During the 25 years I worked off and on (I needed to take periodic breaks in order to process people’s accumulated pain out of my own body and brain) as a volunteer grief counselor for Kara in Palo Alto, I was almost always surprised at how often people would show up with recent twin losses – both a pet and a person. And almost invariably the deepest expressions of grief would emerge out of exploring the relationship with the pet.
When I think about why that might be, knowing what I know about how the brain works, grieving pet losses more easily than people losses begins to make some sense.
Once Again With Feeling
We know from studies of early brain development that memories are stored in both hemispheres of the brain, but that traumatic memories, which the brain begins attending to as soon as the network is sufficiently robust in utero, are predominantly stored on the right (for about 90% of us) because many structures on the left need to be held in reserve to be used to encounter and process language later on.
Memories associated with overwhelming experiences typically have a lot of emotion stored along with them, since threat/stress chemicals are also triggered together with such experiences. This basic understanding is what has led trauma treatment specialists to move more and more to somatic psychotherapies and to write articles like The Limits of Talk. Language too often shows up as a defense to being able to access, express and integrate deep feelings. It is often better bypassed.
Now when I think about the relationship I have with Bodhi and with Archie and Gracie, they involve almost all feeling and few words. Any conversations I have with them are all one-way where words are concerned (both cats and the dog use their own unique language with me and with each other. They just don’t use words. So, for example, when Archie and Gracie both jump up on my desk at 5PM, they’re telling me it’s time for their evening kitty crack treat. When Bodhi comes into my office and lays his head on my thigh, he needs to have me take him out to go potty. There are many other things the cats and dog tell me in their own unique wordless ways. They have patiently taught me their language over the years, even as I have been a slow and easily distracted learner).
Words Get Out of the Way
When we lose a pet, there are significantly fewer words to get in the way. The loss goes directly to the heart of things – right to the emotional centers of the brain and body. If I think about losing Archie, for example, I will miss him showing up every morning as soon as the bathroom light goes on, clawing the carpet, rolling on his back to have his tummy rubbed, and then walking out into the kitchen holding him with my nose in his super-soft fur where I then load him out onto the deck and into his safety tent (eagles, owls and coyotes are active kitty predators here on Whidbey Island). These are all motor experiences. They live in my body and brain beyond all words. There will be few words available when it comes time to move into and through the grief of his loss.
Grief changes the pharmacology of the body and brain. We know that neurotransmitters which regulate stress, like corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) become significantly elevated. Brain imaging studies performed on grieving people show significant changes in areas that regulate memory, mood, heart rate, digestion, perception and cognitive functioning. Every new client at Kara was explicitly instructed to not make any important decisions – like moving or forming new relationships or spending money on large expenditures – for at least six months. They were encouraged to wait a year, if possible. One reason for this guidance is because our brain stops working well, only it doesn’t tell us so. Here’s what clinical psychologist Elizabeth Harper Neeld has to say about grief:
Grieving is hard work and takes a huge toll on our bodies. When we are responding to a loss, the part of our brain where responses are integrated increases the production of CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms. Emergency-mobilizing chemicals are released. As our stress increases, the chemical levels increase; and our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated. Our breathing may become defective. Biological rhythms of sleeping and eating are disturbed. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.
Grieving can actually change the environment in the belly, intestines and bowels. “I feel as if I’ve been hit in the stomach,” we might say. “My stomach is in knots,” someone else may offer as a description of the physical stress triggered by a loss. These reactions can actually rearrange the muscles and sometimes even our body’s skeleton, in particular patterns for particular lengths of time. We may make sounds, like a moan or a growl. Our brain produces pictures that upset us even more.
Similarly, when we lose a pet, our neurophysiology is frequently adversely impacted. Often, the grief over pet loss turns out to be only the first wave in a backlog of ungrieved losses alive and unwell, stored in the armored deep recesses of our body and brain. For this reason, it’s generally wise not to run out and immediately replace the lost animal. Better is to do our best to wait patiently and allow for a kind of organic healing process to unfold. Healing is constantly looking for opportunities to do Big Work, and the loss of a pet often presents precisely that opening. Out of that opening frequently arises the embodied truth of Brene Brown’s observation that: “Our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.”