“Grief is not a process of forgetting. It is a process of learning to cope while we remember.” – Doug Manning
People are often surprised and concerned at how much grief impacts them. I know I was! I had experienced loss before – both human and animal. It’s never easy to accept that someone is gone forever. However, dealing with Niko’s loss, has been the most difficult and painful experience of my life.
My boy was able to live a full life, up to the ripe old age of 16 ½, and I know that I have been fortunate to have had more years with him than many get with their canine friends. Regardless, nothing prepares you for the size of the hole in your heart when you lose someone that significant. Niko was not just my ‘pet’ or my ‘dog’ – he was my friend, he was my soul. He gave my life a richness and love that could never be explained with mere words. I could have had 100 years with him, and it would not have been enough.
Grief is a testimony to the importance of the relationship that you have lost. I have learned you need to be gentle with yourself as you go through the healing process. You cannot rush it, and many around you will not fully understand what you are going through – especially if they have not experienced a major loss in their own lives.
I’ve also learned that your own grief will make many people uncomfortable and in some cases, will cause them to avoid you or the subject of your grief or lost loved one. I don’t hold this against them most of the time. I realize that they just don’t understand what to do, or they are not capable of helping you through this journey.
Thankfully, I had the support of the LymphomaHeartDogAngels group. We all were on different points on our path through grief, but were on the same path nonetheless. Just feeling that I was not alone, and I was not crazy, was life saving to me. I also had another very close friend that lost her husband to cancer just 6 weeks before I lost Niko. She is someone else that truly understood, first hand, how life changing grief is.
I keep thinking of the line from the movie American Beauty when Kevin Spacey’s character asks his wife, “When did you become so… joyless?” I feel this way all the time now…. joyless. I realize this is normal when you have dealt with a loss, but not any way to live. I used to be happy and I used to enjoy life. I want that back.
About 8 months after Niko passed, I chose to seek some professional help in trying to find a new normal for my life. Not only is grief itself life changing, but when you are a caregiver for a loved one that passes, your life as you knew it is over. You can feel completely lost and unnecessary. It was easy to adjust to being a caregiver, though it is a difficult ‘job’. You do it out of love. When this ‘job’ ends, every aspect of your daily life changes. It is a very surreal, and frightening realization.
I found a therapist that was an animal lover and had experience helping people through grief. I saw her for about 4 or 5 months. I found it invaluable. She gave me a level of validation to all my turmoil and pain, which helped me feel a bit more normal. It helped alleviate some fears I had about whether or not I would make it through this grieving period. I had days I wanted to give up on life, and just leave it. I felt like I failed at everything I tried to do and I felt unlovable. Turns out, my feelings were commonplace for someone that had just lost such a special being, which comforted me.
When your time as a caregiver ends, you may find that other relationships you had have suffered and need repair. You may find it more difficult to participate in group activities than you did before you were a caregiver. You may find you cannot tolerate the same level of stress, or that you are much more prone to hurt feelings over little things. You may also go out of your way to take on large tasks in an effort to fill that empty part of you that is telling you that you need to do something! It has been difficult to get my feet back on the ground and get a grip. Small projects are OK, but overwhelming yourself with more than you may be emotionally or physically able to handle on a bad day, is setting yourself up to fail. Yet, it’s so natural to do when you’ve been a caregiver for a terminally ill patient. That is also setting yourself up for failure to some degree. Old habits die hard….
I’ve collected the information to follow, from various grief and loss sites. I found it helpful… a sort of validation to how ‘normal’ I was, even though I didn’t feel normal. Grief, however, is as individual as the person. Everyone’s journey through it is different. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is not perfect path to follow. I’m listing info below, in case you can identify with any of these…
The five stages of dying and grief as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. NOTE: You may find yourself experiencing the phases and stages of grief in completely random orders to the way they are represented above. You may find yourself stuck on some, while experiencing very little of others. Your experience of grief will depend on the circumstances surrounding your loss.
Stage 1 – Denial, shock and numbness
Stage 2 – Anger
Stage 3 – Bargaining
Stage 4 – Depression
Stage 5 – Acceptance
Normal Experiences During the Grieving Process
- erratic appetite
- exhaustion / fatigue / lethargy
- disturbed sleep patterns
- feeling overwhelmed
- feeling drugged
- feeling disconnected from family or friends
- depression / seems like nothing matters or has meaning
- feeling like you’re “falling apart”
- feeling abandoned and alone
- feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
- feeling “crazy”
- disinterest in life
- feeling out of control
- distortions in time
- unwilling or incapable of making decisions
- easily distracted / unable to focus
- hallucinations or visions
- hopelessness / helplessness
- overwhelming panic
- impulsiveness coupled with indecision
- comparing the loss to other’s losses
- broken heart syndrome
- thoughts of not wanting to go on living / suicide *
* I had times that I really did not want to go on living and these feelings really frightened me. I’ve never been suicidal before, and I didn’t believe I would actually ever kill myself, but I didn’t want to live without Niko. My therapist taught me a lot of people have these feelings. I think you don’t often see it listed as a “normal sign” due to the sensitivity and alarm the word ‘suicide’ brings up. I think it’s normal to think about it when you are grieving and even fantasizing about it, but if you feel there is any chance you might act, PLEASE seek professional help immediately. Grief is a dark pit, but you can climb out with some help. It DOES get better with time.
Normal Signs of Grief
- Pain in the chest which many people describe as ‘heartache’
- Muscle weakness
- Aches and pains
- Flu like symptoms
- Oversensitivity to touch and/or sound
- A dry mouth which makes it harder to speak and express your feelings
- Feel tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest
- Have an empty feeling in the stomach and lose your appetite
- Feel guilty at times, and angry at others
- Feel restless and look for activity but find it difficult to concentrate
- Feel as though the loss isn’t real, that it didn’t actually happen
- Sense the loved one’s presence, like finding themselves expecting the person (or pet) to walk in the door at the usual time, hearing their voice (or bark), or seeing their face
- Wander aimlessly and forget and don’t finish things you have started to do around the house
- Have difficulty sleeping
- Nightmares or confusing dreams about the lost loved one
- Experience an intense preoccupation with the life of the deceased.
- Feel guilty or angry over things that happened or didn’t happen in the relationship with the deceased.
- Feel intensely angry at the loved one for leaving them.
- Feel as though you need to take care of other people who seem uncomfortable around you, by politely not talking about the feelings of loss.
- Need to tell and retell and remember things about the loved one and the experience of their death.
- Feel your mood changes over the slightest things.
- Cry at unexpected times.
- Finding yourself unable to focus on anything except the loved one you have lost
- Confusion – not knowing what to do, what day it is, where you should be
- Feeling as though your loved one is still with you – you may hear them, sense them or even see them
- Inability to concentrate or complete simple tasks
- Fearing for the safety of your remaining pets or family
- Hyperactivity – a feeling that you have to get on with something
- A sense of disappearing or ceasing to be a personally involved as everything happens around you
- You may find yourself instinctively removing all reminders of your lost loved one (if you do feel like this it is a good idea to put them away in a box out of sight – you may find you want them to treasure later on)
- Feeling the need to revisit places you visited with your pet
- Feeling unable to deal with normal day to day activities – you may feel numb and spend time just sitting and staring
- Over sensitivity – you may find yourself picking fights for example with people who may have made insensitive comments about your pet in the past. Innocent comments may seem to you to be deeply hurtful and thoughtless even if they were not intended that way.
- Feeling like everyone else is talking about and caught up in ‘trivial’ and meaningless things whilst you are left to cope alone
- Feeling the need to run away and hide, especially slamming doors behind you (even if only metaphorically)is quite common
Pet Grief – The dog or cat left behind
Animals grieve too when they lose a friend. Some animals will grieve for a short time, and move on. But for some, it can be life changing.
I personally feel that it helps to let the companion pet see the body of the one that has passed on. We have done this in our family, ever since Liesel died in 1993. We never let her buddy, Gusti, see her body, and we are convinced Gusti felt abandoned by Liesel. She was a different dog from that day forward and we lived with regret until she died in 2003. Since then, be it a horse, dog, or cat, we have let the other animals in the home see that that their friend has passed. We feel it’s helped them understand that they are not being abandoned, but they are no longer in that body.
We had my mom’s boxer, Angel, with us when we let Niko go. She was clearly upset, but once he was gone, she settled down and took it well. When we took him to my parent’s house to bury him, we let my parent’s cat, Ivan, see him. We even let their horse, Ti, see him. When we buried Niko, Ti stood up at the fence line the whole time.
If you do have a pet that is grieving, there are some resources online. I don’t have any personal advice on this front, as we did not handle Gusti’s grief well. I did find a site that had a few scenarios, and I felt it was pretty good. It touches on handling the grief with your dog (or cat) as well as timing in bringing home a new companion: http://www.dogbehaviour.com/behaviourproblems/dogs/yourdog/grieving.htm
Beautiful words written by Kerry Malak, founder of Georgia’s Legacy – “I missed my dog today“
“So when you see my tears or tell me that it’s time to ‘get over it’, please remember that I’m not just mourning the loss of my best friend, my constant companion and my family member. I am certainly not missing ‘just a dog’. I am also missing the life that I knew and the person that I was before. Eventually, my heart will begin to heal and I will adjust to this new life in front of me. But for now, let me grieve without judgment and give me the time that I need to find my way through this and to mourn the loss of my dog, my identity, and so much more.”
Another well written essay on grief by Ashley Owen Hill called “Saying Goodbye to Yesterday”
“For me, when a special dog (or cat) dies, there’s this sudden, massive void in my world. A void that can only be filled… by the one who is no longer with me. A void that may get smaller… less painful… over time, but a void that will honestly never be filled again.”
Article by Joe Yonan on grieving for your lost companion.
Poem By Joanetta Hendel
Don’t tell me that you understand
Don’t tell me that you know,
Don’t tell me that I will survive
Or how I will surely grow.
Don’t tell me that this is just a test
That I am truly blessed
That I am chosen for this task
Apart from all the rest.
Don’t come at me with answers
That can only come from me,
Don’t tell me how my grief will pass,
That I will soon be free.
Don’t stand in pious judgment
Of the bounds I must untie,
Don’t tell me how to suffer
And don’t tell me how to cry!
My life is filled with selfishness,
My pain is all I see,
But, I need you now,
I need your love, unconditionally.
Accept me in my ups and downs,
I need someone to share,
Just hold my hand and let me cry,
And say, “My friend, I care.”
Dos and Don’ts when Talking with a Friend in Grief
What TO do
Listen in a non-judgmental manner
Let them ‘tell their story’ as many times as they need to
Ask them how they are doing
Offer to help-repeat this offer
Let your friend know you are there for them
Share with them your wonderful memories of the companion animal who has died
Share that there are NO right or wrong behavior for grieving-everyone is different.
Reflect on the feelings they are expressing and help them explore them and the reality of the death
Know that they may have emotional set backs
Be there for them in the days as well as weeks, months, and years following the death
Allow periods of silence
Know that your friend will always grieve the loss but will learn to live with it
Help them celebrate the life of the one they have lost
Help those who are in the process of grieving develop the rituals they need to get through those early difficult times
If the person who is in grief is suicidal it is your moral and ethical responsibility to refer them to a mental health professional
Offer suggestions to help them through their grief such as Memorializing a Pet
What NOT to do
Do NOT impose a timeline for feeling better-there is no timeline for grief
Do NOT tell them you know exactly how they feel-no one can ever experience pain, grief, and loss in exactly the same way
Do NOT tell them time heals all or that the person or animal they loved is in a better place.
Do NOT try to ‘fix them’ or make it all better-no one can ever do that
Do NOT use euphemisms that tend to deny the extent of the loss
Do NOT get a new pet for your friend!!
Do NOT tell them they can ‘get another dog/cat etc’
Do NOT compare one griever’s loss or experience to another’s. Comparisons are attempts to minimize the loss or to force the griever to behave the right way
Do NOT encourage them to make major changes in their life
Do NOT suggest they medicate their pain with alcohol or tranquilizing drugs. Avoiding the immediate symptoms of grief can ultimately lead to complicated and unresolved grief
Do NOT scold, give advice, lecture or pep talks to them when they are feeling down-let the grief process take its course.
Expressing Condolences and Sympathies
There are a lot of resources for support, and I’m sure some are better than others. Sharon, from AfterGadget has a great page of resources.
If Facebook is your thing, you might like The Grief Toolbox
If you are Athiest or Agnostic, you may like Grief Beyond Belief
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