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There is much talk in today's world about unconditional love. It would be wonderful if human beings were capable of such a thing. The sad truth is that we fall short of the mark. While unconditional love is probably impossible, it is a wonderful goal and we should continue to strive for it.
In reality, the closest thing to unconditional love we ever perceive is that which we sense from our pets. Even then, there are a few conditions. After we have fed them and their other basic needs have been met, animals are unconditional. We have yet to hear that someone's dog, cat, parakeet or hamster judged them or criticized them or called them stupid.
What we do know is that people tell their most intimate secrets to their pets. What we do know is that people express their truest and deepest emotions to their pets, often much more so than they ever express them to friends or family. We know how incredibly important pets can be to people. We know millions of people who, unable to have children, have been able to have some of the wonderful and natural parental type feelings for their pets. We know an awful lot about how attached people become to their pets.
More importantly, we know how devastating the death of a pet can be. We know how grieving pet owners are often abused by well-meaning friends who say insensitive things. The purpose of this column is to help grieving pet owners complete their relationship to the pain caused by the death of their pet. And, to assist friends of grievers with more helpful and supportive information about recovery from one of life's most significant losses.
We are all familiar with the expression that starts with; "I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet..." While well intentioned, that parable sets up one of the most massive pieces of mis-information in our society. It teaches us to compare our feelings in order to minimize them. And, followed to its logical conclusion, there can only be one griever---the one with the most horrible list of losses.
Grieving pet owners, met with the constant line, "it was only a pet," are set up to compare their feelings to those they may have had when a parent or grandparent died. And if that is not enough, they are then told to "go out and get another one," or replace the loss. No one would be insensitive enough to tell you to go out and "get another one" if your mother died, would they? On the other hand, when a baby dies, the parents are often told, "don't feel bad, you're young, you can have other children."
Our human responses to death are normal and natural. Since we have been taught to hide or mask our natural reactions to loss, we often feel that there is something wrong with us when we experience intense feelings. Death of a pet often produces incredibly powerful emotions.
The emotions attached to the loss are normal, but society's treatment of the grieving pet owner is not normal. We must strive to normalize that which is normal. Otherwise, we continue to drive grievers' feelings underground, buried for fear of being considered "weak."
As a friend of someone who has recently experienced the death of a pet, please remember that their heart is broken. All grief is experienced at 100%. There are no half grievers. Do not try to minimize their pain.
Recovery from the pain caused by death of a pet, as with all other losses, must include the process of discovering and completing all unfinished emotional business. This process is detailed in THE GRIEF RECOVERY HANDBOOK.
© 2002 Russell P. Friedman, John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute.
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