Grief resulting from human loss is frequently mishandled and misunderstood by family, friends, and acquaintances. This mishandling is not from a lack of caring, but more from a lack of understanding. Little wonder then that the loss of a dog can create a considerable lack of acceptance, understanding, and grossly insensitive comments from others with whom we come into contact. A study into pet death grief at the University of Michigan-Flint noted that while mourning ceremonies sanctioned by society are critical to the healing process, a formal mechanism for the outlet of grief in many cultures does not exist. To exacerbate this issue for pet guardians, as many people are incapable of or resistant to accepting emotional attachment to a pet as permissible for themselves, they won't or can't acknowledge another's pet loss as significant. The absence of these two fundamental processes is at the core of understanding the myriad issues that impede, isolate, and further injure those who have suffered human loss and, often to an even greater degree, the grieving dog guardian. Here are the myths and facts about dog loss.
Myth #1: There is a correct or 'proper' way to grieve the loss of your dog
There is a pervasive and unhelpful myth that grief is composed of five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross proposed these five stages as steps patients with a terminal illness go through while coming to terms with their diagnosis; she did not promulgate them as the stages of grief. While these emotions may arise when grieving, other feelings will also. Indeed, some of the steps may not occur, some may re-occur, and there is no pattern to the emotions that arise at any particular stage of the grieving process. There is a telling paragraph in the book "The Grief Recovery Handbook" written by Russel P. Friedman and John W. James that touches on this subject;
"no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are (sic) defined as such can't be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships."
Fact #1: Your grief is like you; it is unique and a veritable washing machine-like jumble of feelings, thoughts and emotions. There is no prescribed methodology by which you must grieve or feel. So please do not allow society's or others expectations to demarcate your grief. Trust your body and your emotions to be true to you, and listen to them. If you need to cry, cry.
Myth #2: Grief is a single emotion
We use the word grief as if it were an entity, an emotion well defined and understood, such as tiredness or anger. So there are a few points in there worth unpicking. Not only is grief not easily determined, but neither is it well understood. In a 2009 study into grief and bereavement by Zisook and Shear, they found "To date, no grief stage theory has been able to account for how people cope with loss, why they experience varying degrees and types of distress at different times, and how or when they adjust to a life without their loved one over time."
Indeed, we cannot characterise grief in simple terms as it incorporates not only pain and depression but also joy, relief, and peace. As these latter feelings do not 'fit' into society's expectations of grieving, the grieving person then suffers feelings of guilt, shame, confusion or embarrassment; and so the roller-coaster ride continues. A simplistic and one-dimensional approach to a complex and three-dimensional problem is doomed to fail.
Fact #2: Grief is a complex mix of conflicting emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. Each person's experience and beliefs about grief differ. By expanding your understanding of the complexity and nuances of grief, you also allow yourself space to experience and accept the emotions you feel without self-criticism or judgement. Furthermore, you refuse to accept the criticism or judgement of others.
Myth #3: If a bit of grief is good, more must be better
The grief work hypothesis has been around for a long time, in which accepted theory suggested the importance of 'grief work' to enable adjustment to loss. There was a theory that if you didn't confront your loss and continuously focus on your beloved dog, you were suppressing emotions that would prolong your grief and ultimately cause you harm. Such facile thinking was also evident with people returning from war with shell-shock (now called PTSD). The theory was that exposing them to more of the situation that had made them like that would miraculously heal them. But, unfortunately, not only did it not, it often further entrenched the trauma. We've already seen the variations in the grieving process and the unique feelings experienced by individuals. When we factor in the diversity of what constitutes grief work and add in cultural differences, we can see that this myth is simplistic and unhelpful.
We all experience grief differently, with some withdrawing and struggling to function while undergoing intense and prolonged grieving. Yet, others manage to grieve in and around the regular events that constitute their life. Studies show that approximately 80% of people follow one of these two paths. Work done by clinical psychologist George Bonanno found what he described as 'four trajectories of grief', of which one is troubling while the other three are considered quite normal. He used the term 'coping ugly' to refer to the many different ways people cope with grief. All are considered healthy methods of dealing with loss because people move through their grief to resume a healthy, functioning existence.
Fact #3: People who continue to function are not 'in denial'; neither should a person who withdraws and temporarily fails to perform everyday tasks be labelled as 'stuck'. While a small percentage of people experience complicated grieving, the vast majority of people suitably move through their grief, adjusting to the pain and loss on their terms. Bonanno believed that habits and behaviours considered not 'normal' in everyday life actually may be helpful when grieving.
Myth #4: Grief is harmful and must be avoided
I feel that this myth arises because other people's grief makes individuals uncomfortable or embarrassed. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to say that grief is positive when you consider the effect on your life. Yet, researchers believe that grief, while never pleasant, is a necessary form of adaptation to change. When you have loved and cherished a companion for many years, they form part of your identity, and you are theirs. In taking time to grieve, we process and adjust our feelings by answering questions about who we have become, how we should feel about our loved ones, and how to honour and remember them. It also allows us to think about the future, what it may look like, and what happens next.
Fact #4: Grief is an inevitable and necessary response to loss or fundamental change in our lives. It is that necessary adjustment that allows us to process and store memories before continuing with our lives. Attempting to ignore, deny, or resist the grieving process will only delay the essential healing that follows. As we will see shortly, such behaviours may, in the future, create entirely avoidable mental health issues.
Myth # 5: Grief has a time frame – move on
This myth usually rears its head in a sentence such as;
"I can't believe you still have her toys/collar/bed after all this time, it's been over a year now – you need to move on".
Implicit in this statement are two of the most damaging beliefs inflicted on people who have experienced loss. The first is that grief is about moving on, whatever that means. You never 'move on' from the loss of a loved companion; they remain in your heart, to remember always. The second damaging belief is that somewhere it is written that you have a prescribed time to get your grief sorted before happily getting on with your life. While the most painful grieving appears to peak around 4 to 6 months and then slowly subsides over the next few years, as we've seen from the previous myths, each of us experiences grief differently, and we take longer or shorter periods to rationalise that grief. There is grief called complicated grief, which we will discuss in a later chapter, where an individual cannot return to normal functioning after an extended grieving period. At this point, grief has become chronic and dysfunctional, but less due to time and more to an individual not making progress in healing. In most cases, you will take the time you take, and much of that depends on how much you dip into your grief and allow yourself to process it.
Fact #5: Do not feel pressured by others to 'get over it no matter how well-meaning they may be. Take the time you need to grieve and mourn the loss of your beloved dog and maintain the rituals, keepsakes and remembrances that positively assist you in healing. As we proceed through this programme, we will introduce you to tools to monitor and manage your grief. Use those you feel comfortable with, as they will assist in processing your memories and honouring your companion, allowing you to continue adequately functioning.
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