Posted Dec 23, 2018
Written by Adam Clark LCSW, AASW
Experiencing the death of a pet is hard. Even harder during the holidays.
As a helping professional who specializes in the human-animal bond, specifically pet death, loss and bereavement, the holidays are a very busy time of year.
What, then, do we owe this surge of emotion? In the face of love and loss during the holiday time, emotions can feel higher and pain can feel deeper for those who have recently experienced the death of their pets during the holidays.
Expectations During the Holidays
Many of us aim and plan for a "perfect holiday." Although we laugh at movies that represent holiday disasters when the in-laws come into town, many of us secretly desire for things to slow down and life to be perfect during the holidays.
While writing this post, I was caught by a phrase from a 2002 article found in Harvard Woman's Health Watch which states, "Grief takes no holiday." It's true. When we are hit with a devastating loss, such as the loss of our pets, many of us hope the world will slow down with us. We pray that the world takes a moment to breathe, just as we need to, and can find ourselves feeling angry things continue to move forward when we feel left behind and swimming in our emotional pain from having lost a beloved pet.
Allow Yourself to Feel the Grief, Fully
During a busy time such as the holidays, it can feel easy to counter our emotions by busying ourselves with wrapping presents, putting up the decorations, or attempting to avoid the in-laws. These tactics may help, for the moment. It may help us direct our pain into constructive energy that lasts through some part of the holiday... but may not ultimately last.
It gets harder at certain times, like during the silence of the night as we watch the snow fall, or during the holiday dinner when our beloved pet used to sit beside us or beg for scraps. By pushing our grief away in these moments, we may indeed intensify it. Allowing ourselves to experience the pain and subsequent emotions of grief it allows our body to slowly process the experience.
Give Yourself Permission Not to Make Any Big Decisions
Instead of keeping ourselves so busy that we don't have time to think about our grief, some of us tend to make significant decisions, hoping it will ameliorate the emotions we're feeling at that time. Many of us are disappointed when these changes come with a more emotional response, as our emotions are typically in full flux during a period of extreme grief or after a significant loss event in our lives.
Avoid Blaming Yourself, Even if You Feel You "Deserve it"
When experiencing the death of a pet, we are quick to place blame. Perhaps we blame the disease. Sometimes we blame the veterinarian. Yet, most often we unleash the full brunt of our blame or judgment onto ourselves.
Pet loss is unique in that many pet owners must take an active part in a euthanasia decision. Making such a decision can come with immense feelings of guilt, wondering if we made the right choice.
The grief process is already difficult. When we add extra blame or guilt to an already difficult situation, it can heighten the experience of negative emotions and lead to a cycle of shame.
It's OK to Not Be OK for the Holidays
Most importantly, we don't have to put a fake smile on even though its the holiday season. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, grief doesn't go on holiday. Life continues to move and impact us in both negative and positive ways. It may be that during the holiday season we notice it more due to the reflection and emotional memories that are associated with the season.
Make sure to engage in positive self-care throughout the season. Take time to talk to friends who understand. Support yourself if you need to see a helping professional during this time of grief. Do small acts for yourself every day. Take it one day, and one moment at a time as we process all the love we shared with our four-legged companions.
Adam Clark, LCSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.