Grief and Loss

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D., LCP, CGP

“To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” — Erich Fromm

I recently joined a not-so-exclusive club.  My beloved dog – Bacon – died suddenly and without warning. I returned home from work, as I would on any other day, to find my dog deceased in the living room.  While it did not appear that she suffered, the complete unexpectedness of the situation and the sight of her body having fallen from the couch will forever be seared into my brain.

The grief and loss were profound.  I missed three days of work because the thought of returning to the office – and continuing to ply my trade as a psychologist at a college counseling center – seemed meaningless and unimportant at the time.  I told myself that I needed to be home for my other dog, who had just lost her best friend and lifelong companion; but the truth was that I needed to be around my other dog for me, not her.  I needed the comfort, love, and care that can only be provided by “man’s best friend.”  In the days following Bacon’s passing, I shed more tears than I had in many years. I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I knew I needed to move forward, but I had no desire to do so. There was simply no joy in Mudville.

I am fortunate to have a few close friends; some of whom are also extremely compassionate and skilled mental health professionals.  Many of these folks reached out numerous times to express their sympathy and condolences.  As much as I know these people truly wanted to be there for me during this dark moment in my life, it was hard to let down my wall of sadness and despair. I often struggle to “let people in,” so it was no surprise that this poor trait manifested even more strongly during a time of intense loss. While I was grateful that my friends would take the time to express care; the outreaches felt too distant (through no fault of my friends, of course).  I was too disconnected from those feelings of comradery and support.  It felt like everyone was a million miles away; even as they tried to show how close they actually were.

However, this self-imposed isolation and distance changed on the fourth day – the first day I was able to return to work.  As I arrived at the office, there was a card on my desk. It was from my colleagues at the Student Health Center.  As I work as a University Counseling Center; Student Health is located just down the hall from my office.  Although I had never spoken directly to anyone at Student Health about my dog’s passing; it was clear that someone from their office must have talked to one of my colleagues or saw a post I had made on social media and my colleagues from the Student Health Center wanted me to know I was being thought of.

As I opened the card, tears started to well in my eyes. The physical card was a relatively non-descript “Condolences” card – the type that can be picked up at any local convivence store throughout the country. However, the card was signed by every single employee at the Student Health Center – some who I have known well for many years and some who I would struggle to identify in a police lineup. The words of care and kindness that were strewn throughout the interior of the card were impactful; even if I can’t remember any of the specific messages.  It was a reminder of the collective power of group. It meant so much to me just to know that another office took time out of their schedule and came together for the sole purpose of offering support. I was moved in ways that I was unable to feel when even my closest friends had tried to individually offer their sympathy.

As someone who has grown up with dogs all of my life – sometimes with as many as three or four at a time – it was not my first time being exposed to the loss of a pet and it will certainly not be my last (although I still hold on to the fantasy that my one remaining dog will live forever just so I don’t have to struggle through the loss of another beloved companion).

My most recent experience with loss also had me reflecting on the college population in which I work.  While I am no stranger to death – an inevitable outcome when you reach a certain age –but many college students have not yet been exposed to loss; and the grief that usually comes with it.  As anyone who works in college counseling knows; this is the developmental time when students start to lose grandparents and other elderly loved ones.  If it is their first experience with serious loss, the impact can be profound and confusing.  The sense of isolation, lethargy, and anhedonia can be more intense than many initially expect and the impact can last longer than anyone would ever want.

I am reminded of the wise words of a professor (and prominent group therapist), Dr. Gary Burlingame – “By the group we are wounded and by the group we are healed.” Our love for animals and pets almost certainly springs from our creation as social creatures and our desire to connect with those that also live in the world with us.  When one of our pets dies, sometimes the most helpful remedy is to also seek the comfort and solace of those who engage in that same social world. It is impactful, and healing, to be in the supportive presence of those who are also experiencing a similar journey. While I hope to never again experience the loss of another loved one, I recognize the folly of such hope. Maybe the best I can ask for is that when I do lose someone or something close to me; there will be a group of supportive people who can lift me up when I don’t have the energy.

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