HOW TO COPE WITH THE GRIEF OF LOSING YOUR DOG
[ Note – If you’ve already said “goodbye”, please click here to scroll down to your part of the process. ]
Preparing to Say Goodbye to Your Dog…
It’s never too early to start planning but, sadly for many, it is often too late.
One thing every dog owner has to come to terms with is that your dog is probably not going to live longer than you. You are going to have to say goodbye at some point. And it’s going to be very sad, painful, and difficult. It can be even harder if more than one person is involved, since you all need to agree on the right path, which is all the more reason to discuss and plan for the inevitable. Many people have written about their experience of losing their dog, which I’ve found helpful so I didn’t feel so alone. However, I didn’t see much advice.
Grieving is indeed a very personal practice, however, there are things that can be done to better prepare yourself, say goodbye the best and most humane way possible, and help you get through the grief and pain a little easier.
I decided to take the time (and further pain) to write about my experience and what I learned to give people some things to think about and ideas to try – or modify to their liking. If I can help a few people and dogs get through this time a little easier and with less regret, then it will have been worth the additional time and tears to share my story and tips from my recent loss of the love of my life – my 12 year old miniature schnauzer, Kompis.
Before you say goodbye…
Plan ahead for the inevitable. (See our related article, Helping Your Senior Dog, which includes tips for deciding when the time is right).
I’ve had my share of rushing my friends to the vet’s for an emergency euthanasia. It sucks. They feel like they didn’t have time to say goodbye, time to give them their favorite treats, or enough time to share all the love they deserved. Once your dog is that bad off that they have to be rushed to be put down, there’s nothing good or fun you can do for them. You need to do all the good stuff while they are still able. And waiting until they are that bad off usually means they were suffering and in pain for quite a while. Since we can help them not suffer, then why not end it just a couple days sooner with a proper send-off that is calmer and set up the way that you would like to remember and honor your dog?
Putting your dog down when they are ready – and you are not – is one of the most selfless acts you’ll ever do. But it has to be about them and not about us. Don’t wait until it’s too late to say a proper goodbye.
Walking Kompis on the beach the morning before she was put down were some of the most precious moments I spent with her. I’m so glad I had all that time to say goodbye. I didn’t even sleep much the night before. I just wanted to hold her, hear her softly breathing, and feel her next to me.
How to plan ahead
So, please consider planning ahead. If you know saying goodbye is inevitable and has to happen soon, you can actually pick a date and plan towards it. I picked the first day of spring for Kompis. It helped me feel less hopeless, and gave me the strength to give her my all for the next 2 weeks as we said our goodbyes. I then made sure all of her good friends had a chance to stop by, and we visited all her favorite places, ate her favorite foods, and did whatever activities she could still enjoy.
If your dog is not suffering and you’re trying to decide when to say goodbye, talk to your trusted friends and your vet. Friends can come by and see your dog and they will notice the degradation much easier than you since you’re going along day by day, and it sneaks up on you. When your friends & your vet are telling you it’s time, then you know you need to plan. Here is an article that I wrote to help people with this decision: When to Say Goodbye to Your Dog
I suggest planning ahead if you can. You need to consider where you want to say goodbye. Many people want to have it done in their house, but I personally didn’t want that memory in my home. Most people do not want it done at the vet’s either, since that is such a sterile environment, and it’s usually a place dogs do not like.
If you plan ahead, you won’t have to rush to vet’s and do this hastily while you witness your dog being horribly uncomfortable (trouble breathing or in pain, etc.). You have proper time to say your goodbyes in a calm and pleasant manner.
So for both of my dogs, I had it done at a hotel room in an area that they loved. It gave me great peace of mind. For Kompis, I made a hotel reservation at our favorite beach (near to our home). I spent the afternoon & evening before, and the morning of, on the beach or other walking areas that she enjoyed – and we had an undistracted night alone together before I had the vet come at 11 AM before checking out.
Some vets are even willing to meet at a park or a beach as long as it’s a secluded area where no one else can see. There are many options… think about what you and your dog might like best. Just be aware that you will remember this moment for the rest of your life, so make it as special and sacred as possible. I made sure that the ocean breeze was gently going through Kompis’ fur as I held her while she passed.
Another thing I did with Kompis that I did not think to do with my prior dog, was I leaned down and took her last breath with her so we shared the same air. It was a very powerful and meaningful experience for me.
Here are some things I did that you can consider doing while you still have your dog:
-Get a sample of their fur in case you want to touch it later.
-Record their breathing or snoring at night so you can listen to those sounds to help you go to sleep if needed.
-Choose one toy that’s very soft and maybe even feels like your dog and put it under their head when they are resting as a pillow. This helps elderly dogs with any neck and back pain and, after they pass, their smell will be on that toy for you. Whenever I sniff Kompis’ toy pillows, I immediately cry a little because it smells just like Kompis.
In general, make sure you plan as many special things with your dog as you can. Take them to their favorite places, feed them their favorite food, hold them in your arms as much as possible. You will regret it if you don’t spend as much time as possible before they pass. I spent the last 5 months with Kompis 24 x 7 and literally didn’t do anything without her other than work – and I kept her within 10 feet of me whenever I worked. I know that’s more than most people can do, but I needed that much because we were that close. Just make sure you spend more time with them than you normally would.
Once They are Gone… How to Cope with the Grief of Losing Your Dog
One of the things that is hardest to decide is whether you want their stuff around or put away. You need to decide whether to try to forget about them and move on and distract yourself, or whether to immerse yourself in the pain with the sights & smells of their beds, blankets and toys. It’s sad to see their things, but it’s also sad to see empty spaces.
In order to remain mentally and physically healthy, I found a combination works best. Give yourself plenty of time to be sad & cry, but also take some time to be good to yourself and distract yourself a little. I ended up having a friend “hide” several things (food & water bowls, a couple beds, jackets), but I’ve kept out a couple beds and her box of toys.
What I found is the more you can push yourself, the better. Eventually you’re going to have to deal with all the pain, so why not do it as soon as you feel up to it and get it over with? Otherwise you’re going to live in dread of having to deal with the feelings. Once you realize you can deal with them, you gain the strength needed to continue getting through each obstacle & hurdle.
For instance, I couldn’t go back to the dog park where we walked every day until my friend was with me and it was raining out. That way, not many people would see me without my dog – and they wouldn’t be able to tell if I was crying if they did. I spread her ashes there the first time. Then I went back another time with my friend and, by the third time, I could go by myself. It was hard, but I did it.
Every time I do something that reminds me of her, it hurts a little bit and often makes me cry. But each time it gets easier and easier. And doing these things also makes me feel closer to her, since I feel her spirit & remember her playing & being happy in each place. It’s also a way to honor & appreciate what you had together.
Things to do to help honor and grieve
1. One of the most cathartic things I’ve done for both of my dogs (and my parents) was to spread their ashes at their favorite places to make sure there is always a little piece of them there. It’s a wonderful way to honor their memories in those places. Plus, with dogs, they usually marked these places themselves, so you’re assuring these places will forever be marked with their presence.
To be clear, this is just a little sprinkling. I am keeping the majority of her ashes in an urn by my bed. I just take about ½ tsp in a small container when I go out with them. Just a little pinch at each place is enough.
Here is a 60 sec video that I shared on Facebook with my friends of the first few places I spread her ashes:
(Note: this is not a publicly published video, but I wanted to share it with people reading this article)
2. Plan to do some things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do with a dog. This one was harder for me and took longer than I thought it would, but it was good to finally go away on a mini vacation that I know my dog would not have enjoyed.
3. If you’re used to having your dog go to bed with you and go on walks with you, substitute something to keep that pattern up so it doesn’t feel so empty. You can carry their favorite toy, for instance. At first, I put Kompis’ collar around my wrist every time I went out. For the first couple months I always had it on when I went out, and then I started to forget it every now and then, which showed me that I was starting to heal. But I still wore it many times into the third month.
I brought her collar down to bed at night and back upstairs in the morning. It really helped keeping this task that I was so accustomed to.
I also brought her ashes with me when I went to places that were special to her. The first time I went back to her park, back to the beach where we said goodbye, and over friends’ houses that she loved, I always made sure I had ashes to spread there and that she was with me.
4. Talk to people who have lost pets. They will be very sympathetic and understanding. Social media (e.g. Facebook) is great for finding support in places where you might not even have known to look.
5. Within a week of Kompis’ passing, a nearby church happened to hold its yearly remembrance of pets ceremony which was great. It was a nice little ritual where we all said goodbye to our pets and recognized them. You can look for something like that to help you as well.
6. Tattoos – I already had a tattoo of Kompis I got several years ago:
But I made sure and grabbed a paw print before she passed (just use an ink pad & some white paper), and I added her paw print near my heart forever – right next to my previous dog’s print.
If you’re not into tattoos, you can still do something special with their paw print.
7. Art – I created this video before she passed. It helped to have her with me so I could cry & hold her during the process. And I knew I wouldn’t be capable of doing this for quite a while after she was gone. It was great to be able to release this video the day of her passing, so that everyone (over 26,000!) could share in our special memories.
My friends made this wonderful piece for me:
A friend painted this picture of Kompis with the yacht we were on to thank us for the “Below Deck” adventure.
I also made photo magnets & 4X7 prints of my favorite picture to have as well as to give as gifts to her favorite people.
Everything you do to honor your dog will further help you get through your grief. Writing this article is my last step. I knew I had to create my final video and finish this article before I’d be ready to move on and even consider another dog. Here is the final video I created for my pup to honor her and all she’s done:
When to get another dog
When you are ready. Period.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to immediately get a replacement – this is not a broken TV that you go out and replace within a couple of days. You need to finish your mourning and feel ready. When the thought of another dog makes you smile, you are ready. When I first started looking for a puppy, all I did was cry at the thought of a new dog. But now I finally feel a little shimmer of hope when I think of bringing a new dog into my life. I know they will never be what Kompis was to me. But they will be something special in their own right.
I’ve decided to give myself what I’ve sung about getting for decades: (From Jackson Browne, “The Pretender”): “I’m going to find myself a girl who can show me what laughter means…” Manifesting & creating my future happiness, my next little girl is going to be named “Laff”.
Thank you for being my heart & soul for over 12 years.
You were my True North.
I will always love and miss you.
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