Of all the various ways that grief can express itself, perhaps one of the most unsettling is to experience the presence of a lost pet -- days, weeks or months after the death has occurred. When one so dear to you is gone, it can be very hard to accept that your cherished pet is really dead. You may find yourself thinking and dreaming about your pet much of the time, and it may seem that everything around you is a reminder of the animal you have lost. Once in a while you may temporarily forget that your pet is gone, and you'll look and listen for him or her-and maybe even think that you've seen, heard, smelled or touched your pet. Part of you believes your pet is there, yet the other part of you knows that's not the case. Some people find this to be very frightening and disorienting, while others find it to be quite helpful and even comforting. In any case, it's important to know that such experiences are very common and perfectly normal during times of loss.

Sometimes as long as a year after the death of a beloved companion animal, people will report sensing their pet in the room or hearing it scratching at the door. They believe the animal is there, yet they also know their pet is dead. They may feel very foolish or embarrassed- they may be very frightened- and they often wonder, "Am I going mad?"

No one knows why grief produces such powerful hallucinatory processes- but we do know that auditory, visual, tactile and olfactory hallucinations are a frequent experience of the bereaved. They are by no means abnormal, and they do not forecast a complicated grief reaction. While some people find them distressing, many specialists in bereavement counseling believe that hallucinatory experiences in grief actually may have great significance and be an important if not vital part of healing.

Writing about intrapsychic dimensions of grief, therapist Jeffrey Kauffman considers hallucinations and dreams about the deceased to be "extremely significant intrapsychic communications"- a sort of "grief language" with great power and personal significance that helps the griever realize the death and its meaning, and serves to resolve the griever's relationship to the deceased [in Doka, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Lexington Books, 1989, pp. 27-28].

Psychologist Mickie Gustafson describes how bereaved pet owners "- against all reason-were forever looking for their [pet] or listening for various sounds or signs of it. This is because their sense of loss is so overwhelming that it simply dominates normal logical thinking. This watchfulness also means that you become more and more sensitive to everything that might remind you of the dead pet. You listen and look, expecting to see or hear the missing [animal]-and sometimes it seems to you that you do. All your senses are on the alert and receptive to everything that might be a sign of communication from the dead animal. And this- the momentary impression of seeing or hearing what you are looking for- provides both solace and a respite in your search." [Gustafson, Losing Your Dog: Coping with Grief When a Pet Dies, Bergh Publishing, 1992, p. 18].

Be aware that, although grief responses differ from one person to another, it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions during the grieving process, including the sensation of hearing, seeing, touching or smelling your lost animal.

Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved

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