From Pet to Planet:

Our Attachment to Companion Animals as a Portal into Grief and Loss

by Lesley A. Osman

Sleeping cat (Photo by Gary Newman)

My 17-year-old cat is dying and what is startling, surprising about this, is how painful her death process is to me. I’ve asked myself repeatedly why I thought this would be any different? As a psychotherapist, I understand how significant a relationship with a pet can be. But while I have experienced the pain of an animal dying before, I have never had to be present with a prolonged terminal illness in a pet, watching the steady decline, loss of weight and agility, messes to clean up almost constantly. My cat BB is clinging to life, eating constantly without absorbing any nutrition. Her system is slowly shutting down.

From an eco-psychological viewpoint, the following points and questions are of particular interest to me: Why do we feel the need to have our domesticated animal friends around us in the first place? How does my process with BB mirror the grief and loss of connection to all things natural? Why is feeling deeply for a pet considered somehow inferior and therefore not socially acceptable? And, finally, how do we need animal friends in order to maintain the tenuous attachment we have to the rest of life and to our own wild natures?

Let me explain why it felt so compelling to wrestle with these issues in writing. While it’s not necessarily talked about openly, if the subject is broached, everyone, it seems, regardless of background, has a painful memory to share around the loss of a beloved pet. One woman told me recently that the death of her beloved German Shepherd-wolf mix was far harder for her than the deaths of her parents. Shocking to some, I’m sure, but she said the unconditional love and loyalty she consistently received from her pet far surpassed the love she felt from her parents. Her attachment to her dog was greater and more highly regarded than the closeness she was able to develop in her family system.

Others shared that they had run up thousands of dollars in vet bills but felt foolish sharing the information. A colleague told me she’d moved her mattress to the floor to allow her ailing cat access to a favorite sleeping area. These stories aren’t unusual, and they started me thinking about why these losses aren’t shared more openly, which led me further to wonder about the value we place on animals, our attachments to the other-than-human, and acceptance of our need for connection and relationship to the more-than-human.

Lesley Osman, MA, MFT, graduated in Transpersonal Psychology from John F. Kennedy University’s Graduate School of Holistic Studies, and specializes in Ecotherapy. She is a certified Applied Ecopsychologist and Earth-based healer. Concerned about vanishing species, pollution, depletion of natural resources, deforestation and genetically modified organisms, Lesley acts as a guide to agencies, companies and individuals concerned about these issues. As an Ecotherapist, educator and writer, she has a private psychotherapy practice in Mendocino, where she regularly takes clients outdoors. Lesley offers trainings to other professionals who have an interest in “greening” their group or individual practice.

Because I myself grew up with the cultural imperative that animals are lesser beings, it never occurred to me that during my cat’s decline I would be making some of the choices I have made—fluids to re-hydrate injected under the skin every other day, x-rays, oral doses of prednisone. I can hear in the background the voices: “She’s probably suffering. Why don’t you let her go?” “She’s an animal; it’s okay to put her to sleep.” While there are those who judge me, I have to be okay with my choices, hoping that I will know instinctively, as this cat’s “mother,” when she is ready to go…. waiting for a sign. It’s not like these questions and statements haven’t occurred to me, and yet, I’m still hanging in with her, waiting for that sign.

This is important to look at more closely, because not only am I a licensed psychotherapist who guides clients through their own grief and loss issues, but also, as an eco-therapist who’s interested in our relationships and connections to the more-than-human world, my cat’s soul seems to me no less important, no less integral to the larger planetary system. I want to thank her for her contribution to the thoughts, feelings and ideas contained within this essay.

The Human-Animal Relationship

The question has to be asked – why did we, as humans, feel the need to domesticate animals in the first place? Apart from the obvious, breeding for food, was it somehow an unconscious attempt to bring wildness, or “all our relations” closer to us? In The Earth has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.J. Jung edited by Meredith Sabini (2002), Jung conjectured that the lower layers of the human psyche have an animal character, recapitulating our evolutionary heritage. I understand this to mean that evolution hasn’t eradicated our animalistic psychological characteristics but rather incorporated them. Jung goes on to say that because this is so, there is a probability that animals and humans have the same archetypes or images imbedded in their psyches, and therefore have instinctual drives to be in symbiotic relationships with plants and other animals (Sabini, 2002, p.83-84).

Perhaps because humans have an inherited relationship with animals, the gods are symbolized as animals—even the Holy Ghost is symbolized as a bird. Indigenous peoples have not lost their sense of awe, fascination and respect for the wisdom of wildness. In some cultures, the wisest of all animals, the most powerful and divine of all beings, is the elephant, and then comes the python or the lion, and only then comes the human. As Paul Shepard discusses in Nature and Madness (1982), before civilization animals were seen as belonging to their own nation and as bearers of messages and gifts of meat from a sacred domain. But in the settled village, they became subdued into human possessions. He also suggests that pet keeping is both a covert and unconscious use of animals in service of human psychological need.

We look around us and anthropomorphize all manner of things we see. We are constantly caught up in our own narcissism, attempting to fashion things in our own image. I have certainly endowed my ailing kitty with many human-like qualities that may have no basis in the true nature of her life: “she’s sneaky, deliberately naughty, cute, loving, needy….” The list goes on. Does this tendency to anthropomorphize occur simply because we look through human lenses and therefore can relate only through human perceptual frameworks in our interface with the world? Perhaps the purely instinctual nature of our animal friends keeps us somehow grounded in our own instinctual natures.

This tendency to attribute human qualities to animals and the nonhuman world is a projective process, and a well known psychological mechanism, but Jung’s approach to this phenomenon gives us a new perspective, which points to the interconnectedness of all life. He considered the capacity to identify with animals an innate instinct arising from our shared evolutionary heritage. To disavow this capacity, he believed, may point to the immaturity of our species and our modern effort to create artificially firm boundaries between ourselves and other life. This boundary making, he thought, was an attempt to protect our own fragile consciousness, a boundary which among tribal people is not considered important. And why are we so fragile? Jung suggests “that if consciousness could be viewed as the head of a gigantic, million-year-old creature-…, this creature also has a body and tail that includes the evolutionary history of all life” (Sabini,2002, p.13).

In taking the perspective of the fragility of human consciousness, is it any wonder that our desperate need to survive and thrive led us into the activities of domestication–to develop safe shelters, raise and store crops for food, organize ourselves into structured communities and domesticate animals to act as help-mates and companions?

Attachment and the Ecological Self

Attachment theory, currently in vogue in psychological circles, emphasizes that an internalized sense of safety and security is achieved through the presence of a consistent and caregiving other.

John Bowlby proposed that attachment bonds involve two behavioral systems—an attachment system and a caregiving system. First, individuals come into the world equipped with an attachment behavioral system that is prone to activation and serves a major evolutionary function of protection and survival (Bowlby, 1969; Bretherton, 1987)…. Adults as well as children benefit from having someone looking out for them—someone who is deeply invested in their welfare, who monitors their whereabouts, and who is reliably available to help if needed. (Collins & Feeney, n.d.)

A second tenet of attachment theory stipulates that the caregiving system is another normative, safety-regulating system that is intended to reduce the risk of a close other coming to harm. Caregiving refers to a broad array of behaviors that complement the attachment behavior of the young, and may include help or assistance, comfort and reassurance, and support of autonomous activities and personal growth (Collins & Feeney, 2000; Kunce & Shaver 1994) (Collins & Feeney, n.d.)

To expand on this theory of attachment and take it to the global scale, the biophilia hypothesis, developed by Kellert and Wilson (1993), much like Bowlby’s attachment theory, asserts that humans have an innate and instinctual need to have close contact with the natural world. More than likely, these instincts are remnants of our ancestral need for protection and survival; we are attracted to those things in nature that serve us in some way, and on the contrary, repelled by those things that may harm us, known as biophobia. We also have an inherent and essential attachment to the more than human world. Our food, our medicines, the air we breathe, the water we drink are gifts from the natural processes of this planet that provide for us, as would any good caregiver.

So what happens when we deny these natural bonds and behave in ways that dismiss the natural world? In modern times, we humans have begun to view everything not human as nothing more than a useful resource: the river becomes merely a source of water for human consumption; a mountain a mine, a source of mineral or stone for our roadways or construction for our suburbs; forests a vast resource for construction and paper products; other species of animals meat for our bellies—until these things become to us dead, soulless things. The western worldview, and psychotherapy along with it, separates self from body, soul, and land. The more we are disconnected and removed from the natural world, the more we inhabit the artificial construction of man, and the more it becomes okay to destroy, because the attachment, the psychic kinship, is no longer there. In an attempt to evolve, we are depleting the living system that we are attached to and dependent upon in essential ways. We are cutting ourselves off from our intimate relationship with the rest of life, and consequently making ourselves ill. According to Uchino, Cacioppo and Kiecolt-Glasser (1996), intimate relationships play a critical role in promoting health and well-being in adulthood, while relationship disruption in adulthood is associated with a wide range of adverse health outcomes (Collins and Feeney, n.d.).

Due to our embeddedness in our western constructs of reality, it’s no wonder that when we choose to welcome an animal into our home, it’s hard to confess that we become profoundly attached. Because in the wider culture animals are typically regarded as soulless things, as objects, there is a shaming and silencing of the depth of our experiences of attachment to these animals. And yet, in their very non-human ways, our pets continue to provide us with constancy, unconditional love and comfort, all behaviors associated with a good caregiver.

This cultural shaming and silencing can lead us to do ourselves as well as our pets a disservice if we don’t experience the grief at the passing of a beloved pet. Often euthanasia is used all too readily as a remedy for our uncertainty and pain when an animal friend is sick and dying. We avoid a prolonged death process that we both don’t understand and can’t trust. We stop listening to the inner knowing and intuitive, nonverbal communication. Reynolds and Kowalski in Blessing the Bridge, which focuses on what animals teach us about death and dying, suggest that euthanasia, while a merciful option, requires not doing what is convenient, economical, or practical at the moment, but rather what is called for on a very high level of consideration for another living, sentient being (2010).

What if cat and self are more than skin and bones? If soul or essence transcends, and acts as an ethereal connection or bridge, then our attachment to companion animals may form the beginnings of an identification with the ecological self. The ecological self, a term introduced by Arnae Ness, refers to the process of self-actualization, through which one transcends the individuated “egoic” self and arrives at the “eco-self,” which results in environmentally responsible behavior as a form of self-interest (“Ecological Self,” n.d.).

When we dismiss our attachment to our pets, and deny our grief at their loss, then we contribute to our own soul loss. When we identify with the more than human world, so that the boundaries between cat self and human self become amorphous, but then deny our feelings of attachment, we lose an essential part of ourselves. This loss of self and soul feeds our deepening hunger, which can turn into addiction—consumer addiction, substance addiction, or a host of other substitutes to fill the hole.

We are surrounded everyday by losses in the form of a myriad of failing natural systems, which translate into soul loss, and are deeply painful for those who recognize the indisputable physical need and emotional and spiritual attachment our species has to the natural world. We are a part of and not apart from the rest of the living planet whose biosphere is alive and adapting to more heat, less available water, and other changes. However, if we can allow ourselves to deeply grieve and release the maniacal grip we have on our perceived independence from the animals, minerals and plants of this planet, the tremendous gift we receive is love, interdependence and living in harmony with the natural world around us. Furthermore, we realize we are no longer alone. And where there is life, there is also death and regeneration, and the benefits gained in being fully present with death and separation, including a strange, haunting beauty, does something to mitigate the agony. Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once said, “You learn best from things that are dying.” And I wonder how we are learning from the dying of the trees, the tigers and the bears?

The Grief and Loss Cycle

While in the process of drafting this essay, BB passed. Although terribly painful, her passing also brought relief, and a sense of sad calm has become my reality. As I had hoped, she let me know when she was resigned to her death. The day I made my decision to play “god” and “put her to sleep,” her face had changed, she could no longer support her emaciated body weight, her spirit was already exiting its physical flesh.

Most of us at some point experience the excruciating pain caused by the loss of a loved and treasured other. Upon the loss of relationship, whether through physical death or some other type of ending, whether we’re aware of it or not, we undergo a grief-process. We all grieve differently and at our own pace, and for some the journey is completed more slowly than for others, but we need to feel the pain before we can experience the healing.

The grief process is made up of a number of nearly universal subjective states, and the initial ones are often shock, disbelief or denial. At the onset of her decline, I certainly believed that BB’s symptoms were due to her longstanding thyroid problem, thinking, “her medications need to be increased, perhaps her body had somehow been rejecting the medication, her medications had been given improperly by cat-sitters.” There seemed to be an endless list of reasons for her symptoms. Not until after several visits to the veterinarian and several different tests could I no longer deny the realization and truth that I was going to lose her.

On a larger global scale, our denial can be debilitating. As Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown state in Coming Back to Life, “When we deny or repress our pain for the world, or treat it as a private pathology, our power to take part in the healing of our world is diminished” (1998, p.59). When we learn of the numbers of species becoming extinct, the acres of virgin forests being cut, and millions of children of our own species dying of starvation, it’s all too, too much! We feel overwhelmed, helpless, impotent, and often very hopeless. We just can’t believe that it’s actually happening, and so find distractions, ways or keeping our anxieties and grief at bay. Our defenses are endless, but the defense of denial creates a strong barrier against feeling anything. Yet without the psychic energy generated by feeling and experiencing these losses, there will be no creative action.

Ecotherapists consistently observe an array of predictable symptoms presented by clients around the denial of loss and grief over the decline of the natural world. Our burgeoning psychic angst manifests symptomatically as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, panic, phobias and anxiety. A cadre of physical complaints also overwhelms medical doctors: insomnia, lethargy, breathlessness, high blood pressure, ulcers, headaches, constipation and on and on. None of us are immune from somatic complaints because our nervous systems daily absorb the impact of stress and angst that often goes unprocessed due to our busy and demanding lifestyles.

When it’s no longer possible to deny the loss, a sense of awareness slowly trickles in. “It is true! I do really hurt!” When I moved out of denial, my response to the plain truth that my cat was dying was to face her imminent death and move into action around her comfort and care. This of course was also a response to my own anxiety, and anxiety channeled into creative action brings relief on two levels, internal and external. It was important for me to feel that I’d done everything possible to allow for her passing in her own time, and with as much integrity as possible. The pain, of course, sometimes seems more than one can endure, and in these moments, we can slip once more into distraction and denial. Without social recognition and acceptance around the pain associated with a pet’s death, we also face shame and confusion about our actions.

With access to feeling comes a torrent of emotion, which the armor of denial formerly kept at bay. Anger, guilt, shame, confusion, wishful thinking, and profound love are among some of the feelings I recall from this intense time. All of these may be present simultaneously and in an ever-shifting and unpredictable mixture. I felt guilty that I’d left my beloved cat with a sitter who had never stayed with her before and had confessed that she’d never been fond of felines. Although BB had always seemed to thrive after her sitter experiences, I blamed myself for having been gone, my partner and myself for not noticing her decline, and a lifetime of seeming neglectfulness, none of which, of course, had any basis in fact. I also loved her more deeply, felt joy at any displays of affection, and utter disbelief and confusion at the prospect of not having her physical presence. Her dying process created a profound opening to the soul.

Globally, we’re coming into a greater state of awareness around the current planetary situation of great loss. When the front page of Time (April 3, 2006) features a photo of a polar bear sitting on a small isolated icepack, with a caption reading “BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED,” it’s rather hard to deny that global warming or “climate change” is happening, that environmental degradation is having a noticeable and frightening impact. The front page of this issue also read: “Climate change isn’t some vague future problem—it’s already damaging the planet at an alarming pace. Here’s how it affects you, your kids and their kids as well…” If we’re awake to the world around us, we can’t help but experience some of the emotions mentioned, so what to do with them?

To languish in a state of perpetual denial is to be complicit in disconnection and inaction. Denial perpetuates the secret – that we’re on a sinking ship! The sinking of the Titanic offers an apt metaphor for our collective situation in the late 20th and 21st century.

This disconnection makes me feel like I’m a therapist on the Titanic. We do some great work restoring our relationship with ourselves and other humans, of reconnection with our personal origins, all of which can be truly liberating in many ways – but how often do we mention that the ship is in crisis? (Rust, 2005, p.1).

To somehow contain the flood of feelings that want to carry us away, to come to a place of acceptance, and to take healing steps are the emotional challenges we face, whether we’re grieving the loss of a pet or the planet. This emotional work is really not about technique or particular tools. It’s about a quality of presence, an understanding that psyche, like the rest of nature, has a self-organizing principle. Healing happens through tending to the beauty and love of all life, through creativity, through listening to the inner voice of intuition, and through expressing through story, myth, poetry, and art. In truth, there is no simple fix, there are no pat words. Much as our animal friends find different ways of communicating, we have to watch for signs, trusting that we’ll know what to do in moments of aching loss and shattering soul pain. Ritualizing our grief can help provide a container for the chaotic rush of emotions that spillover.

The last day of BB’s life, I lay with her soaking up the sight of her, the hair of her, the smell of her. I wept a thousand tears with her. I allowed myself to be fully present with her and in some ways entered a ritual space with her. I told her the story of her life: How as an almost newborn feral kitten, I had found her being tossed around by children in Balboa Stadium in San Francisco. Hence she became known as Baby Balboa or BB. I told her how I took her home and fed her formula in a syringe for at least two weeks, how she had almost died as a newborn, and had near misses on several other occasions. I shared how she moved with me several times, and how on one move, she had jumped out of a friend’s arm and disappeared. How it wasn’t until the middle of the night that I heard her distinctive meow, and had gone looking for her. I told her how on finding her under a poison oak bush, I realized that she had been too far away for me to have actually heard her, and how I knew without doubt that we had an unexplainable connection. I told her that Josephine, her cat companion, who had died a few years earlier, was waiting for her, to curl-up together. More than all of this, I told her how much I loved her and how much I would desperately miss her. I gave her my day. I followed my instincts. We created healing together.

After we buried her in her carefully crafted casket, made by the hands of my loving partner from a recycled bee box, we created a simple ceremony, placing flowers and catnip on her grave. I read a poem I created for her. This essay is also in honor of a small animal that had such an important presence in my life for seventeen years. BB gave me the profound gift of living with death in a conscious and present way.

We can learn to meet such terrible grief. By being a kind and loving guide in the face of grief and loss, creating ritual, accepting all and any emotion, dancing, singing, screaming, crying, laughing. By being open to healing through the intuitive process.

Whether or not it was human folly to domesticate animals in the first place, our pets give us the opportunity to connect to the more-than-human world. Animal-facilitated therapies are becoming commonplace as practitioners have begun to understand that a relational bond with an animal maybe less threatening, with less risk of abandonment, with more chance to receive and give unconditional positive regard, and with fewer negative projections. The instinctual nature of pets somehow makes it okay to be instinctual creatures ourselves. Likewise, ecotherapy, the application of eco-psychology (soul’s home story), brings the natural world, with its well-documented healing capacity, into the therapeutic process. Our animal companions may be a part of the journey to reconnection with the planet.

And, finally, a poem:

Oh BB, cat of great repose
From near and far, we suppose
Your hair claims distant galaxies

We love the way you fuss and meow
When breakfast is being prepared
Your sweetness has claimed many hearts

Always you fling yourself over
On the sofa for your daily massage
Pampered by those who travel to be with you

BB, you find the best places to lie
Stretched out for at least a mile
On the table in the sun

We love you and your ginger and tabby spots
Munchy, little B, you’re always here to greet
And we know your presence with be greatly missed

Rest your tiny bones in peace.

And a dream:

I see my pet cat Josephine, who had passed on a couple of years prior to BB’s passing. After a long journey, Josephine is there welcoming me to the “other side.” I am standing on a shore by a vast ocean, and Josephine is able to communicate with me in a language I can understand. She, along with my grandmother, want to take me to see all those I’d loved and lost.

In this dream, Josephine becomes a dear and trusted guide, no longer simply a pet but a being of great value and esteem, responsible for my wellbeing. She, along with my grandmother, become my guides to another life. It seems it would be a happy, secure one of ease, freed of a sense of separateness, loneliness, isolation or fear. There is a welcoming sense of familiarity with everything and everyone around me. Josephine is clearly more sophisticated and wise than I had ever imagined while in this life.

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