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Managing Grief with the Help of Emotional Support Therapy Dogs

Most of us have experienced grief in our lifetime. If we have managed to avoid it so far, we’ve at least watched a loved one struggle through the process.

Loss is never easy. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help deal with loss – whether we’re going through it ourselves or are supporting a child, spouse or other family member. And one great – and cuddly – method we have for dealing with grief is with the help of an emotional support therapy dog.

What is grief?

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) defines grief as the natural reaction to loss, which can influence the physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual aspects of our lives. This could be the loss of a person or pet you care about, the loss of your home or job, a divorce or separation or even a terminal diagnosis.

We all experience and process grief in different ways, and for varying lengths of time. For most, grief will overshadow our thoughts and behaviours for at least a number of weeks or months. We may then learn how to manage grief in our day-to-day lives, even though the loss may remain a significant part of them.

Some ways we might experience grief are with:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Helplessness
  • Loneliness
  • Shock
  • Relief
  • Confusion
  • Vivid dreams and nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Preoccupation with the loss
  • Reduced energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite

Any and all of these could apply and all are valid ways of grieving.

Ways to help manage grief

Just as the experience and duration of grief varies between individuals, so too will the strategies that will help them to adjust to the loss. Grief is never a linear process. And while you are grieving you may need different things at different times.

Below are some examples of actions and treatments that may help to manage your grief.

  • Accept your feelings: It is helpful to remind yourself or a grieving loved one that all feelings – including anger and relief – are normal and valid during the grief process. Do not judge yourself for any emotions that may arise.
  • Seek social support: Talking about your experience and feelings can be an important tool to remind you that you are not alone. Grieving children sometimes avoid conversations about their loss because they worry they will be a burden, so it is important to offer this support and connection with clear language and honesty.
  • Say goodbye: This is an important part of the process for the loss of a loved one and can offer closure, while also giving permission to move on. Holding a family memorial in the backyard for the loss of a pet may be of great assistance to grieving children.
  • Practise self-care: Grief can impact your physical health, particularly sleep and nutrition. Sticking to regular routines can be helpful, particularly for younger children, and ensuring you are getting adequate sleep and eating regular meals can lessen the load.
  • Talk to a therapist: Sharing your thoughts and feelings with a trained professional can be a really valuable tool through the grief process. You may need advice on how to navigate grief in children, or how to cope with parenting duties while dealing with your own grief.

One additional way that you can manage your grief is to connect with an emotional support therapy dog.

How emotional support therapy dogs can help manage grief

Pets have an extraordinary way of offering us emotional support, and therapy dogs specialise in it. They are trained to offer psychological or physiological support to the grieving.

Emotional support therapy dogs can offer a range of benefits for those experiencing grief, including:

  • Improvements in mood: A 2011 study showed that adolescents experiencing grief and loss had a significant improvement in mood scores when a therapy dog was present during their sessions.
  • Reduce loneliness: Adults and children who don’t feel comfortable discussing their grief with others, or who are simply lonely from missing someone special, may benefit from the support of a therapy dog. These canines enjoy sitting at feet, resting their heads on laps and even gently placing a paw on a person, offering undivided attention to those grieving. Getting outside on walks and to dog parks with their dogs also encourages those who are lonely from grief to interact with the world a bit more.
  • Mental health support: Therapy dogs can reduce anxiety and encourage mindfulness by bringing a person back into the present. They also provide much needed social support.
  • Reduce stress: A 2021 paper looked at the existing research to support the theory that interacting with a dog can reduce stress and have positive effects psychologically, physically and socially. These effects included decreases in cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure, increases in oxytocin, immediate improvements in self-reported measures of stress and long-term improvements in social support, social networks and overall social health.

[H3]How to connect with an emotional support therapy dog

Emotional support therapy dogs can be trained by a professional handler and brought into hospitals, aged care homes, funeral homes, schools and other facilities. Alternatively, you could acquire a therapy dog to live with you, or even train your own dog if they possess suitable characteristics.

Therapy dog links

Reach out for help

Grief is a complex issue, for all ages. We’ve discussed the ways in which an emotional support therapy dog can offer comfort and support, but sometimes expert help might be just what you need. If you think it might also help to have a chat to a Young Minds clinician, find out more here.