My guest blogger today is Marty Tousley CNS-BC, FT, DCC. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, she has facilitated support groups for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Halton-Peel Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. You can see Marty's full bio at the end of this post.
Marty so clearly writes of the strength of the human-animal bond and why it hurts so much when that is broken. Something that we are all likely to face more than once in our life.
Because the normal life span of most companion animals is so much shorter than our own, it is quite likely that one day most animal lovers will experience the loss of a beloved pet. Whether we are struggling with an animal’s chronic illness, facing a decision about euthanasia, or experiencing the loss of a pet for any reason, our reactions can be so intense and so unexpected that we may feel shocked and overwhelmed by them. We might wonder if it is normal to feel the loss of a companion animal so deeply. Statements such as "I don't know what's wrong with me. I didn't feel this bad when my grandmother (acquaintance, friend, relative) died" are common. And if this is a family's first encounter with death, parents may be uncertain how to guide their children through the experience of losing a beloved pet.
Statistics indicate that companion animals are becoming more valued in our society than they were just two or three decades ago. More people in the United States today have pets than children, and most animal lovers regard their pets as members of the family. How you will react to the death of your own loyal companions depends largely on the part they've played in your daily life, the significance of your relationships with them, and the strength of your attachments to them.
Since the emotional bonds developed between people and animals can be very deep and strong, it's important to understand that the pain experienced when those bonds are broken is real. The more significant the bond, the greater the feeling of loss you can expect. The grief experienced is no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special member of the family. It is a natural, spontaneous response to the loss of a significant relationship. How we react to the death of any family member—human animal—depends to a large extent on the part they've played in our daily lives, the significance of our relationships with them, and the strength of our attachments to them.
Although we bring animals into our homes for many different reasons, the reason people most often give is the companionship our pets provide. (Nowadays even the word pet, which implies ownership of one creature by another, is used less often in the professional literature than the term companion animal, which implies mutual friendship.)
In some ways the companionship of animals makes up for the traditional support systems our culture has lost along the way. In today's modern, mobile society, more people are childless, single, divorced, widowed or never married. With both parents working outside the home, more children return to empty houses after school, and more elders live alone and farther away from their extended families than ever before. For those who are homebound, pets may be their only social contact.
With their constant presence, availability and devotion, pets are our best source of unconditional love, becoming for many of us the ideal child, parent, mate or friend. They listen without judgment or reproach, and never give advice. They accept us exactly as we are, regardless of how we look or feel or behave. They forgive us readily and never hold grudges against us. No matter how much change we must endure in our unpredictable lives, our pets are always there for us.
Animal companions weave themselves into the fabric of our daily lives. We live and relax in each other's company. They are there when we awaken in the morning, rely on us to toilet, feed, water, exercise, groom and play with them, greet us joyfully when we come home to them and may even sleep with us in our beds at night. We touch them, stroke them, pet them, hug them, kiss them, tell them our troubles and share our deepest secrets with them.
Beyond companionship, animals also serve many other functions in people's lives, none of them trivial or without value. Medical researchers are learning that people with pets are healthier and happier. Touching, holding, caring for and playing with pets—even watching animals in their natural habitat—can actually lower a person's blood pressure, decrease one’s heart rate, alleviate stress and loneliness, and even encourage regular exercise. For shy or withdrawn people, pets act as conversation pieces in otherwise awkward social situations. Patients in rehabilitation units who are comatose or autistic have been found to respond to visiting animals even though humans haven't been able to reach them. Companion animals lift the spirits of the sick and elderly as they visit them in hospitals and nursing homes, and willingly serve as eyes, ears or hands for persons living with disabilities.
Studies show that we're likely to be even more highly attached to our pets if we've nursed them through a chronic illness or rescued them from certain death; if we associate them with important times in our lives or link them with significant others who are no longer with us; and if we've relied on them to support us or get us through a crisis.
How attached we become to our animals is as individual as we are, but the bonds that we have are valid, worthy of understanding, and serve to explain the intense pain we feel when those bonds are broken. As you think about the role your animal played in your life and all the wonderful things your pet offered you, consider how you might answer questions like these:
• How did my pet come into my life?
• How did my pet get his or her name?
• What was special about my pet?
• What did we do for fun?
• What special moments / life events did we share / endure together?
When cherished companion animals are taken from us, we need to take some time to think about and remember how closely we were attached to one another. It is only when we identify how much our special friends meant to us, and recognize how very much we've lost, that we begin to understand why pet loss hurts so much. Arming ourselves with some knowledge and understanding of what is normal under such circumstances, and finding a safe place to express and work through our feelings of grief, can help us cope with—and even grow from—the agony of pet loss.
About the author: As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved child, Marty Tousley has focused her practice on issues of loss, grief and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona as a bereavement counselor in 1996, and now serves as moderator for its online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which includes a forum for Loss of a Pet. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, she facilitated a pet grief support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Halton-Peel Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. She’s also written a number of books, booklets, articles, online e-mail courses and e-books addressing various aspects of loss and grief. Her Grief Healing Web site offers information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or coping with the loss of a loved one, whether that is a person or a cherished companion animal. Visit her blog at http://www.griefhealingblog.com/ .