“But she was just a dog! I shouldn’t be feeling this way and for so long!” Sixty-three-year-old Joseph sat in the chair across from me, tears streaming down his face. Joseph’s wife of 40 years, Emily, sat next to him, her hand resting lovingly on his arm.
“And it’s all my fault,” said Joseph. “I should have let the vet do more chemotherapy. I should have noticed the lump earlier. And I got mad at her last month for getting into the garbage again!”
“You see,” said Emily, “we had Maggie-dog for 14 years and we had to euthanize her about 2 weeks ago. We miss her terribly. Our kids are all grown and I guess Maggie-dog became like our child. I’m not having as much trouble readjusting as Joseph is, so we thought we’d better talk to someone. None of our friends seem to understand. You can’t really talk about this with them anyway.”
Joseph was grieving deeply for the loss of his dog and he was confused about the unexpected depth of his feelings. He felt ashamed because Maggie was “only a dog”, and he felt guilty because of the decision to euthanize her.
I explained to Joseph and Emily that feelings of intense grief over the loss of a pet are normal and natural. It is not silly, crazy, or overly sentimental to grieve when your pet dies.
People who don’t understand the bond between a pet and its owner may not understand your pain. All that matters, however, is how you feel. Don’t let others dictate your feelings. They are valid and may be extremely painful, but remember, you are not alone. Thousands of pet owners have gone through the same feelings.
What are some of the emotional responses you might expect? They include all the same feelings we have when we lose a human loved one. You might experience feelings of denial and an inability to accept the loss. You may be tearful and disoriented. You may have trouble sleeping or eating. You may feel anger, isolation or depression. It is not uncommon for people to think over and over about their pet’s final days or hours. Some folks feel they will never be the same again.
Guilt is among the most common initial feelings, following the loss of an animal companion. It is a big responsibility we have as dog owners. They are dependent on us in so many ways. When something happens to them, we feel guilty that we didn’t protect them.
“What have you done to cope with your feelings?” I asked Joseph.
“Well…he said, “for one thing I don’t walk the same route Maggie and I used to walk. I don’t want to run into any of her friends and I don’t want people asking me where Maggie-dog is!”
“And, have you experienced any other losses that you have pushed aside?”
“He sure has,” said Emily. “Joe’s mother died two years ago and he never said one word about her after that. He made me put away all the photos we had out that she was in, and after the funeral, he hardly ever mentioned her again!”
By trying to deny his feelings, and forget about Maggie, Joseph was actually doing all the wrong things. When a human friend or family member dies, we memorialize and mourn them. The same need is there when a pet dies. Yet so many people just try to put it all aside.
My advice to Joseph and Emily was to have a memorial “party” for Maggie. I suggested they invite all the dogs that Maggie played with (and their owners!) over for a get together to share stories of Maggie. I encouraged them to put pictures of Maggie back in their home and to talk together of their fond memories. Because Joseph was most hard hit with grief, I encouraged him to have walks in honor of Maggie: go on the old route, give treats “from Maggie” to her friends, and to think of Maggie as walking beside him. Rather than denying the feelings, the prescription for healing grief is just the opposite – feel it and honor it. The depth of your grief is an indication of the depth of your love.
- You may wish to hold a funeral or memorial service to formally and publicly acknowledge your loss.
- You may send out a death announcement with a picture.
- Create holiday cards, video or photo albums, clothing or pieces of jewelry that bear your pet’s image.
These are all available options that can comfort you in the early stages of intense grief. You will know and feel what is right for you.
Joseph’s loss of Maggie also brought up his unresolved feelings of grief for past losses. This is a not uncommon and sometimes talking with a friend or counsellor will help.
There are many resources available online and in libraries. One of my favorite books is: Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack.
On Vancouver Island, the Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS) offers support for pet loss and there are hotline resources offered through many veterinary colleges, such as the Ontario Veterinary College (519-824-4120 x53694 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Pet Loss Canada is an online resource (http://petlosscanada.com).
When I saw Joseph and Emily for a follow-up appointment two weeks later, there was a noticeable difference in both of them. Joseph especially had regained vitality and enthusiasm. By acknowledging his grief at the loss of Maggie-dog, he was also able to come to terms with the loss of his mother.
Remember, you do not have to grieve alone. Ask for help, remember your lost companion and keep a place in your heart forever for the love you felt