It was one of those awkward first sessions of a grief group at the Refuge. Ten residents ranging from 18 to 40 something sat in a circle looking like they would just as soon be having a root canal. I had learned early on to acknowledge and address the discomfort in the room right off the bat. “What’s your worst fear about coming to a grief group?” I asked. After some hesitation the responses trickled in. “I might lose control.” “I might cry and appear weak.” “The pain will overwhelm me.” After reassuring the group that the intent was not to overwhelm them with pain and that we weren’t going to attempt to work through a lifetime of grief and loss in 6 weeks, we began to go around the circle and one by one answer the question “what brings you to a grief group?” I am always amazed at how many of the members tend to minimize their losses.
One of the last to share was a man in his mid-forties – a crack addict with a history of horrific abuse as a child, who had been arrested many times, spent time in prison and was not proud of the things he did during his periods of active addiction. He put his tough guy façade aside however and began to share about a dog he loved that had been accidentally left in a car in the sweltering Florida summer heat. He began to weep as he spoke of the unconditional love he had received from this gentle creature. I looked around and there were tears in all eyes. The air in the room shifted and it became a sacred place of honoring this man’s pain. Others began to share about companion animals they had lost. There was a bonding that occurred and the room became a safe place to share the pain of loss. From animals we moved to people and other kinds of losses over the next 6 weeks.
So what is it about a burly guy who you would definitely not want to meet in a dark alley if he was on crack that could transform a room full of anxious and hesitant people into a loving, supportive and sacred place to share and honor some of the deepest pain? Or perhaps the question should be what about the loss of an animal allows us to become vulnerable enough to openly share our pain and tears? Well it occurs to me that as children we are open, innocent and only want to love and be loved by our parents, caregivers and others in our lives. We haven’t learned “conditional” love yet. We are dependent and want to please. Then we begin getting the messages that we are not enough as we are. After years of being bullied and/or otherwise mistreated, many of us come to despise the child that we once were. (Identification with the tormentors?) I believe that in grieving the loss of our animal companions, we are also grieving the loss of our own childhood innocence. From grieving the loss of his dog, our “burly” guy went on to grieve his own loss of innocence and safety in his childhood and many other deaths and losses he had experienced in his life – as did the other members of the group.