Michael Attas: Path toward healing smoother with animal companionship

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Author: MICHAEL ATTAS Guest columnist


Our memories are among the many things that define our human journey. We seem to be wired neurologically, emotionally and spiritually to remember.

We recall events, places, smells, textures, tastes, and loves lost and gained. In our religious lives, we institutionalize these memories and they become rites for our shared faiths.

They mark certain events that we believe are transformative and have the power to both honor our past and shape our future. These memories often affect us in ways that are both profound, yet often unconscious.

We know, for example, that memories that are repressed and not honestly dealt with can hinder our journey to healing and wholeness. But I see patients who use their positive memories to help them in their dealings with disease, illness, tragedy and death.

I occasionally encounter in medicine the healing power that our memories and relationships with animals have on our journeys. They seem to evoke the strong and deep memories — some surely personal and perhaps some even archetypical.

I have a friend who recently lost an elderly cat. The cat belonged to a relative who had died years before of breast cancer. The animal then came to live in the new household.

The cat was affectionately known as “psycho cat” — she could be a bit moody and aggressive from time to time. For her new family, though, she was a living bridge to the past and an ongoing reminder of their family’s storehouse of treasures.

The cat and family in time forged memories of their own. The pet became a part of the dynamic of healing for everyone — as animals seem to have the almost mystical power to do. So when she recently died, it was a loss of a part of the family and a link to the past.

From our earliest days on this earth, animals have played a role in our development.

As a clinician and observer of the human condition, I often have had elderly patients who lose a spouse, child, or dear friend tell me “I don’t know how I could have gotten through this without Rosie.”

I would mistakenly assume the name referred to a friend, counselor or pastor. But I learn later that it is almost always an animal that provides companionship.

Pets provide a living source to reconnect to our memories of our loss. They give unconditional love and support in a time when our own resources are depleted and need renewal. They divert our attention from our own needs to the needs of another.

And, perhaps most importantly, they help us continue to live “in the moment” by shaping the expectations of our own futures.

Often, when faced with a bereft family being stretched beyond their capacity, I will suggest they get a pet. Our hearts often need healing at some deep level.

When service dogs that have been trained to deal with hospitalized patients arrive on the floor, it is like witnessing a moment of concentrated love. Patients who haven’t smiled or engaged their condition for weeks are lit up from inside and often take the first steps toward a healing journey.

Michael Attas is a local doctor, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 02082011-wac-attas
(c) 2011 Robinson Media Co. LLC - Waco Tribune-Herald

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Michael Attas: Path toward healing smoother with animal companionship

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