Overwhelming loss is not conducive to clear thinking. Here’s what you can do about it
I’ve been dealing with the overwhelming sense of grief since I put my dog, Chunk, to sleep.
Since then, I’ve been crying and missing my dog. The waves of sadness are becoming less frequent, but they still come a few times a day.
It may seem silly that I’d have such overwhelming feelings over an animal. But, he was a huge part of my life. He was always around me. He accompanied me most everywhere. My daily routine included taking care of him, and my thoughts centered around making sure he was comfortable and happy.
He also gave me companionship. I was never lonely because he was always there. I got him after my divorce and he saw me through many changes.
My mourning for him is natural. He was one of the most important things in my life.
I know Chunk will never come back. My mind still believes he’s around. It’s a sad delusional experience thinking you hear and see what isn’t there anymore.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” — Anatole France
In the initial days after losing my dog, I hadn’t been in my right mind. My grief had been so overwhelming, I hadn’t been able to function normally. I wasn’t sleeping well. I had no appetite. I didn’t have the energy to do my everyday tasks. I had to call in sick to work because I couldn’t keep my sadness from boiling up inside me and spilling out in waves of weeping.
Grief made me lose my mind. My brain went into zombieland and left my body to fend for itself.
It’s been twenty-three years since I last lost someone to death. This was when my grandfather decided to commit suicide with his shotgun in his backyard. My mother found him and I was the second person there. I remember it clearly; the shock of the scene and the flood of emotions overwhelmed me. I was numb for a while after that. I couldn’t focus and walked around in a daze.
Since then I’ve known a couple of people I know who’ve died too young from cancer. I’ve watched my friends and family deal with the grief of someone they know who’s made an untimely passing.
When you get to my age, you start seeing this more and more. I knew that I’d have to come face to face with grief soon enough.
Then, I found my dog was suffering from his chronic heart illness. I took care of him for eighteen months. He slowly got worse until it was time to put him to sleep.
After we put Chunk to rest, my grief hit a peak. I noticed I couldn’t think straight. I wasn’t able to organize myself or task master anything. I would go into a room only to forget why I was there. I know this is somewhat normal, but I was doing this all the time; wandering around aimlessly, not remembering one thought to the next. I ended up sitting in front of the TV watching movies for hours and hours, to distract my brain. It was the only thing my brain could grasp onto at the time.
“Heartbreak is life educating us.” – George Bernard Shaw
After of a period of 4–5 days, I could feel my mind clearing. I was able to move forward. I’m still grieving, but the initial shock and sadness I first experienced has worn off.
Slowly, my grief is fading and my brain is returning to a semi-normal state.
I did a little investigating on that grief and found that it has a significant effect on the brain.
In fact, when a person experiences intense grief, the chances increase significantly for heart attack or stroke.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome” is a Japanese word literally translated as “octopus pot” where the left ventricle of the heart weakens and resembles the shape of a clay pot. It’s most common among women and is a form of reversible heart failure caused by a flood of stress hormones.
Experiencing a major life event that is followed by chronic stress is linked to a higher risk of ischemic stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack) by 59%. Chronic stress increases cortisol levels which causes biological body changes that can lead to a stroke.
The stress from grief can literally kill you. It’s common to see elderly couples pass away within months of each other.
Beyond actually dying from grief, the way our brain handles grief is the normal process of mourning. There are even mourning rituals in every culture and religion to help ease the process.
Grief is a biological process for healing from loss. Our human attachment to others is mapped deep in our brains, and mourning the death of a loved one the process of changing our personal life story to one where our loved one is gone and out of our lives for good.
It’s important to take time to mourn loss. The brain needs to remap and regenerate a new life story.
Regardless, grief is painful. It’s reasonable to want to ignore it, push it away, run away from it, drink it away, or medicate it.
The only way to overcome grief is to go through the grief process. If you try to skip mourning, it will only delay your chance to remap your brain and heal you.
Instead, there are more healthy ways to get through the grief process and move forward to a different life without your loved one.
Healthy Ways To Process Grief
While experiencing grief, it’s important to take care of yourself to avoid slipping into chronic grief and depression, or develop medical issues from the stress related to grief.
It’s hard to do some of these things, but finding the easiest and most natural way to healing your grief is helpful to recovering.
Maintain close friendships
I reached out to my very close friends when I was upset. One of my friends lost her dog three months beforehand, so she knew what I was going through. I talked to her on the phone for an hour and she cheered me up just by being there and talking about regular life stuff.
I spent an afternoon with a couple of good friends. They were the men who watched Chunk when I was away on vacation or needed to be out of town. We had brunch and watched a movie at their house while I cuddled with one of their dogs. It was very healing to be around people who love you and take care of you when you’re going through a hard time.
My other friends reached out to me and expressed the love and caring for me, which was so helpful for me in my recovery. If I’d been all alone in my grief, I wouldn’t have done well and may have devolved into a deep depression over losing my pet.
Take care of yourself while you grieve
The hardest part is facing your pain. But you will have to face it eventually. Suppressing the pain will only delay the process and prolong your grieving. So, grieve and feel the pain, but also take care of yourself while you’re mourning.
I processed my initial grief by sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of ice cream and crying uncontrollably. I know that sounds very cliche’, but it worked for me. After the first couple days of that intense pain, I was able to move around and do some regular daily activities.
I also went to the gym to decompress. Getting on a cardio machine and raising my heart rate was beneficial to letting go of the overwhelming stress at the moment.
During that initial period, my brain needed a distraction from my pain and thoughts, so I went out to a movie. This got me out of the house without having to socialize. It also gave me a storyline to follow in my head which took me away from my thought loop of my loss. It was very helpful. I went right back to mourning, but that couple hours of time to rest my brain was helpful.
Because I have GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) I had a lot of anxiety with my grief. Anxiety can complicate grief process, as does any other mental health issue. I was slipping into heightened anxiety and panic attacks. I went to my primary care doctor and asked for something to help with this, and he gave me an anti-anxiety medication.
This is only to help for the short term, when I’m having a hard time sleeping or feel anxiety building up to a boiling point. Although medicating grief can delay the grief process, having panic attacks was not helpful for me.
The medication does help bring the symptoms of grief to a manageable level. I’m still grieving, but I’m not completely freaking out all the time.
Take some time off
Trying to go to work right after a huge loss can backfire on the grief process. It’s important to take some time off.
If your work has a bereavement benefit, use it. You’ll need it more than you know.
I know someone who lost her husband, and was given three days off, then needed to be back at work.
That’s not enough time. You will experience powerful feelings and need down time to process your grief and make sure you give your brain the time it needs to remap itself.
Advocate for yourself while you’re in the throes of mourning. Or let someone advocate for you. It’s important to give your brain the time it needs to process this life change.
Create a personal mourning ritual
Every culture and religion has a ritual for mourning. Whether it’s wearing black, or sitting for seven days to receive visitors during your time of grief. Having a ritual can be comforting and carry a positive reminder of the person lost.
A personal ritual is something done alone, in rememberance of the other person. This could be visiting a place that has good memories, or doing a habitual task that shows love for the one who’s gone. Contrary to this seeming to be a sad and negative experience, most people find solace and joy with a personal ritual.
Although my life goes on, I’m getting used to my dog no longer being around anymore. I still mourn. I know it hasn’t been very long, but I’m not sure my sadness over my loss will ever go away.
That’s okay. This is what it means to live; to connect with another soul so deeply. To experience a unique love is what makes life worth living.
And even when our loved ones are gone, they will always be with us in our hearts.