Did The Mental Health Community Get Grief Wrong?
By Kaleel Sakakeeny
In a first-person article in the Washington Post, a son who lost a beloved dad to COVID also takes aim at the new inclusion of “grief” in the psychiatric Diagnostic Manual. Speaking of his dad, he says that grief is an experience with no road map. “Grief,” he says, “is more akin to bushwhacking through a gnarly forest. Each of us needs validation that we can cry out from the thorns in our sides, that we aren’t crazy for enjoying a sudden clearing, that whatever route we’re taking (granted we aren’t harming ourselves or others) is the right one”.
He worries, as do we, for others who have loved and lost — at some point, all of us. He goes on to say, “I worry that this framing will render us even lonelier in our pain, even more convinced that our nonlinear, unpredictable paths through loss are 'wrong.'”
After decades of debate, the mental health community, led by psychiatry, finally added “prolonged grief” to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (New York Times 3/25/22). Clinicians can now bill insurance companies for treating people for the “condition.” It also means that pharmaceutical companies will rush to come up with pills to treat grief.
Animal Talks joins others in the psychiatric community that strongly disagree with the inclusion of grief in the DSMD. We feel that categorizing “grief as a mental disorder is wrong, and potentially harmful. We believe the designation “risks pathologizing a fundamental aspect of the human experience.” Grief.
If people have not “recovered” after a year (they still cry when they talk of their lost loved one; can not yet fully accept the reality of the death; still grieve, etc), they may well think there is something seriously wrong with them. They will think that they have a mental illness-when in truth they are actually emerging, slowly but naturally, from their losses.
We say it all the time at Animal Talks: grief, a broken heart, sadness, longing for what we loved and lost are not mental health issues. They do not fall into the category of a Medical Model.
Grief is a spiritual and emotional event, and there is no time table or correct way for it to become reconciled into our lives. It surely is not something we can treat with pills, in spite of what Big Pharama and some in Psychiatry believe. We risk pathologizing the mind and body’s natural response to love and loss, creating a new cohort of those who think of themselves as “unwell.”
— Rev K
Anxiety and the Power of Connection
The debilitating anxiety and deep emptiness we feel at the loss of one we love, of one whose presence filled our lives and is no more, comes from the feeling we have totally lost connection
with our loved one. The bond is severed.
But that’s a false belief! We must do all that we can to keep the connection strong and present!
The more active and rich our connection, the fuller our lives are and the less anxiety we feel.
Rituals, remembrances, stories, celebrations... all help to keep the circle of connection intact and our lives less anxious and lonely.
— Rev K
Regret, Guilt and Shame
Are they different? And if you think they are, how are they different?
Many of us use the terms interchangeably, and this is especially true when the time comes to say goodbye to our beloved animal friends.
There are always the thoughts: I feel so guilty that I didn’t notice Thor’s sickness sooner. I’m ashamed I yelled at him when he peed on the floor by accident. I deeply regret leaving the door open. But there are significant differences here, and knowing the differences can often help ease the pain and grief of loss, and avoid the worse pain of all, self-blame.
If we say we “regret something,” basically we’re saying: “I’m sad or unhappy I did what I did. I really wish I hadn’t. I feel bad things turned out the way they did.” It suggests that if we had known better, or if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have done this or that.
“Guilt” refers to a belief that we knowingly did something we knew we shouldn’t have! But it’s different depending on the circumstances. For example, if we know we should close the gate as we leave the yard, and don’t. But knew we should, and ignored that “voice inside” telling us to, that’s guilt. We went against what we knew was right, and for no good reason. If, on the other hand, we didn’t close the gate because we forgot to, or thought we had or were rushing say, to catch the bus, that’s a softer kind of guilt. It’s less corrosive.
“Shame” is a whole other thing! Shame is when we believe we are no good. That because of an error or mistake, accidental or not, we are a bad person. As noted by author and social worker Scott Janssen, ”we move from ‘I did something that was bad’ to ‘I’m a bad person because of what I did.’ ‘’ It’s easy to confuse these experiences, Janssen says. And it’s important to differentiate among them.
Many times in my work, someone will say, “I feel so guilty about…” But as we look at what the person feels guilty about, we see she actually has regrets that such and such happened, and not guilt. As a consequences, she is less likely to blame herself, which a healthier approach to life and psychology.
Q & A with Reverend K. and Animal Forum
AF: How is grieving especially different or more challenging should you lose a pet during this coronavirus crisis?
Rev. K: It really is important to see this pandemic, or rather life in the time of the coronavirus, as a deep period of grief and mourning. It’s about more than the politics and the mechanics of masks and social distances and staying at home. It’s grief for the life we lost as a people. Grief for the dead and dying, and sadness for the cruel ways the virus has taken our loved ones away. We are mourning for what we lost and feeling that pain.
When a pet, an animal companion, gets sick or dies in this time, it’s almost more than we can bear.
First, veterinarian care is spotty and sometimes not available. And our pets are providing us with immeasurable comfort and stability, even more than usual. Because they are innocent of the dangers, they become deep comforts, help keep us grounded. Should one of them die during this time, the grief we would feel is profoundly compounded. We have lost one of the brightest lights in the darkness of the pandemic and its loneliness. We are already grieving. Now to grieve the death of our beloved pet can push us over the top. I personally speak to my cat every day, telling her how much I love her, and “please don’t choose this time to leave me!”
AF: Many people are adopting pets at this time. The shelters have never been more empty. Would you advise against or for this, and what advice can you give to those who are thinking of adopting now, or have recently?
Rev. K: How great this is. I just saw and posted a wonderful image of the Palm Beach Animal Shelter staff standing next to flung-open doors, hands raised in celebration, masks on, of course. It was the first time ever they had no animals in cages or kennels. What a perfect celebration!
We worry of course about those animals who live in houses where people are infected. Will they (people and pets) be taken care of? We also worry that when this pandemic is over, will people return their adopted animals to the shelters because they have fulfilled their usefulness? I also see that shelters are checking adopters out virtually, being sure they meet the requirements and understand the responsibilities.
But, yes, I think it’s a very good thing that people are seeing the deep comfort and reassurance pets can bring in this time of stress. The physical and emotional and mental benefits animals bring a household, especially in these times, is simply wonderful and amazing.
How Do You Counsel Older People in Their Grief Over the Loss of a Pet, by Death or Inability to Care for the Pet?
In my work as a pet grief counselor, I see the devastation and pain that come when a beloved animal dies, especially by euthanasia, which is more often the case.
I don’t do much counseling. I listen, because the senior (or anyone) is the expert in her own grief.
As the stories unfold, I listen for guilt (which is pretty much always there), and try to separate the guilt from the grief, so we can get on with the process of healing.
It helps seniors to grasp, at some point, that death does not end the love. It does not end the relationship. The love and the relationship are forever, and that seems comforting. Up to a point.
It’s also helpful to somehow deeply grasp that we feel pain because of the love we feel for our pet.
Love and grief are conjoined!
It’s a huge step in the healing process to create a ritual, a ceremony to honor their pet’s life. Maybe a small shrine, where photographs of the pet are set up and a candle is lighted… and friends come by to sing songs or share memories of the pet they knew and loved. Animal Talks (AnimalTalksInc.com) can help with this.
But we also acknowledge the intense yearning to see and hold the pet again. It’s a physical and emotional reality than can never be denied or repressed. I encourage the full expression of grief and tears for as long as it takes. Many are comforted by knowing there is no timetable for grief to uncoil and end. It never ends in fact.
Never listen to anyone who says you’ve grieved enough, and it’s time “to move on”. Grief is never ending. It may soften, but there will always be a hole in your heart.
The giving up of a pet, because one can no longer care for the animal friend, is heart wrenching! Seniors have lost so much! Now this seeming act of betrayal can be too much.
I do advise that seniors plan for this day. When they first bring their pets home, they ought to discuss with the family who will take over the care. Who will welcome the pet with love when it's time? The animal companion has loved so deeply and given so much, how terribly wrong to send her to a shelter. These kinds of arrangements are deeply reassuring and maintain the connection the senior needs right up to the end.
— Kaleel Sakakeeny
Is One Ever Too Old To Have A Pet Companion?
The relationship between seniors and their animal companions, their pets, carries with it all the joy and love of any human animal bond.
Companionship, comfort, a conduit to socializing and exercise are as characteristic of seniors and their pets as they are with most anyone who shares her life with an animal companion. In fact, an article in Forbes (Pets Are Critical For Older Adults - January, 2020) points out that companionship with an animal very often is the only thing separating them from devastating isolation and loneliness. Pets can provide the affection, purpose, and unconditional love that makes life worth living for seniors.
And there’s no debate over the value to seniors of sharing their lives with a pet.
Aging in Place (July 2020) says that that “owning” (people do not ”own” pets) a pet can be physically and mentally beneficial for senior citizens. Apparently just 15 minutes bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol, and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, the article claims, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels and fight depression.
There is another dimension, however. While I’m a firm believer that most seniors benefit greatly at any age when they share their lives with an animal companion, the older a senior, the greater the complications.
Usually, but not always, a 60 year old senior will have fewer difficulties walking her dog, say than an 80 something might. Getting tangled up with cat who’s around your feet can set the stage for a fall. Getting to the market for pet food, changing a litter box, getting to the vet are all likely more difficult for an older senior.
Then there’s the emotional trauma of the pet’s passing.
At 60, a woman is likely to still have a circle of friends and an active social life. But for many older seniors who may have lost most everything and everyone, the death of her pet is the death of her lifeline and the loss could bring on deep depression and actual illness.
Of course all of this depends on the person regardless of age. Is she a person of faith? An introvert or extrovert? How much prior loss and grief had she experienced, and so forth.
But in my opinion, the overall benefits of pet companionship – any pet – outweigh the risks. Just remember to chose to share your life with a pet with whom you are really compatible in terms of temperament, size and age!
Good luck. Let me know if I can help
— Kaleel Sakakeeny
”This is so powerful. Chaplain Sakakeeny captures the grief, and the ways to deal with it, perfectly. I love how he validates the fact that grief is never-ending. He gives such loving ways to acknowledge the grief, be it a shrine, a get-together, or whatever moves each individual.”
— Mary Jo N.
Grief, Loss and Animals in the Pandemic
Today we are asking how grieving is different, more challenging when one loses a pet during this time of quarantine.
I think It’s important to see this Pandemic, or rather this life in the time of the Coronavirus as a deep period of grief and mourning. It’s more than the politics and the mechanics of masks and social distancing and staying at home. It’s a grief for the life we lost as a people. Grief for the dead and dying. Sadness for the cruel ways the virus has taken our loved ones away. We are mourning for what we lost and feeling that pain.
When a pet, an animal companion, gets sick or dies in this time, it’s almost more than we can bear.
First, veterinarian care is spotty and sometimes not available. And since the comfort and stability our pets are providing us with is huge, their sickness or death is felt so very much more keenly. Because they are innocent of the dangers, they easily help keep us grounded. Should one of them die during this time, the grief we would feel would be profoundly compounded.
We will have lost one of the brightest lights in the darkness of the pandemic. We are already grieving. Now to grieve the death of our beloved pet can push us over the top. I personally speak to my cat every day, telling her how much I love her and please don’t take this time to leave us! If ever.
It’s encouraging to see so many people adopting pets at this time. Some shelters have never been more empty. I just posted a wonderful image of the Palm Beach Animal Shelter staff standing next to flung-open doors, hands raised in celebration, masks on, of course. It was the first time ever they had no animals in cages or kennels! What a perfect celebration!
We worry of course about those animals who live in houses where people are infected. Will they (people and pets) be taken care of? We also worry that when this pandemic is over, will people return their adopted animals to the shelters because they have fulfilled their usefulness?
I also see that shelters are checking adoptees out virtually, being sure they meet the requirements and understand the responsibilities. But, yes, I think it’s a very good thing that people are seeing the deep comfort and reassurance pets can bring in this time of stress. The physical and emotional and mental benefits animals bring a household, especially in these times, is simply wonderful and amazing. May that last long after the dreaded disease has passed.
— Kaleel Sakakeeny
The Healing Power of Grief
I saw a woman bring her children to her father’s grave, their grandfather, whom they barely knew and remembered. She said, “I sat and cried in front of them. I then told them a few stories about my dad, their grandfather, and laughed and cried all together again. I told them this is what grieving looks like. I had taught them so much about everything, why shouldn’t I teach them about grief, and how to grieve. I know they will experience loss and death in their lives and I want them to be able to move through those feelings. To grieve well."
We know the pain of loss comes from many things, not just the death of a beloved. The loss of a way of life, a home, friendship, a relationship, a career , health, loss of love, self-esteem, loss of a dream
Life is characterized by joy and loss. They are conjoined. Twins sharing the same heart.
Society only wants us to be happy. Places a premium on ”being happy.” But if we were always or even mostly happy we would not have truly loved. We would be like TS Elliot’s ”Hollow Men...and Women.”
Where there is no grief, there has been no love, and in valuing, emphasizing joy over grief and sadness, we create neurotic people.
Unexpressed grief, never being taught about the feelings and expressions surrounding loss, and how sadness works, and how tears cleanse us... not knowing these things, never having been guided through them, will result in serious physical and psychological problems throughout life. And one might never, ever realize that, even as they feel it, and know something is wrong.
I'm told about 40% of all psychological problems come from a life of accumulated grief... grief that’s never resolved or expressed. Events we never found a way to mourn. And they’re still waiting to be mourned.
Teach your children, teach yourself about the power of grief to heal, especially in a pandemic
As seen in Sivana East
When The Bond Breaks: When Our Pets Leave Us
My mission is to companion those on their grief journeys when their beloved animal companion dies.
I’m a Grief Counselor, specifically a Pet Grief Counselor. I’m also an ordained Animal Chaplain. And I have come to see that the deep sorrow and pain of losing a pet are not therapy issues, though they often seem so to the bereaved who can feel she is going out of her mind with grief.
The loss is a spiritual one, one of the soul.
There is no pill for the sadness.
The broken heart is not a mental health issue.
I don’t ever try to fix or take their away the pain of the loss. Pain has to be faced, to be gone through so we may get to the other side where healing waits. In our grief-avoidant society, our impulse is to bat the pain away. But we must move toward it; not away from it.
Grief and pain must be named and expressed during the grief journey if the flow is not to stall.
And we never speak of “closure.” Why would we? Who wants to close such love?
Those who share their lives with an animal know beyond words that the bond between them and their animals is profound. We are discovering that the connection is neurological, emotional, social and physical.
How we walk, the tone of our voices, where we sit, when we go out and how long we are away – all are determined and affected by the connection between us and our animal companion.
It is said that they are the “angels of our better selves.”
That they bring out qualities in us that few humans can.
Our pets. animal companions, open us to uncomplicated love. Patience. Sacrifice. Kindness of the deepest kind.
They change us forever…and when that bond is broken , severed by death, the pain is bone-marrow deep. The light goes out, the grievers tell me, and we are changed forever.
All that we were, had become because of the love, is now in danger of being lost.
Many of us fear reverting back to our less loving, more limited selves. And that is why we “hold on,” and why we feel grief for years-and why we need to see that death does not end the love. It transforms it to one of sacred memory, even as we long for the physical presence of our beloved pet.
In time, with support and patience and work, gradually, the mourner moves along the Grief Path and begins to see the light of healing.
Sees the outline of a future without her beloved animal companion.
Resolution: the living of life around the loss, the hurt. Incorporating it. Learning to love again and dance again, if only with a limp.
Don’t Blame God
I’d like to point out that three quarters of all emerging and existing infectious diseases (SARS, Coronavirus, Anthrax Lyme disease, Ringworm, Ebola, etc.) erupt through our tragic, broken and unnatural relationship with nature.
Certainly the “wet markets” in Wuhan, linked to early clusters of coronavirus cases, are horrific examples of this “broken relationship.”
The markets import living animals from the wildlife trade… which are then sold, alive. Wolf cubs, masked palm civets, dogs, cats, frogs, chickens and many more are killed and cut up for consumption.
The animals are stacked in small wire cages where they spend their short, brutal lives in horror - stressed, ill and terrified. Bodily fluids and feces sprinkle down throughout, creating perfect conditions for viral spillover.
No amount of “cultural sensitivity” or recognition of a different way of life can forgive this.
The slaughter of 9.6 million farmed animals each year also contributes hugely to the spread of pathogens. Can we be so deaf and closed-hearted that we can not hear their cries? How can our moral and spiritual selves not rise up in protest. If not, at least then let us be frightened by the fact that these animals inevitably will pass on pathogens, causing deadly diseases in our food chain. Think recalls of meat products. Think Mad Cow disease.
This is Speciesism at its worse – breaking faith with nature, severing our bond. We have to find a way to see animals not as our “partners,” but as our equals! It’s a matter of life or death.
We have been warned. We are LIVING the warning now.
The “interconnectedness of life” has proven to be an ineffective call to action. It was and is too passive. Too comfortable. Too easy to preach and teach. And ignore.
But fear and the possibility of death and dying may be better ways of realizing our bond with animals is sacred and essential – we can not deforest, slaughter animals, foul rivers, trade in live animals, engage in over building that destroys habitats, and not expect to pay the price, which today is death and disease.
Please join me in prayer:
Dear Lord and Creator,
Please, please help us move away from the mindless abuse and manipulation of your creations, of life and nature, for our selfish and commercial use. Please help us to embrace all of nature as ourselves, and honor all life as precious and absolutely as one life. Help us to include their voice, their desires, their needs into our lives.
Unmask us, strip us of our convenient phrases and terms, and fill us with the kind of fear and love that restores the blessed connection and sameness of all beings that you have created.
As seen in Animal Wellness
Coping with the Loss of a Pet During the Holidays
When you’ve lost a pet, the holidays can be a difficult time. Here’s how to work through your grief and enjoy the season to the best of your ability.
All of us with animal companions look forward to celebrating the holidays with them. Whether you buy your pet a present or give them special holiday treats and attention, their presence is part of the joy and happiness of the season. But what happens if you’re dealing with some grief this year because your pet has passed on? Your dog is no longer there to celebrate with you and your family. Your cat won’t be knocking the balls off the tree or running through the wrapping paper.
Maybe the loss is recent; maybe it happened years ago. But holidays and other special occasions carry with them the sharp pain of memories and the weight of sadness, making them very bittersweet. They trigger what we call “grief bursts” – sudden, overpowering feelings of loss and loneliness.
What can we do?
First, give yourself permission to excuse yourself from the festivities without lengthy explanations. “I need some alone time” should be enough. During this private time, let yourself cry and remember. Don’t try to bat your feelings away. Name your pain, and allow yourself to feel it. If it helps, talk to your animal companion about all that you’re feeling.
If gift giving is part of your holiday season, consider buying a small gift for your departed pet. You don’t have to open it if it doesn’t feel right – it’s just the act of “giving” it that matters. This can be especially helpful for those who have recently lost an animal.
Take “grief breaks” – time in which you deliberately do something else to take your mind off your sadness such as watch a funny movie, help with the dishes or take a walk. It can help tremendously if you share these breaks with people you love and trust.
If you have the impulse, share your story with a close friend or family member. Let them know how difficult this time is, and how much you miss having your animal companion with you.
You might decide to skip part of the day completely, allowing yourself a few hours to volunteer at a shelter. Let your heart be touched by the animals who don’t have a home during the holiday season. Doing good has an amazing, healing quality, and being around others animals can be very therapeutic.
Take good care of yourself. Stay hydrated, eat well and get plenty of rest. Grief bursts are exhausting and deplete the body.
Allow yourself to feel grateful; to be aware of all the things that are good and comforting in your life, or that make you happy. Write them down if it helps.
If you journal, add to it, and look back at past entries. Has your grief changed? Do you feel your pain has lessened? Say so, and be thankful for that gift.
Do something special for yourself. Get a massage, take a friend to lunch, make a donation or buy something that you want, whether you need it or not.
The holidays remind us keenly of all that we have lost, but also all that we have. Notice whatever feelings come up during this time, and make peace with them. It’s all part of your journey.