The first death most of us experience is the loss of a pet. How your family handled the death of the pet no doubt blazed an impression in your psyche. It is normal to experience agony of spirit and to feel deep sorrow for the loss as well as other customary grieving emotions such as guilt, denial, anger, and sometimes depression. Spending time talking and sharing memories comforts the grieving. You will find this is not a time to be judicious with your emotions. Honoring your pet is a way of giving thanks and cherishing the time you had with the pet.
However, many times a person encounters a not so understanding public. You might happen across a work situation or judgmental friend who will give you a good scolding for showing intense grief over the loss of “just” an animal. I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to creep away from that person while clenching in my grief. Some people will go as far as to issue a tongue lashing to someone who in their opinion is indulging in grief behavior over an animal loss. These people don’t see past the four paws. They don’t see the companionship, the unconditional love, the trust and last but not least, they don’t see the fulfillment you get from being needed.
When talk show host, Regis Philbin, lost his long loved companion cat he shared his grief with his audience. I thought to myself his openness about his lost is so very refreshing and yet I’m sure was very hard for Mr. Philbin. His open heart discussion with his audience about his emotional grief reinforces in others that we are not crazy for loving our animals the way we do. It simply shows we are finally crafted human beings intuned to our own levels of emotional composition. His pouring out of honest emotion proved that we don’t replace pets as we don’t replace people. Mr. Philbin without realizing it, touched many hearts by showing that it isn’t silly or crazy or too sentimental to grieve over your loss.
My story is not so different. I have discovered parts of myself that I would never have known without my four pawed companions. My pets have challenged my husband and myself and most importantly they have taught us. Yes, they have taught us valuable life lessons. To not allow ourselves to grieve the emptiness from their loss would be a calamity.
Christmas week a year ago, a little lost dog showed up on my door. This wasn’t unusual for me since so many critters have found their way to my door. But this dog was special. This dog had been abused. After working with her for close to a year, I was thrilled with her progress. She had become a loving and hearty member of my family. Her effort to bring herself into a real world with her new real family was remarkable. Almost a year to the date she and I became family, she almost died. Around 9 at night, she jumped on me and then jumped on another dog that she quite frankly doesn’t like much. She then raised her head and within seconds she was unconscious. Her body was shutting down. Eyes were glazed and tongue protruding between her teeth. I lay my head on her chest trying to hear a breath, a heartbeat, a sign of life. All I could hear was a groan. The same kind of groan I had heard when I lost my last dog of 16 years. My husband and I ran her to the emergency vet, which unfortunately was 34 miles from my home. My husband drove and I tried to jolt her into consciousness. I massaged her heart and breathed into her nose. Anxious tears ran down both our faces. By the time we got to the hospital she was awake and could actually stand. Numerous tests gave no certain results. She seems to have had a full recovery in six days. We still worry but this little animal is a testament to overcoming the odds.
We had one dog that lived to be 19. She had a bout with kidney failure and a stay in the hospital for several weeks when she was 12. At that time she lost the rest of her teeth and most of her tongue. The vet said even though she didn’t have any teeth left her gums would harden up to chew hard food but without most of her tongue it wasn’t good. I would need to feed her for a while and try to help her drink with a dropper. Chances are she wouldn’t live a much longer life. When I would take a spoon full of baby food to plug into her mouth all I could see was this big black hole of a mouth and I wondered how long she would last.
This dog had other ideas. After a couple weeks of baby food and droppers she decided that was enough. Now her lips flapped and her wolf was more of moof but she still did her moderating over all daily house affairs. One day as I was feeding her brother, she loomed in the background with that big black hole of a mouth haunting me. I laid a few pieces of hard food in front of her to gum and spit out. She chewed the pieces up and wanted more then she went over and picked up the other dog’s bone. That was great but what about water. She wouldn’t open up. She fought me and wouldn’t open those lapped over flaps that now were her lips. I was certain that as far as she had come the refusal of taking water would be the end for sure. A few days later, I noticed her going to the water bowl. She had taught herself how to get enough water into her system. This small dog taught me about courage and hope. She taught me about attitude and ingenuity. She was a wonderful companion. She died flanked by our other two dogs. They both were very silent and kept vigil over her until her last breath.
The next oldest dog was one piece of work. He was a rescued dog and what a behavior problem he had! They were going to put him to sleep because he couldn’t stay in with dogs his own size. They finally moved him into a cage with dogs much larger. He would grab them by one leg and try to drag them around. He was a rascal and very naughty. He came to live with us and sure enough he continued his naughty ways. He had horrible separation anxiety and tore up just about everything that was tear up worthy. He wanted to lift his leg to claim all to be his, including the cat. After years of working with him, we were exhausted parents yet we knew it was no one or us.
We decided to get a new puppy since the eldest dog was now 18 and doing well without her tongue but still she was living on a shoestring of borrowed time. We brought home a new bundle of fur. To our surprise, our problem dog became the sweetest most doting older brother to the new puppy. He shared his best toys and taught her how to play. He educated her on the proper way to play tug of war even though that usually ended up in with him dragging her belly and legs behind her all around the house until she couldn’t hold on anymore. He protected her and loved her. He would wrap his body around her and snuggle her to sleep. I learned so much from that rascal of a dog. We all want to be needed and we all rise to levels of responsibility. I have to say he lived his life with radiant zest. He would think nothing of jumping off the back of a boat if something caught his fancy. He was so full of loving life.
He ended up with a serious liver disease and died at 16. Three days before he died he was active and loving as usual. We had company and I’m so thankful since they can verify what happened that night. As usual when we saw that this dog was getting close to dying we brought in another puppy. Our idea was by bringing in a puppy before we lost a loved one, the puppy would have traits from the other dog and we would never be completely without the one. They do teach one another all kinds of things – some good and some not so good – but it warms your heart whatever they have learned.
That night we were all in the den. Sam (the sick dog) played with the company and lay on my lap for a while. His favorite person was his human daddy. He left me to visit with his dad. He then lay in front of the fire and went to sleep. It was February and a warming glow from the fire was comforting us all. Suddenly the room seemed to get darker. We all stopped talking and noticed the other two dogs. Both were looking at the same point in the room. Their ears were peaked standing at attention. They looked seriously curious. Both dogs walked over towards Sam focusing on him. It was almost as if something had touched Sam. Our company made the comment that if they hadn’t been there they would not have believed it but they thought we had just experienced a visit from the Angel of death for Sam. Then as if nothing had happened every thing was back to normal – except for us. We still had chills. Sam lay comfortable and snoring in front of the fire.
Three days later, I woke up early. I knew. Sam looked at me as if to say what the heck was holding you up I need to die and I’ve been waiting for you sleepy heads to get your butts out of bed. I woke my husband and raised Sam up to kiss him goodbye. My husband gathered him up and took him out on the porch. I heard him talking to Sam and within a few minutes Sam was gone.
For the first time I experienced my animals in deep grief. Yes, they do grieve. The smallest puppy, Ethyl, would sit in Sam’s place under the computer table and scratch until her paws almost bleed. It was as if she thought he was under the floor somewhere. Lucie, the dog that Sam had taken in under his protection would take several of Sam’s toys and lay on them. The two dogs together would lie side by side on Sam’s blanket in front of the fire and Lucie would lick Ethyl’s head.
As hard as it is to lose a loved family companion, I love the connection to each of them. I love the fact that each one was connected to the other in some way. Each new puppy became a personality mixture of the outgoing, the existing and themselves.
Losing a pet is difficult but what is almost more difficult is societies not wanting to recognize it for the extreme grief it can cause. For some people their animal companion is the only thing to ever love them unconditionally. For many people, their animal companion is a trusted confidant, anything can be told to them and they won’t betray you. You will never hear your words come back to haunt you. That is priceless for many.
I remember being at a meeting the afternoon after my dog, Sam died. I couldn’t call in and say my dog died so I won’t be attending the meeting since that is unacceptable. Yet if I had called in and said my aunt twice removed died and I have only seen her one time in my life and wouldn’t know her if I passed her on the street but I need time off to go to her funeral -–it would be all OK and there would be a lot of “I’m sorry for your loss” comments. Well back to my meeting. I was grieving. Yes, I knew he was going to die but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to him. My mind was whirling with all the things I would miss and I couldn’t believe when I would arrive home he wouldn’t be beating out the others to be petted and kissed first. I wasn’t all there for my meeting. Someone whispered that my sick dog died and with that there was a gee I’m sorry about your dog but lets get down to business. No respect for the loss. I hear this type of experience over and over again.
We all are entitled to our emotions. No matter what someone else thinks or how someone else thinks. We have rights to be who we are and feel the way we do. Grieving for our family pets is not weak and not stupid. The right to grief is earned. It is earned through the time we spent learning about them, training them, loving them, laughing with them and sharing with them and after all, they have been with us through good and bad. They force us to get out of bed when we don’t want to. They won’t let us fall into a pit of depression. They require us to help them, take care of them, to provide for them and to love them.
There is no such thing as replacement. There is renewal but not replacement. There is a new addition but not a replacement. When a beloved animal dies; allow yourself to grieve. Yes, there is the grunt work of getting through the grief and yes, it is painful but you will arrive to a place of calm and comfort. Take ownership of your emotions and allow this to be one large stride towards spiritual freedom.
Copyright Sherry Russell 2004
Updated: August 28, 2013