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A friend of mine recently said, “Ash, I love your blogs, but you’re so heavy on the death thing! I mean, come on, you’ve done Explaining Your Dog’s Death to Your Child, Is It Time to Let Go Of Your Dog?, Do Dogs Go to Heaven, and even one on helping dogs get over the grief of losing other dogs [My Dog’s Dog Just Died] – I mean really, could you just lighten up a bit?”
I was a bit put out, I suppose, since I frequently DO lighten up – see 9 Commandments for Dogs and Funny Dog Stuff, and A Dog’s Christmas, just to use a couple of examples. But yes, I suppose I do tend to go on a bit about the pain of losing a beloved dog. The reason I do that is because it happens so often, and in so many different ways, and if you’re a confirmed dog lover like I am, it’s probably going to happen many, many times over the course of your life. My first loss was Jake, the dog I had as a child. My most recent was my Boxer, Gloria. And between Jake and Gloria, I have loved and lost Coco, Ada, Duke, TyBoy, Sally, Ellis, Dee, Lola and Spartacus. Yes, you counted that right: 11 dogs. Unless I add to my menagerie in the next little while, I’d imagine that Janice and Leroy will be the next two up. It’s what happens when your household never contains fewer than two dogs, and often has four or more.
The thing is it hurts every single time. And yet, we dog lovers keep on setting ourselves up for heartbreak because we know on some level that the old saying really is true: “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
I’ve talked before about dealing with the grief of losing a dog, but I don’t think I’ve really talked about what to actually expect when the grief hits. I think a lot of the time people are totally at sea because they think on some level that it’s wrong to grieve so hard for a dog. Or maybe the loss of a dog is the first grief that a person has experienced. Some of this may be a bit of repetition from other posts, but I think there’s value in a “refresher course” if you’re a regular reader, and besides, you’ll also find some new thoughts and suggestions here. New readers can consider this Dog Loss 101, and can go back to some of the earlier posts I mentioned above. So, if you’ve had a loss, or are anticipating one, keep reading. I hope this helps.
No, you’re not, although some people will probably tell you that you are. Grieving over a companion that you loved is perfectly natural and normal, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You might have had many years with your dog, or just a few, but regardless of the time you had with him, he was a very important source of love and unconditional acceptance. Why wouldn’t you grieve?
There are people who will tell you that the bond you had with your dog is not the same as the one you had with a parent, spouse, or even a close human friend, and, on some level, they’re right: it wasn’t the same. It might have been close to the same, or it might even have been better. Either way, no one else has the right to tell you how to feel, or that the pain you are feeling over the loss of your dog is somehow less valid than it would be with the loss of a human. You are hurting, and you’re not alone – so many, many dog owners have ached over the loss of a canine companion and I’m pretty sure that none of them would tell you that your grief is somehow less important.
You’re no more nuts than anyone else who needs time to get over any other type of loss, so don’t think that you are, and don’t let anyone tell you that you are.
Expect to feel the unexpected. Everyone grieves in a different way. Of course you will feel sorrow, but you might also feel guilt, particularly if you feel that you did something that hastened your dog’s demise. Maybe you didn’t notice certain symptoms. Maybe you should have gone to the vet sooner. Or maybe you just feel that if you had loved him even more than you already did, he’d still be with you. Those feelings are normal. Most of the time, though, they’re not based in any kind of reality. You’re not a vet, for one thing, and I’m pretty sure that if love could save our dogs, none of them would ever die.
You might also experience denial; he can’t be gone because he’s always been there. Again, that’s a normal feeling. It will pass eventually.
Anger is another common feeling – you’re mad as hell at the vet that didn’t identify the cancer early enough, or at the speeding driver who ran over your dog. Or at yourself for whatever reason. Sometimes, you have a right to be angry – like at the speeding driver. But the vet? No, if your vet is anything like my Stephen, he would have done everything possible to help your dog live a long life. And anger at yourself? Come on. If you’re reading this, then I have to think that you loved your dog, and did what you felt was best for him, so stop beating yourself up. You’re just preventing yourself from grieving properly. Please don’t do that to yourself; your dog wouldn’t want that.
The one thing that you can almost always expect to feel is overwhelming sadness. It’s because you feel powerless, and robbed. All you can think about is your sorrow over losing your dog, and that’s perfectly normal. I think all I can tell you about this is that it will pass. You’ll find that, in the beginning, all you feel is overwhelming grief, and you’ll be feeling it every minute of the day. But trite as this sounds, you’ll get to the point where you’re only thinking about it every 5 minutes, and then every 10, and finally every hour or so, and then you’ll get to where you’re remembering the good times with your dog. It sounds impossible in the early days, but the pain will ease. I know this from experience.
First of all, be honest about them and don’t try to suppress them. You have a right to grieve. You lost someone that you loved very much, and you are entitled to those feelings. But if part of your grief is guilt, ask yourself if it’s really justified. If it’s not, let it go.
Feel free to express your grief. Cry if you want to. Scream if you like. Throw things and yell at God (He’s heard it before from other dog owners, and He will forgive you). Don’t suppress the grief, because if you do, you won’t be able to move onto the next stage, which is remembering the happy times.
In short, do what helps you. You can also try writing poems about your dog, posting on grief support sites, or making a memory collage. Talk to others who have been through the same thing. Avoid people who don’t understand what the loss of your dog actually means to you; they’re not going to be any help.
Talk to anyone who loves dogs. Again, don’t bother with family or friends who won’t “get it.” If you can’t find anyone up close and personal to talk with, Google “pet loss,” and you’ll find tons of sites and chat rooms where you can get help. If you need face-to-face contact, and you can’t get it from family or friends, there’s no shame in consulting a grief counselor. I’ve done it myself, and believe me, it helps. Basically, you want to find someone whom you’re comfortable with, who is okay with your sorrow, your anger, or whatever else you’re feeling.
Sometimes, oddly enough, the advice columnists are right – you know how they suggest talking with a clergyman? When I lost Jake, back when I was just a kid, I had him cremated. A few months later, the local Catholic Church was having a “blessing of the animals” down at a local park. I’m not Catholic, but I went to the park with Jake’s ashes. I mean, I was just a kid, right? Didn’t know from denominational religions.
Anyway, the priest walked up to me, looked at the urn, and said, “How can I help you?” I said “This is Jake. He died. And he’s been cremated. So I don’t know if you can bless him, or—“
The priest interrupted me and said “Of course, I can bless Jake.” Then he said some stuff in Latin, and finished with “You were a good boy, Jake.” Then he said to me, “Come and see me after the blessing.”
I spent about half an hour talking with that wonderful priest about Jake – what a wonderful dog he was, and how much I missed him. I can’t really remember much of what the priest said, but I do remember that when I went home with Jake’s urn cradled in my arms, I felt so much better! It worked for me, and it might work for you, too.
You’re asking about euthanasia, right? No one can tell you for sure that you got the timing exactly right. But if you talked with your vet, and both of you were in agreement that your dog was not going to get any better, not enjoy his food, not wanting to play, and not even all that interested in the usual gestures of affection that you always gave, chances are that you did get the timing right. And I’m firmly of the belief that it’s better to let a dog go a bit too soon than it is to keep him around too long.
Technically, I suppose, you did kill your dog. But that’s just terminology. If you did it to end suffering or prevent suffering down the road, then you indisputably did the right thing.
I’ve always stayed while my dogs were euthanized, and it’s ripped my heart out every time. But that’s my choice, and I’m not imposing it on anyone else. If you can be with your dog when he makes his journey to the Rainbow Bridge, then that is a good and wonderful thing. But if you’re going to be in hysterics, unable to control your emotions, then I have to say that maybe it’s better if you just hand over your dog to the vet and technicians. If you’ve looked after your dog’s health over the course of his life, then he knows them, and feels safe with them; they’re friends and they’ll take him out gently. It’s better not to upset him.
Well, first you bury your dog or have him cremated. Then you move on. That might mean getting a new dog right away, if that’s what helps you get over the grief. Or it might mean waiting a while. Most people find that they need a bit of time to get through the grief, but speaking for myself, I’ve had times when I’ve gone out and gotten another dog the day after the death of the previous one. If that’s what you want to do, then don’t think that you’re somehow being “disloyal.” You’re not. It’s proof that you had such a wonderful relationship with your last dog that you want to experience that kind of love again right away. One thing I’ve never done, though, is tack an “old” name on a “new” dog. There was never a “Gloria II.” I never expected a new dog to be like an old one, and I never took a new dog as a way of “looking back” on a lost one. I always looked toward the new relationship.
So, adopt right away, or don’t. But if you do, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Remember that the new dog is not going to be a replacement for the one you lost.
This has been kind of a mash-up of ideas and thoughts. I do tend to ramble sometimes. I hope, though, that if you’ve had a loss or are expecting one, it’s helped you to understand that what you feel is normal. And that no matter how many times you love and lose dogs, having them and then losing them is so very much better than not having them in the first place.