by Rae Mazzei, Clinical Health Psychologist, owner of Evolutions Behavioral Health
Losing a pet can be devastating. Our animal friends provide us with so much during their short life. They give us companionship, emotional support, and even physical guidance. Everyone has a unique relationship with their pet. For some, the loss of a pet is fairly unemotional and recovery is quick. For others, a pet death can trigger intense feelings of grief. Whatever your experience, you may find you need help dealing with this difficult time.
During your time grieving, you may feel many painful feelings. Grief refers to the process in which one experiences a variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, and loneliness. Grief is perfectly normal when experiencing a pet loss.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a well-known psychological intervention utilized by therapists to treat a variety of mental health issues, including grief. ACT focuses on achieving acceptance, mindfulness and psychological flexibility by encouraging behavior change. This therapy provides useful techniques to manage your grief.
Here are some useful techniques that can help you through the grieving process:
Practice acceptance of your feelings. You may be feel a plethora of emotions, such as despair, hopelessness, and guilt. These feelings are likely to change and vary in intensity. Whatever you are experiencing, see if you can notice them, name them, breathe into them, and open up to them. Allow yourself to be overwhelmed. Rather than struggle against the pain, see if you can make room for what you feel. Try to take a third person perspective, meaning that you observe what you experience rather than be engulfed by your feelings. Realize that your feelings will change and that emotions are transient. This is not to lessen their significance, but to help you move forward.
Engage in mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness refers to the process of becoming aware of your emotional state and accepting this state without judgement. Mindfulness can help you gain insight into your experience and accept the totality of your experience. There are numerous ways to engage in mindfulness practices:
find a quiet place to sit;
close your eyes;
take a couple deep breaths;
notice where you are;
notice what you can see, hear, and touch;
notice what you are feeling and see if you can name it;
continue focusing on your breath;
try bringing an attitude of loving kindness towards yourself;
Identify and connect with your values. Think about your values or what’s important to you. How do your feelings relate to your values? Can you see that how your grief can fit into your life’s values? You can grieve while still behaving according to your values.
Be compassionate with yourself. During this very difficult time, try to practice self-compassionate. Take it easy and remember to love the person who are you. You may be struggling with existential issues when you lose your pet. Try to avoid dwelling on the darkness of death and be kind to yourself.
Notice any negative thinking. Your mind may be filled with negative thoughts, such as “I will never get over this”; “I will never find another pet like him/her”; or “It’s all my fault.” You may have a lot of thinking about what you should have done differently, fueling regret and remorse. These are all automatic thoughts generated by your mind as you go through the grieving process. Your brain tells you stories that you may feel are true; however, try to recognize that these are thoughts, not facts. Tell yourself, “this is just my mind talking” or “I am having the thought that…” Try to let go of unhelpful thoughts and focus on your values.
Find a ritual to honor your pet. When you lose a pet, you will likely never forget. You may want to engage in a ritual in which you honor your pet and your relationship. This can include impressing a paw print of your pet, looking at old pictures, saying a prayer, or donating to an animal welfare organization in your pet’s name. Think about memorable times you had together and what you loved about your pet.
Use self-care. When you’re enveloped in grief, you may find that taking care of yourself is challenging. Negative emotions and stress can actually make you susceptible to disease. Eating nutritious foods, getting quality and sufficient sleep, and exercising is important to keeping your mind and body healthy.
Practice gratitude. While acknowledging what you have lost, think about what you are grateful for in your life. Every day, try to identify 3 things that give you gratitude. Research has shown that this simple technique can help you feel better.
You may find that you need additional emotional support. Seeing a therapist who is an expert in pet loss counseling can help you gain insight, resolve your conflicted feelings, learn coping skills, and encourage healthy lifestyle behaviors. A pet loss counselor can empathize and provide a supportive therapeutic space to deal with the death of an animal companion.
About the Author
Dr. Mazzei is a licensed Health Psychologist who helps individuals overcome emotional and health issues. She has years of clinical experience in dealing with grief and loss. At her private practice, she provides grief counseling for pet loss. As a pet owner of dogs, rabbits, cats, and chickens, she has dealt with her own personal loss and can empathize with others’ pain. In therapy, she aims to provide a compassionate and supportive therapeutic space. Dr. Mazzei incorporates Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness training, biofeedback, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, hypnosis and lifestyle guidance into therapy. Dr. Mazzei is owner and founder of Evolutions Behavioral Health, located in Chandler, Arizona. For more information about Dr. Mazzei’s practice, please visit https://www.evolutionsbh.com .