You know how much love and joy that your dog brings to your life. Even so, many people are surprised to find that losing a pet can be as hard, or even harder, than losing a human friend. Our relationships with our pets are so close and constant – moreover, we feel responsible for safeguarding our dogs’ health and comfort in a way that we don’t for our human friends. And since pets can’t tell us what they want – we have to make all of their medical decisions, including euthanasia, for them. For these reasons, having to part with a beloved companion can be the hardest time in a dog owner’s life. If you or someone you know has lost a pet, understanding pet bereavement can be a great comfort.
For many people, all the emotions of grieving start when we realize that the dog’s health is failing. The dog is still very much alive, but we start grieving when we anticipate the end. It’s so hard to make important decisions about medical care when one’s heart is in anguish. Many people become acutely focused on every aspect of their dog’s last days, particularly which treatments to give, what plans to make, and when to say goodbye. Enjoying what time remains can be clouded by knowing what lies ahead.
The emotions of grieving are profound; they include shock, anger, guilt, and painful memories of other losses. Shock is the mind’s way of temporarily protecting itself from terrible news; people describe feeling numb, or may say, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Although shock helps soften the blow from learning bad news about a pet’s health, it can make rational decision making almost impossible. Fortunately, most diseases allow owners to take the time to let the shock pass and to come to a rational decision about whether to go forward with tests and treatment.
Guilt is always part of grieving: it is impossible to experience loss without regret for things we could have done better, or for things we wish we hadn’t done. Modern medicine, and all the options it makes available, leaves so much room for people to second guess their decisions. Euthanasia is often fraught with guilt – many owners feel regret, wondering if they made the decision too soon or too late. Expect to feel guilt and try to give yourself understanding. In most cases, different decisions would not have affected the long term outcome for your dog. Coping with guilt involves realizing that every decision was made in love, and that many aspects of illness and death are truly beyond our control.
When you lose your dog, make sure that you give yourself time to reflect and recover. Try to remember your pet’s entire life, not just those last weeks and days. Find comfort in knowing that you gave your pet a loving home, and forgive yourself for anything that could have been better – your dog would surely forgive you. Expect to have good days and bad days as you miss your friend. It is very common for strong emotions to catch you by surprise, especially because so many places, objects, and anniversaries can trigger powerful memories. Healing happens at its own pace; give yourself time and don’t try to make yourself “get over it” by any deadline or according to anyone else’s expectations. Grief can resurface days, months, and even years later – this is natural when remembering those we have lost. If feelings of grief seem overwhelming, seek support from people who understand. This may be a friend, a support group (in person or online), or a counselor. You’ll know that your heart is healing when you can remember beautiful times with smiles, even if there are still tears.
If you are comforting a friend who has lost their dog, the most important thing is to show that you understand and care. Many friends feel awkward and search in vain for some magic words that will heal the hurt, or they avoid the situation altogether. But simply expressing concern can work wonders for aching hearts. Reach out with calls or visits rather than expecting your grieving friend to contact you. Listen, hug, and be there for them, but don’t expect to take away their pain – only time can do this. Realize that everyone has their own way of grieving, some people want to take a break from daily life, while others try to stay busy. Some like to talk, while others keep strong emotions to themselves.
Suggestions for memorializing a pet include making a photo album or video montage, or writing a poem, story or eulogy. These can be shared with friends, online or in person. Keepsakes such as a paw print, lock of hair, tags, or a memorial stone can make a pet’s memory more tangible. Consider making a donation to charity in your dog’s name or lighting a candle each day and remembering the love you shared.
The biggest part of healing is seeing your dog’s life in its entirety, including his or her amazing abilities to live in the present, to find happiness in the simplest things, and to share unbounded love. We owe our dogs the honor of remembering the best parts of their lives, and our joy in sharing our lives with them.
Dr. Ivey founded Peace for Pets to provide compassionate euthanasia services in the comfort of pets’ homes. She is a pet bereavement counselor certified by the Association for Pet Loss & Bereavement. For more information about pet loss and Peace for Pets, visit www.PeaceForPets.net.