Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist
“Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” –Mae West
Early in my career, I was struck by the difference between a young woman’s strong sense of herself before marriage, and her surprising loss of self after. How could this be? Why were my clients coming to me saying “I don’t feel like ME anymore?” a year after entering an institution they desired to be in? Where did their “me” go?
To grossly oversimplify, the answer lies in a clash between what society tells us to be (in the case of married women, they “should” be endlessly loving and giving and selfless) and who we really are.
How does this clash affect pet parents? One way shows up is when we lose our companion animals. Even when our families support our profound grief and accept our outpouring of emotion, societal messages do not. Instead, these messages offer heartless, futile advice: Buck up. Be strong. Get over it. Move on. Get another dog. Don’t take it so hard.
Oh really? I think of so many clients who say they covered intense feelings of loss for years because they tried so hard to follow this military-style advice to be strong. They hid their pain, forced themselves to go back to work—and now, years later, still cry at the thought of their beloved animal. Constrained by cultural messages that didn’t validate either their love for their pet or their feelings of intense loss when it died, they couldn’t express their grief openly.
So I say to pet parents what I said years ago to married women:
What do institutions know about pleasure or pain? What does our society know about your profound love and agonizing loss? Society doesn’t think about us as individuals, so it’s best not to adhere to its “rules” when it comes to something so personal as how deeply and how long you mourn your pet loss.
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Dalma Heyn, MSW, LMSW, is a therapist, author and certified pet-loss grief specialist, who lives at the Connecticut shore with her scruffy, fluffy Havanese, Luna. Dalma graduated from The University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and English, and from New York University with a MA degree in social work.
Speaking and writing about human intimate relationships for so many years brought her to another kind of intimate relationship: the one we have with our companion animals. Dalma finds that many aspects of this love are woefully underestimated, for reasons she discusses here with other passionate readers on this site. Her mission is to shed light on this important reciprocal love–which she believes can transform the inevitable loss of our pets from an unbearable experience to a meaningful and healing one. Dalma is now available for consultations for our members.