Lessons in Pet Grief: Finding Humanity & Hope in the Dark
“My dog died.”
What do you think when you hear someone say this? How do you know what to say, or do? The temptation is so strong to say Something Meaningful. Something Perfect. Something Helpful. Something to Take Away the Pain. Something. Anything.
I often panic and overthink my response when I see a social media announcement of a pet’s death. I take time to think about the family and their loss, and then try to write a meaningful and thoughtful response. And I usually come away thinking I’ve failed somehow. If I have this interaction in person, it all happens in real-time, in the blink of an eye. Except for the worrying part. I continue to worry long after my interaction.
The reality is, there is no perfect response. Nothing will take away the fresh pain of a loss. But we can offer condolences; we can feel a bit of their sadness; we can reach out. I see social media postings every week that someone has said good-bye to their pet. I try not to become immune to the feelings, but I still go on about my normal day, happily enjoying the company of my own furry family, and relieved that it’s not my turn to say good-bye.
And then one day this past summer, it was my turn. Our family said good-bye to our sweet Nathan Dog, aka Super Awesome Wonder Dog. My very own, incredibly important dog. My dog died. Such difficult words to write. Even after three months, it brings tears to my eyes. Though I’m past the initial shock, the intensity of the grief still surprises me. Summer is turning to autumn now. I think about the long walks we won’t take, the snow angels he used to make, and the snuggles I’ll miss this winter. Grief is bewildering. It’s overwhelming. Grief is deeply personal. Each grieving person has their personal history with their pet, their individual stories, their unique struggles.
And yet we share. Else how can we endure?
I told friends and family that my dog’s time was near, and I posted about him on my social media. I posted before his death, asking people to help me “Celebrate Nathan!” The responses warmed my heart and strengthened me as I prepared to say good-bye. We went off the grid after that. We had the opportunity to spoil him (even more than usual), to enjoy family time together, and to say our peaceful good-bye with the help of a caring veterinarian.
And then it was over. I was alone with my grief. After a few days, my spouse went back to work, and I tried to figure out what to do next. No more sleepless nights, helping my dog when he was too anxious to sleep. No need to prepare multiple kinds of foods to make sure he got enough calories. No more counting out pills or making sure he was comfortable. No more. Nothing.
I felt alone; I wanted to reach out for… something. Anything. But I worried. I worried about talking to neighbors when they asked me, “Where is Nathan?” “Did something happen?” “Did he…?” I worried about the responses on social media. Would people care? Would it make my grief more bearable, or trigger more waterworks? The need to connect was so strong, but the fear almost paralyzing.
The outpouring of support I received touched my heart. People who knew my dog personally shared things about him. Others who knew how much he meant to me acknowledged his deep impact on my life. People offered to talk. To go for coffee. For a walk. Still more people simply said, “I’m sorry.”
The first 2 weeks were rough. I was emotionally exhausted and my emotions raw. I admit I was irritated and angered by some interactions I had when telling people my dog had died. I was insulted and angered when people sent me listings for adoptable dogs they thought I might be interested in. Less than 7 days after my dog died. I could barely see straight through my grief and people were peddling new dogs to me in my vulnerable state? That same week several people asked me “Are you going to get another dog?” Seriously? He’s not a roll of paper towels! He was a cherished dog, a living being, our family member.
I was in pain. And sad. And triggered. And pissed. And judgmental. And self-righteous. I shared my rants and my pain and my reactions with a trusted group of friends and colleagues. And what did I get back?
Understanding. Compassion. Non-judgment. Support. And love. Several people shared their own stories, several so much more painful than my own experiences. They helped me see -- in that moment-- that I could let those things go. That people were well-intentioned, if perhaps oblivious. That others might have been uncomfortable. That they might not have known what to say. That they just said things to fill the uncomfortable silence. To redirect my pain. To connect in whatever way they could.
And really, maybe I was using them to feel something besides the overwhelming grief and sadness. To rant, vent, and let off steam. Maybe even to chuckle at some of the things I found most ridiculous. And they inspired me to write this blog about how difficult it is on both sides of it -- those who are grieving and the ones who want to help them.
Memorial Garden for Nathan
I’m one of the lucky ones. My dog was 14 when he died. He had a host of chronic medical issues; his death is understandable. I still wondered if I was doing enough, if it was too early to say good-bye, if I could have found some magical solution to heal him. I still feel guilty, and second-guess everything we did to try to help him in the last couple of years of his life.
Others aren’t so lucky. Some dogs die from sudden illnesses or accidents. And some dogs are euthanized because they can’t fit into the human world. Sometimes dogs’ deaths are the result of human action or inaction, while other deaths happen despite Herculean efforts by their families, shelters, rescue groups, or veterinary professionals.
As I gathered these stories of people’s experiences, I realized how feelings of regret and sadness plague so many of us left behind after a pet’s death. I also heard stories of triggering or unwelcome responses people received from others. I was surprised by the painful experiences people shared with me about being judged, about being told what they should be doing, or how they had failed their pets.
What should we strive for in helping the grieving? How can we support each other through these painful feelings? These are the lessons I’m taking with me to be helpful to others who are suffering losses.
Grief is deeply personal. Everyone grieves differently.
It’s ok to be uncomfortable when confronted with someone’s loss. Take a moment to embrace the silence and awkwardness.
Acknowledge feelings. Resist the temptation to solve problems.
Invite the person to talk, but try not to ask them too many detailed questions. They may not be ready to share.
Offer to help. But don’t require them to accept. It's a great idea to reach out in a way that doesn’t require a response. “I’ve been thinking about you. I’m here if you want to talk.” Or, “Let’s get coffee when you’re feeling up to it.”
No judgments. Listen with an open mind. Remember that saying good-bye to a pet is a deeply personal decision. Each family must be allowed to make their own decisions without fear of being judged by others (It’s ok if you would have done it differently.)
It’s not about you. Less is more when sharing your own story as a way of connecting over the loss of a cherished pet.
You can’t go wrong with “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m thinking of you.”
And perhaps, the most important lesson of all:
Even if you’re awkward, or worried, or don’t know what to say, Don’t Let That Stop You. Believe that your efforts to connect and to have compassion are appreciated.
Thank you to our beloved companions for teaching us what it means to be human.
If you’re struggling with grief over a pet’s loss, you’re not alone. Reach out for help from friends and family, your veterinarian, or a mental health professional. This blog post Four Steps to Take After Experiencing Pet Loss has helpful ideas and further resources.