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An Unexpected Source Of Grief Therapy

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The power of Rossmore’s strength came from the articulation of emotions in the silence. For many days and nights, he sat by Tracy’s side as his best friend sobbed over the death of his beloved wife, Lila. No stranger to grief, Rossmore was weeping from the inside over Lila, whom he loved dearly. He was conditioned to live in the here and now as a way of life and it had served him well. Focused 100 percent with undivided attention, he was here for Tracy at the worst time of his friend’s life.

Highly intelligent and well trained in many areas, Rossmore knew there wasn’t much he could do to make Tracy feel better so he did what he knew. He shadowed Tracy, never leaving his side. He stayed silent when Tracy was overcome with grief and just let him emote. He leaned against him, quietly reminding him he wasn’t totally alone by touching his hand, back or knee, reassuring him that it was safe to just be himself and to let go. Sometimes he gently wiped away the tears. At times Tracy reached out to embrace Rossmore. They leaned into each other with infinite understanding without a word spoken between them. So much love, compassion and empathy was being expressed and felt for Lila being gone.

Rossmore was committed to seeing Tracy through the turbulent days, weeks and months ahead. He watched Tracy gradually emerge from grief hibernation, resume his daily routine and eventually reconnect with the world. His best friend was back on track again, only different.

Some years later, Rossmore felt unwell. He was diagnosed with advanced heart failure. Tracy was catapulted into anticipatory grief. He cooked, made sure Rossmore ate, took his meds and stayed with him round the clock. When Rossmore had trouble breathing, Tracy took him to the ER where oxygen was given. Rossmore lay quietly as Tracy looked on. Tracy began telling Rossmore how much he appreciated what an awesome best friend he’s been, how he was always there when Tracy needed him most and for loving him the way he was.

“Rossmore, you taught me through your actions how to give and receive unconditional love. You made it so easy. I don’t know how I would have gotten along without you. You will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you buddy, for all your love and support… I love you man, and I will never forget you.”

Then Rossmore reached out and leaned against Tracy’s left chest.

Struggling to remove his oxygen mask, Rossmore looked up at Tracy, sought his eyes and sighed for the final time…

When Tracy happened to visit a homeless shelter, Rossmore seemed out of place being it was his first day there. Tracy struck up a conversation and found that Rossmore had lost everything: his family, his home, friends and lifestyle from a catastrophic event. After visiting him several times, Tracy arranged for Rossmore to come stay with him until he got his bearings. They became such good friends that Rossmore never left. He was with Tracy through his marriage, the births of his and Lila’s children and Lila’s death. Rossmore and Tracy had been through the best and worst of times, always together, best friends till the end. (Based on a true story.)

Photo of Rossmore the dog
Found in a shelter all scruffy and matted, Rossmore was a gentle, affectionate and an elegant soul. His friendship with Tracy lasted 17 beautiful years.

Scientific evidence establishes that animals have consciousness of mind, cognitive emotions and feel empathy for each other, for their people and even strangers. Being able to read human emotion has helped their survival as a species and elevated their status to “man’s best friend.” Dogs also display more human behaviors than any other animal. Dogs feel joy, excitement, anxiety, sadness, respond to fight or flight reaction, love and affection as well as other emotions, just on a different level.

Data shows human toddlers begin to show empathy in primitive ways at age two. Arguably, dogs have the mental and emotional capacity of a child between age two and five. There are experts who believe dogs have even more advanced capacity than previously credited.

Because cats are more independent, they haven’t been studied as closely, but that’s changing. Cats are adept at picking up on nuanced human emotions and you may not always notice your cat’s responses to how you feel. By paying close attention to their body language and behaviors, you may be aware of them curling up next to you when you’re upset, placing or stroking their paw on your face to show affection, nuzzling your neck, chest or sitting on your lap when you’re sad. Their way to show empathy may be subtle or different.

There are stories of animals who have not only shown empathy but remarkable intelligence as well. A humpback whale rescued a sea lion by sweeping it up onto its back out of the water to protect it from killer whales. An elderly woman with poor vision got lost in the woods and was found the next day with elephants, encircling her in tree branches, guarding her from hyenas. A gorilla protected a human toddler who fell inside a cage of gorillas and tenderly cradled him until he was safely rescued.

Our pets can teach us resilience, empathy, acceptance of our grief, wonderment, playfulness, how to live in the now, and how to be more lovingly expressive. Imagine if we adopted greeting our loved ones in the manner in which our pets greeted us. When we leave and return home, we find them by the door, eagerly awaiting us with such excitement that they can’t stay still. Think of all the rescued animals who know all too well what it’s like to be traumatized, to feel utterly alone, to have their hearts broken and their lives abruptly changed. We set out to rescue our pets and give them love, protection and a safe forever home. More often, even when we don’t think we need it, we find that they end up rescuing us.

By Sheila Newton, Ph.D., LMFT