When a loved one is no longer with us, we often miss being held and holding someone. That sense of purpose to take care of someone, to take a walk with, to prepare a meal for is gone. Sometimes having a pet gives us that sense of purpose. So often pets love us unconditionally. We can talk to them and they never argue. They follow us to whatever room we are in. They bring a smile to our face. If we are sad they lay by our side. We don’t have to explain how we feel. They just seem to know.
Research has shown that people who interact with animals may experience increased levels of oxytocin (otherwise known as the “trust hormone,” “love hormone,” or “bonding hormone”). In fact one study found that the simple act of making eye contact with their dogs when they got home from work increased oxytocin in a sample of women. On an emotional level oxytocin helps mothers bond with their newborn babies, human couples establish a greater sense of intimacy and it has been linked to increased feelings of self esteem, optimism and trust. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that interaction with a friendly animal can decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone and raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.
In 2013 Leslie Irvine, a Sociologist at the University of Colorado, found that many of those interviewed credited their animal with changing or saving their life. It helped combat isolation and depression by making them get out, walk and socialize with other people.
Initially when I started bringing my dog to work, I thought it would be a great opportunity working with children. What I soon discovered is that not only do children love dogs, but so do adults. Because my dogs are small, they can sit on my clients’ laps. Clients are more relaxed and can express their feelings while stroking or holding my dogs. People often feel safe holding a pet or sometimes just looking at them. At the office we have a ritual: My dog gets a treat before starting the session. Clients are excited when I ask if they would like to give her a treat. There is a bonding experience and they often look forward to seeing her again.
The healing power of pets is well known, and incorporating animals in stressful situations is gaining widespread acceptance. After the awful events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one organization — the Lutheran Church Charities — brought in therapy dogs to comfort the children. According to National Geographic News, “A little girl who hadn’t spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the ‘comfort dogs.’ Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other as they sat on the floor together, all stroking the same animal.”
Obviously, an animal is a commitment and in the early stages of loss it may feel too demanding. Also, if you travel a lot, taking on the responsibility of caring for an animal may not suit your needs. However, as time passes, it might be an option. If you do like pets, you can volunteer at shelters and find other ways to be around animals. Certainly, one of the ways we can deal with the passing of a loved one is considering being involved with an animal.