Losing a pet is one of the most stressful things I have ever experienced. Last week my wife Heidi and I had to put down Addis, our beloved 15-year-old Shih Tzu. She had pancreatic cancer that spread to her liver resulting in complications including her not eating anything the last eight days of her life.
In Addis’ last year of life, she battled a series of ailments that affected her skeletal and digestive systems. She had a hard time walking, became a very picky eater, and battled chronic diarrhea. She spent most of her days sleeping and moving from bed to bed (at last count she had six in the house) in order to stay close to my wife and I.
In addition, she had little energy and interest in playing with her toys. She just didn’t seem happy. Heidi often said that Addis looked so sad when she couldn’t climb steps any longer and my wife had to carry her up the front or back steps.
In the next two columns I want to share with you use my Five R’s of Coping Model to help you cope with the loss of your pet.
Stress and Losing a Beloved Pet
In order to cope effectively it is important to remember that stress is a combination of three things; (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tell us about your ability to cope with the threat, harm or loss associated with the potential stressor, and (3) a stress response that kicks in if your mind tells you that you can’t cope.
With Addis, the threat came throughout her final year. Remember, threat involves anticipating something bad that hasn’t happened yet. In Addis’s case the initial threat involved not knowing what was wrong with her. Her appetite fluctuated from one week to the next and when she did eat, she suffered from diarrhea and dehydration.
When she was diagnosed with her first digestive disorder the threat turned to harm as we now understood that she had a serious problem that needed treatment. There was no longer any question about “if” there was something wrong. Now the questions revolved around whether or not she would respond to the treatments and get better. This looked less and less as she refused to take her medication and we went through many different prescriptions and delivery methods to no avail.
On most days throughout the year I would catch my mind running away with an endless stream of questions and self-doubts such as:
“What is wrong with her?” “Will she eat today?” “Will her stomach issues ever clear up?” ” Is she suffering?” “Will she ever get better?” “Will she get worse and pass away unexpectedly?” “Will we have to put her down?” “Can we handle the pain of having to put her down?” “Are we doing everything we can to help her?” And on and on.
The state of anxiety and despair intensified as she was diagnosed with a second and then a third major disease and finally with her diagnosis of pancreatic and liver cancer. With her passing the harm turned into loss as we had to put her down and she was no longer with us.
Now my thoughts turned to the “whys” and “what ifs.” “Why did she have to die?” “Why didn’t she take her medications and get better?” “What if we tried something different?” “What if we had caught it sooner?” “What if we waited longer to see if she’d get better?” And on and on.
Coping with Stress with the Five R’s; Using the First R, “Reorganize”
Fortunately, I was able to draw from my own training and experience using the Five R’s of Coping. In this column I’ll show you how I used one of the R’s, Reorganize. In my next column I’ll show you how I used the other four R’s.
Reorganize, as a line of defense against stress, uses high level health and well-being to give you the energy and support you need to cope. It is based on enhancing the seven dimensions of wellbeing; physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, environmental, and occupational.
I knew that as soon as Addis’s problems started to get worse that there was a chance that she could die. She was headed into her 15th year and had multiple health issues. I knew I’d need all the energy and support I could get to be there for her and cope with my own stress. It would have been very easy to just give up and let her problems overwhelm me or to use alcohol and other negative strategies to cope.
To enhance my physical wellbeing, I continued to stick to my seven-day fitness regimen that consisted of running, biking, kayaking, playing tennis, lifting weights and doing Yoga and stretching. I tried not to skip workouts, even though there were days I wanted to just stay home and be with her.
Fortunately, most of my fitness activities were connected to my social support system. This made it easy to enhance my social wellbeing. Sometimes I’d talk to my kayaking buddies, and my gym and tennis friends about Addis’ problems as many of them had pets and could understand what I was going through. Sometimes just getting out of the house and being among people was very helpful and eased the burden of caring for and worrying about Addis. It also helped give my mind a mini-vacation from endlessly ruminating about Addis.
My wife Heidi was my greatest source of social support. Her love and caring for Addis and me helped me get through the last year with a minimum amount of stress. Heidi supported all of my Reorganize efforts and did her best to keep herself strong and energized throughout the year. She was always there to help when I felt I was losing it or when Addis needed her.
For my spiritual wellbeing I made it a point to meditate at least four times a week and go to my Thursday evening Buddhist meditation group. Being in that safe place, meditating as a group, and talking about issues like love, death, and commitment was very uplifting and gave me strength.
Meditation enhanced my emotional wellbeing as well as my spiritual. It helped me clear my mind and keep it from running wild. I also practiced many of the Rethink activities discussed in this column to slow down my runaway mind and manage my emotions more efficiently. I will talk about these in next week’s column.
Since we had just moved into our new home, I didn’t have to worry about doing any major repairs or maintenance. I tried to maintain a stable and peaceful home that greatly enhanced my (and Addis’) environmental wellbeing. I spent a lot of time at home writing, reading, or lying by the pool. I usually had a comfortable doggie bed nearby and Addis was usually curled up in it. This made both of us feel safe and secure.
I think that attending to my health by doing something every day to strengthen my physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and environmental wellbeing gave me the strength to get through the year and help Addis as best I could.
In my next column I’ll show you how I used strategies from the other lines of defense in the Five R’s Model; Rethink, Reduce, Relax, and Release.
Until then remember to Stress Less and Live More.