As a young girl, our german shephard stole my heart. I remember saying back then, “If I can love my kids someday the way I love Caesar, I think I’ll be an okay mom.” Growing up is never a walk in the park, and we moved while I was in elementary school. Feeling completely alone, Caesar was an emotional life saver many a days. He became old and ailing the summer I packed for college until one August morning when my mother and I, distraught by his suffering, looked at each other and knew “it was time.”
Two camps of humans seem to exist: those who get it and those who don’t. In my counseling practice, it doesn’t take long for those deeply bonded with their animals to fill me in. One look into their eyes and I can see, this is no ordinary pet—they have a “companion animal.” Along with the love and joy pouring out, oftentimes I hear embarrassment for the intensity of their bond, afraid I might judge or not understand. Truth be told, household pets are on the rise. You can even find Pet Lovers Meetups online. From 1988 to 2018, according to National Pet Owners Survey, American households that include a pet has increased from 56 to 68 percent.
When humans bond with animals, wonderful things can happen. In fact, a most fascinating study conducted by an animal behaviorist, Takefumi Kikusui, at Azabu University in Japan, showed that the dog-human bond actually changes brain chemistry, in a good way. When dogs and their owners were brought together for 30 minutes, interacting alone with some degree of eye contact, both human and canine levels of oxytocin increased: 130% in dogs, and a remarkable 300% in humans! Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, works its magic on the brain by awakening the bonding and maternal instinct. When oxytocin increases in the brain, many have found that depression, anxiety and intenstinal problems decrease.
When I told my daughter (a psychotherapist herself) about this animal bonding blog, she eagerly jumped in, “I have a client who is basically alive because of her dog.” I asked her why. “The dog gives her purpose and meaning, someone to eat meals with—helps her not feel alone. He forces her to leave her house four times a day, when truthfully, she doesn’t want to. Her dog gives her the ultimate, unconditional love.”
GIFTS AND BENEFITS OF THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND
Whether you’re having emotional struggles in life or seeking more of the good that life has to offer, here are some of the wonderful benefits, blessings and lessons many gain through animal bonds, particularly for those whose pets are true “companion animals:”
- Unconditional love and acceptance
- Present in the moment
- Relief from loneliness, depression, stress, anxiety
- Not taking ourselves and life so seriously
- Provider of structure and purpose
- A sense of Innocence
- Motivation to walk, get out of the house, be outside
- Significant Increase in oxytocin in the brain (with dogs)
- Opens our hearts
So now the harder part—saying goodbye. With the average life expectancy of dogs being 8-10 years and cats 10-15, this leaves many with the potential of many heart breaks in their lifetime. Grief hits every person differently, and this certainly applies to grief over losing an animal. Those who struggle most with their animal loss tend to have relied more on their animal than perhaps even the humans in their life, for intimacy, love, companionship, loyalty, purpose, affection. The hole that's left can feel especially vast for those whose pets become the children they haven't had, or heaven forbid lost, or could never have. Here are some tips to consider for taking care of yourself if/when your pet or animal companion passes:
Give Yourself Acceptance and Compassion
Don’t stack shame on top of your grief. You are not alone. If you feel devastated over your loss, please know that losing an animal can feel overwhelming, and perhaps even more intense than the loss of a human being in your life— particularly if you don’t let others in easily (more on this below). As a society, we have many kinds of losses that go socially unregistered. Grief of a pet all-to-often falls into one of these neglected categories. You might notice symptoms that persist, and don’t feel embarrassed about that. It's important to accept yourself and your reality with love. This opens the gate for you to receive the help and support you need to grow forward.
Gather Your Blessings Gained and Lessons Learned
Like with any loss, human or animal, the extent to which we remember and embody what we learned and received from our loved ones determines the extent to which we “keep them alive.” I recommend journaling, making a special memoir if you will, about the lessons learned from your companion animal, about how you are better because of him or her, what you received, what you’re eternally grateful for. Keep your appreciative heart open.
Let Others In
Seek social support particularly from “those who get it,” those with whom you won’t feel judged by the intensity of your pain. Don’t be afraid to ask for some personal time and support like you would when suffering a human loss. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. For many, their social interactions increase with having a pet, especially with dogs since we need to take them out. This might mean that, for now, you might need to put in more effort than usual to make sure you connect with others.
Be Sensitive to the Change in Routine
Often unexpected is the emotional downslide and aimlessness you might feel without the structure and built in healthy habits your animal provided. This can include taking them on walks, getting you outside and moving your body. Perhaps you would get up early, be conscious of your time around their meals and relief schedule, and their need for love and attention. Not being needed can come as a great shock to our mental well being. A most significant change when we lose a companion animal centers around the emotional support our animal provided us. Whether they are trained as such or not, all pets function as therapy animals to some extent — See Gifts and Benefits above. It’s important that you build in new routines that at the very least continue the secondary benefits of caring for your animals — e.g. exercise, structure, loving and positive human interactions, connecting to neighbors and others we normally wouldn’t connect with if it weren’t for our pet.
Grow Forward and Find Meaning
There is a healthy idea that “everything is good,” even our painful experiences. Our biggest challenge is that the light inside our dark times often remains concealed to us. But this doesn’t mean the goodness is not there. I learned this from studying Rav Ashlag, a spiritual sage, who shares the wisdom of Kabbalah to help awaken the truth from the eyes of the soul. The more investment we make into bringing out and revealing positivity, searching for the blessings and the messages meant for us— regardless of what is happening around us— the closer we become to our true inner potential and personal power. This mindset is not easy especially when we are in terrible pain. So simply do your best to seek and see the good.
For example, if the gifts from your bond with your companion animal included feeling needed and loved unconditionally, then how might you seek other animals or people to care for, to share with. Another growth opportunity your loss could provide is to think about how you can grow your own capacity for giving unconditional love, especially your self love. If you relished the invitation to live in the present moment that your companion animal provided, see how you might build other practices that bring you to a place of peace, of being in the moment (e.g., being in nature, joining a men’s or women’s group, yoga, running, knitting, building models, praying, meditating, studying spiritual wisdom, puzzles, you name it… whatever turns you on, and whatever turns you in.
You Will Love Again
Each person needs to decide when and if they will invite a new animal into their home and heart. I recommend listening to your own inner voice. Maybe, when the time feels right, visit a shelter or look online for pets. And then see what you notice inside. I recommend investing in your human relationships as well. I know, you can never find someone as unconditionally loving as an animal, I mean they just love and forgive relentlessly. Nonetheless, we have so much growth to gain and fulfillment to enjoy by engaging in the doggy-dog world of human intimacy.