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The Healer with the Soft, Brown Eyes: Coping with Traumatic Grief

Our pets are often overlooked, but they are important healers when we suffer grief and loss.

This summer the unthinkable happened.

“Matt’s dead.” I heard my 25-year-old daughter’s voice on the phone, but could not comprehend what she was telling me about her 28 year old fiancé. She repeated herself.

Suddenly, I could no longer hold my body upright; I doubled over. In anguished gasps, I told her, “I’ll be right there. And I’m bringing the dog.” On that day, two families were thrust into traumatic grief -- ours and Matt’s parents -= he was their only child.

Traumatic grief (also called Complicated Grief, or Complex Grief) is grief that has a severe effect on relationships and work, and is prolonged. Both my daughter and Matt’s mother are suffering with traumatic grief.

Their grief seems continual, the focus of their thoughts first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and in every quiet reverie throughout the day. They are counting the days and weeks since Matt died, vainly searching for answers to very painful questions. Was there anything they could have done differently on the day he died to have prevented his death? When his heart suddenly stopped, if he had been out with friends who could have administered CPR, instead of home alone, would he have lived?

Our family has a mixed breed dog. Four years ago, my 16-year-old son told me if I did not get him a dog, I was denying him the ultimate boyhood experience -– a boy and his dog, the ever faithful companion. Having managed to hold out for 16 years, I was feeling more than a little guilty because I had dogs throughout my childhood.

When I finally relented, my son and daughter excitedly found a puppy at Pound Puppy Rescue (PPR) which we happily adopted. But within a few days she got sick.

My daughter nursed her around the clock, but eventually we had to return her to PPR for care, not knowing if she would survive. We tearfully kissed our puppy good-bye as we left wondering if we would see her again. My daughter later told me that she was praying for the little pup’s survival, and made a bargain with the Divine, if only the puppy could live.

Each day, we anxiously called for updates. The puppy had parvovirus and was getting IV fluids. On the fourth day she began to eat and drink, and was standing up wagging her tail. By day five, she was lively. With great rejoicing, we triumphantly brought our stoic survivor puppy home after her brush with death.

Our doggy has a real name, but her nick-name is “Duppy.” Although she was officially my son’s responsibility, it seems that the combination of my daughter’s mothering and prayerful week of pleas, have bonded she and Duppy permanently.

My children now share an apartment together, since neither can be without the dog. I miss the dog, too, so she was having a little vacation with me this summer when tragedy struck.

I was a bereavement counselor volunteer at hospice for many years, and when a person is dying hospice organizes a “care team” around the patient. This team includes doctors, nurses, social workers, caregivers, pastors, friends, and family. Everyone on the care team understands what their role will be to support the dying person, his/her family, and main caregiver.

The care team continues to work with those left behind after the death for up to a full year. Each holiday and anniversary date provides a challenge for the bereaved.

As I drove two hours south from my home in Sonoma County to the kids’ place, I knew instinctively that Duppy, with her soft brown doe-like eyes, might be the most important member of our family’s care team. In the weeks and months since Matt’s death, Duppy has provided comfort, a shoulder on which to cry, a listening ear, and a snuggle partner.

She forces my daughter to get out of bed, and out of the house every day, even when that is the last thing she wants to do. And Duppy smiles and is so enthusiastic about life that it is infectious and we cannot help but laugh.

Matt’s parents have been attending a group for parents who lost a child, and found comfort in knowing they were not alone. Sometimes a grief group or grief counseling can help, particularly with traumatic grief.

Resources for local grief support

North County Hospice at 205 East St., Healdsburg (ph. 707-431-1135) is part of a trio of hospices which offer grief support groups and counseling at no charge to the public. North County’s sister organizations include Memorial Hospice in Santa Rosa, and Hospice of Petaluma.

Nina Arbour is the Community Education, Volunteer and Grief Services Manager for all three organizations. 

“One of the things not well understood is that our grief services are available for anybody who has had a loss, years ago, or in another state, anyone can receive services at no cost," Arbour says. "We offer grief groups throughout the year, including for Spanish-speakers.

"During the winter, we have a special Holiday Blues group,” she adds.

Stacy Carr with Sutter Care at Home Hospice in Santa Rosa says they also offer grief groups all year at no cost.

Hospice typically matches groups with types of loss, such as spousal/partner loss, parents grieving a lost child, daughters whose mothers have died, and children who have lost someone important, etc.

Tips for parents when considering adding an animal

Many children will find a puppy waiting for them on Christmas morning. Parents want to provide the same childhood experience and companion that my son wanted. Before adopting, check out the Sonoma Humane Society tips about pet ownership. Assuming you have the time, money and means, consider the following.

  • Make sure you are willing to take on most of the responsibility for the dog yourself. While it might be nice to think your child will do it, the reality is much of the time they will be busy with school, and you will be stuck with it. Can you really add one more large responsibility to your plate?
  • Wait until your child is older if you expect him/her to share a big role in the responsibility for a pet. A twelve year old is much more likely to be able to feed, bathe and walk the dog regularly, than say, a 7-year-old.
  • Spend time planning how the dog will receive care, especially while it is a puppy. Just like human infants/toddlers, a puppy should not be left alone for many of the same reasons. For the first year of the puppy’s life you should plan on being with it most of the time.

If your family is very busy, an older dog might be the way to go. You will be able to leave the dog alone for part of the day without worry. Adopting from the shelter can save a dog’s life.

I was recently given a wonderful tour of the Sonoma Humane Society by its Executive Director, Kiska Icard. This no-kill facility is located at 5345 Highway 12 West in Santa Rosa. It was buzzing with activity from the many volunteers who are a vital part of the organization.

Animal adoption fees include a number of services that make them quite a bargain, including shots, spay/neutering, microchips, etc. Older pet adoptions cost even less, and you can visit the shelter any day of the week between the hours of 12-6. There is even a full veterinary hospital open to the public which hosts low-cost spay/neuter clinics.

Ms. Icard is especially passionate about the “Fospiceprogram for animals that have a terminal diagnosis, and need a home for a short time. Her program provides the food, meds and veterinary care, allowing the foster family just to provide hospice care to a pet with little time left.  

Locally, check out the Healdsburg Animal Shelter, 570 Westside Rd., for some wonderful adoptable animals. They are open Mon. – Sat. from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 12-3 pm.

Ultimately, our dog has provided an enormous amount of happiness and joy to our family. She instinctively knew that my daughter was suffering and has been a life-saver during this trying time.

When coping with a tragic loss, the best healers are those that attentively listen with empathy, and have caring, gentle spirits and loving hearts. And in many cases, they also walk on four legs. 

Do you have a story of an animal healer to share? Please tell us in the comments.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Keri Brenner (Editor) December 13, 2012 at 09:30 PM
This is very meaningful blog post for anyone recovering from loss and suffering from grief. Please forward to anyone who is in pain over this holiday season....thanks Laura!!!
Laura C. Strom December 14, 2012 at 09:00 AM
Thank you, Keri! People often think hospice is only for families who received hospice care. Actually hospice is a great resource for anybody who is having difficulty with a loss. And where would we be without our animal shelters? Our local hospices and animal shelters literally have a few hundred volunteers (though they are happy to have more). What wonderful sacred work these volunteers are doing. They really are a huge part of what makes these organizations so great. I'm very glad to see so many people have liked the article and recommended it to their friends on Facebook. That warms my heart!

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