Guest post by Lisa Howe RVN, A1, Cert. Pet Bereavement (BC)
Losing a beloved animal at any time can be traumatic and distressing, but these feelings along with helplessness and isolation can be heightened, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am seeing an increasing number of clients struggling at this difficult time and wanted to work with Dignity to try and reach more people, by putting together a question and answer piece on pet bereavement during the pandemic.
Why has the COVID-19 pandemic caused my grief to be more intense?
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the grief process during pet loss for so many. The social isolation that we have all experienced can be a constant reminder of your loss and the loss of routine associated with your beloved animal, as well as the loss of general routine caused by the lock down can feed our grief.
What emotions am I likely to experience after the loss of a beloved pet?
It is very normal to grieve follow the loss of your pet and there is no set length of time for moving through the process, it is very individual. The most important thing is to allow yourself time to grieve and to experience the emotions without trying to hide them or supress it. Be kind to yourself and take time out for your physical and mental wellbeing.
Here are some of the most common emotions and the ways in which they can manifest themselves:
Shock – Making people more accident prone, emotional numbness.
Denial/disbelief – “This hasn’t happened. They’ll appear soon”.
Sadness – At the death and related losses.
Guilt – For the way in which the death happened or at how the death could have been prevented.
Anger – At what had happened. At someone or something. At whoever may have caused the death or allowed it to happen.
Shame – For not reacting as one would expect or perceive they should.
Physical symptoms of grief may include:
Headaches, feeling sick, exhaustion, sleep disturbance, loss of short-term memory, lack of concentration and weight fluctuation.
Grief can be an emotional roller coaster and feelings often change from day to day. It is very important to remember that all of the emotions listed are natural and normal responses to a bereavement. You must not be frightened to show your emotions following a pet bereavement, talking about how you feel can really help.
Why do I feel Intense trauma following the loss of my pet?
Intense bereavement can be similar to Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and these powerful emotions can prevail for a while accompanied by a sense of violation, helplessness and distress.
Reactions to a traumatic incident are likely to be worse if:
- There is feeling of wanting to have done more.
- There is little or no perceived support from colleagues, family or friends.
- The incident follows closely on top of stressful events in your life.
During the COVID-19 pandemic the tendency to suffer with Complicated Bereavement or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is much higher, due to the social isolation and the fact that you may not have been able to access your usual veterinary services, or been able to say goodbye to your pet in the way you would have liked.
How do i identify if i might be suffering from Complicated Grief or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
- Persistent focus on the loss
- Intense, daily longing
- Feeling that life is meaningless
- Replaying aspects of death in mind
- Intense attachment or rejection of reminders
- Bitterness and anger at the world
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
- Intense flashbacks
- Recurring nightmares
- Sensory experiences that trigger trauma
- Unwelcome thoughts
- Paranoia and fear
Traumatic events trigger the fight-or-flight response in your brain to such an extreme degree that it throws it off-balance. You become hypersensitive to cues that remind you of the trauma and eventually simply living feels like an uphill struggle. Breaking out of this pattern is difficult because it’s almost impossible to take your mind elsewhere, when your adrenaline is flooding your body and your fear response is through the roof.
If you feel you may be suffering with either of the above, a pet bereavement counsellor can help to give you positive coping strategies and can also support you through the grief process.
Why do I associate the safety measures and changes due COVID-19, with restricted services and increased suffering?
Following the loss of a pet some people can associate the safety measures and lockdown restrictions with suffering, as they were unable to access their normal veterinary service for their pet at the end. This is normal and your brain’s response to trying to protect itself from further trauma and pain. What is actually happening is you are becoming more and more isolated and in turn this is having a negative effect. It can be hard having to face the “new normal” following a loss, but it is very important to try and take slow baby steps, when you feel strong enough. Make sure you go to places with someone who understands and can support you and that you visit places for a very short amount of time. Try to have a phased return to work if you have been working from home.
The policies and process that have had to happened due to COVID-19, are understandably distressing and it can feel very overwhelming having to face the new normal, while dealing with your loss, but this is very normal and will get easier with time.
I don’t feel like I was able to say goodbye in the way I wanted at the end, Due to COVID-19.
Unlike humans, animals do not have funerals, so we are often left in limbo after our beloved pets have died. This is where holding a service, transfer of ashes into a more personal urn or creating a lasting tribute, can really help us to ultimately find resolution. By honouring our pets and their lives.
Naming a Star and creating a memory book are also really good ways to create a lasting tribute, that you can look back on and remember the happy times, rather than negatives.
What can help?
You may find that you can cope by yourself; however, you may need the support of others. This can come from your family and friends, from other sources such as support group. While you may appreciate some quiet time by yourself, it can be helpful to avoid withdrawing from other people.
Keeping in contact can take many different forms, and at this time of physical isolation, you and those around you can use alternative ways to prevent social isolation. Finding new ways to communicate may feel like an additional burden when you already feel exhausted and overwhelmed. However, it is worth pursuing these new ways of contact, as they will help keep you connected with others who love you and are concerned for you.
Because we carry many beliefs about online communication being inferior to in-person interaction, it surprises many people to learn that online interaction can be very effective in helping us to feel close to others, to give and receive social support, and to maintain existing bonds with friends and family. Seeking practical and/or emotional support – remotely or otherwise – is not a sign of weakness.
The pandemic may make it easier to become more isolated and withdrawn, when your energy and interest in connecting with others is low. it may be additionally important to help yourself connect by having set times to link with family and friends and encourage yourself to engage even when you don’t really feel in the mood.
It is important to make some time to care for yourself. returning to normal activities can help you to re-establish your routine. it is important to eat regular meals and take adequate rest so that your body can keep going. these steps will help you to feel more in control. other activities such as taking some light exercise or doing something relaxing, such as taking a bath or listening to soothing music, may be beneficial.
Allow yourself time to grieve. Remember that special times, such as anniversaries, birthdays or Christmas can intensify feelings of grief after an animal has died. you may benefit from extra support at these times.
If you feel like crying, don’t prevent yourself from doing so. This is a normal way to release your feelings and is not a sign of weakness.
It may be helpful not to rush into decisions about what to do with your animals bedding, toys, collar and or lead and food bowls etc.
It can be useful to delay big decisions, so that you do not commit to making a change that you may not have had enough time or space to consider.
Try to stick to a healthy diet and engage in some form of exercise. Avoid unhealthy practices and dependencies such as: fast food, alcohol, medicine, drugs etc. which negatively impact on overall health and wellbeing.
As time passes, you will be reassured that any worries you had about forgetting your pet are unfounded and that they will always be an important part of your life and memories. Keepsakes, such as photographs or other possessions, may be painful to look at early on, but can provide much comfort in the future.
If the intensity of your feelings adversely affects your daily life, do not hesitate to contact your GP.
Find out more about the pet bereavement services Lisa offers on her website.