A common cultural belief in many cultures is that the bonds we share with our animal companions are less important, or not as deep or profound, as the bonds we share with other human beings.
Therefore it is not surprising that when we suffer the loss of an animal companion and are grieving, that our loss and our grief may not be fully understood or acknowledged. It is recognised that when loss and grief are not publicly or culturally acknowledged, minimised, or even denigrated, that the grief experience is made more difficult. This is called disenfranchised loss and grief.
Therefore, there is a need for community understanding and support, and sometimes for counselling services, for those of us who grieve the loss of a beloved animal companion and family member. There is also a need to work towards changing community attitudes and beliefs that are not supportive or validating, and to achieve cultural change.
As a counsellor I work with individuals who are grieving. I aim to provide support and acknowledgment of people’s grief and experiences. But I also have a strong commitment to raising community awareness on this issue and working towards cultural change, because no one exists alone. We are impacted by our social interactions, and by the values, beliefs, and politics of our culture. My Facebook page, and this blog, and my website, are parts of both of these goals.
The belief that the bonds we share with our animal companions are not as profound as the bonds we share with other human beings, can be seen when a beloved animal companion is diagnosed with cancer. People are understandably in great distress when their companion receives a cancer diagnosis. Time is often of the essence in trying to decide whether to proceed with treatment, and so this is a most difficult time. There are many factors that impact on the treatment decisions we choose to make for our loved ones, and it is always wise to proceed with our decisions as fully informed as possible, and with the best interests of our loved ones always at heart. After all, we are the voice of our loved ones who cannot speak in words. This applies to our animal companions, to young children, or to any person who cannot communicate their wishes and needs. Deciding whether to proceed with treatment for an animal with cancer is an individual decision made for each animal by each person, depending on a range of factors.
At this time of great distress, when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, there are many questions to be answered. What to do? What decisions to make about treatment? Is palliative care the best option? Often these decisions must be made quickly, and people can be in great distress and may feel very confused. Distress can be deepened by well-meaning, but sadly ill-informed advice that may be given by others at this time, such as being told that they are putting their needs before the needs of their beloved, or that they are being cruel to the animal by choosing to treat the cancer, even where specialist veterinary opinion has advised that a good outcome is a possibility and treatment is tolerated well by most patients. Veterinary oncologists are well trained and experienced, and will tailor treatments to avoid as many side effects as possible, while aiming to maintain treatment efficacy. Veterinary oncologists have told me they face similar prejudices and ill-informed beliefs even within the veterinary community. I do believe we need a better community education campaign on this issue. Alternatively, people can make well informed and appropriate decisions to not treat their animal’s cancer. Sometimes lack of support and understanding from others can be evident in these situations too, especially in this age of modern medicine when so many cancers can be treated. Either way, this can be a challenging time.
In these situations I often ask people one simple question. “If this was your human loved one, what would you do?”
Recently, a veterinary oncologist referred a person to me and in an initial conversation on the phone I asked the person this question. There was quiet on the other end of the phone, and then came tears of relief. Through this question, the person felt that I had acknowledged the depth of the love they and their animal shared. A clarity about the decision making process then began to emerge, and more tears of relief flowed. Formal counselling was not needed at this time.
Through this question, the cultural beliefs that animals of other species are less important, and that the bonds we share with them are not profound, can be set aside. This question enables us to get to the heart of the matter. “What decision do I want to make about my beloved family member’s cancer?” It is as simple as that. Love is love.