ON THE LOSS OF AN ANIMAL FAMILY MEMBER (AKA. ANIMAL FRIEND, OR PET)
This article is written for dissociative people by a dissociative system who has lived this pain.
This is another area of life that is probably-definitely harder for DID people. Not that the loss of a pet is ever not painful for someone who has dearly loved their animal family member. But all those DID-specific factors, that make so many parts of our lives challenging, come in at full force with this one.
So. We’re going to do our best to talk it through. Gently. But honestly. And hope the words help.
In the context of being a DID system, pets can give us an unconditional kind of relationship that is rare to find with other humans. An animal friend doesn’t care that we’re multiple; doesn’t bat an eyelid, twitch a whisker, give a hoot, or shake a tail. They don’t mind when we switch, or if they do it’s because they know us individually and recognize us: here’s that super-noisy little one again! But we don’t get treated as weird, or too much, or wrong for the multiplicity. There is an absence of judgement about that from animals. Which, in a singleton world where we are always judging who to be, how many to be, if we’re doing on okay job of appearing ‘normal’ enough, can be an enormous relief and a precious experience of being accepted unconditionally, just as we are. Because of this, the connection with an animal friend can be deep, important, filled with heart, and meet needs that we multipacks don’t get met elsewhere with the same fullness, or not very often.
This can make the loss of our pet that much more devastating. It is not only the loss of them in their crittery uniqueness that we are grieving — the pink of a nose, the warble in a meow, the fabulous feathery butt, the happy little face chowing down on dinner, the quacking that gets us up in the morning — but the loss of that incredibly important source of companionship and support. This is big stuff. And when we are living as part of a DID system, it’s the kind of big stuff that we need to look at closely and honestly, and tend to as best we can — to navigate through and protect against the layers of extra hurt and memories and fall-out that will inevitably get triggered up by an event like this.
To start, we need to consider that there have been multiple relationships with our animal friend.
There will probably be a whole group, or maybe even a few groups, whose members each had their own significant, special connection with them. And, therefore, each person will be hit with their own, unique, but equally-powerful type of grief. Each person will have their own special memories and everyday details they will miss. Each person will have their own answer to what the relationship meant to them, on a deeper level; which means they will each have their own landscape of loss and grief to travel through.
When you are working on co-consciousness, this is a lot of emotional pain to feel and manage and hold. It’s incredibly hard. No two ways about it. Our safety and well-being depends on our capacity to be linked into the thoughts and feelings of our other system members; their loss is our loss, their grief is our grief. Yes, we system people get to have the experience of multiple love while our precious animal friend is with us; but the other side of that coin is the experience of multiple grief when the relationship ends. And depending on where you are at in your system connections and communication, and depending on what other kinds of stresses and traumas and emotional pains you all have going on at the time of the loss, this can set off some different kinds of processes. Pathways. Things to be mindful of.
Let’s talk about that.
Of course, this loss can create more dissociation.
Lots of us have histories of carving up big, painful events and feelings for our different people to hold — behind dissociative barriers — that are longer and more established than our new stories of holding these things all together, in collective conscious, without fragmentation and dissociation. So, unless we are feeling 100% rock solid in our co-consciousness, then it is a real possibility that one or more people will get ricocheted out of our awareness, back into dissociative space, in response to the trauma of the loss. And that they will get stuck there, managing a piece of the grief that is too much for us to bear in a present, joined-up way.
Don’t know about you guys, but this isn’t really okay with us anymore.
Which means, precisely at a moment when we are more emotionally sore and raw and triggered than we can quite handle, we need to find the juice to go on an internal mission to retrieve more pain.
This is incredibly hard work. This is the dedication it takes to live a co-conscious life.
In our experience, the ‘juice’ required is compassion. However overloaded we may be feeling, we task ourselves with imagining how badly our re-dissociated people must be feeling if they’ve had the job of taking — once again — what we couldn’t manage.
We need to decide all over again, for the thousandth time, to head in the direction of the hurt to reclaim our people.
Finding and helping the grieving people, deeper within.
So. We do a head count. We check out that everyone is okay and accounted for. We listen for crying. We see if there are any inside clues of someone who has gone off on their own in grief.
When we find our person — our brave, amazing person who is holding grief in dissociative space for the rest of us — then we plonk ourselves down next to them. What do you need? How can I help? And we stay there. As many of us as we can muster, stay there, until something shifts. We’ll know when it does. When it’s time to take the next step. When they’re ready to come back closer to the main group, or home base, or however your system manages collective space. Sometimes it’s minutes, other times it’s weeks, right? We stay there, we hold onto the connection, until they are ready to come back. You are not alone. We are in this together.
And we do this with as many of our people as have been flung out and away by the impact of the loss. We also need to try and find that extremely complicated, nuanced balance of doing the retrieval work as quickly as possible, but also not so quickly that we overload our collective space with the feelings that couldn’t initially be held there. This is that craft of system work, the skillset that develops over time, where we learn to hold what is happening in individual parts and what is happening overall, and adjust their connections to each other in ways that bring us into a fuller co-consciousness that is safely sustainable. Yep. Mega-skills.
Then there are the grief processes we don’t have to look very hard or far to find. Some people will probably just be in it. Fully. Smack-bang in the middle of where everyone can see and hear and feel it. And each will have their own way of expressing their loss. It’s important that we all get the space and acceptance to do what we need to do, while still being respectful that everyone is navigating their own feelings. Some people will need a quiet time, a quiet space. To be alone. Others will need to let their feelings rip, full throttle. Others will need constant contact and reassurance and comfort.
This is where we can use our internal worlds to accommodate our very plural needs: make new spaces, make a quiet nook that is impervious to upsetting sounds, let people chuck paint at an inside wall or smash plates, set up couches and friendly movies and endless snacks. Every time we make these accommodations to fit our big emotional needs we are communicating to ourselves: we can hold this. Together. Together, we can hold this. And this is a gold, on the pathway to health and healing, for a DID system.
When you find system members who don’t seem to care about your loss.
It can get complicated when we bump up against the people who perhaps had very little to do with our pet, and don’t feel so impacted by the loss. This can be really hard for the ones who are wracked with grief. That structural system distance can be interpreted personally, as an unfeelingness, as a rejection or invalidation of their emotional hurt — instead of as information about how we have all survived previous traumas.
But there is an opportunity for those who sit further away to bring big compassion to the situation by helping hold the ship steady while others goes through the intense hurt. This is probably what has already happened lots of times, just in less conscious ways. We are allowed to take purposeful advantage of our dissociative structures when they serve our best interests — if some people are able to be there for others and keep on with regular life things more easily because they are less connected to the loss, then that is surely okay.
Taking on this kind of role might also gently connect them in closer to the collective heart that is grieving; they might get insight into what they were missing out on by not sitting up closer in the life where others were having a beautiful relationship with their animal family member. It can be both: utilizing their distanced position to help through the worst of the pain, and utilizing the collective grieving process to close some of that distance for future life and living.
What do grieving littles need?
Next, what do the little ones need? They will have their own set of needs in coming to terms with the loss of an animal family member. Tangible processes are often so helpful. A beautiful funeral, looking through photos, telling stories of good times, making memorial collages or a special spot in the house to remember the loved critter are probably going to help them digest some of their big feelings. Also, being told it’s okay to have big feelings about this loss, and permission to express them, and consistently being met with kindness and support in that will be incredibly important.
The rest just takes time. And we need to remember that little people experience time differently — a week feels much bigger to them than to older people. This means that getting through a week with a big hurt can be that much harder, that much more massive of an undertaking. Our little people need us to be with them in that as much as we can, to not make light of their particular challenges in the context of system life.
Triggered up trauma from old hurts.
As we all know, sometimes a fresh hurt can trigger up our trauma from old hurts. This is another thing to be mindful of. We can ask, who in our system is the most vulnerable to this? We can have a check around to see if anyone has been flung back into old internal spaces. Think about your people’s histories — does anyone have trauma that connects to this loss? It might be the loss of a significant human relationship. It might be something else to do with animal experiences. It might be about abandonment. Or loneliness. It might be that part of their job has been to hold grief in a meta-sense — the grief of having the gamut of experiences that result in a DID system, the loss of life and time on that global level.
There are so many different ways that people might get triggered into their old hurts by the death of a pet. We need to find ways to connect to them and help them back into the present day.
Internal parts or places representing your beloved pet.
Are there any internal representations of the beloved animal family member? If there are any people or animal parts that are patterned off this pet, or have a significant reflection of them in their make-up, then this absolutely needs to be tended to. These members of a DID system will be impacted by the loss in profound ways: at the core of their existence and identity. These are the people who most need us to circle the wagons, make safe spaces, show up in compassionate droves, move heaven and earth to be with them until we all figure out how their grief process is going to unfurl. And work out together a way to make sense of the loss and the future.
Similarly, it might be that some people’s inside places had incorporated the presence of the loved critter, to reflect the outside home life, and they will also be navigating a deep change in their system reality. What is on the inside is no longer on the outside. They will need to find ways to face the dilemma this poses, and, in time, decide what is right for them. They might need to hear, more than once, that they are allowed to do whatever is best for their heart in their internal world. If they need to keep their animal friend in there with them, then they are absolutely allowed to do that. If they need, at some point, to accept the loss on the inside as well as the outside, then that is okay, too. Everyone needs to have permission to deal with the loss in their own way, inside and out.
Internal world changes after your loss.
Another thing we can be watching for is organic changes to internal spaces in response to the loss. That is, the spontaneous transforming of the inside world to reflect or accommodate or ‘talk’ about the big change and the grief around it.
These may or may not be obvious, but they will be significant collective expressions of feelings, beliefs and dilemmas. If they are quite literally coming out in the walls, then chances are these are the things that are too big or too complicated to ‘say’ through a person, through words and regular modes of emotional expression. It probably also means that it belongs to a lot of people, or several groups of people.
Perhaps some of the system members feeling strong enough can go around and check out the usual places your people spend their time in. Can they notice anything new or different? Maybe it’s a tangible, physical change. Maybe on the structural level, or maybe something in the detail. Maybe it’s something symbolic. Maybe it’s just a vibe. They can bring their observations back to the group, and people can talk it through together. This will probably be really important content. A representation of a big collective response to the loss and grief.
This is all really hard stuff. Isn’t it?
As though loss and grief weren’t hard enough — in the context of being a DID system, there are so many layers and levels and complications to the process of moving through this part of life. It hurts. It brings up our stuff. It sets the major wobblies onto any sense of equilibrium we have managed to achieve. It creates ripple effects through our people and our inside world, setting off chains of reactions that are intricately and complexly interconnected. And that need to be tended. It’s a lot.
Living a plural, system life is a lot, even when things are going well. When we experience a the loss of an animal family member, it can go into beyond.
Ongoing system connection and communication.
We can’t afford to let our efforts at system connection and communication drop at a moment like this, because we have all worked so hard to get to where we are today. The impact of the death of a pet can, left unfelt or unexamined or untended, cause a major derailment or implosion or explosion. Then we’d be dealing with a secondary layer of loss; loss of much of the ground we have gained in our recovery work. We don’t need this. We don’t deserve this.
But to stay connected in and talking to each other at a moment like this means staying open to the massive, multiple experience of grief.
This is no small undertaking. But you know what? We’re worth it. You’re worth it.
Because staying open to the emotional pain of life also means staying open to the joy and beauty. Yes, we might know more about the hurt end of the spectrum than most people do — that is part of the landscape that gives rise to being a DID system — but now that we are recollecting and recovering from our traumas, we also have the opportunity to know more about the rich happiness of being human. Because there are more of us, joined up. Many of us. All able to feel our own unique version of joy. All connected in to the same heart.
No easy way to travel through the loss.
There is no easy way to finish an article like this, and no easy way to travel through the experience of losing a beloved animal family member, in the context of being a DID system. Sometimes these things just need saying. We wouldn’t trade our people or our plurality for anything. We love each other and we love our systemhood. We take the extra mess and the challenges and the multiple hurts as part of the deal of having each other. The more time that goes by, and the stronger we are getting in our system relationships, the better we are able to navigate through the hard periods and truly be there for one other. Which is, in the scheme of everything, an incredibly beautiful experience.
The beauty of connected-up system life might never make up for the loss — this one, or all the others that came before it — but it might, with more time and collective heart-filled dedication, provide a kind of balance to it.
So, in the end, there is nothing to do but live on. Together. Keep doing what we do. Make time for each other. Snuggle in for an afternoon of TV shows and snacks when someone needs downtime and comfort. Clean out the cupboards like a madwoman, with music blaring, when someone needs a catharsis. Let the little ones cry, and cart around the box of tissues until they’re done. Sit together in the memory soup of how many good times we had with our beloved animal friend, and feel all of it. Be there for each other with as much unconditional love as we can find, to honor what that relationship meant to us and to find a way to carry its lessons through to our future.
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A few comments from Kathy:
Thank you, TRibe, for sharing such a painfully important article. Finding yourselves struggling with the loss of your beloved furry bestie is such a difficult, painful place to be, and you’ve been able to connect with so many layers at once. Multi-layers, multi-grief, multi-memories.
Have you lost an animal companion or your dearest furry friend?
Can you relate? Do you know this heartache?
I’m soooo sorry for your loss…. ouch, ouch, ouch.
The loss of your dog or cat or bird or companion animal of any kind can be one of the most painful losses for dissociative survivors. This hurts!
Please read, read, and re-read this page. I hope you found some comfort and understanding in this article, written by TRibe. Wrap up in a warm blanket, and listen to music, or read-along stories, or anything soft and gentle that helps your heart. I think of cups of tea, fuzzy socks, curling up on the couch, holding stuffies, drawing pictures, or writing out your favorite memories of the best times you had with your critter-pal.
I’m so sorry you’re hurting. You may feel that pain for a while. A long while. In the meantime, stay close, read lots, write some comments, and sit closely with people who understand how deep and complicated your grief is. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, and do your very best to not turn your emotional pain into any form of self injury. Your safety and stability still matters, even when your heart feels broken.
And yes… even on these hardest of days, I wish you, and ALL your insiders, the very best in your healing journey.
Copyright © 2008-2022 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation