Mourning for our canines

When we lose a canine companion, self-critical thoughts and feelings can become part of our grief. We can disproportionately focus on our perceived flaws and imperfections rather than viewing our actions as those of someone doing their best to stand by a loved dog in painful circumstances. This is known as "moral pain," and luckily there are things we can do to alleviate it.

Will was upset after his dog Ray died. Even though Ray had slowed down and slept more, Will had passed it on as usual, a sign that his trusted buddy was just getting older. Little could be done by the time the vet diagnosed cancer.

Looking back, Will accused himself of not taking Ray to the vet early – "He counted on me and I let him down" – and kicked himself for not being able to afford additional diagnosis, let alone treatment. "I just didn't have that much money and it tears me apart."

He couldn't shake memories of Ray's death or stop the self-critical thoughts that made him feel guilty and feel like "I can never forgive myself".

Moral pain

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When we lose a canine companion, these thoughts and feelings can become part of our grief. While these values ​​are based on positive values ​​like loyalty, protection, and commitment to our dog's well-being, they can also cause us moral pain if we believe we haven't done them justice. According to Brandon Griffin, PhD, “Moral pain can be attributed to an event or series of events that a person sees as a gross violation of their moral beliefs and values, such as violating our own values ​​through what we have done or are doing failed. "

Wallace Sife, PhD, in his book The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Managing the Grief Process of the Death of a Pet, points out that caring for a companion is in some ways "a complex set of responsibilities," "similar to the obligations to raise a child. “Given that we cannot always protect our dogs from suffering and may have to make decisions about when to end their lives, we can find ourselves thinking and wondering how well we have fulfilled that responsibility.

In our grief, we may disproportionately focus on our perceived flaws and imperfections, rather than viewing our actions as those of someone doing their best to stand by a loved one in painful circumstances. So when a dog dies, according to Sife, we may need to "consider the guilt and failed engagement that almost always occurs during an intense pet death."

Often times, moral pain subsides as we process our grief. However, there are times when it persists. When this happens, it can indicate deeper problems like depression, anxiety, or what counselors call moral harm. According to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University: "Moral harm is the damage done to one's conscience or the moral compass when [someone] commits, testifies or does not prevent actions that go beyond one's own moral convictions, values ​​or ethical codes of conduct. "

People struggling with moral injuries may feel difficult to shame, guilty, angry, and / or remorseful. You may experience unwanted and intrusive memories of painful events or feel morally flawed. Over time, moral harm can lead to social isolation and decreased self-esteem.

When it comes to our canine friends, there are many possible sources of moral pain. When a dog is sick or injured, we can't talk to them about what's going on. We cannot get their input and involve them in decision making. We are under pressure to make painful but necessary decisions that may include euthanasia or treatments that cause temporary suffering. In such pressurized circumstances, it is easy to torture yourself about what to do and criticize the choices we make.

Veterinary social worker Jeannine Moga points out that dogs can be very stoic and mask underlying physical issues until they are advanced. “Illnesses can progress in your body before they show any obvious signs of illness. Add to this the significant cost of veterinary diagnosis and treatment, and people can face animal losses from unknown causes, questions like "why didn't I see this?" And worries that they somehow failed to adequately address it. their companions become complicated. "

Opting for euthanasia, even if made on the recommendation of a veterinarian to alleviate the suffering, can be a source of acute moral distress. Ken Dolen-Del Vecchio, LCSW, MFT, and Nancy Saxon-Lopez, LCSW, in their book The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups, reflect on painful questions posed after euthanizing a beloved cat.

Had we waited too long and unnecessarily prolonged his suffering? Had we thought enough about the decision to end his life? Should we have brought him home and thought about it more carefully? Should we have obtained a different opinion? … Should we really have stayed with him when the vet put him to sleep? Did Reggie think we killed him? Should we instead say goodbye and leave the room until he was gone?

According to Maryjean Tucci, MSEd, MDiv, senior bereavement coordinator for a hospice program and co-author of A Peaceful Path: A Supportive Guide Through Pet Loss, decisions about euthanasia can raise other moral concerns. "When a person's religious beliefs are such that they believe they are killing their pet by ending their life unnaturally, moral distress can play a role in their grief."

“There are times,” continues Tucci, “when individuals may not understand the medical implications of what is happening to their pet and therefore cannot make a clear decision about the euthanasia process. If a pet partner struggles with their pet being euthanized, it can disrupt their grieving experience if they believe they have made the wrong decision. This is true even if the pet is recovering and perky just before the injection. "

There can be moral agony when a grieving person looks back and concludes that they did not understand the extent of an animal's suffering and / or postponed a decision about euthanasia because it was too painful. In such cases, humans can blame themselves for making a pet suffer. "When this happens," says Tucci, "it can lead to extreme feelings of guilt and low self-esteem."

Circumstances specific to the death of an individual dog can also cause moral pain – for example, the dog escaping through an open door and being hit by a car, or the dog breaking the desires due to aggressive behavior towards a neighbor an owner was put to sleep.

I worked with a patient who had no one to adopt her aging and frail beagle, Rosie. Days before we met, she made the heartbreaking decision to end Rosie's life to save her from being abandoned and from feeling unwanted. Although this client was terminally ill, much of my counseling with her focused on the moral pain of the decision, despite the loving intent behind it.

Sometimes moral pain has nothing to do with the specifics of death. For example, I worked with a woman who cared for her dying mother, which left her little time for her 14-year-old Basset Hound. "I was so stressed by mom's care that I just ignored him. He had occasional [urinary] accidents and I got impatient and yelled at him. I even had occasional thoughts that it would be easier if he were gone."

When her dog had to be euthanized, she felt satisfied with the decision, but was distressed that she had lost her temper in moments of frustration. "I feel awful. I worry, he might have thought I didn't love him anymore or I wanted him to die. I wish I could have that time back."

Ritual and memory

When grieving for a loved dog, it is important to have the opportunity to share his grief and, if desired, perform rituals that honor the loss and help him understand him. Unfortunately, some who have lost pets find that such opportunities for rituals and support are rare or non-existent.

When it comes to our canine companions, Tucci says, “Families, friends and society do not always recognize this loss as important or legitimate. Statements from others such as "this was not a child" or "the effects are not as bad as losing a sibling or parent" minimize the loss for the person experiencing grief. "

She compares this to what Kenneth Doka, PhD, calls "disenfranchised grief". In his book "Disenfranchised Mourning: Recognizing Hidden Mourning", Doka describes situations in which the meaning of a loss is not recognized, not recognized or rejected by others – situations in which there is no recognized social or community context in which to express one's grief can express and receive support.

Feeling isolated in someone's grief can exacerbate suffering from moral pain by creating barriers to processing their thoughts and feelings and reassurance from a caring other. Trying to grieve in isolation can complicate such pain and even make some wonder if something is wrong with them. Sometimes this isolation from those from whom a grieving person expected compassion is experienced as abandonment or even betrayal.

In “Grief and Moral Injury”, a blog post about his grief after the death of his German Shepherd, psychologist David Fisher, describes the feeling of being left by those he could count on for support and understanding. Since he has no one to “testify” to his “inconsolable grief”, he writes, he increased his pain considerably.

Moral pain usually subsides over time as we grieve and gain perspective. For those struggling with this type of pain, the following suggestions may be helpful.

• Give yourself a break. Moral pain comes from caring about doing the right thing and wanting the best for your dog. If you didn't care, you wouldn't feel this kind of pain. Sometimes there are things that we cannot see or control. We may have to make decisions under duress. Intense emotions and conflicting responsibilities can make these decisions very difficult, and whatever we choose, we can criticize ourselves. Acknowledge the difficulty of this type of pressure and let yourself be human.

• Find someone to talk to. When you have no one, think of someone in your life, even if they are no longer alive, whom you have felt love and compassion for. Imagine they are in the room with you, telling them what you are thinking and feeling. Imagine your answer.

• Get creative. Some people find it helpful to write in a journal. Some write poems or letters to their dogs and tell them what is in their hearts. Others express their feelings and honor connections with dead dogs through other forms of creative expression, including music, art, storytelling, gaming, humor, or dancing.

• Share the story. As we tell the story of our dog's life, we see the longer journey we have had with our pet, not just the past few weeks, days or hours, even if it is just for ourselves. When we place end-of-life events in the larger context of a friendship that may have developed over the years, we remember good times and moments of connection and warmth that may have been minimized or forgotten amid our pain.

• If desired, create formal or informal rituals to honor your dog's life and to affirm the lasting meaning of the relationship. Tucci says that these types of rituals “legitimize the grief experience and reflect the importance of the pet in that person's life. This also becomes part of the letting go and advancement process necessary for healing from grief. "

• Be attentive. It is easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and beliefs. Being mindful means paying attention to what we are thinking, feeling, and feeling in the present moment without avoiding, judging, or identifying with negative states. Psychologist Christopher Germer, PhD, notes in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Liberate Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Feelings: “The more intense our emotional pain, the more we suffer from obsession, blaming ourselves, or feeling defective. “He recommends gently drawing attention to our inner experience and responding with self-compassion. "Take care of us the way we treat someone we love dearly."

• Watch out for cognitive biases. Part of mindfulness is being aware of our thoughts and what we are saying to ourselves. It is important to look out for what psychologists call cognitive biases. In this way, our thoughts convince us of things that are not true and subconsciously reinforce painful beliefs that make us feel bad. There are dozens of cognitive biases out there, including personalization, black and white thinking, and negative mental filtering.

For example, emotional thinking refers to believing that something must be true when you feel it. If you are concerned that your dog was angry at you or felt unprotected because you realized she was sick too late, assume that it is when it is not. The key to not getting excited about cognitive biases is to notice when they are occurring and to “talk” to them gently. "Oh, I'm falling into the trap of emotional thinking. I'm sad about what happened, but Maggie was good at hiding when she was in pain. She knew how much I loved her."

• Do not confuse regret, guilt, and shame. It's easy to do. In simple terms, regret is a feeling of sadness that things turned out the way they did. It can convey a wish that we understood a situation better so that we could have done things differently. Guilt refers to believing that we knowingly did something that violates our Code of Ethics. Shame takes guilt to a whole new level by replacing the belief "I did something bad" with "I am a bad person because of what I did".

It's easy to mix up these experiences. If you regret it very much, it is easy to blame yourself. Before you know it, regret can turn into guilt, and guilt can turn into shame. When you feel ashamed, ask yourself, "Could this really be the fault?" When you feel guilty, ask yourself, "How much of what I feel do I really regret?"

• Take care of your body and mind. Moral pain doesn't just affect the heart and mind. It is important to take care of your body by exercising, resting, and practicing good eating and sleeping habits. If you have a tradition of belief or a spiritual / contemplative practice, these can be sources of strength, comfort, and perspective.

Sometimes moral pain can be aggravated by destructive messages that we received and internalized at some point in our lives, often as children. Messages like “I'm not good enough”, “I can't do anything right”, “I have to be perfect”, “It's my fault if something goes wrong” or “It's my job to make sure everyone is safe are / happy. "Readers registered for this are urged to find a safe context, possibly with a caring professional, to explore these messages and gain perspective.

Don't be afraid to seek professional help or join a support group. It's okay to see a psychotherapist, clergyman, or professional grief counselor. Many counselors understand this type of pain and how deep the grief can be for a deceased animal companion.

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