic sport, but it is also very damaging. The goal is to control how we think and respond to each other. If someone does not like what we say or do, we are angrily shamed and blamed into compliance. We also are taught at an early age the power of guilt. It can be useful for teaching us right from wrong and to have compassion for others, but it also can be a means of control. Be sure your feelings of guilt are for the right reason.
Sometimes our words and/or actions unintentionally lead to harm. As a result, we condemn ourselves, often for life. We all make mistakes; sometimes really bad ones. I encourage you to learn from your mistakes, then forgive yourself as you would forgive others. In other words, don’t hold grudges against yourself or anyone else. It does nothing but damage you further and keep you from healing. Again, you are giving away your personal power; never a good idea.
Avoid the Grief Memes
Social media is filled with memes about grief; all of which are well-intentioned, but many are just flat wrong. They play into the worst aspects of all the cultural myths. In an attempt to be supportive, many of social media friends respond to these memes, which further reinforces the idea that they must be correct. After all, look at all the friends who have liked, loved, or sad the post. Think about what you post and respond to; does it really make sense, is it really helping or is it perpetuating an idea that can be harmful?
There is Hope: Five Things to Know About Grief
It is Okay to Grieve! Our culture teaches us to be strong with statements like “You’ll get through this, you got this, you’re strong.” When I hear these phrases I often wonder what is “this” anyway? And, why can’t we just say what “this” is? It is as if naming the loss is too frightening, so we contain it by not naming it.
These statements do nothing for those who are grieving. Bears repeating: Many people are uncomfortable with sad or difficult emotions, so they encourage you to stuff your emotions away for their comfort not yours.
Suppressing or ignoring your feelings can be harmful to your emotional, physical and mental health. As hard as it is, resist giving into the pressure to put on a happy face. You are grieving. Grief is NOT an illness or something to hide. It is a natural reaction to loss of any kind. It also is NOT your identity, unless you choose that identity.
Engaging with your feelings allows you to process them. There’s an old cliché, if you can feel it, you can heal it. Also, if you can name it, you can claim it. You then have the power, which means you decide how to respond to your feelings in private and in public as well as to move through grieving at your own pace and in your own way.
It’s Okay to Cry! If you feel like crying, cry! Crying is good for you and helps to heal your broken heart. Dr. Judith Orloff explains why:
“Our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex (laughter), continuous (eye lubrication), and emotional (response to emotions). Each kind has different healing roles. Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and ‘tear expert’ Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones, which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones. Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.”
Some people worry that if they start crying they will never stop. Don’t worry about this. You will stop crying when you’ve cried enough. How much is enough is different for each of us.
It’s Okay to Laugh! Laughter, like crying, is good for us. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America offers helpful insights:
“Laughter may help you feel better about yourself and the world around you. Laughter may be a natural diversion. When you laugh, no other thought comes to mind. Laughing may also induce physical changes in the body. After laughing for only a few minutes, you may feel better for hours. According to medical research, laughter may provide physical benefits, such as helping to:
enhance oxygen intake, stimulate the heart and lungs, relax muscles throughout the body, trigger the release of endorphins. ease digestion/soothe stomach aches, relieve pain, balance blood pressure, improve mental functions, such as alertness, memory, and creativity.”
It is not only okay to laugh at yourself, a funny joke or situation, but it is also okay to laugh about the loss you’ve suffered. It’s okay to laugh about things cute, silly, or nutty things our pets did during their lives. Joy is a very good thing. Try keeping a list of joys and revisit the list when you are feeling sad and then laugh, if you feel like.
It’s Okay to Ask for Help! If you find yourself struggling and feel overwhelmed, please ask for help from people you trust, health care professionals, and/or grief recovery specialists in your area. You also may wish to explore The Grief Recovery Method® for Pet Loss. This is a secular educational program that dispels cultural myths about grieving and offers helpful strategies for navigating through a very difficult period in your life. I encourage you to work with a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist to get the most benefit from this program.
You Are Not Alone! Above all, please remember you are not alone, even though it may seem that way. It’s true no one can know how you feel. Your grief is unique to you, and each of us grieves in our own way. That does not mean others cannot be with you and support you as you grieve. For those who are offering support, remember it is more important to be harmless than helpful. In other words, make sure what you are doing or saying is what those grieving actually need or want, not what you think they might need. You can inadvertently leave grievers feeling more isolated than ever if you rush in without taking their specific needs and desires into account.
I encourage you to peruse past Listen With the Ear of Your Heart blog posts to learn more. Yes, some are spiritual in nature as I am also a Christian Spiritual Director, in addition to a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist. If you have any questions or would like to talk, please call me at 404-771-9335. All conversations are confidential.
Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®
Christian Spiritual Director
Volunteer Chaplain, Southwest Christian Care
© Ekteleo Ministry, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Friedman, R., James C., and James, J.W. The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss. Taylor Trade Publishing, Lanham, Maryland. 2014. Available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Grief-Recovery-Handbook-Pet-Loss-ebook/dp/B00R8KKYHE/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1531492562&sr=1-1-fkmr2&keywords=pet+grief+recovery+method
Orloff, Judy. The health benefit of tears: learn how tears can benefit you and improve your health. Posted July 27, 2010. Psychology Today. Available online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-freedom/201007/the-health-benefits-tears.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Laughter therapy. Available online at https://www.cancercenter.com/treatments/laughter-therapy/.