The Ghosts of Christmas

Today’s post was authored by veterinary grief specialist Dana Durrance who also co-owns Mountain Shadows Pet Hospital with her husband Steve Durrance, DVM.

The holidays are here and with them can come a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, the holidays bring fun, excitement, and joy about the celebrations and time spent with family and friends. On the other hand, the holidays can trigger and enhance difficult emotions such as regret, loneliness, and most of all, grief. Many people experience strong grief reactions during the holidays and this includes pet parents. “Anniversary grief reactions” are a well-studied, documented phenomenon that can appear and affect people during the holidays.

Anniversary/holiday reactions occur because events that have special meaning to us naturally make us think about our loved ones. When the event occurs without that loved one, our grief gets stirred up and we find ourselves having to revisit our grief in powerful and unexpected ways. If your clients have lost their pets during this emotionally-charged time, it’s important to be aware of this and to understand what’s happening. No matter what holiday is celebrated, if clients are irritable, sad, or just generally “out of sorts,” they may be having an anniversary/holiday grief reaction. Take heart…you don’t have to let it completely ruin your holidays. Here are a few strategies to deal with anniversary grief with extra care. Although many of you might celebrate a holiday other than Christmas, I would like to offer my ideas with the help of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, “A Christmas Carol”:

  • The Ghost of Christmas Past: Memories of our pets are unique and treasured parts of the relationships we shared with them. They can bring both happiness and sadness, but they are ours to keep forever. Believe it or not, memories can provide comfort. Encourage your grieving clients to pull out their photo albums or video recordings of their pets and reflect on some of the happy times. Doing so can help reassure them that their pets will always be an important part of their lives.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present: Remind clients to share their special memories with understanding friends and family who will support them in the present. Encourage them to talk about their grief openly instead of trying to suppress it, hoping it will  go away on it’s own. In the end, expressing grief openly eases the pain and makes it more likely to go away sooner. Ignoring it, or pushing it away often makes it that much stronger and difficult to deal with.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future: If you haven’t done so already,  help clients think about ways to memorialize their pets (if they’ve already done so…help them understand that they can do it again)! Memorialization is one of the most positive and effective ways to deal with grief. There’s an old expression in therapy…feelings that move, change. Help your clients take charge of their future healing process by getting their feelings moving!

While grieving during the holidays can be more challenging and complicated for those who are doing it, dealing with grief can also be more difficult for those of us who are in a position to help. After all, we’re feeling more stress, too! At times, it’s tempting to “pull a Scrooge” and say, “Bah Humbug!”  But, I encourage you to set your inner Scrooge aside and use Tiny Tim as your role model instead. Reaching out to those who seem most unlovable, offering our blessings of love and support, are what the holidays remind us to do.

Bless you, every one!

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