Through the course of their lives most dog owners have to face the death of a beloved dog. The sad fact is that our treasured companions do not live as long as we do.
Western cultures do not allow for much expression of grief, and death is often considered a taboo subject for discussion. Many people, even our closest friends, feel uncomfortable about talking to us about our losses. Because of this, we are sometimes most alone just at the time we most need support. This applies especially for the death of a pet, as our society often does not acknowledge loss of a companion animal to be a significant cause for grief. With this article, it is hoped that learning about factors involved in the pain of grief may help to accept that loss and grieving are a normal part of our lives, that the grief is real, valid, and appropriate and that your pain can be expressed to others. Then can begin the process of healing and building new relationships.
What are grief, bereavement and mourning?
Grief can be defined as an emotional response to a perceived loss. It does not have to be the response to death. In fact, as I will discuss later, grieving usually involves the loss of many different things. This article concentrates on grief from the death of a dog, and losses associated with that death. Bereavement refers to a state that follows a loss, which may be from death, loss of employment, or marriage. Culture usually determines what is considered appropriate reason for bereavement, and pet loss is not usually included. Mourning is the outward expression of loss, including rituals and customs.
For most people, the first loss of a loved one can be the strongest and most overwhelming experience they have had. Its very intensity can be frightening and seem uncontrollable.
It is commonly expected that a death will lead to grief. Many people will have heard about different stages of grief suggested by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These days it is thought that grief does not necessarily follow any set pattern, and some of these stages may not be present at all. It has since been suggested that typically, the period of bereavement includes 4 phases of shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.
Grief usually has many components including physical and emotional distress, preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, and disruption to daily living.
Grief may be complicated for many reasons, and may make it harder to resolve your feelings. This may occur if you have other unresolved losses where you were unable to express your feelings honestly, you have little social support, there was a particularly complex or ambivalent relationship with the deceased, feeling guilt, where the death was untimely. Also both deaths that are sudden and unexpected, and deaths that occur after long illnesses can lead to complicated grief. There can be many other factors also.
Grief does not necessarily begin with the death of a dog. You may have started well before your dog actually died, and the death itself may actually bring about an initial feeling of relief. This is particularly the case with a long and difficult illness, when you have had warning that your dog is likely to die. However, it does not mean you will feel less pain when the actual death occurs.
Getting through grief and moving on
Worden, a prominent researcher in the field of grief, has identified 4 major tasks involved in moving through the process of loss.
* To accept the reality of the loss
* To experience the pain of loss
* To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. This definitely takes time. So many of our thoughts and actions are automatic – we assume that things remain the same. It can be a shock each morning to realize that there is no need to refill the food bowl.
* To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in other activities. This may involve considering getting another dog.
Why does it hurt so much? How much have you actually lost?
Certainly, not all people react to the death of a dog in the same way. Each person, each dog and each relationship is unique and has unique components. Loss does not involve simply the physical presence of the dog. The psychosocial benefits of living with a dog are well documented and include social support, companionship, an increased sense of our own worth and the emotional bond we have with our dog. These are part of what you are grieving. You will be reminded of the special things you did with your dog by their absence. The losses may not be tangible – they may be the emotions that your dog elicited from you. You may have lost the good feeling you had when your dog put his head on your lap, or when he wagged his tail at the sound of your voice. The laughter that came when he did something silly, and the assistance you received when weeding the garden. The warm feeling when you arrived home to find him waiting at the door to welcome you. So the degree of daily interaction you had with your dog will influence the number of losses, and therefore the degree of grief.
This merits a paragraph of its own, due to the significant role it has in making a normal grief complicated. We are very good at “beating up on ourselves” when we are feeling low. There may have been aspects or decisions that we may have made differently with the benefit of hindsight, that had an impact on our beloved dogs life or death. The only useful thing that can be done is to learn from the experience for the future. We need to be kind to ourselves at this time. We are all fallible humans, and do the best we can to get through our lives. Some people can feel relief with the death of their dog after a long illness, and experience guilt because of this. Again, this is perfectly normal. Some people feel guilt if they think they are grieving more for a loved dog than for a human they have lost. There are no rules about how much we should grieve – these sorts of “shoulds” are not helpful either. For ourselves, we should not minimize how much the dog means to us.
Special features of grief with companion animals
All grieving is painful, and for those of us whose dogs are an integral part of our lives, the loss of a dog is not different that the loss of a close friend. However there are some aspects of pet loss that are not common with the loss of a human, and some of these may make your loss more difficult to deal with.
* Loss of a dog may often involve decision making about when to end the life. How comfortable you are with the decision will affect how you grieve. As mentioned above, guilt can play a role with how the decision was made, and can either be a comfort or a source of guilt depending on how you feel about your actions. This decision can be a terrible dilemma for some people. “Did I make the decision quickly enough? Did I let him suffer? Should I have let her keep going? Did I give in too quickly?” are common questions that grieving dog owners may ask themselves? Sometimes guilt may revolve around the financial aspects of veterinary care – “was I unwilling to pay large vet bills?” However euthanasia is the most loving gift for a dog that is suffering, has lost his quality of life and has no chance of improvement.
*Another aspect is the simple fact that we gain so much support from our canine friends – they can be a source of unconditional love that will help us through our difficult times – and not only do we have to deal with the loss of the dog herself, but her support is no longer there to help us.
* Not all people around us appreciate the integral role that a beloved dog may have in our lives. There may be some around who may minimize your loss, and expect you to get over your grief more quickly than you are ready to. This may also include employers who do not appreciate the degree of pain you are in. Ensure that you seek others who value their companion animals as you do, and who can allow you to express your feelings honestly. There are many who feel as you do.
* Another factor is that while the ritual of a funeral marks the death of a human loved one, losing a dog does not have such a custom. Rituals have important functions in allowing the bereaved to proceed to acceptance by acknowledging your loss in a supportive environment.
Allow yourself time and tears. Don’t overburden yourself with difficult tasks – your concentration may be decreased. It is also important to attend to yourself in the simple matters of daily living. Ensure that you continue to maintain a balanced diet. Avoid excessive alcohol or drugs. As you are in a stressed state, you are more liable to pick up colds and flu, as your immune system is weakened. Avoid making important decisions while you are in a vulnerable state.
What can I do to feel better?
There is no magic pill that can remove the pain completely. With time the feelings will become less intense. However there are activities that may help you to focus on the happy memories you shared. Some people find the following useful:
* Writing poetry or a letter for your dog to express your feelings for him or her
* Arrange photos in a special album
* A memorial page on the web (if you don’t have a web page of your own, there are specific sites that welcome photos and poetry to memorialize your dog).
* Joining a email group – there are several that provide support from people who have also lost their dogs
* Have your own ritual. Invite like-minded and supportive people to share in memories of your dog.
* Plant a rose or tree for your dog
* Sponsor an animal in the zoo in memory of your dog
* Read a self-help book. There are many available on grieving
* If your grief is overwhelming and causes major disruption to your daily life over a long time, consider seeking help. There are counsellors and psychotherapists who are sensitive to the needs of people who are grieving for their pets. However ensure that they have the same qualifications you would expect for grief counselling for humans (eg psychologist, social worker, counsellor of professional association).
The new dog in your life
The decision when, or whether to get another dog is a very personal one, and should be done in your own time when you feel comfortable. It should not happen when another well-meaning person thinks it should happen. Again, there is no “right” or “wrong”. You may feel ready soon after you lose your dog – this may be the case if your dog had a long illness and your grieving started long before the death. Ensure that you feel happy with the timing – some well-meaning people may try to give you a dog or puppy in order to replace your previous dog. Others may try to talk you out of getting a dog when you feel ready.
You know best.
Some people find themselves preoccupied with the health of the new dog, with fears of his or her death. This is quite normal as the pain is so fresh for you, it is natural that you are anxious that you may experience it again soon. Again, this will become less intense over time.
The path through grief is never easy. Each of our dogs is unique and irreplaceable. However as life and death are two sides of the same coin, so are love and grief. Make life easy for yourself until you can remember your loved dog with more smiles than tears, and you know the time is right to begin a new, unique and perfect bond with another, who will benefit from the caring person you are.
Here I have included a well-known poem that many people find helpful when thinking of their pets who have died.
More Reading: Help with decisions regarding euthanasia of your dog
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