If you are grieving today… for your pet

Elizabeth was losing her constant companion, running buddy, the protector who saved her from a late-night assault, the one who got her through an unwanted divorce, the one constant in 15 years of life changes. He was dying, and there was no one else to care for him. Besides, she needed to be the one to see him out. The fact that he was a dog and not a human mattered to her not at all.

She tried to use sick time, but it didn’t apply. She tried to use bereavement leave but it only applied to humans. She tried to use vacation time but didn’t apply for it early enough. She insisted, and the decision-maker allowed it. So she was present for his peaceful death a few days later. When she came back to work, she was unapologetic, and miffed that she’d had to beg.

“I know it seems silly to some people,” she said, “but I can’t explain how important he was to me. When I walk into the apartment now, there is the moment when I expect him to saunter up to me, collar jangling, and all I hear is silence. Last night, I went to a movie to avoid going home.”

When I met Elizabeth, she was an already experienced counselor who spent her days helping clients through all sorts of challenges, from grief to divorce to anxiety to relapses. She was a steady presence, always ready to step up in a crisis. I learned a lot from her, and she mentored me toward the next step in my career, taking over the storefront addiction counseling center that she was leaving for a promotion. She was no weakling, no overly sentimental drama queen. She was grieving, first for his decline and then for his death.

There is a name for this: disenfranchised grief. It applies when you grieve over something that isn’t granted recognition by society as a legitimate loss. The loss of a pet, the death of an ex-spouse, a miscarriage, the end of a secret relationship all leave the griever unable to experience two crucial aspects of grieving: to have the loss acknowledged and to receive support.

So, people learn to do what Elizabeth did – speak openly about the importance of the loss and trust that others may become able to understand once they think about it. What bothered her the most, she said, was the common knee-jerk reaction that she could simply go get another dog, which denied the nature of their relationship.

“I don’t want just a dog,” she said. “I want my dog.”

Here’s what she did instead – framed a picture of him to put on her mantle; and every year wrote a check to an organization that trains service dogs. She treated her loss as what it was – important and legitimate, and taught the rest of us to see it that way too.She refused to be disenfranchised.

For more on grief, visit my website www.wavesofgrief.com.


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