My Thoughts About Celebrations and Transitions

ahg founder celebrations transitions Jan 08, 2024
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My Thoughts About Celebrations and Transitions

By Dr. Amir Shanan, DVM, CHPV
Animal Hospice Group Co-founder & Instructor/Lecturer
Shared in Animal Hospice Group’s December 27, 2023 Discussion Group

Definitions of “celebrate”: 
  • Show that a day or an event is important by doing something special, a social gathering or enjoyable activity [Oxford]
  • Commemorate, observe, notice, or honor a day, occasion, or deed [Merriam-Webster]
  • Do something special or enjoyable for an important event []

Realizing our Discussion Group is scheduled halfway between the Christmas Holiday and the beginning of the new year, I couldn’t escape the temptation to share my thoughts about celebrations and transitions, the role they play in our lives and their importance as concepts that can help animal caregivers frame their thoughts in a positive light as they deal with the reality of their animals' lives reaching an end.

According to Britannica, to celebrate means to do something special or enjoyable for an important event. It means to observe, notice, commemorate, or honor a day, occasion, a deed, or a person according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Regardless of the season, we are having in life - one of abundance or one of lament - celebration can be an act of connecting with and expressing one’s emotion and of considering current events in the “bigger picture” of a lifetime, cycle of life, and even historical past and future.

Celebrating is an opportunity for an activity, a conversation, laughter, and excitement.

Celebrations stimulate human brains to release oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins, natural chemicals that increase our sense of well-being.

To celebrate anything we first need awareness and recognition of the special significance of what is happening in the life of an individual, family, or community. Such recognition can be internal - experienced as a gush of emotion such as joy or excitement, but also as sadness or intense emoting that is neither positive nor negative in valence. Of course, recognition can also be external, dictated by culture, in which case it may or may not coincide with an internal sense of special significance. Externally driven celebrations can also be a source of emotional dissonance or stress, which is why so many people welcome “January 2nd” with a sense of relief.

A common cause for celebration is milestone moments and events in the life of an individual or a family: the birth or adoption of a new family member, transition from childhood to adolescence, beginning or completion of an educational program or work assignment, commitment to a long-term intimate relationship, and the death or loss of a loved person or animal.

At each of these milestone moments, an individual or family experiences a life transition.  

Life transitions are life-changing events. They involve significant changes in roles, responsibilities, and routines. They involve changes in personal identity and require coping, adaptation, and acceptance of new life circumstances. Life transitions can be perceived as either positive or negative. However, most are a mixture of both significant gains and losses. Marriage and parenthood are perfect examples of life transitions generally considered “positive,” that in reality involve significant challenges and sacrifice. Death of a loved one is perceived in our society and experienced primarily as a loss; but can bring with it significant gains, as we’ll see in just a little bit. Another good example is birthday celebrations. Children experience birthdays as markers of growth and development. Adults often think of their birthdays as a reminder they’re getting older - markers of the incremental loss of our youth. Personally, I celebrate my birthday every year as a marker of the accomplishment of having survived another complete spin around the sun! I celebrate the experience and wisdom gained. I acknowledge pain, mistakes, and losses, and acknowledge the reality of new challenges I’ll need to cope with, adapt to, and ultimately accept in the future. 

When going through life transitions, especially the ones associated with a strong sense of loss, the goal is acceptance and finding new meanings. That often feels like an overwhelming challenge, so it can be very helpful to know where to start. I’m going to suggest a few tools that can help to make progress as one goes through a life transition. [More info at:]

Animal Hospice Group - Transitions

I suggest starting with
 establishing a support network, maintaining self-care,
and going from there:

  1. Seek Support
    • An effective support person is one who actively listens without trying to solve your problems for you. Support means normalizing feelings and giving permission to freely express thoughts and emotions. Much of it is nonverbal.
    • When you find effective support, you aren’t alone anymore in your struggle. It’s a game-changer.
  2. Engage in Self-Care
    • Focus initially on avoiding new [or old] self-defeating habits.
    • Examples: Self-pity, procrastination, substance abuse, and other addictions.
  3. Allow Yourself to Feel
    • Change is often scary and painful. Feeling fear and pain is not pleasant, and easy to avoid.
    • Avoidance doesn’t make these negative feelings go away, it drives them deeper and makes acceptance of new realities more difficult to accept.
  4. Focus on accepting things exactly as they are.
    • Acceptance is primarily driven by adaptation - a psychological process that is not under conscious control.
    • What is under conscious control to some degree is awareness of emotions and habits that actively delay acceptance such as denial and escape from reality, ruminating negative thoughts, and staying attached to feeling anger and despair.
  5. Set Realistic Expectations
    • Anticipate and accept that the journey will be harder, and may last longer, than you imagine.
    • Unforeseen challenges will arise and require MORE coping and adaptation.
  6. Be Patient and Forgiving with Yourself
    • Remember - acceptance and adaptation are not under conscious control.
    • You can only do YOUR best. And that’s good enough!!!
  7. Stay open to exploring opportunities!
    • Discover parts of yourself you didn’t even know existed - new interests, new sources of meaning, self-knowledge, relationships, new strengths.
  8. Create Routines
    • Routines are the foundation that your new, changed life will be built upon.
    • New habits may take work to establish - don’t get discouraged and give up!!!
  9. And now...start over:
    Be patient with yourself get comfortable with those new opportunities and routines, seek more support, engage in more positive [health and pleasure oriented] Self-Care, allow yourself to discover new feelings, continue to accept things as they are, and adjust expectations based on what you’ve already learned. You’re well on your way to significant personal growth and renewal!!!

These ideas are extremely applicable to supporting pet parents anticipating and experiencing the loss of a beloved animal companion. Most of them intuitively recognize that they are facing a life transition; some may also recognize that they will benefit from additional support as they face the transition. Most likely, however, they don’t have the words to articulate what they’re going through. Not having the information and tools they will need results in uncertainty, anxiety, distress, and even panic; in turn, potentially leading to poor judgment and decision-making. We can provide information and coach them in using tools like the ones I just listed plus understanding what life transitions are, understanding that they are an integral and unavoidable part of all life. Offering helpful tips are available can reduce some uncertainty and angst, and boost the courage and self-confidence that pet parents need to find acceptance and new meanings after their loss.

As we wish each other a “Happy New Year,” we express hope that the near future - the next spin around the sun - will bring us more joy, success, and happiness than what we experienced during the year that has just ended. Many of us are aware, however, that “Hope is NOT a Plan!” So, we make plans to help us realize our hopes - plans called “New Year Resolutions.” As we know, these plans don’t always become reality. The tools listed above can help us not only cope and adapt to life transitions but can also help us make our “New Year resolutions” become a reality.

To everyone in our growing AHG community - I wish you a year of personal growth, inner peace, and realizing whatever your goals are!!!