*CSA – child sexual assault. There are references to CSA throughout this article and helpful links at the end.
I’ll be brightening up this post with many many images of owners and their dogs. I put a call out for photos of dogs and their family. So many came through. Many more than I could publish but every one moved me. I am talking about grief but one thing that can be seen in most of the images, is how happy or content people look. Why? Because they are with their best friend, their comforter, their listener. Our dogs don’t talk and yet they do. They listen and they respond with their love and loyalty towards us. THey communicate in their own special way. Every person has a story and all of us have experienced grief at some point. If we are lucky enough to have a dog, they can change the outcome for us.
Some of you have heard my story, and I am determined to keep sharing it for two reasons. Firstly, because I hope to reach out to others who may then be able to get help, and secondly, because it needs to be talked about. It is not something to be ashamed of and we need to feel comfortable discussing it. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). I have survived, I am surviving and I will survive. Part of the package for me has been learning to live with it, because it doesn’t go away. It has only been recently, that I have been able to feel and acknowledge the grief that I am experiencing as a result of my experiences. Grief isn’t just for someone who has died but also through the experience of trauma. CSA grief is a different kind of grief from the grief of losing someone you love though many of the stages are similar. This grief is from the loss of yourself, your childhood, your growth, so much is lost through CSA. Grief from CSA is rarely discussed or even recognised as part of the journey of recovery. The Gatehouse.org shares, ‘Such losses are often not acknowledged or mourned openly and publicly due to the stigma that is connected to childhood sexual abuse; this, in turn, may negatively impact survivors’ ability to process their grief. As such, many survivors may attempt to process and cope with their grief in private – and while there is no one way to grieve, there can unhealthy ways of attempting to cope with that grief. ‘
As a child, animals were my safe place and my life. They provided the happiness that I required to get me through the hard times and they often provided me with an “out”. I spent many hours in the safety of the outdoors, with my animals. I am always thankful that I grew up surrounded by pets. They taught me love and understanding. My soft place to fall. Often children do connect well to animals, especially when they are sad or upset.
Through a program I have been involved in called Stepping Out Program, I have started to process my grief and loss and decided that I was ready to apply to Victims Services first for counselling (approved) and then for some kind of restitution payment. Not because of money, but because it is an acknowledgement of what I have been through. Recently, a fellow survivor stated that they didn’t need ‘validation’ for what they went through. My reaction to this comment was one of devastation at the time. Momentarily I felt ashamed again, like I should hide away. Then I thought about the reality. Even if I wanted validation, so what? My life – my choice. However the reason I am speaking out is because I am ready, and ‘no more secrets’. I realise some people have probably read a few of my posts now on different sites and are sick of hearing about it. I can tell you that I am sick that it happened to me, I am sick that it happens to other people and will continue to happen to people. If you are sick of hearing about it, just think on that for a moment.
I honestly don’t know how well I would be managing without my dogs. Dogs can benefit people in so many situations and it is now recognised that dogs can also assist survivors of CSA. Emmott Snell Solicitors wrote a beautiful article of how dogs help CSA survivors and I personally can confirm that Lucy has helped me in all the areas listed, in particular the quote, ‘Many victims of abuse are panicked/anxious in public and/busy places and therefore feel isolated, scared to leave their own home. A dog can help with this by standing behind their owner to act as a buffer against a crowd.’ A quote from The Atlantic shared in DogTime.com reports, “Experts say that service dogs could be beneficial for sexual-assault victims as well, and may even be uniquely suited to help them overcome their issues with trust and relationships.”
I have had some amazing people in my life recently but no one beats the love and comfort that my dogs give me. Of course, dogs don’t just help with grief but many emotions including loneliness. They help us calm down when anxious, slow us down when we are exhausted or mentally drained, there are many ways dogs help us with our emotions but today, it is about grief. I have bad days. The Gatehouse lists the different types of grief that CSA survivors may feel. For me, Fear, panic, shame are the most relevant and this can hit at any moment. It is where fear, panic, or shame take over due to no longer feeling emotionally numb. Some times thoughts and feelings are more anxiety provoking than others, perhaps something caused that on the day or perhaps it didn’t. For whatever reason, I feel anxious. It is worth reading the story found on Positivity, told by a survivor about his dog called “Edison”. Like any good dog, he does not judge me on bad days when the triggers come fast and panic takes over with very little warning. I have three beautiful dogs who all love and adore me but Lucy is my special girl. She is a therapy dog through Paws Pet Therapy and her therapy is ongoing, for me and for people she meets. Lucy will listen and she does not judge. When I was having my bad day yesterday, Lucy did not leave my side for the entire day and even when I went to sleep, she wrapped her paws around me and fell asleep with her nose touching my face. I find myself thinking, all the time at the moment, what would I do without my girls. They are so healing for me. When I have to manage phone calls or zooms that I find difficult through the process, she is there. Quietly sitting watching me or laying near my feet. Last week during a zoom she actually stood up and put her front paws on my knee and looked straight into the zoom. She knew I was sad.
How can dogs make such an impact on our lives when we are going through grief? Pets help to comfort us- Grief can leave us feeling empty and lost, and pets provide a sense of reassurance and comfort to ease us through that void. More specifically, dogs are known to be extremely intuitive and are able to sense when their owners are feeling down.‘ – Newcomer Dayton
Some of the specific ways a dog can help during grief.
-We have to walk them and this exercise produces Serotonin, lifting our mood.
-There are no expectations of how we feel or behave around our dogs (though I would hope everyone is always kind to their dogs). We can be sad, quiet, happy, excited, tired. When I can’t sleep (most nights) Lucy will get up with me and follow me till I settle. I sleep a lot during the day at the moment, and whenever I lie down, Lucy will lie with me or near me. She keeps me safe.
-Dogs make us happier. No matter how sad we feel, who doesn’t laugh at a mischievous dog, or their funny little behaviours. If Lucy decides it is time for me to get up and do something, she starts shouting in my face. We call it shouting because it is actually shouting. It is like, ‘come on, get up’. And no matter how frustrating it is, she always makes me laugh.
-There is a non judgemental loving creature by our side when we feel most alone in our grief.
-Touch, dogs are soft to touch and running your hands over or through their fur is often an automatic response that you can do without even thinking about it. This helps you to be more present during the grieving process. A Dog’s Life, The Power of Touch states, ‘For some of us just to be close to our dogs and hold them and share that bond between us can have the potential to turn a life around at both ends of the lead.‘ Put your hand on your sleeping dog, just for a moment and see how much better you feel.
-Dogs can help with the difficult ‘stuff’ by being present (ie counselling/court process/meetings/phone calls). Even if it is not your dog, often therapy dogs can be arranged. Bridges To Recovery states, “Your dog can provide comfort as you confront your emotional distress and the oxytocin that is released when you look into your dog’s eyes or pet them can increase your responsiveness to psychotherapy. When used as part of a comprehensive treatment program, your dog can not only help you with day-to-day living, but can play a crucial role in you healing from the pain of PTSD and reclaiming your life.” I have personally taken Lucy to counselling before – and she made such a difference to me. The counsellor was also amazing at how calm she was throughout the duration, just lying quietly at my feet. Additionally, if you have no access to your own dog or a therapy dog, go for a walk in a popular dog place ie a dog beach. Many dog owners are happy to share their dogs love with you. Even an hour of patting random dogs can lift spirits and heal hearts considerably.
I have a long way forward to move through this process of grief that I am feeling and the various steps in the Victims Services process but with Lucy by my side, I know I will make it.
DogTime.com shared another meaningful quote from The Atlantic, which I am sure we can all relate to. A young survivor shares, “Anyone who has ever had a dog and had a rough week knows that having to walk your dog and get your shoes on and go outside makes a huge difference.”
If you are struggling with grief, remember to allow your dog to share your journey.
Stepping Out Program (Female CSA Survivors)
Happiness Habits (Mental Health/DV/CSA – women)
Samsn – Support for Male Survivors
Beyond Blue (Anxiety/depression/suicide)