Hello, friends! This is a Q&A episode with two super important and interesting listener questions relating to coping with grief after losing a much-loved support dog, and being able to successfully distance yourself emotionally from family.
My dog was a support dog. I rescued her 6 years ago and she has been by my side ever since and has helped me immensely especially since my PTSD diagnosis. She recent passed away unexpectedly and now I am lost and don’t know how to move on. I can’t stop crying every time I think of her. Do you have any podcasts about grieving our fur babies?
I’m sorry that you’ve experienced this. People fall all over the spectrum when it comes to personal connections to animals, but it’s clear that this was equivalent to a family member to you. So I’m very sorry for your loss. There’s never a good time or circumstance for it. I think you need to go easy on yourself here. You said that your dog “recently passed away unexpectedly”. That means that it was both abrupt and it didn’t happen long ago. Both of those are drivers for the sadness and despair that you are feeling.
Let’s start with the fact that it was unexpected. While it will always hurt to lose a loved one, there is something to be said for expecting or suspecting it. It doesn’t make it easy, but you are able to start the grieving process sooner. You know that you will soon have to live in the context of a world without them. So the relationship that you had with them before dies first and you transition into a new relationship with the knowledge that they will be leaving the world soon. Like I said, not easy but you have the chance to start mentally preparing yourself and making that internal transition. When it comes out of left field, you don’t have that chance. One day you have this being that you love and rely on with you and one day you do not. You’re not supposed to know how to react to that. And it’s supposed to be HARD.
I hate that I have to say this, but time will help. It will. That’s just how things work. For the immensity of the love that you had for this dog, it might take a good amount of time. Perhaps several months before you start to feel like you are capable of living without being constantly distraught at your loss. It could be less, it could be more, but time will blunt the edges of your pain. We sometimes hold onto the pain of loss as a reminder or as a way of honoring those who have passed, but allowing yourself to live your life does not mean that you are “moving on” from them. You aren’t being asked to move on from them and you aren’t being asked to act like nothing happened. Loss is an unfortunately part of life, but this may not be the first time and inevitably won’t be the last time that you experience it. One way or another, you will learn to live in the context of a world without your soul familiar.
Now, I do want to make sure that I acknowledge the fact that you have PTSD. I don’t know exactly what your PTSD stems from and to what extent you have worked through the trauma. This may be the type of event that causes a resurgence in PTSD symptoms. If that’s the case, you might want to get in with some therapy sooner rather than later. To face this head-on and process this loss of yours so that it doesn’t become locked away as a traumatic memory. EMDR is the gold standard for this, which I have discussed in previous podcasts. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the claims that EMDR makes, but it does serve as a great framework for the type of work that does need to happen to process and traumatic memories. There are also other forms of therapy that are similar like trauma-focused CBT. The point is you don’t want to fall into a heavy pattern of avoidance that helps make the memory feel like it’s immediate and threatening. Like it can still harm you. You want it to be a sad memory, maybe even bittersweet with time, but it’s a memory. It’s something that plays back like a movie on a screen, not like an immersive VR experience.
You may also have been leaning heavily on the pup as a coping mechanism, which is not a bad thing but now you are without them. So need to be aware that there may be gaps in your coping that you should look out for. Perhaps this means increasing the amount of coping strategies that you are practicing and using on your own. Perhaps this even means finding a new service pet. Can’t say exactly what the answer is for you, but just be aware that things might be harder in general because of both the loss itself and the loss of the help that you used to have.
You’re likely going to have to hurt for a while without doing a lot to compensate for that hurt. Definitely lean into other people where ever you can. Family, friends, other supports. Don’t go through this alone. In time, you might want to think about what you can do on top of that hurt to help you grieve and help you live. I find that making something new if a great way to balance the scales. That can be art, a new relationship, a new hobby, a new character in a video game. Literally anything that involves creating something new.
I’m sorry for your loss. You aren’t being unreasonable. It’s going to suck and you can also be okay. It takes time, which is just part of it. But have confidence that this pain won’t sting so bad in the future and that doesn’t mean that you will forget them.
How do you emotionally distance from family without completely cutting them out of our life? I’m currently in therapy for trauma related to childhood sexual abuse and realizing the many ways my parents were unable to provide a healthy environment for healing…and still dont. It’s so hard for me to feel like I’m making progress while still having expectations/ needs of them that always end in frustration and disappointment. I know i cannot make them change/apologize/acknowledge the role they played…so how do I detach and not want it so badly?
Before answering this question, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that I’ve been answering a lot of questions that are either directly or indirectly tied to trauma lately. While I hope this doesn’t make my content seem repetitive, I also think that it’s important to recognize that this is also a reflection of how prevalent trauma is. Allow it to be a reminder to you that you have no idea what someone has been through.
So, the question here – you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and part of what compounded the difficulty of experiencing something like that was the fact that your parents could not provide a supportive environment for you to heal. I’m glad that you are able to recognize that fact now. Seeing your parent’s shortcomings is difficult, but also valuable information. It’s easy to blame yourself for a lot, especially when trauma is involved. And while I don’t think that you need to “blame” anyone, it is so helpful and healthy to come to an understanding about the factors at play that have made things so hard for you.
I talked about grieving in the last question and I think that it also applies here. This is one of those situations where you didn’t lose someone, but you did lose the idyllic version of your life where you could rely on your parents to keep you safe. That SUCKS. It goes against our nature as human mammals. We are made to be reliant on caregivers and form attachments to them. So when they are unable to provide for our needs, especially when it comes to safety, it can really screw with your head.
As a child, you don’t really know how to make sense of it. You may have a sense that something is off, but not understand exactly what or who’s fault it is. As you grow and develop, you can gain more perspective both from your own self and from others around you and that helps you to understand their shortcomings. I’m not sure how old you are, so it’s hard to know how much you need to rely on your parents. You said that you still have expectations and needs of them. Maybe this is primarily financially. I understand that it can be hard feeling like you’re on the hook and beholden to them. That keeps you in a sort of power dynamic. It really sounds like you have a good head on your shoulders though. I think that you can find a way to get what you can from them while recognizing the things that they are unable to provide for you and the ways that you may need to be careful around them, as they might have some harmful tendencies. You will learn in time to become your own internal parent. There is a lot of work that can be done in therapy toward that end, so I’m happy that you are in therapy. You’re allowed to wish that you had parents who can provide you with the environment that you yearn for. That’s just not the reality of the situation right now.
The therapist that you work with has what we call “unconditional positive regard” for you. That means that they are on your team no matter what. They are there for you and they accept/support you. That doesn’t mean that they agree with everything that you do. They may challenge you. They may not approve of certain things. But they still have that unconditional positive regard for you. You don’t necessarily need to have positive regard for someone that harms you. But I see you saying that you still want to have a relationship with them. You can gain some perspective about the ways that they are and are not healthy for you and let that guide your behaviors. They will always be your parents but you don’t have to rely on them or accept certain aspects of their behavior. If they are not willing to deal with that – that’s on them.
If you haven’t already, doing something like writing a letter to them that you don’t plan on giving to them could be very helpful. Same applies to role-playing a conversation with them with a friend. Or just talking out loud to yourself. You are correct that you can’t make them apologize or take responsibility for things. But you can express and feel out those desires on your own. There is processing to be done there. Perhaps at some point you realize that it is important for you that they take responsibility. That you are unwilling to continue a relationship with them if they can’t acknowledge their part. That’s certainly your right and if that’s the case you may need to form a more firm boundary. But right now it sounds like you are more in the realm of trying to come to these internal realizations and I think you are absolutely on the right track for doing that.
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