- Nicole Vykoukal, LCSW
5 Tips for Coping with the Death of Your Companion Animal
From years of experience working with people facing adversity, crisis, and trauma, I can tell you loss is one of the most trying human experiences. Difficult losses include losing a job, health related losses, a relationship ending, and the death of a loved one. For many, the death of a beloved companion animal hits the hardest because we have deep, unique, and unconditional bonds with our companion animals. Here are 5 tips that can help you through the loss of your loved one.
1. Find ways to stay connected to the essence of your animal. Experts on grief and bereavement have found that staying connected to the memories and essence of lost loved ones can increase your mental and emotional wellness. Keeping physical memorabilia close can be helpful. For example, keeping your animal’s tags on your key-chain so they are always close. Some people find comfort in connecting to their animal’s essence through creative expression, such as painting, drawing, scrapbooking, and writing an essay, a short story, or journal entries. Stay aware of little “signs,” or messages, meaningful occurrences, and dreams that may come your way as a reminder of your companion.
Note: Sometimes, initial attempts to stay connected can bring up a lot of emotional pain. You may find yourself navigating a delicate dance of connection and feeling disconnected to your loved one. Staying distant and disconnected from the memory of your beloved animal may be a coping mechanism helping you manage intense grief. You could feel a bit numb to the memories of your loved one and their essence. There is no right or wrong here. If you are feeling disconnected or numb, remain compassionate with yourself and try to notice any tiny moments of connection.
2. Know that your feelings are normal and okay. Intense emotions and thoughts may even create the sense that you just can’t handle them or even the sense that you are going to “die” from the emotional pain. Emotions are your body’s way to tell you something is off or wrong. Darn right, something is off, the love of your life has passed away! You can survive painful emotions. Identify your emotions and express them to others who are empathetic and compassionate. Processing grief with others who are safe can take power away from difficult emotions and help you feel less alone, isolated, and overwhelmed with the darkness of this loss.
3. Find and connect with others who share the love of animals, understand the value and depth of the human-animal bond, and empathize with the depths of your grief. Identify several sources of connection and support. These sources could include compassionate friends, family, online forums or articles, a counselor, a support group, and books (I recommend the book Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate by Roxanne Hawn).
4. Know that existential questioning after a loss is completely normal and to be expected. Stay curious and explore which existential thoughts and explanations about life and death resonate with you. There is an abundance of spiritual communities, individuals, books, and online information you can turn to for scientific and spiritual exploration of life, death, and purpose. The main goal here is to pay attention to what resonates with your mind-heart-body-and-soul.
5. Use physical movement to regulate your emotions and body. Neuroscientists are discovering more and more about the brain, grief, memory, emotions, and trauma. One discovery is that bilateral movements, which engage both right and left sides of the body, help our brain integrate and help our nervous systems regulate. This can be very helpful when we are experiencing grief and loss. When you’re feeling down, go for a walk, a swim, or a run, shift a slinky so it moves from one hand to the other, play a drum, thread beads, knit, roll playdough in your hands, jump rope, or catch a ball. Some people report physical activity such as reupholstering a chair or cleaning provides a sense of release and/or relief. The main point is to get your body moving.
These tips may help you through your loss, but there is no easy way through grief. Many folks find they are forever changed after the loss of their companion because they were forever changed by the love they experienced. Moving forward, take a moment to identify sources of support and connection so you are less alone and please remain compassionate with yourself.