Counselor’s Corner: Pet Loss…Am I Crazy?

By Becky Murray, CVT, LPC —

Becky Murray is Veterinary Specialty Center’s full-time Licensed Professional Counselor.

Thank you all for joining me again. I had really nice responses to my first blog entry. In the next few months, I will address some of the most common questions I hear from people soon after a loss. The most common one has to be, “What’s wrong with me? I think I’m going ‘crazy’.”

First, let me address why I put the word “crazy” in quotation marks. Webster’s dictionary uses the following words to define the word “crazy”: unsound, crooked, askew, mad, insane, impractical, erratic, unusual, infatuated, and obsessed. We use this word so loosely, so broadly, that it is hard to pin down a good definition. People use it to describe mental health – everything from stress to mild mental health disorders to extreme mental health problems. We also use it to describe drivers, dancing, and amazing experiences. See what I mean? I use quotes because I do not like this overused word and the negative generalizations that come with it.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that the people who say this to me don’t know what they mean. I merely want to point out that “crazy” is not a term I would use to describe their experience. Frankly, nearly all of them are experiencing a normal grief experience. What they are not doing normally is functioning in their lives. How could they? Grief is an abnormal state of mind. Did you know that one of the normal symptoms of grief is having hallucinations? That’s right it is completely normal to hear and see a lost loved one after the loss.  It is also normal to have sleep changes, appetite changes, periods of rage, tears, and numbness, and many other symptoms. When experiencing these symptoms suddenly, like after a loss, a person can feel out of control and helpless.

Because of this, many cultures or religions define a mourning period. During this time other people know to expect different behavior from the bereaved person. Unfortunately, in our society, the mourning period has all but disappeared. When a close (human) family member dies, some employers allow a short period of bereavement. Rarely does an employer allow time off for a companion animal family member.  Our culture has converted the mourning period into a “feel better quickly” period. During this time we often feel shamed into putting on a brave face as loved ones and strangers try to make us happy.

So what happens the day after a loss when a person wakes up in the morning and tries to “do” life? She probably fails…at a normal life. It’s really difficult to successfully grieve and successfully function in normal life at the same time, especially immediately after a loss. While this person might have no trouble feeling the pain of loss, and expressing emotions about it, she may have difficulty concentrating, might be overwhelmed by common tasks, or may not want to socialize. She is actually doing a good job of grieving. When someone is struggling with this change in functioning, I might tell her to adjust her baseline. Instead of comparing herself to how she functioned before the loss, she should compare herself to who she was the day after the loss. With this little adjustment, she sees herself functioning a little better day to day and week to week, instead of failing every day.

Although grief never ends, this person will come to function well in normal life again. She will feel happy again. How long this takes depends on the person. The steps from that new baseline might be small. One week, she might start answering the phone again. The next, she might be able to look at and interact with someone else’s pet. She might get through a whole day at work without feeling overwhelmed. These steps will eventually lead back to normal…or to the “new normal.”

Be kind to yourself after a loss. You are not “crazy.” You are coping with an enormous stressor. Treat yourself like you would a friend. When you think, “what’s wrong with me?” pretend it is a friend in the same situation telling you what he is experiencing. Would you tell him that he is “crazy?” If not, don’t say it to yourself. With patience, support, and time, you will find that new normal.

Becky Murray is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT) that counsels clients of VSC and our referral community on pet loss, quality of life decisions for pets and grief. She also lectures extensively in the veterinary community on Compassion Fatigue. You may reach Becky at bmurray@vetspecialty.com. More information about our services may be found here.

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