Grief and Loss

For the Death of People or Pets

Dr. Larry was fortunate enough to attend one of Dr. Kubler-Ross's lectures in which she reviewed her research and the five stages of grief. She stressed a point that bears repeating. Not everyone will go through all five stages; some will skip stages and some will go back and forth between stages. The stages are not set in concrete; indeed, some other mental health professionals have delineated close to a dozen types of grief reactions people may experience while mourning a loss. So don't think one must go through these stages in order, one by one, in a robot-like sequence. These are general maps of what to expect in the grieving process.

Dr. Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief:

  1. Denial and isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Denial can be not hearing the diagnosis and continuing on in one's life, completely ignoring one's illness or ones' animal's illness as a way of not having to deal with the impending tragedy. With animals, we sometimes see owners who, upon being told by their veterinarian that their dog or cat has inoperable malignant cancer or severe heart disease, react with, "No, you must be mistaken. He is eating fine and plays well. You probably got the wrong set of tests. Re-do them, Doc." Or they go to a dozen different veterinarians hoping to hear what they want to hear: that their animal is really not chronically sick or dying, and that all is well and will remain so.

Anger is normal and expected, although most people initially cannot emphathize with angry emotions being present in a family in which someone is dying. Most people expect only sadness and depression. However, if you were told your life would be cut short, and you have all along paid taxes and not committed crimes, you, too, would be angry. Our loving, safe and fun dog is dying sooner than that jerky mixed breed down the street who seems in perfect health and has eaten 10 mailmen. The unfairness of it all! Anger at the loss of the future, of hopes and plans. Anger that it is being "done to me" or the family. Sometimes we try to bargain our way out of the terminal illness diagnosis or the realization that our loved one is gone. We promise God, the doctor or our spouses that we will "be good," stop eating fatty foods, give to charities and so on, if only He will save us or a loved one.

Depression hits hard when we finally realize that the inevitable is the inevitable and it is pretty much out of our control. We feel hopeless. We feel fatigued. We feel pain. We cry. We shake. We have nightmares. We lose our appetites. These are all indicators of depression. We look at the future through emotionally clouded goggles that create a bleak perspective and cause us to grope for adjustment and try to figure out how we will get along without our loved one.

Acceptance begins when we no longer find ourselves bargaining, and our anger and denial have subsided. Then, in our pain and depression, we accept the fact that our beloved dog is no longer with us. We begin to integrate its loss into the larger tapestry of our daily lives and take up our daily routines again.

William Kay, in his book, PET LOSS AND HUMAN BEREAVEMENT, discusses how one's health can be adversely affected by the death of the family pet. The pet's death affects the owner's health in two ways: First, it triggers grief and often depression. Nightmares, loss of appetite, loss of sleep and even minor colds can follow since the grieving process can impact the body's immune system and make it less able to fight off invading viruses.

Health professionals need to recognize that bereaved persons, whether grieving the loss of humans or pets, are many times in need of "postvention." Edwin Schneidman, in his book, VOICES OF DEATH, said that he learned from his work with grieving persons that prevention, intervention and postvention are synonymous with the concepts of immunization, treatment and rehabilitation. Postvention consists of all those verbal and nonverbal interventions that help reduce the impact and dire after-affects on the lives of people who have lost a family member. Postvention is not only directed at the initial shock of losing a loved one, but at the longer haul -- the day-to-day living with grief for a year or more following the first shock of loss.

Complicating or interfering with postvention is the fact that we live in a culture in which we deal with our fear of death by denying the very fact of death. Dying people are separated from society and placed in hospitals or convalescent homes, far away from the rest of us.

Here are a few survival tips for those of you mourning a loss in your life:

  • Recognize that you need time to heal. The greater the loss the more time it will take.
  • Get lots of rest; grieving is tiring.
  • It's OK to need comforting. Allow yourself to be "taken care of" for a while.
  • Do your mourning now. Don't postpone it or run away from it. The sooner you allow yourself to be with your pain, the sooner it will pass.
  • Finally, loss, pain, healing, understanding all makes you expand and grow as a person. As Kubler-Ross wrote, "Death is the key to the door of life. It is through accepting the finite-ness of our individual existences that we are enabled to find strength and courage to reject those extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives -- however long they may be -- to growing as fully as we are able."
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