I deal with a lot of pet loss. It is now a significant part of my job, as a house call veterinarian, because I do a number of in home euthanasias. I do it because I have found that it really does make the difficult decision to say goodbye to your beloved dog or cat easier for many. At first I feared that being in the same room where a pet passed might make it an even harder process, returning to that spot day after day. And possibly, some feel this way still. But, then I realized, you have so many memories of your pet in your home, on your couch, caught under the covers of your bed when they thought you were out, sitting under your feet while you are drinking your coffee or on the phone; that this last memory is one of many. True, it is a difficult one, but with time, I believe, it softens to a less painful, blurred edges type of sense that your pet passed in his or her favorite place. Very recently I helped a couple say goodbye to their dog, on a blanket on the lawn of their yard, where they were married not long before. During the visit, they shared so much of his life and personality with me, including their wedding photo album and the central role he had played in the ceremony. It was truly touching, and an honor to have been able to help them in their hour of desperation and disbelief of finding themselves in the position of saying goodbye to him so suddenly. But the reality is, whether a pet dies at 15, or 7, it is always too early and sudden. In the grand scheme of life, what seems to often be a blink of an eye that is the lifespan of a pet can remain with you forever in your heart and memories. It breaks my heart a tiny bit each visit, because I can’t help but put myself in their position, as I have been on many occasions, with my own pets. It brings me right back, as much as I am concentrating on the task at hand, trying to remain detached. I may not see it coming, but so often, some little something, or gesture on their part, will resonate. A physical slump and shudder in the client, or a phrase or comment that I myself made at the same point in the process. Having been in the situation, I relate.
That is the point of why I wanted to write this blog. If you have been through the loss of a cherished pet, you instantly relate, and want to support those going through it. We empathize, and no matter how well we know or don’t know someone, it is a universally uniting experience. How many times have you been with people that do not have pets, who simply cannot understand your grief. In contrast, how much better is it to commiserate with someone who has been exactly in your spot. It is with them that you can share that you are inexplicably lost without your pet, struggling to move on while you still get up early to feed him, or walk her, or change the litter box, and realize that they are no longer there. A friend’s adored dog died this week. It occurred to me how differently we both grieved after our dogs passed. In fact, the process of his diagnosis and illness, and then passing, was shared with those of us that know her, and knew him, on Facebook. I am newish to social media, and would never have thought to make it public when I last went through this painful process with my dog. Yet, now I see the benefits of sharing the pain and the process with friends. She was able to give us updates in a way that made it less awkward for us, or me, to check in and ask those hard questions at a time that might not be right for her. I was able to keep abreast of things, and give support and send love when I couldn’t be there in person. It is not the same as being physically there, or a phone call, but I believe that all the condolences and well wishes helped her, and helped those like me feel connected, and hopefully made a small difference.
In fact, she posted an article on Facebook that goes into this in much more detail (and more eloquently, by Victoria Stillwell). I hope you agree that it is worth sharing, as I also hope you feel this blog is worth having been written.
Grief is a funny thing. Everyone handles it differently. But when someone suffers the loss of a cherished dog and shares that news on social media, something magical happens. Caring dog lovers come out of everywhere to offer their condolences. A bond of love is shared. Everyone who loves a dog fiercely understands this intense loss. They cannot help but comment on it. People from all walks of life and in every part of the globe come together in emotional support. Friends near and far offer assistance, even if all that they can actually offer is emotional support. The importance of emotional support cannot be overstated. I have always been moved to comment on someone’s status when the subject was such a loss.
Recently, it was my turn. I had the misfortune and the pleasure to be the recipient of such beautiful gestures of support when I lost my beloved 13+ year old Rottie/Shepherd mix, Siri in early April. It happened suddenly late one night but not unexpectedly as her health had been failing. She wasn’t in pain so I did not choose euthanasia. It turned out that I didn’t need to. I was a mess though when it happened and badly needed a connection. The internet did not let me down. The outpouring of support was tremendous.
It takes another dog lover to truly understand the enormity of this kind of loss. I lost my mother in December and that was huge, but that loss still pales to this loss. I didn’t spend every moment of my home life with my mother. I spend so my daily life with my beloved dogs. I love my mother. I will only ever have one mother and the truth that is often stated that regardless of the relationship that you have with your mother, that loss is always shocking is an understatement.
This loss, even as expected as it was, is so much more flooring. Everything about your daily life as you know it changes when you lose a dog. I recently read a lovely article about this subject that put so much into perspective. The interactions that you share with your dogs on a daily basis are prolific. Your dogs never turn their back on you. They love and welcome your presence no matter what has happened in your day apart from them. You are the world to your dogs. They are just a part of your world. This is a relationship like no others. It cannot be replicated.
I have often thought that so much about losing a dog is that the communication on their part is wordless. We can say that we understand their thoughts and gestures but we never really have confirmation with language that WE consider solidly clear. So we hope that we are doing our best to do the right things by what we think they want. But so much of that is subjective on our parts. That creates some uncertainty and a feeling of incompleteness that is left hanging when they leave us. There is not enough closure for our own human needs. I think that we need to try and get past that. It causes so much more emotional trauma in the loving owners left behind.
Of course, it goes without saying that much of mourning is the loss of the daily interactions that are so much a part of who we are. That is the part that slowly gets better with time, though it never truly goes away. The perceived incompleteness of the communication stays with us much longer; always that little voice in our heads saying “what if”. I wish that I could say that I know better than to allow that voice to survive. After all, shouldn’t someone with solid dog behavior knowledge know what kind of communication existed between me and my dogs? Yes, in the rational part of my brain. But we all have that little voice and that little voice can be loud when we allow it.
In closing, all I can offer is what I am telling myself. As loving dog parents, we do what we feel is right for our dogs and we do the best that we can with the knowledge that we have. We love fiercely and completely and we need to view that as enough and not feel regrets for what we might have done differently to have our dogs in our lives longer. Dog’s lives are precious but they are far too brief and grief is the price that we pay to have so much happiness in our lives.