“The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of its master.” – Ben Hur Lampman
Trek was a rambunctious Patterdale Terrier who passed suddenly at what was, for a terrier, a relatively young age at eight years old. His sweet nature and impressive speed – not many dogs can catch rabbits – endeared him to the hearts of all who met him. And to his owner, a rough and tumble veteran, Trek was the key to unlock hidden depths of his human’s heart. Angel was a blue-eyed blue Great Dane who succumbed to osteosarcoma the week before his first birthday. His protective tendencies and massive size were all it took to scare would-be thieves from his owner’s first home. And Romeo, at fourteen years of age, is an elderly Golden Retriever teetering at the brink of life’s end. His joyful nature and adoring doggy grin convince even children who are afraid of big dogs to throw their arms around his neck and love him. And his talented nose enabled him to find the lost while his big heart was evident as he comforted his owner time and again. All these dogs have one thing in common: owners who love them immensely and who have suffered horribly at their loss.
Dog lovers understand the way our furry friends become a part of our families, even becoming four-legged children for many. Our dogs are not “just pets” but are much more, rejoicing with us in our triumphs and comforting us in our sorrows. The intuitive way they seem to know what we are feeling combined with their innate sense for what will help us feel better makes them better therapists than their degreed human counterparts. When you lose your dog, you’re losing your best friend, confidante, teammate and protector. And that’s just the tip of the doggy iceberg when it comes to the many places our dogs fill in our lives and hearts.
Nearly half a century ago, a doctor by the name of Elisabeth Kubbler-Ross introduced her hypothesis about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Those who have never lost a beloved pet may try but cannot fully comprehend the agony of losing the dog who has been your faithful companion for years and even decades. The stages of grief may begin even before the pet passes away and may also be experienced in random order, or even all at once. But there is another factor not fully considered by Kubbler-Ross, one exacerbated by the option of euthanasia available to pet owners and our pet’s inability to communicate their physical state to us: guilt.
“Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” – Indira Gandhi
One of the first pitfalls of guilt is playing the “what if” game. What if you’d noticed something was wrong with your pet sooner or chosen an alternative course of treatment? What if you’d been home, would they have survived whatever caused an untimely and altogether unexpected death? What if you’d chosen a different brand of dog food, had been more timely about vaccinations and physicals, or had driven to the emergency clinic ten minutes earlier? Unfortunately, there is an infinite array of what if’s to consider, and allowing yourself to become bogged down by them is a trap you cannot afford to fall into. There tends not to be much, if any, logic or rationale behind what if’s, because we do the best we can at the moment with the information available. But regardless of logic, everyone beats themselves up at some point, which brings us to our next point: forgiveness.
Learning to forgive ourselves is something most of us never truly learn to do. The focus throughout our childhood years tends towards learning to forgive others, not ourselves. One of the first steps to forgiving yourself is the simple reminder that, yes, you did do the best you could at the time with the resources and information available to you. Maybe you learned something more later on that would have been useful, but hindsight is always 20/20. Unless you have the unlikely gift of foresight, you’re stuck using the knowledge you have in the moment. As long as you did your best, there really is nothing more to be done. Forgive yourself for being human, and move on.
“The lives of animals are woven into our very being – closer than our own breathing – and our soul will suffer when they are gone.” – Earnest H. Hart
Coping with the myriad emotions you experience over the loss of a pet never gets any easier. There is no set timetable for grief, and everyone grieves in their own way. That said, if a significant amount of time has passed and you’ve remained in the same stricken state, it might be wise to try to figure out why that is. You’ll find that many pastors now have some experience with pet bereavement, and there are also online support groups. Of course, finding someone who truly understands what you’re going through that you can talk to will help you heal more than you might realize. Those who have been through the loss of a pet and therefore have firsthand experience with the pain and guilt that follows offer more than just a shoulder to cry on. Having someone available who you know empathizes in ways not everyone can despite their meaning well is invaluable. Remember, although all loss is unique, you are not alone. Also, do not try to rush the process. Losing a pet is more like losing a human family member than many realize. Our dogs are loyal, non-judgmental, and always happy to see us. And those whose dogs also provide services or are workmates, such as Search and Rescue (SAR), suffer the loss of a helpmate and teammate. Veterans losing a dog who served a dual purpose as both pet and canine mental health counselor lose a major source of comfort and peace. Spouses and close friends of a veteran whose dog recently passed should consider their loss in a different light than the average dog lover’s loss. When you consider how agonizing losing a pet is for any dog lover, adding another layer of pain to that trauma has the potential to create an unbearable situation.
In order to help you through the process, there are also quite a few material ways dog lovers cope with loss. Some cremate their pets and keep the ashes while others prefer to bury their dog on their own property. There are quite a few companies now creating handmade blown-glass items such as vases and paperweights using your pet’s cremains and even incorporating special toys or collars you send along as well. Personalized headstones with breed emblems and photographs are available and can include dates of birth and death. Paw prints created using cement stepping stone kits or clay impression kits are another fantastic keepsake although they can also be done with paint or ink pads. And photographs, whether professional or candid, can be framed or turned into an album or scrapbook. There are many unique ways to remember your dogs. Having their hair spun into usable yarn is gaining popularity as is having a necklace made from a custom nose print. Other options include custom sand-cast paw print ornaments and an endless assortment of personalized memory boxes, ornaments, frames and jewelry. When it comes to personalized objects designed for memorializing our pets, there is a practically never-ending stream of options.
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” – Roger Caras
The sad fact is that our dogs are short-lived compared to our much longer human lives. Some breeds, such as Great Danes, often pass away as early as six years of age while smaller breeds like terriers often live well into their late teens. Whether illness, old age or an unforeseen tragedy such as poisoning occurs, our dogs are always ripped from our lives far too soon. And yet the deep pain of loss is a worthwhile payment for the years of love and joy our dogs bring into our lives. When it comes to our dogs, the good memories outweigh the bad a million to one, making it easy to reminisce about the happy times when they’re gone. Your dog takes up residence in a special place in your heart, and when they’re gone they leave a paw print-shaped hole behind. For some of us, another puppy helps heal our wounds and gives us a furry neck to cry on while others benefit more from waiting. Whatever method you choose for grieving for your dog, remember that there are other dog lovers out there who know what you’re going through and would be honored by the opportunity to support you as you grieve. The death of a beloved dog is tantamount to losing a limb, because our dogs are truly a part of us. When they are with us, we shower them with love, affection and doggy treats, and when they pass over the Rainbow Bridge, we remember all the wet-nosed canine kisses and cuddles they gifted us with over the years. And even as adults, the words of Ted Geisel, who is far better known to us as Dr. Seuss, ring true: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
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