Thursday, August 30, 2018

National Grief Awareness Day sheds light on understanding grief from pet loss and more

On the cusp of a weekend in early-June, 7AM—unexpectedly lying in a hospital bed, after being admitted for a bout of lymphangitis, worried, bleary eyed- and minded—my iPhone was the only thing keeping me company in the dimly-lit, unfamiliar space. Podcasts, working their audible magic after my waking at 5AM in an untethered state. Suddenly, the device lit up, bearing the familiar number on the caller ID that I was all-too-thrilled to see at that hour. Yes, finally, something bearing some semblance to my day-to-day, something that in times like that is always welcome: likely a last-minute request from a client to come by and give their dogs some outside time and fun that afternoon, though unfortunately I knew I wouldn't be able to help. 


The voice, familiar, though strangely foreign in tone and cadence. I couldn't palpate what it was at first, but as is often the case, it was somehow starkly evident as the words tumbled out. Things were not the same. And once I waffled through my initial bewilderment, it was hard to ignore the conveyance of her own despair and confusion, the voice on the other end of the phone. The one who knew that what she had to tell me would be difficult for both of us, but did so in the kindest, gentlest way.

He was gone. Just like that. One of my oldest, dearest and most beloved canine charges. Gone. Past tense.

Odie, who I had seen regularly over the past half seven years—three or more days per week. He who had been probably my best teacher aside from my own beloved Gretchen, who required more of me than [most] others and made me a better professional and mentor. Hemangiosarcoma. In an instant. No goodbye besides my usual kiss and pat on the head and an enthusiastic Love you! See you Tuesday! when we parted ways that afternoon before. But with an illness like Hemangiosarcoma, I've learned in my years, it's often the case that you're not afforded the opportunity to think, to say goodbye. 

I was grateful for that phone call. I was trusted with their grief, and with my own.

Unless I'm working to offer palliative or hospice care support to a family whose pet has a diagnosed life-limiting illness or age-related decline, its not unusual for me to get word from a client about a pet's passing via an email. Sometimes it's just too hard for them to speak the words. Occasionally I'll get that call that they might know or hope will go to voicemail because I'm often in up to my elbows with tending to my charges and can't get to my phone. It's equally common to be told ahead of time that a humane euthanasia for the pet is planned and that I'm welcome to come and say goodbye in the days prior. 

In any case, I always appreciate being in the loop, and included to give my own level of grief the opportunity to breathe—the grief that invariably comes from bonding with another living being that at times has needed your help more than they've ever needed anything. 

After all, despite my being a Certified Professional Pet Sitter specializing in assisting families with their pet's palliative and hospice care (as well as a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion), I'm not a robot. Though I understand propriety when it comes to knowing when others need me to hear them and when I can allow myself to be heard, I'm still human: the basic tool that allows me to do this work. 

It's not lost on me that my families and I are experiencing grief of degrees that span a wide spectrum. There's the anticipatory grief, the kind that you feel before a death or comparable life change occurs. Then the grief during the event. And the most visible to our loved ones and peers, the grief that unfurls after the loss. We share these different types of grief, my families and I, though they are all very much our own.

The Sunday after Odie died, I made my way over to his home after an invite from his family. They knew it might be difficult for me to walk into their home all on my own for that next midday visit with their other beloved dog and not see the one we were mourning welcome me, in the big way he always had. And it would have. We embraced, talked, got choked up beyond words, we supported each other, expressed our disbelief, told stories, reminisced—gave our collective and individual grief room to breathe. And for that time and the conversations we've had since, I'm grateful.

This grief took place privately, just as it does in spaces everywhere in the world. 

But we need to be able to grieve with that sense of safety outside of our private realms. Grief demands discretion at times, but it also needs the autonomy to tag along when we are going about our everyday activities, because it doesn't do well being stuffed where it's hidden from making others uncomfortable or it deemed inconvenient or even not valid (the latter is referred to as disenfranchised grief, something that is very common after the loss of a pet). Giving each other space, the opportunity to express through storytelling and other means, understanding that there is no prescribed timeline to navigating grief and hearing, really hearing ourselves and others when our grief is asking to be given what it needs to stretch its legs is what's needed—not an antidote or a cure or a way to fix it or fill the void, not something to continually cope ugly or anesthetize the pain. And on this National Grief Awareness Day, if we can begin being more comfortable with our own grief, we can work toward being more open to doing so in the presence of the grief that others own. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.