Grief affects us all at one point or another. Loving deeply and then feeling the loss of that love when it leaves our experience is part of being human, part of being alive and living a rich and full life. We can experience grief from the loss of anything: a pet, a person, a job, a life situation. We also can experience anticipatory grief, prior to the loss. This is a common experience for those who are traversing life after a diagnosis of cancer in a loved one, whether that be a pet or a person. Understanding the process of grief, and having tools to help yourself compassionately as you go through this experience of grief, can be helpful in processing these feelings in a healthy way. Kindness for yourself as you experience fully the emotions of grief is a key factor in healing in a balanced way and finding closure and peace after an experience of loss.
Grief is an experience common to all people, but the way we each experience grief is highly individual and unique. Understanding some of the ways that grief manifests can help us understand our own experience and interact with our emotional responses to loss in a more balanced and effective way. Understanding also allows us to engage with kindness and compassion, for both ourself and others.
Many people in Western culture have been conditioned to suppress their emotions, or to judge themselves harshly for having emotions they are not "supposed" to have. This can lead to difficulties processing strong, appropriate emotions that we have in response to life experiences such as grief and loss. Subsequently, this suppression of appropriate emotions may ultimately lead to experience of and expression of strong inappropriate emotions that can be damaging to us and hurtful to those around us. Allowing ourselves time to process emotions effectively, and taking action to traverse that process with kindness and self-care, allows us to heal and integrate the varied and sometimes emotionally intense experiences of life in a healthy way.
There are many resources available to help you understand and process the intense emotional experience of grief. Here I offer a few that may be helpful. But please use your own judgement to determine which approaches are most helpful to you, and to recognize when you are experiencing emotions that are beyond your capability to process on your own. There are many wonderful people who have dedicated their life to helping others process the emotions associated with grief and loss. And one of the kindest things you may be able to do for yourself is to seek out the support that is available to you in order to heal, find peace and feel closure.
Feeling and Doing
I came across two lovely acronyms at the Psychcentral website which were proposed to help us remember the vital components to traversing grief. Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief and loss, recommends to avoid ignoring the emotional responses you have to grief, or trying to escape them or pretend they aren't there. Grieving is an active process and to move through the stages of grief effectively takes effort and self-care. She recommends allowing yourself to experience your emotions fully, while having compassion for yourself and the process you are going through. Then, she advises, take action to help yourself move through these emotions in a healthy way. The acronyms for these two processes are:
Freely Experience Emotion with Love
Talking, Exercise, Artistic expression, Recording emotions and experiences, and Sobbing
As you experience your emotions, take advantage of the support systems you have around you by talking to someone you trust and who is supportive of you. Then, actively engaging in activities that help you process these emotional experiences will help you ultimately accept and integrate the experience of loss. You can then, eventually, come to a place of acceptance and closure, appreciating the gift of the life that was shared with you and the happiness it brought you. Allowing yourself to cry, journaling about your feelings and thoughts, creating something in memory of your pet, and engaging in moderate regular exercise can all help you to move through the grieving process with more ease and grace.
Grief, Emotions and Mind Body Interactions
I think it can be helpful to remember that emotions cause physiological changes in the brain and body. Emotions, and these associated changes, are natural responses to life.
"We found 5 studies that discussed the relationship between the neurological aspects of grief due to the death of a loved one. The studies showed an activation of common areas [in the brain, for example,] the anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, insula and amygdala. These findings could indicate that there is a group of areas working together and responding to generate the symptomology of grief. Because grief is a universal experience, it is essential that the necessary and effective support can be provided to those who experience the loss of someone considered important in their lives, and this requires understanding grief's manifestation."
There is a complex interaction between the body, mind and emotions. This is one of the reasons that mindfulness practices and deep breathing exercises can be helpful in resetting the mind and emotional systems. Sometimes just learning to breathe deeply and smoothly for a few minutes can help us transition through intense emotional experiences. It is also why we can see changes in our breathing with different emotions: short rapid breathing with anxiety, slow shallow breathing with sadness or depression. Learning to breath deeply and fully can be very balancing to the emotions, allowing us to experience them fully without becoming so easily overwhelmed by them.
An interesting study entitled "The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology" talks about Pacemaker Neurons, which control the rhythmic neurologic activity in the brain and are intimately linked with respiration and different emotional states. This study states:
“Breathing behavior is highly influenced by emotional states. This behavior is greatly affected by negative (panic, anxiety, and pain) and positive emotions (pleasure, love, and relief)."
The study reviews the role of the breath in modulating thoughts and emotions, just as it is also modulated by these same states. One of the interesting points that is visited in this article is that the breath, unlike many of our emotional or cognitive brain states, is something that we can exercise conscious control over. This provides an opportunity to use the breath/mind connection to modulate intense emotional experiences and reset the neurological responses associated with those states.
Sit comfortably in a chair with your back straight
or lie on the floor on your back
Take a deep breath
On the inhale:
allow your belly to relax,
your belly button moving away from your spine
as you allow the diaphragm to move down
and feel the bottom of your lungs expand
Allow your chest to expand
feeling the center of your lungs fill with air
Allow your shoulders to rise slightly
as the top part of your lungs fill
Exhale by reversing this process:
Allow the shoulders to relax and drop slightly
as the air leaves the top part of your lungs
Allow your chest to relax
as the air leaves the center of your lungs
Draw the belly button toward the spine
as you empty the bottom part of your lungs completely
This is a full breath
Do this for 1-10 minutes
Being sure to breath at a rate that is comfortable
You never want to feel dizzy or short of breath
Draw the corners of the mouth up slightly
into an easy smile
Grief Resources from the University of Washington
I have shared one resource for grief support on the Metta Pets Resources Page. There is another on the University of Washington website if you would like to check it out. This is some of what they have to share:
"Allowing others to help us in our grieving is good insurance that we will keep our balance.
"Healthy grieving is an active process; it is not true that, 'You just need to give it time.' One way of understanding the work to be done is to think of grieving as a series of tasks we need to complete (not necessarily in sequence):
To accept the finality of the loss
To acknowledge and express the full range of feelings we experience as a result of the loss
To adjust to a life in which the lost person, object, or experience is absent
To say good-bye, to ritualize our movement to a new peace with the loss.
"Good friends, family members, or a personal counselor can all be helpful in doing this vital work. You can also do a good deal to help yourself. Remember that grieving is an active process, it takes energy that will likely have to be temporarily withdrawn from the usual pursuits of your life. Treat yourself with the same care, tolerance, and affection you would extend to a valued friend in a similar situation.
Go gently — take whatever time it needs, rather than giving yourself a deadline for when you should be “over it”
Expect and accept some reduction in your usual efficiency and consistency
Try to avoid taking on new responsibilities or making major life decisions for a time
Talk regularly about your grief and your memories with someone you trust
Accept help and support when offered
Be particularly attentive to maintaining healthy eating and sleeping patterns
Exercise moderately and regularly
Keep a journal
Read—there are many helpful books on grief; some are listed on the back of this brochure. If grief is understood it is easier to handle
Plan, and allow yourself to enjoy some GOOD TIMES without guilt. The goal is balance
Carry or wear a linking object—a keepsake that symbolically reminds you of your loss. Anticipate the time in the future when you no longer need to carry this reminder and gently let it go
Tell those around you what helps you and what doesn’t. Most people would like to help if they knew how
Take warm, leisurely baths
See a counselor
Get a massage regularly
Set aside a specific private time daily to remember and experience whatever feelings arise with the memories
Choose your entertainment carefully—some movies, TV shows, or books can intensify already strong feelings
Join a support group—there are hundreds of such groups and people have a wonderful capacity to help each other
Plan for ‘special days’ such as holidays or anniversaries. Feelings can be particularly intense at these times
Take a yoga class
Connect on the Internet. There are many resources for people in grief, as well as opportunities to chat with fellow grievers
Vent your anger in healthy ways, rather than holding it in. A brisk walk or a game of tennis can help
Speak to a spiritual leader
Plant yourself in nature
Do something to help someone else
Write down your lessons. Healthy grieving will have much to teach you."
Honoring the Process of Life
Life, in the end, is filled with polarities. Just as we experience sadness we also experience joy. It is through the precious relationships we experience in life that we find meaning and purpose. And it is through those relationships that we grow, that we expand our capacity to love, to feel compassion, to expand our understanding and empathy for others.
The loss of a pet can often be more emotionally traumatic for people than the loss of a human family member. This is because our pets don't hold the same expectations of us that people do. They offer love and affection freely. For many of us, this is the closest we have ever come to experiencing unconditional love. That unconditional love can bring physical and emotional healing which is one of the miracles of the human-animal bond. It is also what makes the loss of a beloved pet feel more intense.
So, as you traverse the process of grieving the loss of a pet, I encourage you to treat yourself gently. Take time to nurture yourself and love yourself.
Ultimately, our biggest lesson in this human life is to learn to love more completely and freely. The first step in that process is to learn to love yourself more completely and freely. In this way you can allow the love you experienced with your pet to fill you, to be a light to show you the path to carrying that love inside of you. Because you have experienced it through the gift of your pet's unconditional affection, you have a frame of reference. You can call that up to be a comfort for you in difficult times.
Ultimately, the love we experienced with our pet wasn't from them. They were just helping us get in touch with the emotion of love within our own mind and heart. They just helped draw that love to the surface. You can, now, call that feeling of love up to guide you in how to be more loving and accepting toward the humans in your life. It is this experience of unconditional love from our pets that ultimately heals us, and that they leave with us. It is their gift, their legacy, to humanity.
May it help us grow into kinder and more loving people.
May it help us heal.