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Disenfranchised Grief and Our Furry Family Members

Disenfranchised Grief and Our Furry Family Members

This week, I want to talk about grief. Grief is a universal condition that all of us who care about someone else will experience. We don’t talk about it much because it reminds us of our own mortality (as well as the mortality of those we love) until we encounter it headlong and have to navigate our way from profound loss and sorrow to healthy memories and living on.
You will see in our upcoming events that the CBA Elder Care (North) section is hosting a symposium about grief on June 3rd. This event came about because wills and estates lawyers—a substantial component of the Elder Care section—often deal with grieving clients, and because we, as lawyers, are not exempt from grief and loss ourselves.
As professionals who encounter clients experiencing difficulties, it behooves us to be knowledgeable about grief and supportive resources. Yes, we are not social workers. But if you can direct a client to helpful assistance, you will have a positive impact in that person’s life, and your file will likely proceed more smoothly as well.
We know that grief generally involves five stages, as defined by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1970 book On Death and Dying. This book is still in print, after more than 50 years, a testimony to the impact of this groundbreaking work. She identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This list has now been refined into seven stages:
  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope
Last May, my 89-year-old father passed away. Shock and denial can be short-lived when a very elderly person receives a progressive degenerative diagnosis. It was painful knowing that my dad was going to die, but we all expect that our parents will pass away before us, and I didn’t spend long on anger and bargaining because my dad had had a great life—apart from breaking his kneecap in the 1950s, he had never been hospitalized, and his thirty years post-retirement were healthy and largely happy.
The depression part—low mood, sadness—began as he started to fade, and we knew that time was running out. Being sad is part of grieving and you have to engage with it. My situation last year was complicated: my dad passed away in early May, one son got married in mid-June and another in August, and we held a beautiful memorial event in September (“Two Weddings and a Funeral”—not quite a movie, and without Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell). It was hard to switch between sadness and the joyous events, and it was really only after the second wedding, when I began to assemble photos and organize the memorial, that I was able to sit comfortably with grief.
It turns out that a memorial event is incredibly healing—gathering with people who cared about my dad was wonderful and many shared stories. I don’t know when I turned upward, worked through and found acceptance and hope, but it probably happened gradually.
This May found me grieving again. My beloved canine companion, Tessa, whose photo and antics have been shared in this newsletter previously, passed away, and I am still at an early part of the process. She was slowing down for sure, with her fourteenth birthday on the horizon, but coming home to bright red blood stains all over my floors was a shock. The first emergency vet gave me hope—she identified a mass in Tessa’s bladder and said that while it could be a tumor, it could also be a blood clot that could be removed. Things worsened quickly, and we had to gather to say goodbye. It may have been the saddest day in my sixty-plus years.
I struggled with guilt—was there something I could have done earlier that would have changed the outcome—but she had a physical exam in late March that didn’t identify this issue. And was the internist vet correct that there was nothing that could be done? I did my bargaining in the three days before her passing—I would have sacrificed almost anything to have more time with her, but it doesn’t work that way, and I am now in the sadness phase. I feel it emotionally, and I am physically exhausted.
One of the challenges when we are grieving our companion animals can be a lack of understanding of the impact of this kind of loss. I am fortunate that most people in my immediate circle are pet people who were incredibly fond of Tessa, too. Friends brought flowers and shared special memories. But many people suffering through loss of a pet encounter resistance from others who minimize their loss, causing what is termed a “disenfranchised loss.” Research about human-animal interactions recognizes the importance of working through grief and validation through empathy.
Several years ago, I served on a board of a not-for-profit organization which was holding a special event. A local politician who was involved with us had RSVP’d but then failed to show. We later received the explanation that they had to have a family pet put down that day. Many people were less than sympathetic, saying that this person’s duty was to attend our event and power through the loss. I struggled with my position on this—yes, when you enter public life, you are expected to be responsive to your electorate, but if you are feeling devastated personally, are you expected to appear at an event and hide your grief? I still don’t know the answer to these questions.
If you are grieving the loss of an animal companion, please seek out people who will understand and support your grief process. Losing a beloved pet hurts, and working through the meaning of our relationship with our pet is important.
Less support leads to more complicated and protracted grieving, and losing a pet can be an isolating experience when people withdraw from social interactions because they don’t believe their grief will be respected or validated.
The deeper the attachment between the person and the pet, the more severe the grief, and in very deep attachments, pet loss grief can parallel human loss grief.  And just as our human loss grief does not follow sequential, linear stages, grieving our pets doesn’t have a predetermined timetable. If you find yourself returning to an “earlier” stage of grief, please don’t be hard on yourself. This happens and be kind to yourself.
Grieving the loss of a pet means accepting the reality of your loss and being able to remember your pet with decreasing sadness, eventually even to enjoy your memories.
The American Humane Society suggests the following:
  • Acknowledge your grief and allow yourself to express it—cry if you need to! I don’t think I have ever cried as much in my life as with this loss.
  • Don’t dwell on your last moments with your pet because these are rarely our best memories and try to focus on happy parts or your life together.
  • Reach out to sympathetic friends and family and let them know you need support.
  • Consider support groups, some of which are online.
  • Plan how to memorialize your pet. I have ordered a ceramic paw print to display in a memory box with a photo, which will hang beside my late cat’s memory box in my family room.
  • Write about your feelings or express your feelings through an artistic representation.
  • Write an obituary for your pet—I did this when Chase-the-cat passed away and it was incredibly helpful for me to put special thoughts about him in written form.
I am working on a physical photo album of Tessa—it may be rather big, but that’s okay. There is no limit on the number of photos I can include, even if it takes more than one album!
A veterinary hospital tells us that we may feel physical symptoms including aches, pains, chest tightness, exhaustion, nausea, insomnia, loss of appetite, as well as intellectual impacts such as rumination, inability to concentrate and confusion. Their list of helpful actions is:
  • Spend time with supportive friends and family
  • Find comfort in routines
  • Keep moving and keep active
  • Take a short break from grief to let light into your day—laughter and music may help
  • Continue your relationship through memories and memorialization.
If you have children, experts recommend being honest about what happened and not saying that the pet ran away or went to sleep. Instead, share your grief and let them express their feelings—help them be proud that they are compassionate and caring people.
This, of course, depends on the age of the children. My kids were four and two when we took our family cat (Cleo—not Chase) to the vet and received a terminal diagnosis. I stayed with her while euthanasia occurred, with the kids being in the waiting room with their dad. We told the kids that the cat was very sick and had to stay at the vet hospital and then we told them that she had died a couple of days later.  I thought this was easier and I didn’t think that delaying the timing (so that they wouldn’t associate going to the vet with an animal dying) would be harmful.
If you have a friend or family member who has lost a loved pet, please take your cues from them and do not try to problem solve for them. They will have to work through their grief and find meaning in the life and death of their pet themselves and this is not an easy process.
If you are feeling stuck in your loss, please consider meeting with a counsellor. Assist’s free and professional counselling is non-judgmental--the counsellor will not be judging you for the intensity of your feelings of loss, and remember that unmanaged grief can morph into depression. While I don’t think we have arranged a peer support match to date regarding pet loss, I am willing to serve in this capacity, so if you are struggling and want to connect with another lawyer navigating grief, you can call me, and we can walk this path together.
How do I know that I am advancing through the stages of grief, even if advancement isn’t sequential? The soundtrack running through my brain has shifted from Paul Simon’s I Am A Rock:

Don't talk of love
Well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

And I am now able to embrace Alfred Lord Tennyson’s grief couplet:
Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
You can move from being a rock and an island to a person who loves again—believe in yourself and ask for the support you need.