Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stages of Grief

I mentioned in an earlier post that I wrote my story (and Molly's) down into a book and was going to send it to an editor to review, but at the last minute I just couldn't do it. The story is finished and I even paid to have it proofread. I guess it came down to not wanting to "commercialize" Molly. I want to share her story and how I dealt with her death freely and openly.

In the book I interviewed several people: Dr. R, our vet, whose interview you read in an earlier post, trainers from Gentle Dog Training, Barbara Poe, Head of Adoptions at Wayside Waif Animal Shelter and Teresa Freeman, a licensed counselor who specializes in pet bereavement.

Teresa became involved with pet bereavement after two of her dogs died within six months of each other, "Since I was working in the counseling field, I realized at the time that there were very few resources to help with pet loss. I found it hard to find very much support. I did more research and got involved with several national organizations that address this issue. These groups were very helpful to me and I decided to bring this help to my community locally."

Teresa conducts a pet bereavement support group at the Nebraska Humane Society. She said she researched other programs and developed hers from those models.

"After my idea was developed," she told me. "I approached the Humane Society with the idea of a support group and they agreed to sponsor this. This area of interest has continued to grow and hopefully provides a service for others who are struggling with pet loss and grief."

Teresa answered many questions for me regarding pet bereavement. I'd like to share all her information in one very long post, but I think I'd lose the power of her words. Over the next couple of months I'll take one or two questions from my interview with her and share them with you.

I'll start with the answer that brought me more peace than anything I've heard since Molly's death. I'd asked Teresa to describe the stages of grief. The part of her answer that brought me so much peace was when she described how it is an owner's responsibility to handle end of life issues with love, respect and dignity for their dying pet. I'd never thought about it being part of my responsibility as a pet owner to handle end of life issues. For whatever reason, seeing this as part of my job as a pet owner brought me some much needed relief from my guilt.

Below is Ms. Freeman's answer to my question about the stages of grief.

What are the stages of grief?

Stage One: Denial
Denial is one of the earliest stages of grief. It is easily confused with disbelief which accompanies the shock of first learning about the death. With denial, we resentfully acknowledge that the death has taken place while at the same time we look for ways to refute it.

Stage Two: Anger
The anger stage is a distraught, temporary response to an overwhelming sense of frustration and outrage. In this stage, it is difficult to cope rationally with disappointing people and situations. There is a feeling of helplessness and any remotely involved person or authority can be transformed into a scapegoat (i.e.: medical staff). Anger can also be turned inward, leading to depression. We may be so angry at ourselves that we create social situations that become intolerable to others: overreacting, self-destructive behaviors, alienation of others.

In order to move through this stage, we must let go of the anger.

Stage Three: Bargaining
With bargaining, often we will offer something to try to take away the reality of what happened - we want to make a deal. Bargaining can be with ourselves, with the Universe or with other people. At this stage, we may sometimes think we hear or see a fleeting glimpse of our pet.

All of our tears and wishing cannot change the reality that our pet is gone and things aren’t logical at this time. We understand intellectually that death comes to all things, but our conditioned avoidance of this reality gives us some excuse for bargaining.

Stage Four: Guilt
Guilt is a psychological reaction that is based on insecurity or negative self-evaluation. During the intensity of grief, we tend to create a powerful sense of guilt. We feel that we have failed to be in control and that our loving protection cannot control the Universe for our pets.

Guilt is often a warping of afterthought and reflection. If only we had hindsight…but we don’t, we are human. We must now shift responsibility to ourselves. Be the wonderful person your pet saw in you. Let yourself grieve constructively by accepting the passing of your pet and preserving the loving memories.

Don’t waste energy on guilt. Forgive yourself. One of the ideas that have been helpful for my clients is to remind them that part of their jobs as pet owners is to handle the end of life issues with dignity and love and respect. Our pets depend on us to do for them what they cannot do for themselves, many times at the end of their lives. It is part of the responsibility of pet ownership. Our pets cannot speak or take action themselves and any act of compassion is done with this dignity theme in mind. I also believe our pets know that we did the best we could for them and they wouldn’t want us to carry unnecessary guilt.

Stage Five: Depression
Depression may come up at any time throughout the grieving process and many people in deep mourning experience feelings of depression. Our emotional strength seems to give out and things may feel as though they are crushing down on us. Life feels very overwhelming and sad. Usually, the intensity diminishes with time. Some symptoms of depression may include: lowered mood, difficulty with concentration, unusual fatigue, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, loss of appetite, insomnia, gloom, despair and ambivalence.

Depression can develop into any degree of intensity, but it isn’t a cause of alarm unless it seems to pose a threat to the individual or others. If the feelings of grief remain at the same level as the initial feelings or if there are feelings of suicide or deep depression or despair, professional help is merited. Otherwise, time and support can be helpful here.

Stage Six: Resolution
Resolution is the final stage of mourning. It is a time of inner healing. This is the final time of letting go when we allow the focus of emotion and attention to shift, allowing us to continue with our own life’s growth. The entire mourning process is a “living through” situation. It does not mean that we forget the beloved pet, but it does mean that we can go on with our lives.

Coming to the resolution stage in no way takes away one’s intense love for their deceased pet, instead we’ve learned to incorporate the loving memories of our pet into our lives. At this point in transition, each of us has become different than before. At this stage it is heartwarming to think of your pet. Your ability to continue to love is a memorial to the love you shared with your pet and to the bond that will never be broken.

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