Grief Therapy: Pets

By Lisa Dempsey Bargewell

Shortly after my beloved husband passed away, our oldest daughter kindly suggested that I adopt a new kitten. Her petition, “Mom, you need something else to love, another presence in your home, another therapeutic distraction.” My first thought was, no! At that point in time, I could not fathom taking on more responsibility; as I was just stumbling through my days and attempting to navigate a whole new life.

In addition, when our previous, cherished cat had died before David’s diagnosis of cancer, I proclaimed to myself, no more pets! I simply could not handle the emotional toll that it carved out in my soul. My daughter continued to gently nudge and encourage me. Each day that she came up to visit we took a trip to the Humane Society. Every time we got there, they had just adopted or put on-hold the last cat. Until…

As we were driving, yet again, to the Humane Society, I commented to my girls that if we didn’t find a cat to adopt today, that I would prefer to just stop looking. My oldest replied, “I can feel it, today is the day!” There were two kittens left. One instantly caught my attention. She was frisky with a playful twinkle in her eyes. Just as I started to inquire about her, an employee walked up and put an “adopted” sign by her name. Ugh, my heart sank.

Our youngest daughter, Allyann, who has severe, low functioning autism, pointed to the frail, tiny kitten in the back of the cage. This in itself was a breakthrough, as pointing and engaging do not come natural to her without prompting. Her smile was beaming and she started to flap her hands just as she does when pleasing feelings encompass her body.

Nevertheless, a red flag of caution grounded me. This kitten did not look well. The last nine months of my husband’s life were infiltrated with harrowing memories of the cancer invading his body and mind. I simply did not feel strong enough to handle anymore adversity.

Our oldest, Ariel, asked to take the kitten into the playroom. Allyann started squealing with exuberance. This 2-pound kitten, stretched, yawned, and delicately pranced right over to Allyann and totally ignored the rest of us. Ariel asked Allyann, “If we adopted her, what should we name her?” Allyann signed and spoke, “Happy!”

That was such a miraculous moment on numerous levels; such an “aha” insightful realization. Allyann’s ability to speak and form sounds is drastically limited. There are only a handful of words that she is able to pronounce. Her speaking the word, “happy” was so fitting, so perfect, and so profound!

That sudden, transpiring moment, I knew I had to open-up my heart again, risk it all, and allow myself to discover and embrace this altered life.

Despite, Happy’s illnesses, she has become our bundle of love and fur. She has such a rejuvenating nature about her. She has broken down my walls of fear and insecurities that I built around myself since my husband’s death. No, she cannot replace, or fill the void, or impede my yearning for my husband; but, she does enrich and enhance our lives with big and small splashes of joy.

Moreover, the cathartic, beneficial difference that Happy has bestowed on Allyann through her grief process has been significant. She is her constant companion full of calming qualities. Remarkably, Happy takes all of Allyann’s special needs in stride. She has never hissed, scratched, or bit her. Somehow, I feel as if Happy has an inner wisdom beyond understanding.

Pets are so transparent, authentic, non-judgmental, and reflect unconditional, healing love. How have your pets helped you through your sorrow and grief? As always, please feel free to comment and or share. If you would like, you may also post a photo of your pet or pets.

With Warmth and Prayers to You, Hope Sisters,
Lisa Dempsey Bargewell

I will be back on August 5th.

Hope for Widows Foundation's photo.

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