Mourning Pet Loss
A Dream about the death of my dog Pepper:
In my dream, I was working at my desk, and I saw, my little Yorkie, Pepper, rolling and frolicking on the couch on his blanket. I got up and went over to rub his tummy, which he always loved when he was on his back. I got up, and as I approached him, I said, you have died and will disappear when I go to rub your tummy. To my surprise, he stayed on his back and let us both enjoy and relish my rubbing of his belly. I woke up realizing that my hands were rubbing on my own head and hair.
This article is dedicated to Pepper, our wonderful pet and companion for over 12 years, who died recently of a combination of old age and ill-health. He was an adopted pet from an animal rescue program. Pepper came into our lives when he was about three years old. It was several years after my wife and I had lost an elderly standard poodle, Max. We were not going to get another pet as we did not want to take on the responsibility or endure the pain of another loss: Max was our fourth dog, and we were not looking for number five.
However, a coincidence happened – kismet – in what seemed meant to be,
but unexplainable in a logical, rational way – what Jung, the famous psychiatrist, called synchronicity. While my wife and I were in a food store, we noticed a little sign. One of the animal rescue organizations had some pets for adoption nearby. After considering the “risk” of stopping by there, we felt a pull to do it. When my wife walked in, she told the person in charge that she always, from childhood, wanted a small Yorkie. The woman, in charge of the dog rescue for the day, said, “We usually don’t get small dogs, especially Yorkies, but one was given up for adoption and was coming in later this afternoon.” Again, after considering the options, we decided to go back in the afternoon. And there the little critter was, with his restless energy and waiting to be loved. I need not say more, Pepper became pet number five for us; I think one of our favorites, but also one of our most painful losses.
I remember, early in my psychiatry practice, seeing someone, over a two years period, who had prolonged severe depression and grief after losing two longtime pets. Grief and bereavement can become prolonged, reaching a level of severity, interoperability, and suffering – with a significant impact on health and the ability to function and self-manage. When this occurs, major depression or depression related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would be a possibility. This would be the time to consider an evaluation by a mental health professional. There could be a range of recommendations after evaluation, including therapy, lifestyle interventions, medications, support groups, and the encouragement to reach out to others. The advice to get another pet is not always the best solution, or even possible – as special care is needed if there are complications of the grieving process.
Mourning varies according to many factors.
The length and quality of the relationship with the pet and the degree of attachment is significant. There often is more attachment when the pet has been an intimate or emotional support companion for many years. Some pets have been service, working, or therapy animals. The degree of the pain and suffering, after the loss of a pet, can be just as severe – whether a person has only one or multiple pets.
There may be, with any given individual, history of multiple losses or traumas related to the death of significant others in the past. There is an accumulative effect of partially worked through grief from the incomplete healing process of prior losses. A person can be very vulnerable to another unexpected loss when past pain and trauma haven’t been worked through effectively – leaving one vulnerable to future life situations and relationships. An individual without much “grieving reserve” or resilience may not move through a new required grieving process in a healthy and adaptive way.
It is sometimes a matter of survival for an individual, with an overwhelming trauma or shock, to go into denial
of what has happened – especially if there is not much reserve or experience with loss. With denial, grieving and the process of working through loss or trauma is delayed for a later time – when other factors and support might be more favorable: A more suitable time can occur for experiencing and dissipating the pent-up feeling and emotion. What has accumulated under the surface of awareness, repressed or suppressed in the mind, can be compared to a pressure cooker that always needs careful attendance and hypervigilance so that it won’t explode. Waiting for a safer, more advantageous time to process and work through a traumatic loss is often essential, so more focus can be placed on basic survival needs – especially when proper support or helpful resources are not available.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross book “On Death and Dying” introduced the idea of the five stages of grief and loss.
Some aspects of all of these stages may be experienced after the loss of a loved one or significant other.
A denial stage is what can be experienced after a loss – with intense feelings as a shock, disbelief, confusion, fear, avoidance, and emotional numbing. An avoidance occurs, by which an individual suppresses or represses intolerable thoughts or feelings into the unconsciousness of the mind. Sometimes, it can be to the extent of a person going on with everyday activities as if nothing significant happened. Other emotions or behaviors, sometimes associated with denial or different stages, are agitation – being “hyper” and highly anxious, or even elation – an inflated relief feeling of being a survivor when others have died.
An anger stage can occur, which begins to be noticed as the reality of the loss returns. There can be associated emotions as the feelings of blame towards ones’ self or others, irritation, frustration or nervousness. Anger may be felt in regards to the unfairness of life: why now did this have to happen to my companion or me.
A bargaining stage is seen when the grieving person begins to wonder whether there may have been actions that may have prevented the death. What if I had taken more “appropriate” actions or done things better or differently? During this stage when guilt arises – being present, reflective, accepting, and open to the experience of the anger or other painful emotions – is a healthy acknowledgment that it is a part of the grieving process. A person might bargain with some personal ideas as, “if I do more of this or that, work more, or pray more, or something, this pain and grief will go away and I can go back to living my life.” It is the time to reach out to others, to tell or reflect on the loss, painful happening, and remembrances – with the struggle to find meaning in “all of it.”
A depression stage can be difficult to experience or endure, especially when it shows up frequently or for prolonged periods. Depression can show up as:
Sadness and grief
Feeling helpless and hopeless
Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
Loss of one’s usual vitality or interest in things
Withdrawal and isolating self from others
Not wanting to get out of bed
Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
All of these may be only slightly present or noticed at times or be very pervasive in one’s daily life and activity. If severe and prolonged, it may be appropriate and the time to consider outside support, help, or intervention. It is a time when one can easily want to drop back into denial, hostility, anger, avoidance, wanting to take flight, or run away to something else. An example would be a person who gets buried in their work or becomes extremely religious, which can result in an individual who is bypassing the direct experiencing and working through painful emotional experiences. If a person is feeling that life has lost its meaning and not worth living or has suicidal thoughts, it is time to seek help from a mental healthcare provider.
The acceptance stage is when the residual feeling of loss, sadness, and grief with the reality of the finality of death – comes into a balance with the recognition that life continues. There is an acceptance that returning memories and feelings, will appear, when triggered by reminders, with varying intensity and time lengths for months, years, and sometimes a lifetime. This stage or time is when one begins to explore and thinks of choices and options for life without the valued companion and loved one. Many different things can trigger a memory of the deceased a picture, items as a toy, grooming aids, or a time of doing a routine with a pet. For example, I just took a break from my writing and remembered that it would be the usual time to call my dog Pepper for a walk. Sometimes a dream will touch on some aspect of the grieving process. This can be an opportunity for further reflection and working through the loss, grief and painful emotions.
There are circumstances where there is the loss of a relationship that has been full of turmoil, negative interaction, or constant limitations on one’s freedom, as seen in the long-term care of an ill or very dependent companion. Sometimes a person’s life has taken on definition or meaning from their interactions with a very negative relationship over time. An example would be a pet that has reached a point of needing almost constant care, or having a pet that is very destructive to property – your own and others – and sometimes aggressive, biting and dangerous to others.
There can be other factors that can impair a person’s ability to tolerate or to manage a loss
without adequate support or care: such as poor health and physical impairment, high-stress overload, mental or emotional illness – as depression, PTSD, history of multiple loss, trauma and unresolved grief, etc. During a grief process, poor health or other risk factors can put a person at greater vulnerability. A survivor of a pet loss may have a higher risk of illness, or even possible death, in the months following a traumatic loss – as an elderly person with impaired health.
It is said that children, that grow up on farms who see life and death of farm animals, are better equipped to experience dying and death of others because of their early life exposure and learning. On the other hand, survivors of war, severe accidents, trauma, or mass causality situations may have difficulty or less resilience with any new exposure to trauma or loss as seen in PTSD sufferers.
Let us not forget the spiritual aspect of having or losing a pet.
Having or losing a pet is an opening to the wisdom of loving, acceptance, letting go, and of embracing the totality of life – beyond our personal universe and small world, limited beliefs and perceptions. Grief or memories of lost companions or significant others never ends, but changes – it is a passage, not a place to stay. Surviving and living through grief is part of life, and this can contribute to:
Growth and compassion
Strength and integrity
Acceptance and faith
Coping better with adversity
My most recent dream about Pepper:
I was in a residential neighborhood of mostly small houses. I was feeling healthy and was out for a jog with my dog – which resembled a little of each of my prior dogs. I realized that I forgot his leash in a neighborhood where dogs were supposed to be on leashes. I kept calling him to stay close, and he would come back but then run off into the yards of houses we were passing. We turned around and were heading back when another larger dog came running towards us and appeared to be friendly. It was a little smaller as it got closer. It checked us out, then ran back towards where it had come. I continued my run with my dog, with him being close and then running off and disappearing into the passing yards. I woke up.
I interpreted the dream as a reflection on mourning and loss of my pet Pepper, who was now free and “off-leash”, to return occasionally in my memories. With each dream, Pepper, or my other prior dogs would return less in my thoughts over time – yet always remaining in my heart.
Loss is painful and follows its unique course for each of us
and is learning from the experience of grief, dying, and death. The process is a way of developing wisdom, acceptance, and the art of letting go – lessons from life and preparation for our own aging, dying, and death or that of a significant other.
If it is possible or appropriate for you, as there are many pets that need adoption, consider adopting a pet. Always find positive ways of helping and giving your love, support, and spirit to others – it may change your life and that of others profoundly. Thank you, Pepper, my loved pet.
by Ron Parks, MD and Shan Parks, co-writer and editor
The above writing is dedicated to all the pets and their owners, lost in the recent devastating wildfires in California, and to the survivors of this tragedy.