In our culture, when it comes to grief, there are two dominant beliefs: First, that grief is a painful emotion to be avoided as much & as quickly as possible; second: that the physical death of a human loved one is the ultimate loss justifying the experience & expression of significant grief.
The last time I spoke to a group about the healthy healing of grief & loss, I asked how many in the audience had ever experienced the pain of losing a beloved pet. Almost everyone’s hand shot up. My question was prompted by a client who’d come to me some months earlier seeking support with healing the loss of her cherished dog who’d died 15 yrs. earlier. As someone specializing in grief recovery, I can claim with confidence that the loss of a pet can be just as devastating as the death of a human loved one.
Fact check: Grief is the natural, normal, unique, universal & sometimes conflicted emotional response to loss. That loss includes but is not limited to: life stage events like menstruation, graduation, “empty nest,” menopause, retirement… the holidays, moving, financial changes both positive & negative, deteriorating physical or mental health, the absence of trust, control, confidence, faith, hope, & the end of a relationship through divorce, separation & estrangement. There are literally dozens of common losses recognized in our culture, & each of them is followed by grief.
Deep sadness, shock, loneliness, unprovoked rage, depression-like symptoms, decreased self-esteem–these represent only a modest handful of the emotions possible following the loss of someone or something significant to us. And that list doesn’t include some of the physical manifestations commonly experienced.
Tragically, our society’s perspective on grief sets us up for denying & avoiding the emotional pain which is inevitable after loss; it also sets us up for feeling weak, ashamed & guilty. And as we keep struggling to silence the strong, difficult emotions associated with grief, we turn to predictable coping strategies. Busyness/workaholism, sleep, food, alcohol & other drugs, isolation, sex, retail therapy, entertainment, extreme positivity & spirituality… these are some of the typical ways we try to deny or avoid grief. Do any feel familiar?
These kinds of responses to grief are unhealthy, not only because stuffed & denied emotions that stay stuck in our bodies contribute to problems as severe as major disease—physical, emotional & mental–but also because unprocessed grief becomes cumulative; in other words, that unaddressed suffering becomes like negative interest in the bank that rolls over into the next month, continuing to compound. Only the outcome isn’t a free airline ticket or hotel room; it’s a compromised life.
Dogs… & cats… & all other cherished pets are worthy of our grief following their death. That emotional response is actually a beautiful reflection of our mutual love & devotion. The timeframe for mourning their loss? For years, the acceptable “norm” for active grieving has been about 2.5 years. Such a clinical, intellectual benchmark applied to a condition of the heart has always felt unrealistic & uncomfortable to me. Nevertheless, that timeframe assumes the “griever” is processing their loss in healthy ways. And as I’ve suggested, that’s often not the case.
One of the most challenging realities of grief is that it never completely leaves us. It does change. Over time, with healthy grieving, the emotional suffering lessens & the life that understandably contracted from the pain of loss gradually begins to reopen to joy & wonder. That process can feel like a rollercoaster at times, with unpredictable highs & lows, but little by little, & for longer stretches of time, grief takes its place alongside so many other emotions that make up a normal human life.
If you’re wondering whether you’ve adequately grieved the loss of someone or something precious to you, I encourage you to contact me @ [email protected]. Sometimes a single (confidential) conversation can provide clarity & reassurance. Additional support is also a possibility if that’s indicated & desired.
I’d be grateful to hear about your experiences with grief—tolerable, intolerable or anything in between. As we can nudge this difficult emotion out of the shadows, we all benefit as fellow, sometimes suffering, human beings.