by Lisa Lyle Waggoner
I just learned today that “Bean” the beloved companion of some very good friends of mine passed away on Christmas Eve after an unsuccessful surgery to remove a mass in her intestines. Thinking about that loss caused me to post an article on grief I wrote for a local publication back in September of this year. I trust that all the dogs who passed on before us are now welcoming Bean into Doggie Heaven!
It was a year ago this month that our sweet girl, Abbey the Angel Dog (as I affectionately referred to her), crossed over to the other side. Abbey brought more joy to my life than I can begin to describe. Thinking about her passing and hearing from friends and clients about recent losses of their own dogs, led me to again think about loss and grief.
As Susan Chernack McElroy (author of Animals as Teachers and Healers: True Stories and Reflections) says, “I believe the loss of a beloved animal companion is like no other loss because our relationships with animals are like no other.” For dog lovers, our dogs are our confidantes, our ever present playmates, the bright eyes and wiggly bodies that greet us with wild abandon when we return home whether we’ve been gone 5 minutes or 5 days. In essence, they’re an ever present source of “joy” in our daily lives. When they die, that joy turns to incredible sorrow.
When one experiences the loss of a person in their lives, most everyone understands that the grieving person will go through the 5 stages of grief. However, when it’s the loss of a dog, many people expect a person “to just get over it” and are much less understanding. The grieving that follows a loss is real and can be very painful. While it may be tempting to deny grieving in an attempt to avoid the pain, it’s much healthier to accept those feelings of pain and loss, and to work through the grieving process in an intentional way.
1. Denial. It’s common for our first reaction to learning of the death or terminal illness of our dog to be denial and inability to grasp the fact. We feel stunned, bewildered and dazed. This is a normal reaction, which is often called shock. Shock is temporary and it can get us through the initial weeks.
2. Anger or Blame. This often occurs after the initial shock of the loss. We may lash out at friends and family or, more frequently, at ourselves. It’s common for us to feel guilty and sometimes, the veterinarian who tended to our dog becomes the object of this anger. Other times it is self-directed or directed at other members of the family. The best way to get over this anger phase is through talk and conversation.
3. Bargaining. Yes, bargaining is another method we use for dealing with the loss. We may search for miracle cures to incurable diseases or seek out second opinions from a different veterinarian. We think of all the things we would or would not do if only the dog would get better.
4. Depression. This is oftentimes the longest portion of grief and mourning. We’re sad, hopeless and helpless and we are regretful. We think about our dog constantly and we wish we had done things differently.
5. Acceptance. If we’re fortunate, we eventually reach the stage of acceptance and healing. This is when we can treasure the time we had with our dog and lapse into a period of calm and tranquility and perhaps even happiness. We develop a new lifestyle in which other things substitute for the relationship we had with our furry friend. This is the time we might begin to consider adding another dog to our home.
If you or a friend are experiencing the loss of a companion animal, there are lots of great resources to help you cope. The book, “Grieving the Death of a Pet,” by Betty J. Carmack has been very helpful to me during times when my own dogs have passed on and a great book for children is “Dog Heaven,” by Cynthia Rylant. There are also many pet loss hotlines, such as Cornell University’s Pet Loss Hotline 607-253-3932 and Tufts University’s Pet Loss Support Hotline 508-839-7966. What has always helped me is thinking about the relationship between Joy and Sorrow. It’s because of the joy our dog brought to our life that we feel so much sorrow. As painful as it may be, it’s well worth it for the joy a dog brings to our lives.