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Can a New Pet Help You Through Your Suicide Grief?

by: Jennie Marks

I have heard many survivors comment, “I keep getting told that I should get a pet.” I have seen first-hand that pets who were part of their owner’s lives prior to their loss have found great solace in having that relationship to rely on, especially if that animal is a connection to the loved one that’s been lost to suicide. The reality of the situation, though, is that these pets have already blended and bonded with a person or family and their needs can be satisfied almost without thinking.

It may be a great suggestion to acquire a pet and the new pet may very well become a very therapeutic friend, but it’s best to enter into pet ownership with eyes wide open. Sometimes it’s not in the best interest of either the person in grief or the pet to take on that responsibility. It’s definitely an individual decision that only you can make for yourself. The following are some things to consider before you take the step of bringing a new creature into your home.

  • Pets can alleviate that feeling of being “all alone” and offer unconditional love. Your care and kindness are generally rewarded with loyalty and a bond like no other. Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, states in The Power of Pets (2018) “Their attention is focused on the person all the time. The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Berger says. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”
  • Most pets, to varying degrees, require that you maintain a schedule for feeding and exercise. Are you ready and able to take care of the needs of a life besides your own? This can be beneficial if you think you could use more structure in your life, or “a reason to get up and do something.” However, when in the draining throes of “the lethargy of grief,” having yet more responsibilities may make life even more daunting. Make sure your schedule and energy level matches the pet you choose and don’t expect the pet to provide you with that energy. If the chaos of puppy life is just too much, an older dog might be a good fit for you.
  • Friendships are common among like-minded people. People love to talk about their pets and it’s a natural ice-breaker. A trip to the pet store or a dog park, or membership in a pet owner’s group may lead to new friendships and a widened social circle.
  • Pets that afford physical contact can help meet the very human need for touch. Evidence-based studies have shown that touch helps increase the beneficial hormone, oxytocin, and decrease a harmful one, cortisol (PubMed, 2005). Touch need not always come from a fellow human being.
  • Positive interaction with pets can be extremely calming and can increase serotonin and dopamine levels which, in turn, can help decrease depression. According to Time Magazine, (2017) “The rise of animal therapy is backed by increasingly serious science showing that social support–a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness – can come on four legs, not just two. Animals of many types can help calm stress, fear and anxiety in young children, the elderly and everyone in between.”
  • Another physical benefit is that being outdoors provides full-spectrum light and Vitamin D. You may increase this benefit if your pet is one with which you can spend time outdoors. A healthy pet relationship can also provide such physical benefits as lowering triglycerides and cholesterol and decreasing blood pressure (Harvard Health Publishing, 2014.)
  • Make sure the space requirements of your pet match your home. Are you an apartment dweller with pet restrictions? Some rental management companies require a doctor’s note in order for a tenant to be able to have a pet in their apartment.
  • If you do not live alone, the people that you live with must be considered in this decision as well, especially in cases of those with allergies or small children who may not be compatible with your choice of pet.
  • Costs are a huge consideration – an adopted pet needn’t be expensive, but it’s not just the cost of the pet. Food, veterinarian care, accessories and supplies, etc. can add up over the lifetime of a pet. Make sure that you can provide the nutrition, medical care, and other necessary items that a pet deserves without making burdensome sacrifices to your own lifestyle. Develop an animal-budget by browsing a pet store and getting a list of costs from several animal clinics.
  • If owning a pet is not in the cards for you right now, consider spending some volunteer hours at a local animal shelter, or pet-sit for friends while they’re away. Request a visit from a therapy-dog group or attend an event in which they will be present. Another short-term option would be fostering rescue animals.
  • One of the most profound emotional aspects of adding a pet to your life is their own longevity. It’s a fact that most pets do not out-live their owners. As you’ve already learned so emphatically, grief is the price you pay for loving. As Willie’s father in the movie “My Dog Skip” told his son, “A puppy is a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Only you can know if your head is open to that fact and whether your heart is willing to risk it anyway

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