In the introduction to Favorite Dog Stories, James Herriot writes: “It is always said that however many wonderful and happy years a dog lives, you know that one day, the day he dies, your dog will break your heart.”
If you’ve ever loved–and lost–a dog, you know how true this is. Our dogs, our faithful, funny, loving and beloved companions, will break our hearts. And even though research says that for most of us, losing our dogs is on par with losing a family member — grief-wise — many feel foolish for mourning our dogs, for nursing our own broken hearts the way we do.
After all, it’s “just a dog.”
Thankfully, research can help us out with that one too. As any animal-lover knows, our dogs are never just dogs (no matter what people without pets say!). Dogs were created and bred to connect with humans like no other animal. They understand our moods. They even understand our language! Even if we don’t have an official service or therapy dog, our dogs make us happier, healthier, and safer. And in losing a dog, psychology professor Frank McAndrew says, “we experience multiple losses at the same time. We may be losing our primary companion, a source of unconditional love, a ‘life witness’ who provides security and comfort to us … The loss of a dog seriously disrupts your daily routine, even more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives.”
Trouble is, many of us don’t know how to grieve the loss because we don’t have culturally agreed-upon ways to mourn the death of a dog (or cat). People don’t bring meals or excuse us from work. We don’t have standard funeral rituals (though liturgies and prayers for pet burials do exist) to help us process. We don’t often have gravestones to visit.
And yet, there are things we can do to help us through the grieving process. Dr. Mary Ellen Matthews, a veterinarian in Austin, Texas, and Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor and Member of the Faith Advisory Board of the Humane Society of the United States, offered some tips for honoring the lives of our pets and grieving the loss of our beloved companions.
As our the end of our dog’s life comes into view, Dr. Prior suggests choosing “something very specific to remember about your dog.” She gave a personal example: “As the end of my last dog’s life was nearing,” Prior says, “I petted her over and over in those weeks and days. Even now, several years later, as other memories of her are fading, I can remember how the texture of her coat felt on my fingers, and it comforts me.”
Dr. Matthews urges people to know what to expect when it comes to the decision to euthanize a pet. In fact, she offers specifics on the euthanasia process—making it concrete and less mysterious, especially for our kids.
Her advice? “Be there,” Matthews says. “Even toddlers, who have only the merest grasp of what is happening, can be present during euthanasia. Don’t make vets the bogeyman to your kids by saying that you took Hank to the vet and something happened there. Don’t make your kids wonder where Penny is, if she’s wandered off or is on a farm.”
Euthanasia for a pet, Matthews says, “is fast. Faster than you will expect. It’s not traumatic. There is no drama in this to leave your child with nightmares. There is only peace.”
Once your dog has passed, Prior says, “The grief is real and it is powerful. Do not deny it or apologize for it.”
Matthews agrees. “Every time someone loses a pet, there is grief. For many, a pet is a member of their family. These pets walk alongside their owners through many stages of life, and their loss puts a hole in their owners’ existence.”
The golden retriever who hugs strangers in need
3. Take your time
Even in the moments after euthanasia, Matthews is careful to give her clients the time they need. “Before the euthanasia, after the euthanasia, after I have removed their pet from the room, they can take as long as they need,” Matthews says.
And she holds that position for long after her clients have gone home to where their dog will no longer greet them.
“There is no timeline on grief,” she says. “There is no kitchen timer that goes off, no iPhone alarm that buzzes to tell you it’s time to stop crying and get on with your life. So take as long as you need.”
Just as Prior encourages people to “memorialize” special moments with your dogs before they die, Matthews encourages people to find a tangible way to memorialize the dogs themselves.
“I may not be able to change the outcome of what is happening with their pet, but,” Matthews says, “I can offer small things. ‘We can make you an imprint of Sam’s paw. Is there a color that makes you think of him?’”
Far from being hokey trinkets, special physical memorials act as a concrete way of honoring the significance of our dog’s life.
5. Keep moving
“When people ask what comes next, what they do next,” Matthews says, “I am honest with them. There will be a hole in their life. I can tell them to expect that pain, but I can’t get rid of it. So instead I tell them to keep moving. My mother always told me to ‘just do the next thing’ when things got to be too much, and I pass that along. One thing at a time, and eventually, it will become less painful.”
The spiritual practice of walking the dog
Interestingly, Matthews says, we should also remember the pain our other pets may be feeling “especially if they were close to the one you lost. Spoil them. Take them for an extra lap around the block. Let them on the bed. Let them lick the plate from dinner. They will grieve as you do, and together you will move through it.”
6. Love another dog
“The best advice I ever received after putting down a beloved old dog,” Prior says, “‘Same breed, same day.’ Some people think this is cold-hearted advice that purports we can just replace and forget one dog with another. Not at all. Our ability to love is infinite. Getting another dog right away doesn’t decrease the love of memory of the former dog. It simply adds even more love and joy to our lives.”
And indeed, one of the things we miss most when a dog dies is the joy loving a dog brings us. Of course, not everyone is ready to commit so early on, so another option is to consider fostering one of the millions of dogs looking for love and forever homes or simply volunteering at your local animal shelter. Love heals more than anything else.