Above, a few of the candles burning during today’s ceremony, lit in memory of pets we’ve lost.
Each February Deb Chebatoris of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation hosts Healing Hearts. Unlike Pet Memorial Sunday, Healing Hearts is not a ceremony but an afternoon workshop for those who are grieving a pet to learn a little more about the nature of grief and talk one-on-one with the presenter, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.
“I schedule this healing and nurturing event around Valentine’s Day each year to help mend the hearts of people who may have suffered a recent loss, or for whom a previous loss is somehow fresh,” Deb says. When we lose one of our precious animal companions, our own aftercare is very important. Guests are in the company of other families who know the feeling of losing a pet. Families grieving the loss of their pet are welcome whether or not they have worked with Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation, regardless of when the loss occurred.
Elizabeth Babcock also speaks at Pet Memorial Sunday, and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in practice in the area since 1989. The majority of the afternoon is her presentation of the very real effect of grief on those who have lost, what to expect as you heal, and what to do if you feel you are not healing. Her talk is entirely devoted to the loss of a pet, though most of the information is applicable to the loss of a human loved one as well.
The Nature of Grief
“Grief is the price of admission for having a loving relationship, and I have yet to see one person who will erase the memory to avoid the grief,” Elizabeth said.
Our pets are involved in every part of our lives, everything from our clothing to our daily habits includes them, so the loss is felt nearly every moment. Their unconditional love is unique in our relationships and when that’s gone we lose a piece of our own security, an anchor in our lives.
“Compare the way you are feeling emotionally to the way you’d feel physically after a traumatic injury,” she said. “It takes time for your body to even begin to heal, and for a while all you can think about is the pain, how it consumes your thoughts in every moment. That’s where your emotions are, and it takes just about as much time to heal emotionally as it does physically.” She went on to remind us that our loss has touched every part of our life physically and emotionally and so we feel grief just as much physically in energy, sleep habits and appetite, as emotionally, in our tears and simply in our thought processes. “Grief is not pretty,” said continued.
“An important piece of your life is missing and it will affect your whole system,” she said.
She reviewed what to expect as we mourn a loss, that we may relive the loss again at anniversaries or when something, even the weather, triggers the memory, and we may find ourselves wanting to perform or repeat activities that make no sense, but are part of a normal response.
“If you find yourself wanting to put down the food bowl at mealtimes, even though your pet is gone, just go ahead and do it, let yourself go through that ritual for a few days afterward,” Elizabeth said. “If you want to cry all the time, go ahead,” she continued. “The composition of our tears is different when we are grieving, as if the body is trying to wash something from itself. Let your tears flow.”
“And if you’ve done a fair amount of caretaking the loss can be particularly difficult because there’s a special sort of bonding that takes place during caregiving,” she said.
We may dwell on certain thought patterns as we move through grief too. It’s normal to play “Mental Math” as she called it, counting the days and weeks, even months and years since beloved pet has passed. “Then there are the ‘if onlies….’ ” she said. “If only I had done this, or not done that. It’s common to feel guilt even if there isn’t anything to feel guilty about.” You are responsible for your pet’s well-being, but you can’t work miracles and at some point death does happen.
Allow your feelings to happen, she advised, and do whatever feels right for yourself within reason, and give yourself a break from grieving now and then so that you don’t exhaust yourself. Let your grief unfold in its own way and for as long as you need, and both seek the company of others who “get it” and avoid those who don’t. “There is no ‘right way’ to grieve, there is only what’s right for you,” Elizabeth said. Lower your expectations of yourself for a while, she continued, and take good care of yourself.
But grief is a process and does eventually come to an end. “Acceptance is not about forgetting, it’s about accepting they are gone and you have accepted your life without them,” she explained.
Elizabeth also stated that our pets are even more important to us today because we are more socially isolated today than ever before with smaller families and more people living alone, so the loss hits us even harder.
You may not feel you are healing at all so it’s important to try to sense your own progress. “If you rate the way you felt the day you lost your pet at a ‘-10’, and two or three weeks later you would rate it at a ‘-8’, that’s normal progress,” Elizabeth said as an example. “It’s still painful, it still hurts, and you still have really bad days, but you’re not at the bottom all the time,” she explained. If you feel that your grieving process is getting out of your control, or if a person you love and trust tells you they feel you may not be healing from your grief, then this has become “complicated grief” and it’s perfectly appropriate to seek help.
Someone asked a question about her own grief at the time and referred to a remark Deb had made to her when she had been at Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation with her dog, and Elizabeth asked Deb to step forward to explain.
“If you visit my place one of the things you’ll see in my ‘living room’ is a large mural of an autumn scene in the woods covering one whole wall. There’s a reason I chose that image.
“That image of the woods represents everyone’s grief journey. There is no path, no sign posts, there are dark areas and places full of light. Everyone’s path is different through the trees as your pet goes from being in your life to being a memory in your life, and one day you’re going to find you’re not in the woods anymore,” Deb finished.
If you’d like to learn more about Elizabeth Babcock’s grief and pet loss presentation, you can read the article on her website. Although it deals with general grief and loss, the most important points she mentioned in her presentation are in this article, and are universal experiences.
Visit the Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation website for more information about Deb and the services she provides.
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