Coping with the Loss of a Dog
It’s rather bizarre that our first new blog for our newly designed website is about the loss of a dog. It has just happened to us in the most unexpected way (Aug-14). It was not old age or illness related but a tragic accident that took us both by total surprise and shock. We blamed ourselves for what happened and could not understand how it happened. But as time went on a clearer picture imerged, it was not our fault and it could not have been avoided, it was a freak accident. We will remember our 6 year old English Springer spaniel ROXY as a dog that was very happy in life and she died doing what she loved…..Love you always Roxy.
Those of us who can't imagine life without pets must face the inevitable, that we will almost certainly outlive our canine companions. While some small breeds can live up to twenty years, the average dog lives to twelve or thirteen years. During those years we form a bond so strong that the dog's death leaves his human companion overwhelmed with grief - and a host of other sometimes - confusing feelings. After all, it's not like losing a possession such as your mobile phone or even your favorite item of clothing; you're losing a longtime companion, a familiar friend who has become part of the family and was always there for you..
Many people are embarrassed by the intensity of the grief they feel when a pet dies. But just as we go through a fairly universal process when faced with our own deaths or those of human loved ones, we tend to approach the loss of our canine companions in a way that others can usually identify with and understand. In the beginning, we seem to feel a certain amount of denial or blame. Of course Marley will get better. No, he's not really gone. This next treatment will cure him. The logical side of us may know that we are deceiving ourselves, but for some reason the heart and the brain seem to need that little hiatus from reality to begin to adjust. This is especially true when the death is sudden and by total surprise.
After that stage we often experience a period in which we try to make "deals" in exchange for a different outcome. We say, if Marley will only get better, I promise to take him to the park every day. I'll feed you less. Not surprisingly, when Marley continues to get sicker, we feel angry & guilty. We get mad at the veterinarian, at the neighbour who used to yell at Marley, at our higher powers, at the disease - and at ourselves. This leads to what is probably the most common (and often the least deserved) feeling, guilt. I should have noticed that lump or increase in weight. I shouldn't have let him off the lead. I should have made the veterinarian operate. Realistically, it does us no good to second guess or I wish I had done things differently. The old adage that "hindsight is 20 - 20" is very apt in these cases - we all know instances where if we had only known what was going to happen we might have done something differently. The important thing to remember is that you didn't know what was going to happen; you really could not have changed the circumstances of events. Anger can be a crippling and a destructive emotion, try to remember the happy times you spent with your pet.
Eventually, anger gives way to sadness. Taken to extremes this can become a problem, as a prolonged depression and unremitting despondency is not healthy. But in many ways, the beginning of sadness also signals the beginning of getting through the grief. For a while you might feel reluctant to spend time with friends who have dogs, or find yourself crying over Marley's empty collar, or staring at his picture instead of doing your work. That is actually quite normal. It will pass. And after a while you'll find that you have accepted Marley's death. That doesn't mean you have forgotten the pain, or that you are all set to go find a new puppy to take his place. It merely means that there are times when the happy memories eclipse the sad ones. And soon you will be able to think about Marley without falling completely apart. Your talk to your loved ones or those that remember Marley, your laugh about what your dog got up to or what they achieved, laughter will help you get over the pain and guilt and will help you remember only the good times you spent with your pet, do you remember when Marley took you dads slipper and put in in the pond… it’s things like this that will help you through the pain and grief.
Sometimes death is not a surprise. Maybe Marley has some form of cancer, or has simply aged to the point where you know he can't possibly live out the year, the month, the week. In these cases, it is not hard - hearted but therapeutic to make some of the decisions early on. The most difficult one for most people is whether or not to consider euthanasia. Many will say your dog will tell you when, they will give off signs.
For most people, the issue is quality of life. Your veterinarian can gauge how well or poorly Marley is responding to a given treatment, or how fast an illness is progressing, but you are the one who spends your days with Marley. It is important that you step back and view his current life - not your life, and how much pain you will feel when he is gone, as selfishly prolonging his life to delay your own grief does not honour your best friend. You’ll need to take an honest look at whether Marley still seems to be eating well, do they want to go outside for a pee or walk, whether he seeks out or at least responds happily to your attention, and whether he seems aware of and interested in what's going on around him. Perhaps most importantly, you need to know whether he is in pain - and whether it will become progressively worse and unrelenting. Difficult as it is, most of us just "know" when it is time - when it seems that Marley has more bad days than good ones. We know when we are making Marley's life better, and when we are in danger of increasing his suffering needlessly. No one wants to euthanize a pet, but it can help to think of it as your final loving gift to your devoted friend.
Whether you are present or not during the euthanasia is usually your choice. Being present is a good way of saying goodbye. Your dog will just slowly fall to sleep and be in peace.
If you do have time to prepare, it can also make the period immediately following Marley's death easier to bear if you have already made arrangements about certain things such as whether he will be buried and where, or whether he will be cremated and how you will treat his ashes. There are a growing number of companies dedicated to pet memorials, pet crematory urns, and even remembrance websites, and many people take comfort in such arrangements. Some people hold memorial services which can be very healing and helps children understand..
If you have children, you’ll need to deal with their feelings too. For many children, losing a pet is their first experience up close with death, so you need to be sensitive to how you discuss matters. Telling your child that Marley has been "put to sleep," or has "gone away" might make the child fear that he, too, might die if he falls asleep, or that he - or you - could go away at any time, too. How much you say will of course depend on the maturity of the child, but it is important for children to know the essential truths so that they, too, can move through the process of grieving.
The most important coping strategy, however, is honesty. Don't listen to those who laugh and tell you to "get over it" - that Marley was "just" a dog, Marley was not just a dog but a loving family member. If you feel pain, anger, guilt, and sadness, don't be afraid to acknowledge those emotions to yourself and to others. You have lost a loved one, and the fact that the loved one was a four legged bundle of fur doesn't take away your right to feel sad. Share it with others if that helps. Put Marley's picture on your desk.
If weeks and then months go by and you still feel overwhelmed by Marley's death, it's time to consider seeking some professional help. There are counselors who specialize in bereavement and loss, both human and canine, and their support can be invaluable. For most people, however, the pain eases over time, and eventually our first reaction when we think of Marley is to smile, not cry. That's when you know that someday you might just be ready to get another dog.