Demonstrating grief through wailing and song has long been a historic, sacred part of honouring and remembering the dead. From the Chinese to the Assyrians, Irish and Ancient Greeks, oral rituals of outward mourning were a responsibility that fell (and continue to fall) to women.
In Ancient Greece, while women may have lacked political and social freedom, the realm of mourning belonged to them. Their role in remembering the dead granted them their only position of power in a society where they possessed no autonomy. Yet this power was also believed to supersede mortal constraints, giving women the ability to do something that men could not.
The Greek funeral was composed of three parts: the prothesis, or preparation and laying out of the body; the ekphora, or transportation to the place of burial; and the burial of the body or the entombment of cremated remains. It was during the prothesis that the women began their ritual of lament. First, they cleansed the corpse, anointed it and decorated it with aromatic garlands as it lay atop its kline (bier). Once the body was prepared, scores of female relatives gathered around it to beat their breasts and tear the hair from their scalps as they sang funeral songs. They wished to communicate the awful weight of their grief in order to satisfy the dead, whom they believed could hear and judge their cries. In contrast, the men kept their distance to salute the dead, physically signifying their separation from the realm that belonged to women. Some art from the Geometric period suggests they may have joined the female mourners in writhing to the lament, though they were spared from the excruciating gesture of ripping out their hair.
The funeral song served as an extension of the physical pain women inflicted upon themselves during the prothesis. Its purpose was to communicate a cry of uncontrollable pain, a hysteric melody that was believed to be rooted in feminine emotions; thus, only women could be the vessels for this pain. In the depths of their sorrow and self-torture, female mourners in the Geometric period would have sung a melody from one of the four major funeral song categories: threnos, epikedeion, ialemos or goos. These songs were personal and meaningful to the bereaved. In her book Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (1979), which, through the art they have left behind, analyses how the Ancient Greeks viewed death, Emily Vermeule writes that goos was the most intense kind of funeral song. It might have been reserved for lovers or close family members, as its theme was centred on the relationship between two lives shared, the one now lost.
Leading the funeral lament was the song leader, also called the eksarkhos gooio, or the chief mourner. In early times, she was a professional mourner, but could also be the mother or close female relative of the dead. The song leader served as the liaison between those who mourned and those who had passed, guiding the bereaved through the proper course of remembrance in order to mollify the dead. As she led the female mourners in lament, she was careful to cradle the head of the corpse. Touch was necessary in order to open the ears of the dead. But once the ears were opened, the living women had to tread carefully. Not only could the dead hear funeral laments sung for them during the prothesis, they could also determine whether the presence of the living was good or malevolent. This is the reason, writes Robert Garland in The Greek Way of Death (1985), that Odysseus is advised against participating in Ajax’s funeral. Mourners entrusted their song leader with the responsibility of appeasing the dead to ensure their smooth transition into the spirit world.
As time went on, the role of female song leader would serve as the predecessor to an occult offshoot, the goes, who used song as a vehicle to transcend mortal constraints. Under the goes, funeral songs were no longer songs: they were spells, used to lure the dead back to earth. The goes was akin to a witch, due to her supernatural powers; she had even mastered the art of necromancy and could temporarily bring corpses back to life. Yet, even before the goes and the eksarkhos gooio, women in Ancient Greece had ties to the occult side of death. If the eksarkhos gooio was the mother of this occult tradition and the goes the maiden, the egkhystristriai was the crone. Before the classical period, the egkhystristriai was believed to have officiated at the burial of the body. Like an occult high priestess, her powers stemmed from the ritual of making blood sacrifices to the dead. Later, these sacrifices turned into the more modest ritual of offering libations, exemplified as Antigone pours offerings over her brother Polyneikes after she performs rites over his body.
By the fifth century BC mourning rituals had become less elaborate and deliberately reduced the importance of the female role. The number of female lamenters who surrounded the dead dwindled from scores of close relatives to only a few. Laments became more antiphonal and grew to involve men. Gestures such as tearing the hair were replaced by the symbolic gesture of cutting the hair short. These later changes suggest that the Greeks believed their dead were in less need of appeasement, eradicating the need for a song leader with supernatural inclinations. But they attempted to diminish the role that women had in the death process, thus dismantling a space in which women held dominance. In the classical period, women were relegated to the background of the funerary ritual, writes Maria Serena Mirto in Death in the Greek World (2012), because men feared it would threaten social cohesion and their desire for death to be pro patria, for one’s country. This is evident from Greek state funeral records, such as that in Kerameikos, the Athens cemetery, in which female lamenters are only briefly mentioned, suddenly peripheral to the ritual they had previously orchestrated.
The trend of removing women from the centre of death is not exclusive to Ancient Greece. While some cultures, such as the Assyrians, fought to preserve the role of female lamenters, others have been unable to do so.As Richard Fitzpatrick reported in the Irish Examiner in 2016, in Ireland, the tradition of female keeners, who wail in grief, began to die out in the mid-20th century. In the United States, male funeral directors replaced the long-standing tradition of female layers-out. Women were left behind, as the funeral directors attempted and succeeded at monetising the death industry, a legacy that continues to haunt the recently bereaved, who must deal with costly funeral arrangements.
Today, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a death renaissance, spearheaded by morticians, activists and artisans alike – a majority of whom are women. Ancient mourning rituals and traditions are resurging. Perhaps the role of the female song leader as a spiritual caster of spells will find its way back, too.
As the northern hemisphere moves into the winter, the wind blows in the reminder that so much will be lost. I’ve seen the posts of people I don’t know, but who are close to those I do, sharing stories of family members getting sick or dying of COVID.
It’s getting closer. Faster. The air is thicker with uncertainty.
Of realization that there is no one coming to save us from this virus.
Because there is no quick fix. There is no perfect protection.
(I know this is grim.)
I know these times are more dangerous because of the fear. I have seen it cause even the most steady folks to sway. Some to risky choices. Some to conspiracy.
I know I am in a moment that history will look back on and point out all of the wrongs.
But this is not a measured conversation where I can hide behind lovely words.
There are people dying.
Not Enough Space for the Names
I was on a social media page and someone talking about an altar with candles for the dead on their heart. And that there wasn’t enough space for all of the candles.
After all, more than 250,000 in the United States (and many more by the time this is posted) requires a large space. An impossibly large expanse of holding.
I want to light candles for all of you. I want to brighten this time with your names.
And I want to hold space for the ones who have watched. Watched loved ones die. Said goodbyes over video. Begged to be in the room only to be turned away.
Safety. Not you too.
What is Coming (Soon)
In the beginning, I read a lot about anticipatory grief. The knowing that loss is coming and not being able to stop it.
My heart remembers when my dad was diagnosed with COVID. And the days of blurry, fuzzy thinking. Trying to make decisions as a family about what we would do if…
Touch and go. Faith and fear.
Prayers. Offerings. Outbursts.
I have a stubborn heart, I know. I have clung to believing people are good overall. They will look out for each other. I’ve seen it. I have relationships that have proven it.
But when I look outside my carefully curated community…
I am likely not sharing anything that hasn’t been said. I know there are many more that feel this way. Alone. Helpless. Quietly screaming.
Arguing with ‘friends’ on Facebook doesn’t help. Posting the millionth meme about wearing masks doesn’t ease the tension. Staying home only gives more space for the feelings to become louder.
There is grief around the corner. There is grief in the hallway. There is grief in the pillow underneath my head at night.
Because it is everywhere.
Building a Relationship with Grief (Before)
Whether you have lost or not, whether you have been impacted or not, the grief will be a tsunami. I have been holding back my own waves because I don’t know where they will crash. Into you? Into me? Across the yard?
I have taken to sitting with grief now. I see it as an unscreamed scream. An unhugged hug. The empty place into which love pours and pours and pours.
I sit and I ask grief what it needs.
I have an altar to grief. Where I sit. Where I have an amethyst. Where I have bones.
My heart holds an altar too. Memories live there.
I sit at the altar. Sometimes, I weep. Sometimes, I am silent. Sometimes, I sing.
Sometimes. Nothing comes. Time between time.
I write poems to grief. I write letters.
Even when the words feel empty or insignificant.
The Arrival of Grief
And I realize I am preparing for grief’s arrival. All of the ways I have pushed it back, saying that since I can’t grieve in community, I will be patient.
I will wait. I must wait.
It is the thing these moments require.
The space before.
But there are a lot of echoes waiting to be screamed screams.
I imagine you have come here for answers. For solutions. For spells. For prayers.
I just show up for it. I make time for grief. Just as I would for any other relationship.
Most adult children want to help and support their mom or dad when their partner/spouse dies. It’s a tough situation because you are also grieving the loss of one of the most significant relationships of your life. You can help yourself and your mom or dad by understanding grief and grieving, and the tremendous significance of this loss.
When a partner/spouse dies
The death of a spouse/partner is different from the death of a parent. They are fundamentally different relationships and are held differently in our hearts and minds.
The adult child understands and appreciates more fully what their surviving parent is experiencing if they themselves have lost a partner or spouse. It seems we humans often need to have the experience ourselves to really grasp what the experience is like. Grief and grieving are no exception.
Learn from those who have gone before you
If experience is the best teacher, what is the next best thing? To learn from those who have gone before you. Know that life is harder than you can probably imagine when someone you love dies. Act accordingly.
Adult children have been known to say, “I wish I had been there more for mom/dad.” Why do they say this? They say it because they experience the death of someone close to them and realize how it really knocks us off our proverbial feet. The meaning of the word ‘bereaved’ is “torn apart”. It can be hard to describe grieving. It embodies all parts of ourselves: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The difficulty in describing this experience is why many resort to using grief metaphors to describe it.
By the way, if you are someone with guilt or regrets about how you handled your parent’s death (or anyone’s death), you don’t have to hold on to this pain. There is a brilliant project, dubbed the Grief Secret Project. If you have what they call a ‘grief secret’, something you haven’t shared because you feel embarrassed, guilty or ashamed, you can share it there and let go of those negative feelings!
Grief and grieving: natural and normal
Literally every site on grief and grieving refers to it as natural and normal. This is often followed by information on how to tell when a person may need professional help or have “complicated grieving” or even “complicated bereavement disorder.” I am not denying this is the case for some, but for the vast majority of us, grief and grieving does not require the help of a professional.
For sure, there are things we can do to “metabolize grief”, such as telling stories, whether to family or friends or in a grief support group. The point is to be mindful about the unhelpful tendency to medicalize or pathologize grief and grieving. I remember my mom saying that dad was the lucky one because he died first. Some might interpret this as a symptom of depression and that my mom needed professional. When I dug deeper, it seemed to me this comment was based on a realistic assessment of that moment. At the age of 81, mom was living alone for the first time in this big old 4 bedroom home, with 2 lots to maintain, considerably less money each month, and also had to figure out how to do or get things done that dad had taken care of before he died.
If grief and grieving are natural and normal…
What does this mean exactly? It means not getting caught up in stages of grieving, and deciding whether someone is in denial, or in some stage for too long or not long enough. It means not being rigid or imposing how one should grieve, how long one should grieve and deciding when it is supposedly time to “move on”. Your mom, for example, may want to remove your dad’s clothes out of the home immediately, or in a month, or a year, two years later, or maybe never. Does it really matter? Be careful not to pathologize this, despite the feelings it generates in you. You probably don’t know what it means. Your timing isn’t necessarily your parent’s timing. Period.
When someone we love dies, we don’t move through it, “recover” or return to a pre-loss normal. Pointedly, the idea that “closure” even exists has been proposed as outrageous. While we resume life, and it can look like it is back to “normal” from the outside, we are changed internally. That is how significant it is. At best, then, one integrates this loss.
What to do given the significance of this loss?
Experiencing losses, especially the death of someone you love, is both a universal and an intimate and deeply personal experience. Your parent can guide you.
At the level of the everyday and the concrete, you can ask what they want help with or worry most about doing now that their partner/spouse has died. You can help turn that worry into action. For my mom, immediate tasks were lawn mowing and snow removal, and being shown how to put gas in the car!
Be specific when you ask how they are doing. The general ‘how are you doing’ question has become a rather empty throwaway question. Get specific. How are you at night? At bedtime? How are mornings or meal times? The real value of asking is listening to the answer without trying to solve or fix it. It’s the expression of empathy and love and caring that gives the question its value.
Honour the relationship by telling stories and sharing memories. You will obviously have your own stories of your mom or dad, as well as family stories. Share them. Stories and storytelling are powerful and can help us metabolize grief.
The Holiday Season is just around the corner. For many people it is a very happy time, however, if someone you loved passed away this year the Holidays most likely will not be a happy time because you are missing your loved one. This is true every Holiday Season, however this year it is likely to very different. In previous years there have been a few families grieving the loss of a loved one. However, this year due to the Coronavirus, there are over 225,000 families grieving. Therefore there will be a lot of people grieving this year.
A common problem people face regarding grief is they do not know what to say or do at times when someone is grieving. The reason we have this problem is that we do not really talk about death and grief in our society. There is a tendency to think that after funeral services are completed that people quickly resume normal life. This is not true. The grieving process can take a long time and everyone has their own way of grieving. This makes knowing what to say or do very difficult especially during the Holidays.
I have had many patients ask me what should I say or do when they are talking about someone who is grieving. Therefore, I researched the literature on grieving and came up with these suggestions about how you can respond to someone who is grieving during the Holidays or anytime.
The 10 Best and 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief
Sheryl Sandberg’s post on Facebook gave us much insight into how those in grief feel about the responses of others to loss. Many of us have said “The Best” and “The Worst.” We meant no harm, in fact the opposite. We were trying to comfort. A grieving person may say one of the worst ones about themselves and it’s OK. It may make sense for a member of the clergy to say, “He is in a better place” when someone comes to them for guidance. Where as an acquaintance saying it may not feel good.
You would also not want to say to someone, you are in the stages of grief. In our work, On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and I share that the stages were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. While some of these things to say have been helpful to some people, the way in which they are often said has the exact opposite effect than what was originally intended.
The Best Things to Say to Someone in Grief
1. I am so sorry for your loss.
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in anyway I can.
4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
6. I am always just a phone call away
7. Give a hug instead of saying something
8. We all need help at times like this, I am here for you
9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything
10. Saying nothing, just be with the person
The Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief
1. At least she lived a long life, many people die young
2. He is in a better place
3. She brought this on herself
4. There is a reason for everything
5. Aren’t you over him yet, he has been dead for awhile now
6. You can have another child still
7. She was such a good person God wanted her to be with him
8. I know how you feel
9. She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go
10. Be strong
Best & Worst Traits of people just trying to help
When in the position of wanting to help a friend or loved one in grief, often times our first desire is to try to “fix” the situation, when in all actuality our good intentions can lead to nothing but more grief. Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional caregiver. We have comprised two lists which examine both the GOOD and the NOT SO GOOD traits of people just trying to help.
The Best Traits
Supportive, but not trying to fix it
Non active, not telling anyone what to do
Admitting can’t make it better
Not asking for something or someone to change feelings
Not time limited
The Worst Traits
They want to fix the loss
They are about our discomfort
They are directive in nature
They rationalize or try to explain loss/li>
They may be judgmental
May minimize the loss
Put a timeline on loss
The above information is meant to be used as a guideline. Everyone goes through the grieving process in their own way. It is very important to understand that point. It is also important to remember while the above is a guideline, the most important thing is your intent. So if you say a worse thing but you said it out of love the person will understand. The guideline will hopefully make you more comfortable to offer support to your grieving loved one or friend. Because someone who is grieving needs people to talk to without people feeling awkward. Also everyone is around immediately after the death and through the funeral services. Most people then go back to their normal lives. However, those who were really close to the person are still grieving and trying to figure out how to proceed with life. So don’t forget the person who is grieving can use emotional support for the first year especially. Therefore, do not forget to call, send a card or stop by occasionally. Especially around the holidays and birthdays.
“Maybe I didn’t die properly,” says Jamie (played by Alan Rickman) in Anthony Minghella’s early film Truly, Madly, Deeply. “Maybe that’s why I can come back.” His partner, Nina (Juliet Stevenson), has been driven mad with grief, following his sudden death while undergoing minor surgery. He wasn’t dangerously ill, and she hadn’t said good-bye. It is some years since his death, but she has made no progress at all in overcoming her grief; her despair has simply grown more acute. She cannot face her life without him. And she is so desperate for Jamie to return that he does—a little grayer than before, rather colder than before, but otherwise much the same. It turns out he’s been hanging around since he died—invisibly watching over her, but also just spending time lazing in the park, learning Spanish, and looking at the living.
Nina’s love, or perhaps her need for him, allows him to rematerialize and he joins her, moving into her apartment and hiding whenever the doorbell rings. Or maybe she joins him. At one point in the film she reluctantly drags herself away from him to go back to the office. She thinks she’s just late for work, but she has been missing for days. The two of them are caught in a kind of limbo. He didn’t die properly, and she can’t grieve properly. As the plot unfolds we realize that he has come back in order to break the connection. He behaves so impossibly—crowding her out of the apartment into which he invites scores of his ghostly, blokey friends—that she learns to accept that a life with the dead is a dead end. Nor is it much fun for the ghosts, caught forever in the moment of their deaths, permanent spectators of life’s unfolding drama. The message of the film is, Let them go.
As deaths from Covid-19 multiply across the globe, so do numbers of the bewildered bereaved. The trouble with the film’s well-meaning advice is that it presumes that the living occupy a position securely on one side of the border between life and death. But accounts of bereavement suggest that isn’t exactly the case. In 2008 the poet and philosopher Denise Riley’s grown son Jacob died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. In the weeks and months following his unexpected death, she kept a diary recording its impact on her and especially on her experience of everyday being-in-the-world. Time stalled for her, or was “arrested,” like her son’s heart.
It wasn’t simply that the concept of a personal future was now hard to grasp, or to bear, with the role of “mother” that she had been inhabiting now wounded and under attack. But the experience of sequence itself—one event or one word following another—was no longer available to her. Words came out of her mouth askew; basic inductions, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow, no longer seemed to hold true; language as a whole, with its grammatical past, present, and future, was fatally compromised. Riley diagnoses this condition as one of sharing the time of the dead. Even though we may be able to narrate the story of a death with temporal markers such as “and then” and “after that,” when we think of our dead they are gone from us now, not then.
A sad event provided researchers in Portugal with a rare opportunity to observe how feral horses react to the death of a herd mate and to collect data that may advance understanding of emotions and intelligence in all horses.
Scientists from the University of Coimbra in Portugal and Kyoto University in Japan were doing routine fieldwork, observing a feral herd, when they noticed a 2-month-old foal whose hind legs had been severely injured in a presumed wolf attack.
“We started to work with this horse population in the north of Portugal in 2016,” says Renata Mendonça, PhD. “Every year in the breeding season, from April to July we conduct fieldwork. We are almost every day in the field following and observing horses’ behavior from morning to late afternoon. Additionally, this population is subjected to predation pressure from the Iberian wolf, and for the past two years, foal mortality has reached almost 100 percent and we believe it is mainly due to wolf predation. These two factors combined increased our chance to observe this event.”
The researchers watched the foal for nearly six hours, making notes on his behavior as well as that of his dam and other members of the herd in his vicinity. They noted the activity of the nearby horses—such as feeding moving, resting or social interactions—every five minutes and documented the approximate distance between all the observable horses and the injured foal every two minutes.
For the first several hours, the herd was walking, but the foal moved only when prompted by his dam. Eventually, the foal went down and was unable to stand. His dam stayed close by grazing and occasionally nuzzling the foal. About 15 minutes later, the herd began to move again, leaving the dam and foal behind. The stallion returned to the dam soon after and attempted to herd her away from the foal. After the seventh attempt, he was successful and the dam left, whinnying to the foal 10 total times during the separation. The foal responded only once.
A few minutes later, a second group of horses arrived in the area and remained within 20 yards of the foal for about 40 minutes. All the group members initially showed interest in the foal, but most eventually started feeding nearby. Two adult females, however, remained interested and licked and sniffed the foal for several minutes. The foal’s dam watched this interaction from a distance and whinnied 44 times, but the stallion prevented her from approaching. The foal responded only once, after the other adult mares had left.
The foal’s dam briefly returned to his side later in the day and clashed with bachelor stallions who showed an interest in her, but not the foal. Eventually, the dam moved away from the foal to join the herd, which was 200 meters away. The foal stood three minutes after she left but fell twice and made no further attempts to follow. The researchers estimate he died about an hour later.
Although conceding that it was difficult to watch these events unfold, Mendonça says researchers must try to avoid interfering with animals in the wild. “It is always hard for us to see our subjects of research get injured or die,” she says, “and our first instinct is to call for help or try to intervene. However, when we are dealing with natural causes, as in this case, we try as much as possible not to intervene. We have to think about the complex environmental and trophic interactions that are occurring and can benefit from such a loss. A carcass is a food resource for other animals, scavengers, which depend on them to survive and to feed their offspring (which were born in the same season), such as wolves, foxes, crows and wild boars.”
Mendonça says that the dam leaving her foal may seem heartbreaking, but it makes sense in evolutionary context. “Ensuring her own survival seems to be a priority for the mothers in the animal kingdom, in general, even if the mother-infant bond is the strongest bond established among individuals. While a mother can produce offspring every year (in the case of horses), developing, growing and reaching sexual maturity requires a lot of time and has a lot of costs, so, for the benefit of the species, it is more advantageous, and less costly, if mothers prioritized their survival over their offspring’s,” she says, adding, “The constant harassment by the two bachelor males could have hastened the abandonment of the foal. The situation might have been different if she had been alone with her foal.”
More difficult to understand, says Mendonça, was the attention the two unfamiliar adult mares gave the dying foal. “I was surprised by the reaction of the unrelated females toward the injured foal,” she says. “Usually adult mares and stallions behave agonistically toward foals from other groups. These agonistic interactions (e.g., chasing and bite threats) are observed when foals get lost from their band and approach other groups while seeking their own or when foals are lying down far away from their group and other groups approach. Showing affiliative behaviors, instead of agonistic as expected considering previous scenarios, could mean that the horses somehow perceived that the foal’s condition was unusual.”
As for the broader question of how horses perceive death, much more remains to be learned, but in the meantime it’s advisable to take equine emotions and reactions into account when managing domesticated horses.
“Some studies suggest that [after the death of a herdmate], horses show signs of anxiety, cessation of feeding and social withdrawal,” Mendonça says. “Therefore, it is important to consider horses’ needs when they are facing a situation of loss before asking them to complete or perform their daily tasks.”
Will was distraught after his dog, Ray, died. Though Ray had been slowing down and sleeping more, Will had passed it off as normal, signs that his trusted buddy was simply getting older. By the time the vet diagnosed cancer, there was little that could be done.
Looking back, Will blamed himself for not getting Ray to the vet sooner—“He was counting on me and I let him down.”—and kicking himself for not being able to afford additional diagnostics, much less treatment. “I just didn’t have that kind of money and it’s tearing me up inside.”
He couldn’t shake memories of Ray’s death, or stop the self-critical thoughts that brought guilt and a sense that “I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
When we lose a canine companion, these kinds of thoughts and feelings may become a part of our grief. Though rooted in positive values such as loyalty, protectiveness and a commitment to our dog’s well-being, these values can also leave us in moral pain when we believe that we have failed to live up to them. According to Brandon Griffin, PhD, “Moral pain may be attributed to an event or series of events that a person views as a gross transgression of his or her moral beliefs and values, such as when we violate our own values by what we did or failed to do.”
In his book, The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies, Wallace Sife, PhD, points out that caring for an animal companion involves “a complex set of responsibilities” in some ways “similar to the obligations of raising a child.” Given that we cannot always protect our dogs from suffering and may have to make decisions about when to end their lives, there may be times when we second-guess ourselves and wonder how well we have fulfilled these responsibilities.
In our grief, we may disproportionally focus on our perceived failures and imperfections rather than view our actions as those of someone doing her or his best to stand by a canine loved one during painful circumstances. Thus, when a dog dies, Sife observes, we may “need to consider the feelings of guilt and failed obligation that almost always crop up during intense bereavement for a pet.”
Often, moral pain abates as we process our grief. There are times, however, when it persists. When this happens, it may indicate deeper issues such as depression, anxiety or what counseling professionals call moral injury. According to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University: “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when [one] perpetrates, witnesses or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”
People struggling with moral injury may feel intractable shame, guilt, anger and/or remorse. They may experience unwanted and intrusive memories of painful events or harbor a sense of being morally defective. Over time, moral injury can lead to social isolation and a diminished sense of self-worth.
When it comes to our canine friends, there are many potential sources of moral pain. When a dog is sick or injured, we cannot talk with them about what is going on. We can’t get their input and involve them in decision-making. The pressure is on us to make painful but necessary decisions, which may involve euthanasia or treatments that temporarily cause suffering. Under such pressurized circumstances, it’s easy to agonize about what to do and to criticize whatever choices we make.
Veterinary social worker Jeannine Moga points out that dogs can be very stoical and mask underlying physical issues until they are advanced. “Diseases can progress in their bodies before they start to show overt signs of illness. Add to that the significant expense of veterinary diagnosis and treatment, and people can be faced with animal losses complicated by unknown causation, questions of ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ and worries that they’ve somehow failed to take adequate care of their companions.”
The decision for euthanasia, even when done to alleviate suffering on the recommendation of a veterinary professional, can be a source of acute moral distress. In their book, The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups, Ken Dolen-Del Vecchio, LCSW, MFT, and Nancy Saxon-Lopez, LCSW, reflect on painful questions that arose after euthanizing a beloved cat.
Had we waited too long and prolonged his suffering unnecessarily? Had we put enough thought into the decision to end his life? Should we have taken him home and thought it over more carefully? Should we have sought another opinion? … Should we really have stayed with him when the vet put him to sleep? Did Reggie think that we killed him? Should we instead have said our goodbyes and left the room until he was gone?
According to Maryjean Tucci, MSEd, MDiv, lead bereavement coordinator for a hospice program and coauthor of A Peaceful Path: A Supportive Guide Through Pet Loss, decisions about euthanasia can raise other moral concerns. “When a person’s religious beliefs are such that they believe they are killing their pet by ending their life in an unnatural way, moral distress may play a role in their grief.”
“There are times,” Tucci continues, “when individuals may not understand the medical implications of what is happening to their pet and therefore are unable to make a clear decision on the process of euthanasia. If a pet partner experiences their pet struggling when their pet is being euthanized, this may cause an interruption of their grief experience by thinking they may have made the wrong decision. This is also true if the pet rallies and is perky just before the injection.”
There may be moral anguish if a grieving person looks back and concludes that they failed to understand the extent of an animal’s suffering and/or put off making a decision about euthanasia because it was too painful. In such instances, humans may blame themselves for allowing a pet to suffer. “When this occurs,” Tucci says, “there can be extreme feelings of guilt and low self-worth.”
Circumstances specific to an individual dog’s death may also cause moral pain—for example, the dog who escapes through an open door and is hit by an automobile, or the dog euthanized against an owner’s wishes due to aggressive behavior shown to a neighbor.
I worked with a patient who had no one to adopt her aging and infirm Beagle, Rosie. Days before we met, she made the heartbreaking decision to end Rosie’s life in order to save her from being abandoned and feeling unwanted. Though this client was terminally ill, much of my counseling with her focused on the moral pain of this decision despite the loving intention behind it.
Sometimes moral pain has nothing to do with the specifics of the death. For example, I worked with a woman who was providing care for her dying mother, which left her little time for her 14-year-old Basset Hound. “I was so stressed by Mom’s care that I just wound up ignoring him. He started having occasional [urinary] accidents, and I found myself getting impatient and yelling at him. I even had occasional thoughts that it would be easier if he were gone.”
When her dog needed to be euthanized, she felt at peace with the decision but agonized over having lost her temper in moments of frustration. “I feel horrible. I worry he might have thought I didn’t love him anymore or that I wanted him to die. I wish I could have that time back.”
Ritual and Remembrance
When grieving for a beloved dog, it’s important to have opportunities to share one’s grief and, if desired, engage in rituals that honor and help make sense of the loss. Unfortunately, some who have lost pets find that such opportunities for rituals and support are rare, even nonexistent.
When it comes to our canine companions, says Tucci, “Families, friends and society do not always recognize this loss as important or legitimate. Statements from others such as: ‘This wasn’t a child,’ or ‘The impact isn’t as bad as losing a sibling or a parent,’ minimize the loss for the person experiencing grief.”
She likens this to what Kenneth Doka, PhD, calls “disenfranchised grief.” In his book, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Doka describes situations in which the significance of a loss goes unrecognized, unacknowledged or is dismissed by others—situations for which there is no recognized social or communal context in which to express one’s grief and receive support.
Feeling isolated in one’s grief can intensify the suffering of moral pain by presenting barriers to processing one’s thoughts and feelings as well as to receiving reassurances from a caring other. Attempting to grieve in isolation can complicate such pain and even cause some to wonder if there is something wrong with them. Sometimes, this isolation is experienced as abandonment, even betrayal, by those from whom a grieving person expected compassion.
In “Grief and Moral Injury,” a blog post about his grief following the death of his German Shepherd, psychologist David Fisher, PhD, describes feeling abandoned by those he counted on for support and understanding. Having no one to “witness” his “inconsolable grief,” he writes, significantly intensified his pain.
Over time, moral pain typically lessens as we grieve and gain perspective. For those who are struggling with this kind of pain, the suggestions that follow may be helpful.
• Give yourself a break. Moral pain comes from caring about doing the right thing and wanting the best for your dog. If you did not care, you would not be feeling this kind of pain. Sometimes, there are things we don’t recognize or cannot control. We may need to make decisions under duress. Intense emotions and conflicting responsibilities can make these decisions very difficult, and whatever we decide, we may criticize ourselves. Acknowledge the difficulty of this kind of pressure and let yourself be human.
• Find someone with whom you can talk. If you don’t have someone, think of somebody in your life, even if they are no longer alive, from whom you have felt love and compassion. Imagine they are in the room with you and tell them what you are thinking and feeling. Imagine their response.
• Get creative. Some people find it helpful to write in a journal. Some write poetry or letters to their dogs, telling them what is in their hearts. Others express their feelings and honor connections with deceased dogs through other forms of creative expression, including music, art, storytelling, play, humor or dancing.
• Share the story. As we tell the story of our dog’s life, even if it’s just to ourselves, we see the longer journey we had with our pet, not just the last weeks, days or hours. When we place end-of-life events in the larger context of a friendship that may have unfolded over years, we remember good times and moments of connection and warmth that may have been minimized or forgotten in the midst of our pain.
• If desired, create formal or informal rituals to honor your dog’s life and affirm the enduring meaning of the relationship. Tucci says these kinds of rituals “legitimize the grief experience and reflect the importance of the pet in this person’s life. This also becomes part of the letting go and moving forward process necessary in the healing of grief.”
• Be mindful. It’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and beliefs. Being mindful means paying attention to what we are thinking, sensing and feeling in the present moment without avoiding, judging or identifying with negative states. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Feelings, psychologist Christopher Germer, PhD, observes that “it seems that the more intense our emotional pain is, the more we suffer by obsessing, blaming ourselves or feeling defective.” He recommends bringing gentle attention to our inner experience and responding with self-compassion, “taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.”
• Beware of cognitive distortions. Part of mindfulness is being aware of our thoughts and what we are telling ourselves. When doing this, it’s important to be on the lookout for what psychologists call cognitive distortions. These are ways our minds convince us of things that aren’t true and unconsciously reinforce painful beliefs that keep us feeling bad. There are dozens of cognitive distortions, including personalizing, black-and-white thinking and negative mental filtering.
For example, emotional reasoning refers to a belief that if you feel something, it must be true. If you worry that your dog was angry at you or felt unprotected because you discovered too late that she was sick, you assume it’s true even though it’s not. The key to not getting hooked by cognitive distortions is to notice when they are occurring and gently “talk back” to them. “Oh, I’m falling into the trap of emotional reasoning. I feel sad about what happened, but Maggie was good at hiding when she was in pain. She knew how much I loved her.”
• Don’t confuse regret, guilt and shame. This is easy to do. In simple terms, regret is a sense of sadness that things turned out the way they did. It can convey a wish that we had understood a situation better so that we could have done things differently. Guilt refers to a belief that we knowingly did something that violated our code of ethics. Shame takes guilt to a whole new level by replacing the belief “I did something that was bad” with “I’m a bad person because of what I did.”
It’s easy to confuse these experiences. If you’re feeling intense regret, it’s easy to start blaming yourself. Before you know it, regret can turn into guilt and guilt can lead to shame. If you’re feeling shame, ask yourself, “Could this really be guilt?” If you’re feeling guilt, ask yourself, “How much of what I’m feeling is really regret?”
• Tend to your body and spirit. Moral pain doesn’t just affect your heart and mind. It’s important to take care of your body by getting exercise, rest, and practicing good nutrition and sleep habits. If you have a faith tradition or spiritual/contemplative practice, these can be sources of strength, comfort and perspective.
At times, moral pain can be intensified by destructive messages we’ve received and internalized at some point in our lives, often as children. Messages like, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I have to be perfect,” “It’s my fault when something goes wrong” or “It’s my job to make sure everyone is safe/happy.” Readers for whom this registers are warmly encouraged to find a safe context, possibly with a caring professional, to explore and gain perspective on these messages.
Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help or to join a support group. It’s okay to reach out to a psychotherapist, clergy person or professional bereavement counselor. Many counselors understand this kind of pain and how deep the grief can be for a deceased animal companion.