I have no interest in listening to other people talk about their experience losing their pet, about their grief…
This resonated with me deeply. At first I thought it was just me because I tend to be exceedingly private about my personal life, and that includes anything regarding the deaths in my midst. Understanding that, in looking back I’m not even sure why I even suggested that a pet loss support group meeting might be helpful to this person. I know now that was widely accepted as just what was available, accessible to those grieving the loss of a pet. I’m better equipped, today.
People in pet loss support groups… they’re focused on their grief — as you would expect. How can I go there and have an expectation of being seen, heard, understood in what I’m going through by others if they’re grieving? And I certainly can’t be expected to support them. I don’t want to. I’m too caught up in what’s going on in my own head to do that.
Oh boy. I can remember uttering those words years later in my own grief. Or at least thinking them. And fast forward years later, I know why they came so easily to that person — and me. My intuition was good back then, and I’m grateful that I followed it, eventually.
We are generally pretty instinctive about how we need to move through our grief, we just need the right space and environment to do it. It’s when we don’t have that, when we are told the only option we have to have any sliver of a chance in having our grief seen and heard is to share grieving space with others, and in many cases, before we’re ready.
We all have a different set of tools and skillset in our toolbox to be with our grief, to navigate through it. And of course that’s true — we’ve unique experiences with death, various types of loss, and grief, well… grief can be a shapeshifter of sorts. It assumes any form that it can take, to be heard, seen, acknowledged in, which for many of those who I’ve served over the years, can be disconcerting. It’s resilient like that, grief. It demands to have a front row seat, to be in your lap. Or at least sit side car.
Our culture is so grief-resistant, grief-repellent even, that if we see, hear or feel someone that is navigating the death of a loved one (or become aware that it’s happening), and this is especially true with disenfranchised grief, like that due to the loss of a pet — we’ll find any way to push it, and them — away. And so, until not so long ago, those wading through grief from the loss of a pet felt like they had no choice but to huddle together in groups designed just for them. Or, as I’ve seen in my ongoing training, they might be directed to talk to a mental health professional. Yes, people who are expressing normal grief because they’ve lost an animal companion are being referred to pet loss groups, and if they indicate that they’re not down with participating in a group setting, they are often at best referred to a list of mental health professionals to contact, if they’re not ignored altogether.
What’s often interpreted by the grieving when that occurs?
They feel dismissed. They feel like the only place their grief is allowed to come out to breathe is with another group of people who are grieving too. Or they come away feeling like their grief is a pathology. And for those who have the desire to get defensive about making those recommendations to the grieving, please don’t shoot the messenger. This is feedback that I’ve gotten from families over the years.
And we need to be clear: grief is not a problem, not a pathology. Grief is normal. We all experience it. Yes, even when our pets die. (That said, in less-common cases, like those involving complicated grief, the involvement of a mental health professional is beneficial.)
What seems to be the missing from this conversation? Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals.
As those professionals, my colleagues and I trained in the art of being fully present to those grieving the loss of a pet — not to assess or fix them, give them a road map, or resolve their grief. Our role is that of a bereavement caregiver, tending to those grieving and doing so without judgement, shame, grief ranking, or a prescription on how to grieve. We walk with the grieving. We hold space for them. We have earned the right — earned the trust — to hear the stories of those we serve.
The Companioning philosophy, developed by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, serves the grieving in a way that is antethetical to what can be more commonly seen in our culture — as those who need to be ‘treated’. As you might have guessed, Companioning started out as a philosophy designed to be helpful to those mourning the loss of a human, and later, was scaled to meet the needs of those navigating pet loss. That doesn’t mean that one is more or less valuable than the other, rather it recognizes that the two experiences can be very different. One of the things that probably comes to mind in how that’s so is that euthanasia is in many cases a part of the landscape in pet loss, and that’s so very true.
Though we are trained to lead pet loss groups, many Pet Loss and Grief Companion professionals, like myself, find it more useful to offer our expertise by way of one-on-one time. In that format, the grieving person can have as much space as they need and express themselves freely, unencumbered. They are able to have themselves and their grief be heard, seen and acknowledged. We walk with those who have shared life with their pets who are either approaching their end or already have (anticipatory grief is just as gripping as the grief after a loss): yes, some people seek the help of a Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professional as they are navigating their pet’s later years not only when pets receive a life-limiting diagnosis or are wading through the fourth life stage. Those being Companioned also learn how to craft space for themselves, to advocate for themselves when they are faced with everyday situations where they don’t feel as supported as they should at work, home and elsewhere. Because quite honestly, not having interactions with others isn’t always a workable option — and why should anyone have to wear a brave face constantly because their grief makes other people feel uncomfortable?
Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals bridge the gap that seems to exist when we lack the space to really be seen and heard in our grief by those in our midst, and with what else is available: pet loss groups and mental health professionals. The former isn’t conducive to moving through grief, and for many, the latter two aren’t necessary or useful. The truth is, as is evidenced by my experience in working with individuals in families after their pet’s death, the reason that things can get difficult as we grieve is that there is no healthy, natural atmosphere to give one and their grief the space they need — or that space is squashed. Companions, whether we’re certified to work in a capacity associated with pet loss or that with the loss of a human, help create that space. And we’re experts on understanding that the real expert on grief, is the one experiencing it. Companioning doesn’t involve there, there attitudes or oh, I feel really bad for you, here… you should do this to feel better. It’s not sympathy, but empathy; it’s …yes, this loss that you’re experiencing? It’s very real and hard and I can’t take it away, but I’m right here with you as you move through it.
Ahh yes, bearing witness.
Pet Loss and Grief Companioning is about working in our culture at-large to dismantle or at least weaken the notion that the grief over the loss of a pet somehow ranks lower than that of a human, that it belongs squarely in the category of disenfranchised grief, where it often sits now.
As Companioning professionals, we understand the essential needs of the mourning, and the importance of ritual in grief and how art, writing and other forms of creativity can be an expressive outlet for adults and children alike. Those whose focus is on pet loss understand how other family pets might be affected by a housemate’s death.
That said, most Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals are in some way tethered professionally or work in the trenches in the veterinary or pet care industries, though not all are.
After several years as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, I had witnessed many an instance when one of my charges died, and their families were left with the kind of grief that only another that faced pet loss would recognize. I’d also experienced the loss of a companion animal — three times in as many years, not to mention the death of my father not long before. What kept resonating through that journey is that grief deserves as much care and tending as new love (one won’t exist without the other, of course), and we don’t tell people to please get over your happiness, so why do that with grief?
And so, I made the decision after these experiences and others (including training as an end-of-life doula for humans, refining my hard and soft skills in working with pets who are in fragile health or dying and their families) to get more curious about what comes before, during and after a loss. My curiosity has proven to be a valuable asset, because that is essential to the Companioning philosophy. After discovering the Companioning model years ago, I decided to do the work of studying Pet Loss and Grief Companioning and earning my certificate under Coleen Ellis — who herself graduated from Dr. Wolfelt’s grief studies program — so that I could better serve my families and other individuals navigating through fresh or ripe grief after the loss of their beloved pet. And then I got more curious. I had more questions. And I studied and learned more about loss, grief, and how guilt, shame and judgement so easily swoop in as uninvited guests from outside and in and try to crowd out what’s really important as we mourn: being able to freely express ourselves when we need to in grief and being seen and heard as we do so. And I realized that my work as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter specializing in palliative, hospice and end-of-life care support allows me to have a unique perspective on loss and grief with the time I spend in the trenches, seeing what unfolds during these times of life, which is very much profound, intimate and personal for families.
It goes without saying that it seems logical for those mourning the loss of a pet to seek support in navigating their grief to gravitate toward a pet loss support group. It’s not uncommon for that bereaved person to mention to their pet care provider or veterinary practice staff that they are feeling the effects of a pet’s loss. It’s equally often the case that those professionals refer the person to a pet loss support group or a mental health professional.
And it’s important for all of them to know that while those are viable options and a fit for some, they are not the only ones. Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professionals are capable and highly-skilled in pet loss bereavement care and offer it using a philosophy that honors the grief journey, without seeing it as something that needs to be ‘treated’; we walk alongside the grieving person. As I say frequently in my work — in borrowing a quote from Ram Dass — “…we are all just walking each other home.”
For more on connecting with a Pet Loss and Grief Companioning professional, click here.
Lorrie Shaw has trained as an end-of life doula and earned a certification in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning in 2017, which qualifies her to work in a professional capacity with families coping with the emotional toil with pets in end-of-life, as well as individuals seeking professional Companioning in their journey through pet loss and grief. She’s a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, National End-of Life Alliance and Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. She can be found at lorrieshaw.com, and tweets at @psa2.