It’s so hard loving another being that lives for such a short time. If you’ve had a dog in your life before, you know what’s coming. The heartache that is grieving the loss of a dog is an inevitable outcome.
Grief can feel paralysing, all-consuming. It’s a process that has to be worked through, to recover and move on. Grief is different for each of us. If you are grappling over the loss of your beloved dog, there are some things you can do that may help you with your grief.
- AVOIDING GRIEF
- DO WHAT YOU KNOW TO BE RIGHT, EVEN THOUGH IT BREAKS YOUR HEART
- FORGIVE YOURSELF
- ANTICIPATORY GRIEF
- DEALING WITH GUILT
- BE KIND TO YOURSELF
- TALK TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO ‘GET IT’
- 11 TIPS TO HELP YOU GRIEVE YOUR DOG
The last time I had to say goodbye to my 4-legged loved one was 20 years ago. He was a black and tan dobermann, called Piggy. He disliked the sound of corks popping out of wine bottles, but he adored squeaky toys. He would take himself off to bed every night around 9pm. He used to pick up a stone, at the base of whatever mountain we were going to hike up on any given weekend, and he would carry that stone all the way to the top.
He was super playful with humans, but he couldn’t give a damn about other canine companionship. He was wonderfully loving and quirky, til the end. He was extraordinary. He lived for 13 glorious years.
When I lost him, every day felt unbearable: walking down the same streets, but without him by my side; crossing the park that he was no longer running around in; going to bed without hugging him.
After a few weeks I took unpaid leave from my job and I went abroad for months, hoping to avoid facing the wall of water I was constantly trying to hold back.
I went to live in a little house in the Carribean. There was no electricity, no glass in the windows. The bats and lizards and bugs shared the house with me. I painted pictures of the rainforest every day and swam in the sea. In many ways it was idyllic, and there was nothing connected to him. But in the end, I had to go back to my former life, and everything was still there waiting for me, except for him.
After Piggy died I had a nightmare. In it, I had forgotten to check his water bowl had water in it and he died of thirst. You don’t need to be Freud to see that I felt that I had let Piggy down, that in some way I felt his death was my fault, that I could have, somehow, done more. Guilt is a common feeling after losing someone you love.
Losing him was so painful that I decided I wouldn’t ever have another dog. I followed that rule for 8 years, until my boyfriend presented me with a surprise Christmas present: a chocolate coloured dobermann puppy.
Now here I am, in the same situation, facing another wall of water. I no longer have the boyfriend, but that dobermann puppy was the best gift anyone has ever given me. His name was Mino, and I loved him with all my heart.
DO WHAT YOU KNOW TO BE RIGHT, EVEN THOUGH IT BREAKS YOUR HEART
Like my first dobermann, Piggy, Mino also gave me 13 glorious years. But unlike Piggy, who finally died in his sleep, Mino needed me to make ‘THAT’ decision for him. He had suffered for the last year of his life from a neurological illness that was gradually stealing away his ability to walk.
And so, when one morning, he just couldn’t stand up, I knew the time had come. I’d been preparing for ‘THAT’ decision, knowing it was coming, looking out for the signs. Apart from those 8 dog-free years between Piggy and Mino, I’ve always had dogs in my life, but I’d never had to make ‘THAT’ decision before.
And whilst timely euthanasia is kinder than making your beloved, terminally ill dog suffer til the bitter end, it’s a bitch of a decision to make, and it may well weigh on your soul.
I do not tell you all this to put you off making the same decision for your loved one, if you’re ever faced with it. It is the price we must pay for having had the pleasure of their devoted companionship. They more than deserve serve such kindness.
I didn’t doubt, logically, that I was doing the right thing for him. I knew it was the right thing to do, and the right time. Despite that though, even though I knew it was time, and I was acting in his best interests, I still found myself agonising over my decision: Did I leave it too late? Am I doing it too soon? Am I letting him suffer? Might he get better tomorrow?
It’s a terrifying decision to make.
Caring for a terminally ill dog means that you feel like you already start the grieving process before the final moment arrives.
I had researched his illness and spoke regularly to my vet, so I knew what to expect. He might gradually worsen over time, or he might suddenly get worse, resulting in a total lack of mobility.
For months, I observed changes in him, and logged them on a chart in order to help me make ‘THAT’ decision. This gave me a sense of confidence in the decision making, and crucially, finally, helped soothe my sense of guilt at consenting to end his life.
In some ways, knowing that you are going to lose your loved one sooner, rather than later, means you feel you are constantly about to say goodbye. What’s more, looking after a terminally ill dog can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally.
DEALING WITH GUILT
The last 3 weeks of Mino’s life were not easy. We had just moved house and he didn’t seem to like the new house much. Was I unfair to make the decision to move when he was elderly? Did I worsen his illness?
I have to remind myself that whatever decisions I made, I never intended to hurt him. I didn’t act with malice. There is no way of knowing if things would have been different if I’d waited to move house.
Would he still be with me? It’s impossible to say of course, but what I can say is that the decision I made to move house was because I wanted to give all of us a better, more comfortable place to live in. It was a decision made out of love.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
I don’t have the luxury of running away to the Carribean to avoid facing my feelings this time around. This time, I have another dog too, Toxa. She has been very quiet since Mino left. She was with us at the vets, that final evening, as I held him and whispered my goodbyes.
She didn’t cry when I led her away afterwards, even though every other time I ever tried to walk her separately, she would pull to go back to him. This time she knew.
And back at home, whenever I burst out sobbing, she comes running over to me. I wonder what grief feels like to her, and how much my sadness is upsetting her. More guilt.
TALK TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO ‘GET IT’
You might find that others around you don’t really understand your sense of loss. As well as dealing with my grief at losing Mino, I have unfortunately also had to contend with thoughtless comments from people around me who clearly don’t understand how devastating it is to lose a beloved dog.
I remind myself that some people see dogs as ‘just animals’, and that I don’t have to be concerned by their ignorance and lack of sensitivity.
Instead, I speak to friends and other pet parents I know who have lost their fur babies too.
Despite these small moments of connection with others, I cannot find the words to describe how horribly lonely the loss of a loved one is.
But because I’ve been here before, I know that not dealing with my grief is not healthy. I know that instead, what I must do, is face the feelings and process them, work through them.
Mourning is not the same for everyone, and how each of us deals with it is different. Initially, I tried to avoid dealing with my feelings. Now, I am in the process of looking them squarely in the face. Hearts may stay broken, but with time we learn to manage that, and continue on.
These are some of the things I have found to be helpful:
11 TIPS TO HELP YOU GRIEVE YOUR DOG
MEDITATION / YOGA
I do yoga 2-3 times a week normally. In the weeks after Mino’s death, I didn’t touch my yoga mat. I didn’t do anything for my physical – or mental – wellbeing.
When I finally got back on the mat, it was one of the things that helped me open up to my grief. Connecting with myself again, being in the present, being at peace… I just let it go and cried through the postures.
It was a powerful experience, and whether you normally do yoga or practice meditation or not, I think it’s a valuable way to get in touch with your feelings when you’re grieving.
FOCUS ON THE PHYSICAL SENSATIONS IN YOUR BODY
What does your grief feel like, I mean, physically? Where in your body do you feel it? Name it, recognise it.
For me, it feels like a tightness in my chest, an unbearable sense of weight in my torso, a constriction at the back of my throat, a stinging sensation in my nasal passages.
I needed to allow myself to feel the physical sensations that loss felt like in my body. For you, it may feel totally different. For me, this was part of dealing with grief, rather than running away from it.
TALK TO YOUR DOG
Tell him all the things you never said when he was still alive. Tell him how you feel, especially if there are any negative aspects relating to his death. Then imagine how he would respond, if he could speak to you. He would respond to you with love of course. The unconditional love we get from a dog is one of the most incredible aspects of being a pet parent.
LISTEN TO MUSIC
Personally I find music very moving. Some tracks in particular seem to ‘speak to me’ more right now. You may have your own particular tracks that work for you. You are welcome to listen to mine (the playlist is on Spotify. If you don’t have a Spotify account, you can open one for free – you don’t need to pay anything to listen to the songs).
TREAT YOURSELF IN THE SAME WAY YOU WOULD YOUR BEST FRIEND
If your best friend had suffered the same loss, what would you say to her? You may be telling yourself things you wouldn’t dream of saying to a friend. In this difficult time, be kind to yourself.
GET OUT INTO NATURE
Nature is an incredible healer. Indeed, several studies have shown that nature helps us feel better. Perhaps you will find that visiting the same places you used to walk together is helpful.
If not, look for an alternative place to walk, or just be, in nature. A park maybe, or a drive in the countryside. Listen to birdsong outside. Focus on the smells and the sounds of nature. Be in the present.
CELEBRATE YOUR DOG’S LIFE
We all deal with our grief differently, and this step was the hardest thing for me to do.
Immediately after losing Mino, I put his things into a cupboard, out of sight. There were of course still lots of other doggy things around, things my other dog Toxa needed. But the things that were specific to Mino – his bowl, coats, harness and lead – these things I hid away.
I put away the photos of him too. I needed to remove any reminders of him. I didn’t look at any of the hundreds of videos or photos I had of him either. I couldn’t face it. Rather than remember the years of touching moments we’d shared together, I wanted to avoid thinking about them at all.
Eventually, with some coaching, I began to watch the videos, to look at the photos. I was reminded of all the wonderful times we’d shared, the funny things he used to do, the cheeky way he’d talk back to me. It was horribly sad, but incredibly sweet, all at the same time.
Some people find that writing a list of their favourite memories helps. It can be taken out and read – or put in a frame – whenever you find your dog’s absence overwhelming.
I brought out one of his photos and put it with the sympathy cards I’d received. I had had him cremated, so I sat the photo and sympathy cards next to his box of ashes, which I will soon add to the soil and roots of a beautiful tree I have ordered in his memory.
This tree will be a poignant reminder of how fantastic he was, how full of life and love he was. And every day when I look at that tree, I will remember him.
There are lots of different ways to memorialise your beloved dog and not everyone has a garden where they can have a memorial. If your dog loved a local park, for instance, maybe you could organise a memorial bench there, or have a tree planted there?
Some pet parents I know have had large portraits made of their favourite photo of their dog.
You may prefer something you can keep with you, such as an item of jewellery incorporating ashes, fur or a paw print.
HELP OTHER ANIMALS
The sense of emptiness after your dog dies is harrowing. I’ve heard many people say that doing something like assisting at a rescue centre, or volunteering for a pet-based charity, or fostering dogs, has been a comfort.
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP
Thankfully, more and more people in the health profession nowadays accept just how devastating it is to lose a beloved dog. There are now pet bereavement counsellors, specifically trained to help pet parents deal with the tragedy of losing their loved one.
Your local vet may well work with a counsellor in your area, someone they trust and recommend.
You might find this podcast episode helpful. It’s called Grief and Finding Meaning, by Brene Brown with David Kessler.
WRITE A LETTER TO YOUR BEAUTIFUL FUR BABY
Writing this article has been very cathartic and therapeutic for me. But it has been so hard to write. I have been writing it for you, dear reader, but I’ve also been writing it for Mino. Every word of it has been for his gorgeous, soft and silky ears.
It’s OK if you feel anger towards your loved one for having left you. I understand that anger. You can love someone but still be angry at them, for leaving you. In fact, it’s a natural part of the process of grief.
So if you feel that, say it. Say everything that you feel, that you think, that you remember and that you cherish. You don’t need to keep the letter. Maybe you burn it afterwards, or bury it. Getting the words out will be helpful.
And so ends this article and my letter to my darling Mino: You were so wonderfully brave, taking everything in your stride, whatever life threw at you. You lived for every moment and you brought joy to everyone around you. Your life mattered. Your death matters. My extraordinary, beautiful boy.