Tag Archives: Counseling Connoisseur

The Counseling Connoisseur: Mental health cleanup following a natural disaster

By Cheryl Fisher September 14, 2017

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

 

As I sit on my patio, warmed by the early autumn sun, I breathe in the alchemy of rosemary, thyme and oregano and a variety of mints — aromas from my herb garden. The squirrels chatter as they scamper across the trapezelike branches of the old maple and majestic oaks that provide me with shade and provide entertainment to a variety of creatures. Blue jays, robins and cardinals flit back and forth, foraging end-of-the-season strawberries. Finches hover overhead just long enough to steal a sunflower seed (or two) from the heads of the long stalks that have faded and now hang low. It is a beautiful September morning.

Yet, several hours away, nature has taken a different turn, spinning up water and winds of 185 mph, decimating lands and destroying lives. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose have created havoc on the Gulf and East Coasts, while fires have engulfed the West. An earthquake has devastated parts of Mexico. In each instance, homes have been lost and families separated. The same Mother Nature that offers me such solace during this early morning has wreaked havoc elsewhere.

As with any traumatic experience, I seek meaning, attempting to make some sense out of these tragedies. I try to identify who is to blame for such suffering and loss. Finding very little peace from my efforts, I turn to what I know best. I dive into my counseling toolbox for guidance and I DO something.

 

1) Volunteer

As mental health professionals, we offer skills that are much needed in cultivating calm and defusing crises. We can help by listening to the narratives of survivors, validating their experiences and providing tools for immediate coping. We can provide basic care and help them reconnect with loved ones. I have been a disaster mental health volunteer for the American Red Cross (redcross.org/take-a-class/disaster-training) for decades. (The American Counseling Association is an official American Red Cross disaster mental health partner organization.) It is a privilege to serve in local and national deployments. Additionally, we can assist local efforts through church or club affiliations. I am a member of the Maryland Responds Medical Corp, and I support the efforts of my faith affiliation.

 

2) Contribute to resource efforts

There have been many times when I have been unable to deploy. This is extremely frustrating because part of my healing is feeling that I have DONE something to help. I have found that numerous organizations accept both supplies and monetary contributions. Participating in these efforts allows me to feel that I have been actively involved in the effort toward recovery.

 

3) Gather with like-minded/like-hearted people

Being in the company of other compassionate advocates can lighten the load. Sharing the emotional burden may not only provide ease but may also promote collaboration and generation of innovative recovery strategies. For example, a group may want to craft a GoFundMe page, create a local fundraiser or organize an event in memory of those who were lost and in honor of the survivors.

 

4) Pray or hold intention

Regardless of one’s faith or belief system, lifting prayer and good intentions on behalf of another is an active service of compassion and kindness. It is (excuse the double negative) “not nothing.” In addition to a faith-based perspective, prayer and intention place the person or people in the forefront of our thoughts, reminding us of our connection with all humanity regardless of nation, culture, ethnicity, creed, age, gender, sexual identification or able-bodiedness.

 

5) Seek help

As advocates and first responders, we are not immune to the effects of tragedies. Viewing hours of social media in anticipation of the storm’s arrival, watching the desperate efforts of firefighters dousing the flaming forests of Washington and Oregon, or seeing the devastation in the Caribbean can take its toll on even the most resilient counselor. Seek professional help to aid in the development of strategies to provide nourishment and sustenance while buffering the abrasive nature of responding to traumatic events.

 

Conclusion

Nature provides us with endless sources of joy, wisdom and companionship. However, there are times — as with any living force — when disaster strikes. Counselors can contribute to the recovery plan in numerous ways that cultivate a sense of unity and community. It is a privilege to serve in times of need.

 

Satellite photo of Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005.

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: The canvas of counseling

By Cheryl Fisher August 17, 2017

“My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view.” ~ Carole King

Summertime often brings opportunities to gather with family and friends. Over grilled goodies and cold beverages, we wallow away the hours, reminiscing of old and fabricating new visions and ventures. It was during one such event that the conversation turned toward the topics of careers, financial advisers and retirement.

My husband and I have differing views around the idea of retirement. He has wanted to live a life of leisure from the time I met him in his early 30s. I, however, have fallen madly and hopelessly in love with my vocation and can’t imagine a life without a clinical practice … or academic appointment … or literary presence … or speaking opportunities … or … Well, you get the idea. I am smitten.

When asked why I am so devoted to the cause, however, I fumble and stammer. “Well, we help people! And there’s never a dull moment. And …” — I finally concede — “I don’t actually know.”

After meditating on the question, I have arrived at six possible answers (beyond the obvious altruism of the craft):

 

1) Diversity. My counseling career extends over several decades and has taken me from work in geriatrics to hospice care and bereavement. As a young counselor, my elderly and terminal clients offered me wisdom around aging well and examining life fulfillment. I have made midnight runs, pumping with adrenaline, as I responded to survivors of rape and we attempted to untangle the multiple violations they had experienced, both from their perpetrators and the systems designed to help survivors. I have gone into school systems and witnessed an entire faculty and administration rally around young children whose home lives left an abysmal track of trauma and abuse. I have watched couples choose to remain together despite a breach of vows. I have witnessed the selfless act of a young mother relinquishing her parental rights in an attempt to offer her newborn baby a life that she could not provide while struggling with addiction. I have counseled in clinics, hospitals and hospices and, over the past decade, have settled into a more routine private practice. Each placement offered me rich and varied clientele, experiences and life lessons.

2) Flexibility. Counseling requires flexibility. Agendas are fluid and cocreated with the client. And let’s face it … you never know what your client will present in session. So we wait in anticipation, realizing that counseling is a dance perfected between therapist and client, but that each client brings her or his own footwork to the session. The counselor must be versed in a variety of dance steps and be willing to freestyle when it is appropriate.

In addition to the flexible nature of the counseling session, counseling hours are rarely 9-to-5. Instead, being a counselor often requires evening or weekend availability. It’s hardly a banker’s workday; we must be prepared to navigate inconsistent schedules that may include a crisis call or hospitalization. At the same time, not being locked down by a set schedule also allows for an occasional two-hour lunch with an old friend, a midday stroll, a hair appointment or even a nap.

3) Contemplative practice. I don’t know of any other career that promotes (requires) reflexivity. We are encouraged to “do our own work” and continue to examine the dynamics that occur in the counseling session. We process our feelings and thoughts not only in relation to our clients but also around our personal experiences that are occurring simultaneously. Is our countertransference therapeutically employed or hindering the therapeutic alliance? Have we devoted time to our own processes?

I remember coming home one night following a very long day and beginning a processing session (de-identifying my clients, of course) with my husband the engineer. We have been married long enough for him to know that he is not being asked to FIX anything when I process. However, at the end of my discourse, my husband just shook his head and asked, “Doesn’t all this thinking tire you out?” I laughed and responded, “No, it’s actually one of the things I love most about my work!” As Irvin Yalom wrote in his novel The Spinoza Problem, “[Counseling] is a strange field because, unlike any other field of medicine, you never really finish. Your greatest instrument is you, yourself, and the work of self-understanding is endless.”

4) Community. It is true: We counselors are a curious people. As such, we benefit from other similar-minded and like-hearted folks. We seek each other out through conferences, workshops and supervision. Through the years, our practices and the clients we serve also become extensions of our community. After all, we journey with our clients during their most vulnerable times, including in the aftermath of cancer diagnoses, struggles with substance abuse, marital affairs, deaths, divorces and other instances of devastation. We create community in the most unlikely of places through our work on disaster teams and travel to locations where unspeakable traumatic events have occurred. We are experts at building community.

5) Creativity. The field of counseling is broad enough to embrace the creative in practice. Counselors welcome the creative, as evidenced by the fact that I will be presenting workshops on “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling” at the Association for Creativity in Counseling’s national conference in September. (The Association for Creativity is a division of the American Counseling Association.)

In addition to a slew of creative practices, our clinical canvas includes other modalities of service to the field that may include mentoring and supervising neophyte counselors. It is a privilege to be part of the skill-building of hope-generating newbies whose desire to help others supersedes their own discomfort around presenting their clinical work in class.

Furthermore, opportunities exist to contribute to the field through research, writing and presentions at conferences. And if that isn’t enough, there is a plethora of administrative and advocacy roles to serve the many affiliations that support the counseling field. This profession offers endless creative avenues for practice and service.

6) Mystery. Psychologist, researcher, author and educator Kenneth Pargament, in his book Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred, wrote, “Spirituality is an extraordinary part of the ordinary lives of people. … It manifests in life’s turning points, revealing mystery and depth. … It is interwoven into the fabric of the everyday. We can find it in music, the smile of a passing stranger, the color of the sky at dusk or a daily prayer of gratitude upon awakening.”

Although counselors employ strong evidence-based standards of practice, pastoral counselors (in particular) are cognizant of the mystery in our work and in the therapeutic process. That mystery can be found in the experience of when, having exhausted all tools in the clinical toolbox and feeling incredibly ineffective, a random question pops into your head. Having nothing to lose, you pose the question to your client, which results in a flood of emotional release (or an epiphany of sorts) that propels the session toward healing.

The counseling experience is filled with the unknown and the sacred — mysteries of interaction between human and divine. It is that experience of mystery that I have trusted when positioned with a client in the cesspool of tragedy and despair, knowing that the light will shine … eventually … again.

 

Conclusion

Image via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9U6ha2

Counseling has served me well over the past 25 years. I embrace counseling and counselor education as vocations filled with integrity, diversity, flexibility, community and creativity. Counseling is a field that promotes continued personal growth as well as professional competence and humility. Counseling recognizes the beautiful mystery that at times transcends logic.

A colleague described her experience as a counselor as “a quilt of many shades and hues that converge together in a beautiful tapestry.” It is a tapestry of many threads, woven over time and accommodating the varied fabrics of a lifetime — of my lifetime. Retirement? I think not, for I have only just begun!

 

 *****

 

Why do you enjoy being a counselor? Let me know. And don’t forget to stop by the Association for Creativity in Counseling 2017 Conference, Sept. 8-9, in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and visit me at “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling.”

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. She will be presenting “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling” at the Association for Creativity in Counseling Conference in September. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Feminist psychology and the Amazonian mystique

By Cheryl Fisher July 13, 2017

She wanted a hero…so that’s what she became! –Anonymous

 

Clad in her patriotic unitard and silver arm bands, her dark mane cascading as she twirls her golden lasso of truth, Wonder Woman has become an icon of beauty, physical strength and moral character. Her conception in 1941 has taken her from her Amazonian haven of Paradise Island into the land of patriarchy as she is committed to help humans end violence and suffering in the United States. From her 1940s pinup persona to her 1970s Lynda Carter television series and this summer’s blockbuster movie, Wonder Woman continues to wrestle with the underpinnings of injustice in a society plagued with inequity. In creating Wonder Woman, psychologist William Moulton Marston hoped to “set up a standard among children and young people of strong free courageous women and to combat the idea women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievements in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.”

Harvard professor Jill Lepore suggests in her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman that Wonder Woman acted as a bridge for feminism, highlighting the first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972 with the headline ‘‘Wonder Woman for president.’’ Yet, not everyone was convinced of this superheroine’s positive influence on young and impressionable minds.  In his 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham described Wonder Woman as “…always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men and has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to be.”

While Wertham lost his argument declaring comics a contributing factor to delinquency, it wasn’t until 2010 that evidence of the manipulation of data supporting his theory was fully revealed.  Nevertheless, Wonder Woman remains a constant iconic figure in the history of feminism.

Feminist psychology: History

In an attempt to counter Freud’s male-centered theory of identity formation, Karen Horney and other female psychologists developed theories that did not exclude the female experience. It was believed that rather than experiencing penis envy, what women desired was the status and opportunity afforded to men. Rejecting Freud’s theory in 1926, Horney introduced the concept of womb envy, or the desire around women’s ability to create and connect to their children.

The first wave of feminism occurred between 1900 and 1920 and included the suffrage movement, which ultimately won women the right to vote. Simultaneously, the field of psychology was emerging with theories of learning and intelligence. Women who were instrumental to the early conceptualization of psychology included Mary Whiton Calkins, the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Margaret Floy Washburn, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in psychology and was the second woman, after Calkins, to serve as APA president.  Women were generally excluded from academia and (ironically) Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway, the wife of William Moulton Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman) earned a PhD in psychology but was forbidden to attend college with men.

Marston, a psychologist and inventor of the polygraph, produced a paper in 1928 that declared that human emotions came from four factors: dominance, compliance, submission and inducement. According to Marston, inducement was the most powerful of forces, encouraging one to submit – and producing pleasantness in the induced. This was a trait that Marston identified in women, on which he based his 1937 proclamation that women would establish a matriarchy in 100 years because they have the biological advantage with “twice the love-generating organs” as men.  It was from this theoretical framework that Marston introduced his Wonder Woman in 1941.

Biology or social learning and gender prescription

Early psychology and first wave feminism emphasized the biological differences between the binary assignments of male and female-ness. Philosopher, psychologist and Harvard University professor William James denounced women as leaders because of their “tender-minded nature.”  However, second wave feminists of the 1960 to 1980s repealed the androcentric approaches to gender identity and research began to identify greater similarities between men and women.

Many theorists agree that most noted gender differences result from social learning and rewards or punishments for desired socially prescribed behavior. In essence, the theory posits that boys and girls are rewarded for different behaviors and therefore, learn what behaviors are appropriate for their gender. Social structural theory builds on social learning theory by addressing the secondary skills learned as a result of the learned primary behaviors. For example, if a girl is rewarded for domestic skills, a secondary learned behavior may be communal skills. This may result in the stereotyping of domestic work and promote the continued disenfranchising of women.

Wonder Woman attempted to dispel gender differences and employed an internal locus of control. She attributed her successes to commitment and training and valued mental and moral strength, in addition to physical conditioning.

Cultural identity

In addition to gender identity, cultural and ethnic identity contribute to one’s overall sense of self.  Cultural identity involves actively learning about one’s culture (beliefs, values and customs) and developing a clear understanding of the meaning of culture in one’s life. This includes the development of positive feelings toward one’s cultural group membership. Cultural identity in younger children is viewed in terms of physical characteristics. As they mature, culture takes on more social and membership implications.  Research appears to suggest an increase in cultural identity formation during middle adolescence. Furthermore, researchers Timothy Smith and Lynda Silva found evidence to suggest that cultural identity is a predictor of wellbeing among minority adolescents. Wonder Woman identifies as a member of the Amazons living in Paradise Island. While she is fluent in most languages, she is unfamiliar with the rules that accompany an androcentric world. She is abruptly thrown into a society that does not value women as equal [to men] and forces women to bind themselves [in clothes] “restricting their ability to be free to battle.” She wears her arm bands as a reminder that she will never be bound by anyone again. She must learn to acculturate in a way that honors her past and helps her function in the present. She must find membership and belonging in this new land, [which are] tasks that resonate with individuals migrating from other countries.

Conclusion

Wonder Woman has been described as complicated and dichotomous. According to researcher and social work educator Paige Averett, Wonder Woman “is feminine, sexual, submissive and dependent. She is also strong, capable, independent, fierce and ultimately a warrior. Unlike so many other female role models, she does not promote a one-dimensional view of the lived experience of being a woman. Wonder Woman is not just a sexy, attractive woman or just a strong kick-ass heroine or just a nurturing daughter and girlfriend or just a hardworking, justice-loving and world-changing working woman. She is all these things. Wonder Woman does not have to choose.”

Maybe this is the mystique of the Amazon princess that has remained strong for more than 75 years. While she is clearly not free from bias as a light-skinned, blue-eyed, dark haired, slender, more-than-able-bodied demigod, the idea of Wonder Woman poses the vision to engender life without prescription, to capitalize on individual strengths and to promote endless possibilities … for all persons.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; Nature-informed therapy: and Geek Therapy.  She will be presenting Geek Therapy 101 at the Association for Creativity in Counseling conference in September.   She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today’s July cover story on the intersection of pop culture and counseling: wp.me/p2BxKN-4Lb

 

Letters to the editor: CT@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Free time: Vacationing and well-being

By Cheryl Fisher May 31, 2017

 

My schedule is abysmal. I methodically pluck each hour and consume it with some obligation. At the end of my day, my free time is as nonexistent and barren as a sweet-corn field in October. — Cheryl Fisher

 

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Exams are graded. Grades are finally posted. Commencement pomp and circumstance has been observed. I am now able to turn my attention to my much neglected home, garden and family life. Closets and drawers burst with the abundance of unseasonal attire, while young seedlings choke on interloping weeds. I vaguely remember the names of my husband and my canine companion, who both have remained loyal and supportive during these past hectic months.

My closets need space to make room for a warmer climate wardrobe. My seedlings need space to grow to their full capacity. My husband and I need space to reconnect and reclaim the richness of our relationship. We need to make space and time for us!

 

Take back time

The concepts of overwork and “poverty of time” are explored and examined by like-minded professionals at the annual Time Matters: The National Take Back Your Time Conference. These individuals strive to bring life-work balance into practice through discussion and strategy by hosting experts in the field such as historian and author Benjamin Hunnicutt.

Hunnicutt, in his book Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, challenges that “progress, once defined as more of the good things in life as well as more free time to enjoy them, has come to be understood only as economic growth and more work, forevermore.” He suggests that recommitting to the forgotten American Dream will promote enriched family life and provide more opportunity to “enjoy nature, friendship and the adventures of the mind and of the spirit.”

This sounds great … but how do we do it?

 

Simplify

The most singular thing to do to increase time is to simplify. By minimizing the materialism in one’s life, a person takes back not only time but energy and economy by investing in priority-only possessions, people and protocols. Attending to one or two goals or commitments at a time allows for more full engagement and success. Focusing on positive thoughts reduces ruminating negative feedback loops. Unplugging from digital communication affords solace. Taking steps to simplify life allows for the cultivation of free time.

 

Free time: Benefits of vacation

Recently, I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait until the weekend so that I can get some work done.” Seriously! I was planning to use my weekend to catch up from the workweek.

It was at that point I realized that I needed a vacation. Vacations help to rejuvenate and rehabilitate us from overexposure to demanding schedules and work environments. Here are a few benefits to making the most of our free time.

1) Vacations reduce stress. The American Psychological Association found that vacations reduce stress by removing people from the stressors identified in the workplace. This was similarly found in a Canadian study that examined the role of vacation for 900 lawyers who reported a sense of rejuvenation from the temporary reprieve from their stressful work environments.

2) Vacations reduce heart disease. A Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease found that in 12,000 men with high risk for coronary disease, those who took regular vacations reduced their chance of a heart attack by 21 percent. Furthermore, the largest and longest running study, the Farmington Study, found that taking routine vacations significantly decreased the risks of heart disease in both men and women.

3) Vacations decrease depression. A study conducted by Marshall Clinic found that taking regular vacations appears to increase positive emotions and buffer the effects of depression. A similar finding emerged from the University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Study.

4) Vacations may make you thinner. The Mind-Body Study additionally found that taking vacations decreased blood pressure and decreased waistlines. These appear to be related to increased activity levels, a decrease in cortisol and a decrease in stress eating.

5) Vacations improve relationships and sex life. Spending time with loved ones and sharing experiences appears to have a positive effect on the bonding experienced in relationships, Furthermore, lower cortisol levels are believed to promote a positive feedback loop in the brain and increase levels of sex hormones such as testosterone, contributing to an increase of libido. Therefore, people report feeling more easily aroused and experiencing higher levels of sexual satisfaction while on vacation.

 

Conclusion

In an effort to resume balance, and with a renewed sense of conviction to self-care, I take the vacation pledge borrowed from Take Back Your Time (repeat after me):

 

I HEREBY PLEDGE:

To not add to the 429 million days of unused paid time off last year.

To promise to vacation so that I can lead a happier, healthier life.

To recharge, refuel and refresh by taking all the vacation time I have earned.

To ignore my voicemail, email and text messages for days on end.

To reduce my stress, improve my health and nurture my relationships by vacationing on a regular basis.

To return to my regularly scheduled life glowing, smiling and doing a little happy dance.

 

And so it begins … Happy summer!

 

 

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For more on the logistics and responsibilities involved in stepping away from a counseling practice for a much-needed break, see Cheryl Fisher’s archive column “Break away: Five vacation hacks for the responsible counselor

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practicesthat speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

The Counseling Connoisseur: Pet loss: Lessons in grief

By Cheryl Fisher April 11, 2017

 

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” — Anatole France

 

*****

 

On Jan. 22, following a three-week whirlwind diagnosis and decline, my husband and I said goodbye to our 6.5-year-old goldendoodle, Lily. Her disease had rendered this Frisbee-catching superstar unable to stand or walk. She needed to be carried outdoors to “get busy,” and she no longer had the stamina to stay awake for extended periods of time.

The author, Cheryl Fisher, with her dogs Max and Lily.

We spent the entire last weekend with Lily in the emergency room as she struggled against various gastrointestinal issues and, finally, internal bleeding. Her vet and neurologist felt that the disease had progressed and her prognosis was bleak. It was then that we made the most difficult decision we have ever made — to let her go. We took time lying with her, holding her, reminiscing … and stayed with her until her last heartbeat.

On the first day without our Lily, I kept tripping over my grief as I called out to see if she needed to go outside or wanted to lie by the window and watch “her birds.” Max, our 9-year-old goldendoodle, moped around the house, trying to sniff Lily out without success. He looked at me as if begging, “Bring her back, OK?” I canceled my clients for the day. I couldn’t imagine sitting with their pain as my pain continued streaming from my eyes.

I found myself returning to the little Catholic girl inside of me and lighting a candle next to a picture of our Lily that I had placed on the fireplace mantle. I wrote, announcing our loss to all 210 close friends on social media. I started a scrapbook and printed pictures long held captive in my iPhone. I cried continuously, as if the floodgates had been lifted and years and layers of grief came pouring out. All the losses in my life appeared to be resurrected with Lily’s death. My heart ached and my stomach hurt.

My attempts to prep for my classes that week proved futile. I just couldn’t concentrate. I kept reading the same sentence over and over again. Mostly I was just tired. Tired from three weeks of relentless caregiving, painstakingly attempting to keep the horrific disease at bay — the disease that stripped my beautiful bird-watching, tail-wagging, never-had-a-bad-day rescue pup of her mobility, energy and dignity. In the end those soulful eyes would beg me to end her suffering, and in keeping the promise I had made to her, I mercifully did, holding her till the end.

 

Tips for coping with the loss of a pet

Experiencing the death of a pet can be painful and devastating. Our pets are often our most vulnerable family members, relying on us completely for their care. This includes end-of-life care, which may involve making very difficult decisions about treatment and finally letting go. This adds complexity to grief because we may struggle with questions surrounding the decision to stop treatment and euthanize: Did I do enough? When is it time to let go?

1) Grief comes in waves. Initially the waves may be intense and relentless, pummeling us to the ground. We may feel that we will never breath (or stop crying) again. But with time and some work, the waves gradually recede, allowing us to stand and take tentative strides toward a “new normal.” Still, the waves will come and go, often crashing near a special day or at a moment when our dear fur-family member comes to mind.

2) Grief is brain work. Grief affects our neurology. It makes it difficult to concentrate. We forget things. We are easily irritated. We definitely are not on our A game. We may even feel like we are in a dream (or nightmare). Neurologically, we have taken a hit and require time to recover. Don’t worry. The grief fog will lift eventually. In the meantime, be gentle and kind with yourself.

3) Grief is an ever-changing chameleon. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified stages of grief related to dying that can also be applied to our experiences of grief and loss. These stages are no longer thought to happen in a linear manner. Rather, they are common experiences that can occur moment to moment as the result of grief.

Anger: Initially, I felt anger at the sudden deterioration of Lily. She had been running and playing catch just days before her back legs began to buckle under her body. Following an MRI and spinal taps, she was placed on a steroid treatment that quickly led to weight loss and gastric-intestinal discomfort. I was angry at the doctor. I was angry at the disease. I was angry at God.

Guilt: Although I knew I had responded quickly to Lily’s symptoms, I was plagued with self-doubt around the decision to use steroid treatment. Should we have gotten a second opinion? Should we have taken her to a holistic veterinarian? Ultimately, I ruminated over our decision to stop all care and put her to sleep. Was there more that we could have done? It was profoundly clear that the disease had progressed and Lily’s quality of life had suffered drastically, but I still experienced pangs of guilt.

Denial: The first few days were the most grueling. Walking in a daze, I still held some hope that this was all just a nightmare, and as I tripped over Lily’s misplaced toy, I would awaken to find both of our dogs curled at the foot of the bed.

Sadness: It is immensely sad to lose a love one — even a curly headed, wet-nosed, tail-wagging one. I am free with my tears in general, so I just let the emotions stream down my cheeks. Sadness, like grief, looks different for each individual. I am an emotional griever. I emote. My husband is an instrumental griever. He does research on the internet to seek answers. He walks our dog, schedules doggie play dates and arranges activities to help our other dog, Max, with his grief.

Acceptance: Ultimately, the hope is that there will be a sense of peace and understanding at some point and time. This may be experienced in fleeting moments rather than in an arrival at a destination, however.

4) Grief is individual. For me, Lily’s death overshadowed any other event occurring in the world. My Lily had died. Nothing else mattered to me. I crafted my coping strategy selfishly without concern for the feelings or needs of anyone else, including my husband, who had experienced the same loss.

It quickly became apparent that my grieving was more expressive and ritualistic. I made a scrapbook, displayed sympathy cards on the mantle with Lily’s urn, wrote blogs and lit candles in memory of our little rescue. My husband’s grief was more privately experienced, with an occasional shared story and shed tear. It was important not to trip over each other’s grief experience.

5) Grief grows out of a relationship. Some people (and even some therapists) may dismiss the death of a pet as a lesser loss. However, as with any relationship, it is important to understand the meaning ascribed to this relationship. Often a pet serves as a companion who provides unconditional love and affection. Many clients have told me stories of the richness and depth that surrounded their interactions with their pets. For me, Lily was the piece that completed our family puzzle.

 

Conclusion

The death of a pet can be such a huge loss. These fur-family members may serve as faithful friends and playmates, enriching our lives with their magnificent and comical personalities. It is important to honor their story as it intertwines with our own narrative.

I still tear up every time I hear Eva Cassidy’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I imagine my curly white bundle of pure love bounding across a green field to greet me … just around the Rainbow Bridge.

 

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practicesthat speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.