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Continuing Bonds – Life After the Rainbow Bridge, Part 1

July 1st, 2024 by Ima Admin

A middle-aged single woman cries every day for a year after her 17-year-old Shih Tzu crosses the rainbow bridge. A young child has night terrors and bedwetting after the loss of his Black Lab. A senior man gives up his favorite hobby of camping off-grid after he says goodbye to his Springer Spaniel, and remains wracked by guilt for not choosing chemotherapy at the end.

What is normal pet loss grief?

“There is no normal. And the trauma can be very real, no matter how peaceful the passing,” says Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice.

So how do you turn post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth?

Long overdue research into the field of Pet Loss Grief has shown that many people grieve the loss of a companion animal longer than human cohorts.  One study showed they’re three times more likely to suffer clinical depression.

The loyalty, emotional and social support companion animals provide is an integral part of a healthier lifestyle. Research has shown that attachment to pets can provide comfort and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness during stressful life events such as divorce and when owners are unwell.

Yet the passing of a beloved animal companion often remains a “disenfranchised” grief that is still not commonly recognized, understood or supported by friends, families and employers. This can lead to desolation, and cause owners to withdraw or even have suicidal thoughts.

In psychology research*, “continuing bonds” (CB) refers to the effort to maintain this emotional attachment, or connection, following death and therefore represents a continuation of that attachment and an attempt to manage grief.

According to the research, grief management necessitates support from someone they trust to listen, understand, and validate their experiences, and help them develop coping mechanisms.

  • Rituals, memorials, memories, and dreams were identified as helpful by continuing levels of attachment and reducing the intensity of grief. 
  • Social support was also identified as an important way to share the continuing bond, validate emotions and maintain the pet parent’s quality of life.

Locally, the West Michigan Pet Loss Support Group offers a safe place to share, validate feelings, work through grief, and reflect. Facilitated by Pastor and Animal Advocate Ginny Mikita, the group meets the second Tuesday of each month from 6:30 – 8 p.m. at Heaven at Home Pet Hospice. To attend, please RSVP 616.460.0373 or ginny@animalblessings.love by noon on the day the group meets.

In the next part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at WMPLSG, healing activities and more resources to support those suffering pet loss grief.

More Resources for Pet Loss Grief: https://www.pethospicevet.com/resources/grief/

Reference: Hughes, B., & Lewis Harkin, B. (2022). The Impact of Continuing Bonds Between Pet Owners and Their Pets Following the Death of Their Pet: A Systematic Narrative Synthesis. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00302228221125955