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Some Personal Observations – Wallace Sife, Ph.D.

Our founder, Dr Wallace Sife, was moved to establish the APLB after the sudden death of his beloved miniature dachshund, Edel Meister. He was devastated by the loss of his dear little dog and found his training as a psychologist of little help. In this article from the Spring 2002 edition of our newsletter, Dr Sife shares some of his wisdom.

Some Personal Observations – Wallace Sife, Ph.D.
There is one marvelous thing that my own loss has taught me, and I now incorporate that into all my counseling: Each of us is capable of wonders. When we reach deep down, into our very being, we can come up with some amazing things. And our beloved pets have helped us to achieve this. After the shock and painful struggle to learn how to cope with our feelings and bereavement we come to realize that we have been left a wonderful legacy. But how to deal with this varies widely, with each individual.

When we are in the early stages of bereavement it is natural to lose some perspective and logic. The first step toward healing is to become aware of how we are reacting. Although pain and grief are inevitable, the debilitating misery we can put ourselves through is optional. The heartbreak of bereavement is so tragic that usually the first response is to irrationally feel we need to suffer, without end. To cope with this it is absolutely essential to eventually give ourselves permission to heal. Otherwise, we are spinning our wheels and will stay mired in self-torment and affliction. But we have to first perceive that option in order to take it.

Every one of us has emotional “baggage” that can hinder or even torment us in our individual progress through life. We are constantly involved with learning how to deal with this. And it always affects us most at times of exceptional stress and emotional trauma. If one’s response to losing a beloved pet is overwhelming or debilitating that is almost always a sign that some of the problem lies with other deep personal issues which had never been resolved. Unfortunately, these are almost always repressed and pushed beneath our conscious level of awareness. The shock of the bereavement acts as a “trigger mechanism” that sets off an avalanche of overwhelming pain and emotional devastation, and we are overwhelmed with profound emotions. But because so much of that is in our subconscious we are not aware of why the pain is so aggravated – and we invariably presume it is solely because of the death. That is why it is often necessary for many to supplement pet bereavement counseling with professional psychological help.

The love and joy that a pet provides us during its lifetime should not die with the physical body. Regardless of one’s personal concept of an afterlife (or not) we are very much aware of that profound loving memory and influence, still within us. In a sense, it actually does dishonor to ignore this and not allow ourselves to acknowledge how much better we are for this unique loving experience. We are improved by the love we give and get from our precious pets. Their deaths should not change that relationship. It lives on in us, and it should be drawn upon to help cope with the natural grief and stages of bereavement we all must go through. And it should also help each of us to go on and evolve into an even better person. But of course, that also varies so much with each person.

Our beloved pets leave us many kinds of gifts, and they take time to discover. Later, when we can finally let go of the sharp pain, and are able to smile again with loving memories and healing tears, things actually do gradually start getting better. Then we begin to discover some of these wonderful things that we couldn’t identify, while still in deep mourning. One of the most profound of these gifts is an enriched awareness and perspective on our own mortality. Our dear ones bless us, just as we do them, and they fortify and prepare us for our moving on and through life. The loving memories are a permanent part of who we are, and they live on, in our hearts. In honoring them our continuing and improving lives can actually become our best memorials to them. But we must never lose sight of the fact that in the long run, we owe this to ourselves, as well.

It is a normal response that while still in the early throes of grief and bereavement it is often so hard to listen to well-meaning others who want to help us cope and heal. At this time it can be nearly impossible to believe that any good will come of this. We may even resent any such suggestion – as though someone is trying to offer inappropriate answers by suggesting an idealistic “bright side” when the whole world is darkened. It is natural and necessary to go through the bereavement and mourning process. In the early stages we still feel a need to cling to the pain – fearing when that diminishes, so will everything else about the wonderful loving memory and relationship. Of course, that is not the way it happens, but at this terrible time it certainly seems so. Many newly bereaved people are afraid of “letting go”. They feel it is letting go of the loving memories. But it really is the releasing of the sharp edge of the pain, so we can go on with our lives. Our beloved pets become a permanent part of us, and they stay forever in our hearts, enriching and blessing us. Unfortunately, too often we can abuse this by remaining in a prolonged state of grieving and self-disempowerment. That is why it is so important at this time to become better aware of who we are, and why we respond in certain ways that are not to our advantage. As indicated earlier, that goes way beyond the realm of pet bereavement counseling.

It is so important to let go and cry, and experience the grief that is caused by the loss of a beloved pet. Keeping some of this inside prevents the healing we all need and deserve. Suppressed powerful feelings always hurt us even more, later. Aside from the people who don’t appreciate this kind of love and bereavement, even those who really care for us may respond by telling us not to be sad or cry. These loving ones can’t bear to see us so upset. But too often they just don’t understand that we have to mourn and go through the worst of the pain, to be able to put it behind us. Discovering flaws in people close to us can be very distressing, and especially at this time. It is regrettable that so many of us have to go through this alone, without the needed supportiveness of someone who really empathizes. And that was the basis for our founding the APLB, just over four years ago. It was a concept whose time had finally come. Some call this kind of happening a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time. But together, we made it happen.

Our bonds with our beloved pets are in many ways stronger, purer, and far more intimate than with others of our own species. We feel loved and secure in sharing our secret souls with them. How often can this be safely done, even with a spouse? So when such a precious life leaves us, it is very understandable and normal for us to grieve and suffer a unique sense of bereavement. Unfortunately, there are many who can never understand this, and would even try to belittle it. That is their loss. But we are still vulnerable to their insensitivity and criticisms. It is so important to meet or communicate with others who understand and care. We are proud that this is one of the many things we are accomplishing so well through these newsletters, and our chat rooms and email.

The death of a beloved pet is so hard to accept, emotionally. Intellectually, we understand it. But this kind of loss and bereavement can be heartbreaking. Initially, we tend to fall into a deep well of grief, and lose sight of so much else around us. I have found it very useful in my counseling to comment that even stars and galaxies are born and die. Everything in the cosmos is part of some mind-boggling evolution – on such a grand scale that we can barely hope to comprehend even parts of it. It helps to realize that each of us is literally made of stardust. We and our entire planet are made of atoms that were produced over 14 billion years in countless stars that came and went – exploding and scattering their newly evolved elements to the next ones – in an unending sequence. In a physical sense, we are all a basic part of this awesome oneness.

And perhaps in another sense, what many of us perceive to be our spirits are also part of this. I personally believe that after we die our “souls” go back to some great reservoir from which we all derive. This has been called by many names in the various cultures of the world. Regardless of how you may choose to view this, we all must accept that ultimately, all life is change and growth. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth living. Our ongoing lives are all part of this vast ever-evolving structure. And of course, our beloved pets are part of it, too.

This is a very hard lesson to grasp, however a necessary one. And we must also learn to be more lenient with ourselves, as it is nearly impossible to be philosophical, when in the early stages of bereavement. But in the final analysis, if we don’t make constructive personal use of the precious gift of love we receive, what are we? Although it can be agonizing, we somehow must learn how to give and take – to have and to hold, and in time, let go.

We learn to recognize and count our blessings. But sometimes it takes adversity to teach us this. That awareness is also one of the many gifts our dear pets leave behind for us. Nobody ever said that life is easy. We can’t ignore the eventuality of death and loss – although too often we do until it is too late. In attempting to better understand this it is important to realize that historically, our Western society has treated the subject of death negatively. As a result we are mostly indoctrinated to think of death as bad or even evil. And because we are so scared of it we are inclined to leave the details to the professionals – the clergy and mortuary professions. Our culture has made us ineffective in coping with our existential realities, and too often we are actually in denial, refusing to even reflect on them. This is easily demonstrated by how most of us tend to use euphemisms dealing with any aspect of death. These are words and expressions that are used to directly avoid mentioning death, as well as any related concepts. So how well prepared does this leave most of us to face up to the death of a beloved pet – which is always directly related to our own mortality? Thinking these things out can be a scary and lonely experience – albeit a necessary one.

I have learned from my many years of petloss counseling, that we must learn to cherish our every day. That’s one of the wonderful things our beloved pets can instruct us about life. Sadly, we too often learn this after they are gone. But I still view this insight as one of the many posthumous gifts they leave behind for us to discover. After they die they take on a new essence and remain within us, forever. They can teach us so much about love and life – and ourselves.

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