Sometimes when a pet owner loses a beloved pet in a violent or distressing manner, their pain may run deeper than grief. Psychological trauma is a response to an event that a person finds highly stressful. If a pet’s life is taken in a car accident or dog fight, its owners don’t just have to contend with their grief, but also the upsetting manner in which a beloved member of their family died.
“As pet owners, one of our strongest urges is to protect our pet. This is a big part of how we love them. We feel responsible for them because they are in our care and can’t look after themselves, they need us,” explained grief counsellor, Madonna Hooper.
“So if our pet dies in a horrific manner, we can feel like we have failed to protect them. We may even feel like we allowed their violent death, even though, of course, we didn’t. This can cause incredibly strong feelings of grief and guilt.”
What are the symptoms of psychological trauma?
Symptoms of psychological trauma can include:
- Shock, denial or disbelief
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability or mood swings
- Anxiety or fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blaming
- Withdrawal from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected or numb
Some traumatised people may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away. This can lead to feelings of despair, loss of self-esteem, profound emptiness, suicidality, and frequently, depression.
Is psychological trauma PTSD?
PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder) is a disorder characterised by the failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. PTSD is not trauma, but it can be caused by trauma.
A person with PTSD may experience flashbacks (replaying the way their pet died play over and over in their mind), severe anxiety, nightmares and symptoms in the body such as difficulty breathing, chest tightness, sweating, nausea. It is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD.
How does trauma counselling differ from grief counselling?
Grief counselling is about supporting people through their particular grieving process. Everyone is different in how they grieve – no two people are the same. But over time grieving people tend to come to terms with the loss of their pet, they become able to function in life and see that life still offers happiness for them, even if they will always miss their companion.
Trauma counselling differs in that. If a person sees their dog get hit by a car, not only do they have grief over the death, but also shock, horror and disbelief at how their pet died.
“Guilt is so often associated with any death of a pet. We want to protect our pets forever, even when it’s their natural time to go. So when a pet dies in a horrible, traumatic way, it complicates grief immensely. When I counsel a client for traumatic death, it’s firstly about educating them so they know that what they are feeling is actually trauma. This is reassuring as they often think they are going crazy for having such strong reactions.” said Madonna.
“Some therapists use exposure therapy, where the client ‘relives’ the traumatic event over and over to hopefully alleviate the severity of the incident. My personal view and experience is that reliving the trauma is not helpful. I use a different approach, which is built on my own personal and professional experiences, as well as extensive study at the Blue Knot Foundation (Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma). This approach focuses on people’s strengths, how the brain responds to stress and trauma, and the role of coping strategies and education.”
If you suspect one of your clients is dealing with psychological trauma after the loss of the pet, the best thing you can do is to refer them to a trained professional like Madonna Hooper. People & Pets maintain a database of qualified pet loss counsellors who are specially trained to help people reeling from the loss of a pet, including those who are experiencing psychological trauma. Click here to find the counsellor near you.