How can I stop traumatic flashbacks linked to my pet's death?
August 1, 2012 4:30 PM   Subscribe

My pet died suddenly. How can I stop traumatic flashbacks and focus on happy memories?

On Monday night our beloved pet died under traumatic circumstances.

I am trying really hard to focus on positive memories of her but they keep being interrupted by visual and emotional flashbacks to what happened on Monday.

Does anyone have any suggestions on specific techniques to block out these flashbacks, reduce their emotional impact or neutralise them in some way when they occur?

Any other advice on dealing with the loss of a pet will be gratefully received.

I am posting this anonymously because I know that one day I won't feel like this any more and I don't want to have this linked to my account forever.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you sort of answered your own question, "one day I won't feel like this any more...".

It really does just take time for these events to become less frequent. Perhaps others can give you some "techniques", I never found one, other than time.

I think the most significant coping tool I found in dealing with grief, especially with grief associated with a traumatic, unexpected, seemingly unfair death, was to talk to others who had experienced the same thing. It was helpful to see that people get past that stage.

So, my contribution is simply, hang in there, it WILL get better.

posted by HuronBob at 4:45 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to the flashbacks, but I'd suggest keeping busy for the short term. Immerse yourself in work, go hiking, have vigorous walks/runs, do things that keep your body and mind busy.

In the medium to longer term, consider finding a way to remember your pet. We have had portraits painted (there are a number of gifted painters that paint from photos on etsy) of our pets, other options include jewelry, large framed photographs (I have a couple of 25x14 photos of my cats that I had printed relatively inexpensively on shutterfly and framed from Target). Give yourself time.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by arnicae at 4:46 PM on August 1, 2012

I haven't lost a pet very traumatically, but I lost one kitten quite young to a virus. Luckily she was put down very peacefully. But she was so young. She didn't even meow yet, she was still toddling around squeaking before she got sick. It was terrible.

What helped me was knowing that so many animals don't get a chance at a good life at all, and I gave her a big brother cat and a happy place to live with food and water and many cuddles for six weeks.

Animals live in the moment, so think of all the happy moments you gave your pet.
posted by sweetkid at 4:49 PM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am very sorry for your loss. It is tough to lose a pet, and if it's under traumatic circumstances, it's even harder.

It might seem counterintuitive, but maybe experiencing these flashbacks is your brain's way of getting you to process the event so you can feel better. In the past when I have gone through upsetting situations (e.g. a serious car accident) I have felt a pressing need to tell and re-tell the story to anyone who would listen. I also wrote down the details over and over in e-mails to friends and family. It seemed to be my brain's way of processing what had happened, so I could move on.

Have you been able to talk to anyone about what happened? Maybe you could sit down with a sympathetic friend and tell him/her the whole story. Or if you would rather not talk to anyone in person, you could write it out like a journal entry. Once you have talked or written about it, the flashbacks may fade or become less upsetting, and then you will be more able to focus on positive memories of your pet.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:52 PM on August 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

You've just gone through the major trauma of losing a loved one unexpectedly, not even 48 hours ago. I'd be surprised if you weren't still somewhat in emotional shock right now. Please give yourself permission to grieve.

It's okay to feel terrible right now; it's okay if you can't just think of the happy times right now. It's okay to be struck with horrible emotional thoughts and images. It's okay to cry, sob, scream into a pillow, things like that. You're working through your loss.

I'm sorry you're going through this, but it sounds like you know that you WILL get through this. Give yourself time.
posted by erst at 4:54 PM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

specific techniques

My technique for this is get in my car, put on my favorite tunes, go for a drive, and imagine my dogs that have passed on riding in the car with me. I have a favorite pictures of my passed pups and I imagine them from those pictures. Inside my car it feels like this bubble of furry love. Sometimes it makes me cry and I have to pull over, but most of the time it makes me feel really good.
posted by OsoMeaty at 4:57 PM on August 1, 2012

My beloved cat died two weeks ago, and it's helped a lot to look at photos of her when she was happiest, and imagine her that way -- when my heart aches I try to envision holding her, petting her, telling her how much I love her, etc. She's gone, and it hurts, but now I feel free to remember her as she'd want to be remembered, rather than how she was when she was sick. Maybe when the flashbacks come you can try to answer them with a deliberate vision of the way she was to you?

I also second talking about it, or writing it down. My friends and family have been very understanding about the whole thing, which helps... but my remaining cat and I have also had plenty of discussions about it, and the fact that I can tell him anything without fear of judgement has been a big help, even if he can't understand the words. Tell the wall if you have to.
posted by vorfeed at 5:12 PM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry. This happened to me once. What helped the most,, both then and more recently when I lost a pet to a chronic illness ( which even then accelerated much faster than I expected) was to adopt another one as soon as i was ready--it was about two months. He is NOT a "replacement", and i will never forget the one we lost -- it was the second aniversary of his death just a few days ago, and we toasted and reminisced about him -- but having a new one to love has really helped ease the pain, so that now my great sorrow is that they never met--if they had, i know they would have been the best of friends.

Other things we did: plant a rose in his memory on the day he died (which we now refer to as "Finnegan's rose"); sit out on the town hall steps eating ice cream and remembering everything we could about him,, everything we loved; and list all our nicknames for him on Facebook for our friends (there were around forty, and i'm sure I've forgotten some.) There is a small wooden carving of a sleeping cat now perched on the edge of our china cupboard, and seeing it makes me feel as though he were somehow still with us. I never thought i could love a cat that much.

But you're going to grieve, and it's going to hurt. I'm sorry. You will remember how it happened. You may even blame yourself, as i did, but you are NOT to blame. You haven't given any details, but i'm sure you did everything you possibly could for your animal friend, and he/she died knowing you loved him/her.

I remember a midnight bus ride to Pittsburgh where my inlaws were keeping our cats because we were in job/grad school flux (way too difficult to explain here) and where my MIL had found our sweet 5-year-old tabby girl in acute kidney failure and taken her to the vet for us just before they had to go out of town. That morning I managed somehow to get to the vet without a car, hold her in my arms while they put her to sleep, and then walk the five miles back to my in-laws' empty house carrying her body in a cardboard carrier, where i buried her in the woods across the street and took a bus back to Chicago. It was so hard. I had never felt so utterly alone in my life, and at the time i felt as though i had abandoned her, even though i hadn't. I have never forgotten her, either.

I mention this to let you know that you are not alone and it WILL get better, and to tell you not to be afraid of the grief and pain, but also to find another pet to love soon--that will help you heal, and it will honor the one you've lost.
posted by tully_monster at 6:02 PM on August 1, 2012

My beloved cat passed away suddenly last October (he was only 5) and what really helped me at the time was writing down a lot of happy memories, funny moments, cute nicknames, etc. My boyfriend and I filled a small notebook with kitteh memories in the few days after he died. Not only did it help at the time, but it's comforting now to look back on and think about the good life we gave him.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 6:29 PM on August 1, 2012

I'm so sorry for your loss. It will get better. One of my cats died suddenly last November and I was the same, replaying it all in my mind, it was awful. I was somewhat better after a week, much better after a few weeks. The second week, I made a photo book of my favorite pictures of him and had it printed. I sobbed the whole time I was making it, and I had a really good cry the day it came in the mail, and I felt much much better after that.
posted by upatree at 6:40 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh, wow, yes, I had these flashbacks for the first couple weeks, then very sporadically for a month or two. Then they tapered off. It was really, really, REALLY HORRIBLE. I totally understand why you are like "how do I make this stop," because that was all I wanted, and it was awful, like, pull over to the side of the road level awful.

I do not think we can mess with the brain too much, though there may be a few tricks. It's interesting that people here recommend looking at photos and writing about it. I wrote about it once, just to get it out of my system, but I definitely COULD NOT look at photos for six months. (When my partner would be flipping through pictures on his phone I would, like, yell at him to get it away from me. Ha, poor guy.)

So.. maybe experiment with a few tricks?

* Try the photos.

* Try writing.

* Try visualizing, if that works for you. (Um, yeah, I use my dead cat as a happy smiling figurehead in meditation, go ahead, make fun of me Internet!)

* Try talking about it. (We had to do this, because we both blamed ourselves, and we were both wrong, but we were both convinced we were to blame.)

Or, maybe none of those will work for you. They were not for me, in the first few weeks. What worked for me was 1. crying, 2. being mad and yelling, 3. eating, 4. smoking, 5. time passing.

I promise you this passes--it really does. It's how we deal with trauma and grief and stuff. (I had a similar experience after a car accident--for the first couple weeks, those visuals would actually wake me up. And that passed too.) I know that's not much comfort, because THIS EXPERIENCE JUST SUCKS.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:53 PM on August 1, 2012

Like tully_monster, I had to adopt another cat after losing one of mine to a traumatic (and expensive) illness. For some of us, the void of having no pet is worse than the grief from the one you lost.

I requested my kitty's ashes and scattered them, which was therapeutic. Looking at pictures of her was tough though, as I felt (and still feel) a lot of guilt regarding her death. For about 4 years, I couldn't even entertain the thought of having another ginger cat, but I've recently rescued a marmalade boy.

For the first few weeks, I thought it was an extreme mistake adopting him, because I could only see in him the ghost of my departed Misha. Now, though, he's snuggling in my arms and all I see is my new boy, Dexter.

It will get better.

And as an alternative to the Rainbow Bridge, here is a lovely sentiment.
posted by Wossname at 6:59 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry for your loss.

This happened to me a little over two years ago when my best (dog) buddy Jake died. First of all, you are still very early into the grieving process and unfortunately there are no good shortcuts here. Let yourself go through the range of emotions and stages of grief as they come to you.

In my case, it took several months for the soul-crushing despair to fade, but even when I felt "normal" most of the time, I continued having traumatic flashbacks, every single damned day. I finally talked to a counselor about (through an Employee Assistance Program, btw, so if you have that resource available for grief counseling, please use it!). One thing he managed to get out of me was that on a daily basis I was actively avoiding passing by the location of the accident -- this was a significant effort on my part, because that route was on the most direct path from home to all the places I went to daily. The act of avoiding it every single day was causing me great stress and triggering flashbacks throughout the day. I had to bite the bullet and let myself go past it. Needless to say, it was a difficult process, but at this point I drive by it regularly and often don't even realize it. I don't have the traumatic flashbacks any more, I remember all the great things about my little buddy, and most of all, I can actually think about him without feeling like I can't go on without him in my life.

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk. AskMetafilter was there to help me figure out how to break the news to my daughter -- the tags in my profile will get you there if you're interested.
posted by ellenaim at 7:03 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. I agree with everyone above that you are most likely in emotional shock and healing will take awhile. I came in here to add my suggestion that, if you have the money, you might donate some in your pet's memory to a local animal shelter.

Again, I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope you're able to take comfort in knowing that your pet lived a good life while she was here.
posted by indognito at 7:43 PM on August 1, 2012

Free grief counseling is available through many veterinary colleges. If you google for "pet loss counseling" or "pet grief counseling", you will find them. Here are some. I really encourage you to reach out to people who are there to help you.

I am so sorry for your loss. How you are feeling is normal, you have gone through a traumatic event in addition to the loss of your pet.
posted by biscotti at 8:36 PM on August 1, 2012

It helps me to remember that that the death and the events connected to it took up a short amount of time. The rest of the animal's life was not scary or sad, but happy and funny. The good part lasted for years; the very worst for minutes, maybe. And then that pain was over.

I don't think you'll remember your pet without some sadness for a long time, but it can be the sadness of missing her rather than the sadness of what happened to her, if you know what I mean. There's always sadness with animals, it's almost unbearable, really, but they're still worth knowing because they are sweet and hilarious little individuals.
posted by Francolin at 9:00 PM on August 1, 2012

It helped me to put the word out that nobody needed to say anything in sympathy, and to please don't even try. I didn't want calls or cards or hugs or flowers. A look was all it took to crack the thin veneer of composure I tried to maintain in the days that followed. If that would help you, and you have a kind friend who can put the word out and stop the nosey questions, I'd suggest that. I also wrote out my experience, and shared that in a letter to our friends. And I spent time in places where nobody knew me as the person with that pet, and went to a few sappy movies so that I had time and space to cry in the dark without scaring my kid. I'm so sorry for your pain, I still have a remainder of mine in my heart.
posted by peagood at 9:23 PM on August 1, 2012

I'm so sorry for your loss. I just lost my dog last month. It was, and still is somedays, soul crushingly devastating and heartbreaking. What helps me through is the pictures I have and concentrating on the good times. My wife and I will sit around and talk about him, things like "remember how excited he got to be going on that hike once", usually we still end up in tears but we're laughing and loving his memory at the same time. We speculate on the fate of his brothers and sisters and whether they got to go to as good a home as he did and we remember that we loved him immensely from the day we picked him up until the day he passed and it makes us feel better to know that we gave him an incredible life.

It gets better, it takes time but it does get better
posted by Beacon Inbound at 9:44 PM on August 1, 2012

Dude, this just happened to me. I lost my dog on Friday. It sucks so much. I have nothing to say other than I know exactly how you feel.
posted by Athene at 10:13 PM on August 1, 2012

We lost one of ours last year. It was a long two weeks hoping against hope that she'd pull through, that her kidneys would restart, and it was crushing us the whole time. It takes a while.

I may have had a little easier time than my wife because I had a major project around the house I had to get done, and working on it gave me an escape from the pain. But it hurt for a long time. Recently I noticed the good memories are what dominates my thoughts of little Midge, not the pain of what happened to her. Time has been the healer. We have her ashes and will always keep them. We also suspect she's out bugging the chickens in the backyard, because we have no other explanations for their daily cluck freak out.
posted by azpenguin at 10:54 PM on August 1, 2012

This happened to me, too. Every time I closed my eyes or had a spare moment, there was that heartbreaking image. What helped me was to select an "image" to replace that visual with (in my case, my dog walking in front of me on a windy day at the park, tail straight up and nose to the wind), an image that was both very specific and that meant "dog very happy!", and whenever that other picture came, I'd literally replace it with the happy one. This made sense to me because the park mental image was a stand-in for many happy moments in his life that I facilitated and enjoyed in part through him, whereas the traumatic moment was just one moment in his life, one of the most recent, yes, but not the most important.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that I pushed away tears, sadness, or grief. All those were there for me, and that's fine. It was the traumatic image, and a feeling that I had that I somehow had to carry that traumatic image around, that I wanted to address, and for that only did I use the replacement technique. Looking back (this was 5+ years ago), I'm glad that I let that image fade. I did not need it, it was not what his life was about, and it only hurt me to think of it (at a time when he certainly was no longer in pain). You do not need to carry your image either.

Later on, I would do much of what was suggested above: write lists of nicknames and memories, make a photo book, find someone with whom I could talk about the loss, find a place to keep ashes. Those were all helpful, but not for me related to getting the traumatic piece to fade.

One other thought is that you may try other visualizations if the "photo swap" technique doesn't work, such as turning "off" sound in the visual memory when it comes, or picturing it becoming de-saturated in color and fading, taking on the look of an old photo. Maybe picture it getting smaller or farther away. I haven't tried those but I'm wondering if trying one out could take the force from the memory and reduce its vividness.

One of the best gifts our pets give us is the experience of loving unconditionally and selflessly. You get to keep that gift. They also give us many happy memories, which will, over time, be easier to recall joyfully and without the pain of loss. Another great gift.

Good luck. I'm so sorry for the loss of your beloved pet and sorry too that you are going through this.
posted by dreamphone at 5:15 AM on August 2, 2012

I am so very sorry this happened to you. My sister lost her dog in a road traffic accident and was hysterical for days and days. The things that helped her were being able to talk about it, being reassured that the suffering of the dog was over, and the distance from the accident that the passage of time offers. It was much better at two weeks than it was after even one week, and after a month things were very sad but stable. You might also find a pet forum where you can post about the loss of your dog, or a site where you can build an online memorial to your pet. One or both of those things may give you an outlet for expressing some of the flood of emotions you're reeling under right now.

Again, I am very sorry you're going through this.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:10 AM on August 2, 2012

this happened to me in october 2010. all i can say is it took a lot of time. it took a little over a year for me to be able to talk about the cat with out crying. and now i can talk about the stupid shit she did and smile about her and what not. i still get sad, but i am one of those over emotional people.

i will say that the experience left both my partner and i much more morbid about things. we worry about finding the cats dead all the time, whereas that was not something we really thought about before.

i'm sorry for your loss. it will get easier.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:14 AM on August 2, 2012

Regarding flashbacks, I haven't had your specific experience but when I wanted to lessen the vividness of memories of a car accident, I focused on making the images softer, further away, eventually black and white. It takes a little work, but I found just doing that helped to lessen the emotional punch.

I'm very, very sorry for your loss.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:42 AM on August 2, 2012

For sudden interruptive flashbacks/thought spirals, you can try the "Stop!" technique, which is what it sounds like: it starts, and you say "Stop!" (or some other word that will reroute your thoughts - I often use "monkeys", myself) and then take your thoughts purposefully down another avenue, even if you need props like a physical picture or moving to a different room.

I'm so sorry. So, so sorry. Time will ease it, but I know you need to get through the right now. A lot of good advice above. I hope you get relief. May the good memories soon overcome the hard ones.
posted by batmonkey at 10:56 AM on August 2, 2012

I am so sorry. I have been in a similar position. For us, like a few others have said, the void and silence of the house of not having our beloved dog were just too much, so we went and found a dog at a local shelter asap -- on no sleep and as complete messes, but we did it, and I don't regret it at all.

The pain will ease over time. Best wishes.
posted by freezer cake at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2012

« Older Another Change of Address Form?!   |   How do I be a great SAHM for my baby? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.