Grief Aware­ness Day is needed for pet own­ers

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - LIFESTYLE -

THIS com­ing Fri­day, 30th Au­gust, is “Grief Aware­ness Day”: this was started in the USA five years ago, but it’s now recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally.

I’m writ­ing about this in my col­umn be­cause grief at los­ing a pet is one of the most com­mon and chal­leng­ing is­sues that I en­counter ev­ery day in my work­ing life as a vet.

Peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence a wide range of emo­tions when a pet dies. There are no rules and it is not pre­dictable.

Some peo­ple seem to feel al­most no grief, mov­ing on as eas­ily as if they have just said good­bye to an old car.

Other peo­ple feel sad, but ac­cept the loss sim­ply and eas­ily, as a nor­mal part of life.

A smaller but sig­nif­i­cant group of own­ers suf­fer in­tense and deep grief, as se­vere as if a close hu­man fam­ily mem­ber had died. These are the folk who need ex­tra un­der­stand­ing to help them through this dif­fi­cult time.

It’s easy for oth­ers to be­lit­tle this type of se­vere grief: the un­help­ful phrase “it was only an an­i­mal” is some­times used by friends who wit­ness this, but this type of at­ti­tude only makes things worse. Peo­ple can have as strong -or even stronger in some cases - emo­tional con­nec­tions with an­i­mals as with peo­ple. Telling them that they oughtn’t be feel­ing the emo­tions they are go­ing through doesn’t change any­thing, other than mak­ing them feel guilty for feel­ing the way they do.

The idea be­hind grief aware­ness day is to en­cour­age peo­ple to deal with grief openly: to talk about it, to dis­cuss how it feels, and to help peo­ple find bet­ter ways of cop­ing with grief.

Grief is univer­sal: we all go through loss at some stages of our lives. Yet apart from in the im­me­di­ate few days af­ter suf­fer­ing a loss, we are ex­pected to bot­tle this up, and not to deal with it pub­licly. Grief Aware­ness Day is an at­tempt to change that, to make it “nor­mal” to talk about any grief that’s be­ing felt.

Many still mis­tak­enly be­lieve there are five pre­dictable stages of grief: de­nial, anger, bar­gain­ing, de­pres­sion, and ac­cep­tance. While this process, and these emo­tions, are com­mon, it’s dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one, and there are no set rules. Peo­ple suf­fer­ing loss can ex­pe­ri­ence a wide range of feel­ings linked to grief: we are all dif­fer­ent.

Other com­mon feel­ings in­clude anx­i­ety, fear, guilt, ir­ri­ta­tion, shame, and un­cer­tainty. And there are many oth­ers too. It can be an emo­tion­ally tur­bu­lent time that in­ter­feres with our nor­mal daily lives.

Our minds and emo­tions di­rectly af­fect our bod­ies too, and peo­ple may also ex­pe­ri­ence phys­i­cal signs linked to grief. These in­clude feel­ing un­well, hav­ing al­tered sleep pat­terns, changes in weight (gain­ing or los­ing), suf­fer­ing headaches, and be­ing more sus­cep­ti­ble to colds and in­fec­tions.

All of these is­sues linked to grief can hap­pen days, weeks, or even months af­ter a loss. Dur­ing this time, mourn­ers need to be gen­tle with them­selves, ac­cept­ing that it is nor­mal to feel dis­turbed like this.

Things will im­prove in time, but dur­ing this pe­riod, grief coun­sel­lors and sup­port groups can help by pro­vid­ing un­der­stand­ing and sug­gest­ing var­i­ous ways to make it eas­ier. It’s been said that talk­ing is the best medicine for grief, but peo­ple need to find safe places to do that talk­ing, where they’ll be prop­erly sup­ported.

Unad­dressed grief is now recog­nised as a se­ri­ous is­sue: feel­ings of de­pres­sion and phys­i­cal signs of ill health can emerge without un­der­stand­ing that they are linked to the loss. That’s why proper recog­ni­tion of the need to deal with grief is so im­por­tant.

The aim of Grief Aware­ness Day is to pub­licly fo­cus on grief. This can be done in many ways, and I’m fo­cus­ing on three as­pects here.

First, it can help to des­tig­ma­tise grief if we all talk about our own ex­pe­ri­ences pu­bicly. Like many, I have suf­fered my own grief at los­ing pets. I have owned- and lost- over a dozen pets in my life, and I still feel the hurt of each death if I delve into my mem­o­ries. When I think of each an­i­mal - Sheba, Honey, Spot, Glad­stone, As­lan, to name a few - I feel a twinge of aching in my chest. These an­i­mals were my friends, and I still feel sad when I think of their ab­sence. Life - of course- car­ries on nor­mally, but be­ing hu­man in­volves an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of losses, each of which in­flicts a small wound. For me, it helps to re­al­ize that the grief is only there be­cause I loved the an­i­mals: love and grief are two sides of a coin, and you can’t have one without the other. The grief that I carry is a small price to pay for the plea­sure of the com­pan­ion­ship of these won­der­ful pets.

Sec­ond, I’d like ev­ery­one read­ing this to use this com­ing Fri­day as a day for reach­ing out to peo­ple they know who have suf­fered the loss of a pet. Just ask them how they are do­ing and open a dis­cus­sion about the an­i­mal that’s no longer with them. They may have not much to say: all may be well, but they are still likely to ap­pre­ci­ate you re­mem­ber­ing their pet. Or you may find that they want to talk about their pet in an un­ex­pected way that in­volves ex­press­ing grief. And this may then help them more than you’d ex­pect.

Third and fi­nally, I want peo­ple to know that there are many on­line re­sources out there to help peo­ple suf­fer­ing grief at the loss of their pet. I’m post­ing links on my own web­site for any­one who wants to know more. Visit www.pe­teth­evet.com for links to on-line grief re­sources.

The grief felt af­ter los­ing a pet can be sur­pris­ingly in­tense

PETE WEDDERBURN An­i­mal Doc­tor

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