People who suffer the loss of a pet go through the same emotional pain as those who suffer the loss of a human loved one. But unlike those who suffer the loss of a human, sometimes those who suffer the loss of a pet are ridiculed by people in their lives. A co-worker may say, “It was only a dog.” A spouse may say, “She lived a good life.” While a friend may encourage you to go get another dog right away.
Only other pet lovers truly understand the pain associated with the loss of a pet. Whether your dog is at the end of a long life or dies unexpectedly, the grieving is no easier either way. Allow yourself to go through the five stages of grief at your own pace so that you may heal emotionally.
When my 14-year-old golden retriever, Jake, could no longer stand up by himself or, once up could not squat to go to the bathroom, I knew it was time to end his suffering. He was also beginning to suffer from memory loss. On occasion I could see that he didn’t know where his food or water bowl was or which door to go to to go outside. As hard as it was, I made an appointment with the vet a couple of days down the road and spent 48 hours completely spoiling him. I slept on the floor with him at night. I fed him spaghetti and pizza (his favorites!). I took two days off work to be with him.
When we went to the vet she laid a blanket down for him to lay on. But with his paws he pushed it aside to lay on the cold tile floor. I laid on the floor with him, my arm over his chest as the vet administered the meds that would end Jake’s life – and his suffering. I sobbed. Even after he was gone, I laid with him and cried.
That was over three years ago and even as I recount this, tears are welling up in my eyes.
How to Cope When Your Dog Dies
The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) were identified and articulated in 1969 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. In the days after Jake was euthanized I don’t remember ever being in denial. It’s not denial as in not believing the deceased is gone but denial as in denying your feelings of sadness. When I went back to work and someone would say, “How are you?” I’d burst into tears and say, “Just awful. I had to put my dog down earlier this week.”
I didn’t feel the second phase, anger, either. The life expectancy of a golden retriever is 10-12 years. I was fortunate to have Jake longer than average. And because I had him so long, bargaining wasn’t part of my grieving process. But I can see how people who suffer a loss of pets could easily do this. It’s that negotiation with a higher being. “Just let him pull through this and I’ll make a monthly donation to the local animal shelter.” Or, “His 15th birthday is only four months away. Let him live until then and I’ll…” fill in the blank.
No, I skipped over steps two and three and landed head-first in Phase Four: depression. I was so very sad. I was so very lonely. I’d heard the expression “heavy heart” before but I didn’t understand until then that it is more than an expression; it is a physical feeling. My heart actually felt heavy. The house was eerily quiet when I got home from work. My well-meaning friends kept saying I should get another dog. But no dog could replace Jake.
It took quite a while before I could walk in the house and not expect him to be lying on his bed in the middle of the family room. My acceptance (the fifth stage of grieving) began when I received his ashes in a wooden box, wrapped in a blue velvet bag, a plaque with his name and dog print and a certificate that said, “I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the rainbow bridge.” But that was just the beginning of this stage. I placed his ashes on the bookshelf in his favorite room – the family room. I passed them each morning when I went to work. Sometimes I’d touch the velvet bag and say, “Bye buddy.” Other times I’d just say goodbye to him.
As those days when I would say good-bye became less frequent I knew I was on the path to healing. And six months later I was ready for another dog.
Some people who suffer a loss of a pet get the same breed as the dog who passed away. I just couldn’t do that. In fact, I went to about the opposite end of the breed spectrum. I got an Olde English Bulldog puppy. Where Jake was obedient she was defiant. Where Jake was furry, she was stubbly. Where Jake was regal, her beauty was “she’s so ugly she’s cute.” And when she was a little pup I used to look at the blue velvet bag on the bookshelf in the family room and say, “Jake – I wish you were here to teach her the ropes.”
Now three years old, I adore Jes just as I adored Jake.
When it’s time to say goodbye to your best furry friend, allow yourself to pass through the five stages of grief. There is no one timeline that fits everyone. Only you will know when you are ready to advance to the next stage. Whatever you do, do not allow anyone to marginalize the pain you feel as figure out how to cope when your dog dies.
One way to honor the memory of your best friend long after they’ve gone is with this thoughtfully designed and crafted memorial. Display photos and store ashes, a collar or a favorite toy in this maple finished memorial. It comes in two sizes: 5 x 8 or 6 x 9. Both sizes hold four photos. Click on the photo or the link below for more information on the Pet Keepsake Memorial.