As I deal with the loss of my own two, beautiful furballs, I’ve received a lot of support from the dog community and it only seems right I give some of it back. It’s been 3 days since Hannah was sent over the rainbow bridge and the sense of loss is huge in this house. Everything from empty dog bowls to not having the normal 2 hours of walking everyday can cause some really big feelings of loss and disruption.
How long with the grief last?
You may be surprised to have so much grief from the loss of your dog, or to be experiencing grief before your dog is even gone. This grief is completely normal, and may be misunderstood by the people around you. They may accuse you of overreacting. It is, after all, ‘just a dog.’ You may even tell yourself that and try to avoid working through your grief by keeping busy or attempt to ‘get rid of it’ as soon as possible.
Your grief will probably not be gone in a few weeks or even months. Because of the special relationship we have with our dogs, grief of a beloved dog can often be more intense than the death of a family member, and coming to terms with the change will take as long as it takes.
The good news is that you do not have to ever ‘get over’ the loss of your dog; you do not have to forget your dog. Mourning and processing your grief will allow you to change the relationship with the tangible dog of fur and drool to a relationship with a dog within your own heart and mind. Your dog will always be there, as will your love. The sharp and painful edges, however, will dull with a deliberate, mindful practice of mourning, and the joy in the connection will return.
Seven Principles of Grief
From the book: “Seven Principles of Grief” by J. Shep Jeffries (2007)
- Principle One: You cannot fix or cure grief.
- Principle Two: There is no one right way to grieve.
- Principle Three: There is no universal timetable for the grief journey.
- Principle Four: Every loss is a multiple loss.
- Principle Five: Change=Loss=Grief.
- Principle Six: We grieve old loss while grieving new loss.
- Principle Seven: We grieve when a loss has occurred or is threatened.
What to expect with a great loss
Many people (especially ones without dogs) don’t understand that dog lovers experience real, strong grief when they lose their dogs. They may give their condolences upon first hearing of your loss, but may not realize that you continue to be in pain as time goes on, and wonder why you are still crying, irritable, or otherwise ‘not yourself’ as time passes.
Grief and loss is real, here are some symptoms you may experience when it happens.
- Responding sluggishly to questions.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Loss of interest in usual activities—work, sports, games, collecting, social clubs.
- Loss of pleasure—avoids sex, entertainment, food, and social events.
- General numbness—shutdown of reactions to social stimuli, no pain, and no joy.
- Intrusive thoughts about the loss—constant barrage of thoughts.
- Confusion and disorientation—difficulty with time sequences, location.
- A sense of futility about life—”What’s the use?” and “Why bother?”
- A sense of helplessness—”Can’t do anything to help myself.”
- Uncertainty about identity—”Who am I now?” and “How do I present myself to others now?”
- So-called “crazy” thoughts—hearing or seeing the lost loved one; feeling like they can communicate with them. Depending on one’s spiritual beliefs, this can be quite healthy, like your own personal dog angel or a way to tap into your own wisdom.
- Mental fatigue—too tired to figure things out, mind just won’t work.
These are things you can do to help even if your loss was a long time ago. You will always love your dog. But if the loss was recent or tears still overcome you whenever you think of your dog, the grief may not be fully processed, and your health and relationships can suffer because of it. There are many other things to do, but here are five important ways you can take care of yourself.
- Feel your feelings without shame. You grieve the loss of your dog because you are human and you truly love your dog. Your feelings are real and need to be honored.
- Express your feelings and talk about the experience of your dog’s life and death or loss. Talk to friends, post online, or take a look at the chat rooms in the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement website. It is normal (but incorrect) for other people to assume you can move on quickly, because it wasn’t their loss. Don’t count on people to bring up your loss. They may think that avoiding it will make you feel better. Denial may help, in the short term, but it will come back to haunt you. If your own personal network is tired of hearing about your loss, then go to a support group and/or connect with people online. You don’t have to spend any time with friends who belittle your loss, compare your loss to theirs, or change the conversation to be about them instead of you and your dog.A lot of us try to be stoic, but we’re not doing anyone any favors if we don’t process our grief, because it can come out in other unpleasant ways (back pain, crankiness, overemotionality, underemotionality, lack of ability to form good relationships, you name it).
- Honor your dog’s life with some sort of ‘shrine.’ Put together a slideshow or video of your dog’s life, like the ones I made for Spoon and Peanut (below). Write a song. Make a collage for your wall with photos and/or your dog’s collar. Do a memorial ceremony where friends and family who knew your dog talk about his life and how it affected them. Create a web site in honor of your dog.
- Give yourself permission to not grieve all the time. It’s okay to be happy even after the loss of your dog. It’s okay to enjoy the pets that you still have with you, too. You can set time aside to not grieve, or set time aside to grieve, whatever works for you.
- Take care of your physical body. Hydrate, exercise, eat, sleep, and get out of bed. Dogs can provide companionship, exercise, and even give us a reason to get up in the morning. Without your dog, you may have to push yourself to do these things, but it will become easier over time. Without water or sleep, it’s easy to fall into a downward spiral. Melatonin and meditation can be very helpful for getting to sleep. Light exercise, like walking around the block, can have a great effect on your mood. Walking where you normally went with your dog may bring up a lot of memories with your dog. Allow yourself to feel the grief of that loss but whenever it comes to you, allow yourself to remember the joy you shared with your dog, too.
4 Healing Tasks for the Grieving Person or Family
Everyone’s grief is different, but here five things that you might do as you mourn your dog’s death or loss. We encounter grief in waves and eventually (if we’re persistent) work our way through these five tasks in our own personal order.
- Sharing Acknowledgment of Death or Loss. Really, truly understand the finality of the loss. This is where having a shrine and memorial ceremony come in. Work on open communication about the death in your family, including children, in an age-appropriate way. Doing something together as a family to celebrate the life of the dog and mourn the loss can help heal, as can involving friends.Pre-Loss Tip: If your dog hasn’t yet passed, please read this.One way to give your brain time to feel the finality of the loss is to keep your dog’s body at home for a few days, and to take part in the cremation or burial instead of just leaving your dog’s body at the vet. Before rigor mortis sets in, curl your dog into a sleeping position with the chin tilted slightly up (so nothing runs out – sorry it’s gross but true). Place an absorbent cloth under your dog in case there is any leakage from the other end. Stay home, don’t work, don’t talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. You can keep your dog home for up to 1-2 days: when rigor mortis fades and the body starts to soften again (after about 3 days) it’s truly time to do the funeral.
- Sharing the Pain and Grief. Talk about the loss and keep talking. Express emotions. Feel. Don’t be surprised if your partner expresses his or her pain differently. That’s normal and does not mean s/he is a monster. Do not hold in what you are feeling in order to keep someone else from feeling bad. It’s good for both of you to talk about your guilt, anger, shame, pain, etc.
- Reorganizing the Family System. This is the logistical part of loss, as in “now I have only one dog to feed, not two.” Or “Do I bury my dog or cremate her or both?” “How do I deal with the change of relationship with my remaining animals?” “Now that the dog-reactive dog is no longer with us, should we start going on more walks with the other one?”
- Creating New Directions, Relationships, and Goals. This is not a fast process, not a goal to reach as quickly as possible, but be aware that this is something that is healthy to do. This task might involve getting a new dog or other pet, perhaps the same breed or perhaps a different one. It might mean deciding to volunteer at a shelter to get your dog fix in some other way, or doing the traveling that you couldn’t do with your dog.If your dog was reactive or had other behavior problems, you might feel guilty about seeing his or her passing as an opportunity, but it’s also a realistic truth. This final task is about moving on and exploring new options for your life now that the situation has changed, while still holding your dog in a special place in your heart. Task four also involves exploring the possibility of your loss as a profound self-development experience. More on that next.
After we lose our dogs, it’s a good time to reflect back on what you’ve learned or gained by having them in your life.
Recommended Reading on Grief and Mourning
- Kowalski, G. (2006). Goodbye, friend: Healing wisdom for anyone who has ever lost a pet.
- Rose Sr, D. C. (1990). The Grief Recovery Handbook: A Step-by-Step Program for Moving beyond Loss.
- Shelton, F. T. (2023). The Spirituality of Grief: Ten Practices for Those who Remain.
- Somé, S. Embracing Grief: Surrendering to Your Sorrow Has the Power to Heal the Deepest of Wounds. Sobonfu Somé.
- Weller, Francis. (2015). The wild edge of sorrow: Rituals of renewal.
- Wolfelt, A. D. (2004). When your pet dies: A guide to mourning, remembering and healing.