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Walking the Dog of Grief, by Aimee Sellers, LPCMH

Here we are again — now a year into a global pandemic, the ramifications of which are yet unknown. What is known, however, by the old and the young, the rich and the poor, you and me, is grief. An odd, new sort of grief. Delayed by weeks and months. One which requires more energy to engage with when we have so little to spare. One which requires intentional focus on the pain that we wish so deeply to forget. We may grieve without bodies, funerals, wakes, or even last goodbyes. No hugs from loved ones. Ours is a time of open-ended grief with so few of the trappings we once clung to in order to cope. How do we grieve in a time such as this?

Well, grief is a dog in a backyard… bear with me.

Grief is a dog in a fenced-in backyard. Most days, the dog is just back there, may bark a bit, but generally is not a problem. 

But some days, the gate gets opened and that dog escapes from your carefully fenced yard. Now the dog is running amuck! Barking, howling, peeing on EVERYTHING! And it is taking forever to get the dog back in the yard. Afterward you are exhausted and live in fear of the gate being opened again. 

“What do the neighbors think? No one else has such an awfully behaved dog! I’m alone in this!” You start to get angry at the dog and yourself, but you just don’t know what to do.

Some of you may be scoffing, “Just train the dog!” you say. And, yes, you are absolutely right. The only way to stop this behavior is to intentionally spend time with your dog. Take the dog for walks. Meet the dog’s needs. After a time that gate will open, but your dog will not feel the need to fly out of the yard because the dog’s needs are being fulfilled. The gate is still there, the dog is still there, but you don’t live in fear because you feel a sense of control and understanding for your dog. 

Can you hear the story of grief in this mischievous dog? When a person experiences grief they often feel overwhelmed by the sheer force of their emotions that seem to be triggered out of nowhere. One moment a person is walking through the grocery store, and the next they are bolting to their car, hot tears streaking their face, because they saw their loved one’s favorite oatmeal on sale. 

“What’s wrong with me?! People must think I’m so weird! No one else feels like this!” This is so uncomfortable and uncontrollable that one may start to avoid common tasks or places that trigger their grief. This pattern: trigger – negative self-talk – avoidance, is common, but if you follow our story, it is not the way to change the behavior. 

The way to manage the strong feelings that come with grief is to intentionally spend time with that grief. Meet the grief’s need to have those feelings be felt. Take that dog for a walk. This could look like phone calls with loved ones, pulling out old pictures, or journaling about your experience. It is important to validate your personal experience of grief and work to understand what healing looks like for you. Some find it most helpful to have a person walk alongside them, a certified dog trainer, if you will. If you have experienced a grief — and in the age of COVID, who hasn’t — counselors are here to help you walk that dog. 

We all have our own dogs and each dog has different needs. Those needs are valid, your emotions are valid, and you are not alone. 

 

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