The loss of a companion is inevitable, but today, going through the grief process no longer means you have to go it alone.
For so many of us, a big part of childhood meant having a dog. We can look back, on memories filled with playing hide and seek, catch, and even afternoon naps, all experienced with our best buddy. My strongest childhood memories and some of my happiest moments, include a dog at my side. These joyful memories are what motivated me to not miss out on having a dog in my life as an adult.
The amount of fun we had together when I was a kid, seemed like it would last forever. But alas it would not. However, our happy moments together far outweighed the sorrow of their eventual passing. The dogs’ unique personalities along with our shared experiences, are treasured memories that remain decades later. We had this in mind when my husband and I set eyes on our dog at the San Francisco SPCA, and we took a gamble with our hearts. However, as they say in the betting world, it’s kind of “a sure thing.” The odds are that we dog lovers will outlive our dearest companions.
Once our dog Cleo moved into her golden years, we began working to prepare for the inevitable, and to embrace her aging process. She is our first dog together, and given our close bond, we’ve found emotional value in periodically discussing the final stages of her life. Not long ago, you would have had to weather the entire experience alone. Fortunately today, there are tools and support groups to help you focus more on the joys in having a four-legged best buddy, and less on the anxiety over their passing. Whether loss is sudden or through natural causes, there are steps that can ease you through the stages of grief, minimizing regret and guilt. These resources can help you create positive and peaceful memories of the time spent with your four-legged companion. Our companion animals are on this Earth such a short time. We are lucky to have them for the time we do, so we must cherish every moment.
30 years ago, veterinary practices and public attitudes were more abrupt and distant in regard to viewing dogs as family members. Those grieving over a lost dog found few resources to help prepare for grief, let alone help you through it. It was common to hear, “Fido was only a dog, just get another one.” Fortunately times and attitudes have changed. There are resources available and widespread compassion to be found today in support of those who have lost a furry family member.
A major resource can be found in online communities, where networks of people are going through similar experiences. One of the best sources today for free expert guidance is The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB). The group takes pride in being the collective wisdom and experience of all their friends and members. The APLB chatrooms are specifically designed for supportive guidance through loss bereavement, which includes the loss of Service Dogs. Understanding the intense emotions surrounding euthanasia, they include a Quality of Life Scale for caregivers needing perspective and guidance. You’ll also find information on how to help a child through the death of a canine companion. Supported by professionally trained volunteers in bereavement counseling, this nonprofit offers all of its services for free to anyone in need. The APLB website is filled with extensive lists of specialized help categories including state-specific hot lines, and suggested reading.
“Grieving the Death of a Pet,” a book written by Betty J. Carmack, RN, Ed.D, is a collection of personal stories shared during her years as a grief counselor for bereaved owners. The author includes her own sudden loss of a beloved dog decades earlier which inspired her to create the companion animal loss support group at the San Francisco SPCA. It was 1978 and her 10-year-old dachshund Rocky died in a rafting accident. There were no books, counselors, or hot lines to help you cope with your loss back then. “I would have given anything for some kind of support,” Betty said. A few years after the accident she heard Jamie Quackenbush, a University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine social worker, speaking on television about supporting people after the death of their animal. A light bulb went off in Betty’s head, and she contacted Quackenbush. He generously shared with her all the information he had about setting up a support group. Betty worked with the SF SPCA Board of Directors, and in 1982 they became the first humane society to offer free regular monthly loss counseling. Since the beginning, Betty has been volunteering her time and services each month.
Along with the comfort you can get from support groups, when your companion is at, or near, the end, there are veterinarians today capable of supporting the choice for in-home euthanasia, or private cremation. The decision between in-home or at the vet euthanasia is an individual one. For some people, it would be unthinkable for a cherished family member’s final memory to be the fear and anxiety of a vet office. They want them to feel safe in a familiar setting, surrounded by familiar sights, sounds, and smells. For others, they don’t want the memory of their beloved’s last moments having happened on their bed or in front of the fireplace. The decision about euthanasia is personal, but finding a way of talking through it can help minimize later regrets. Regret can create guilt and build anger at ourselves or at the vet after the loss of our companion. Regret can keep the grief process going. However, if a person can know that they provided the most gentle, humane, caring death that they could for their friend, they make progress towards healing and a sense of peace.
It might seem hard to fathom, but people doing something they love can experience burnout and fatigue. Everyone, including the volunteers and staff at animal welfare organizations, goes through some form of grief when an animal they are close to passes away. The feelings of loss might be brief, but over time the loss can take a toll and cause compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout. Fortunately, administrators are recognizing the signs and hiring grief counselors to help ease caregiver exhaustion.
Part of the grief process includes coming to a point when you feel you are ready to reinvest your home and love in a new companion. At this stage, attending a loss support group, or a private counseling session, might be a good place to discuss your feelings before you decide to adopt a new family member. Looking at various scenarios and fully understanding your expectations before you bring a new pet into your home may save you, and your new buddy, the heartache of a too hasty adoption. Consider what is pushing you to adopt. A counselor can help you anticipate what some of the scenarios could be, before helping you come up with the best decision for yourself.
During her counseling sessions, Betty poses questions like, “What does it mean to bring another animal in now? How do you think you’re going to feel when you see a little brown dog, when you’ve always had a little white dog? How are you going to feel when you see this little brown dog in his space, on your bed?” Support groups today can be effective tools to help you build trust in yourself so that you know you are making the right decision.
Sometimes animal fostering can help you through the grief process. The caretaking doesn’t have to be permanent, and if it doesn’t feel right you can end it. On the other hand, if having an animal in your home again feels right, you could begin to think about adopting. Another idea is working for a local group like San Francisco’s Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS). Their volunteers help low-income seniors and people with HIV/AIDS and other disabling illnesses with the care of their pets. By volunteering for an organization like this, you can begin to see how it feels being around another animal.
Guilt and regret are the two biggest issues that can extend the mourning period, according to Betty. She advocates setting up a support system, if possible, before your companion passes away. Being able to talk through your feelings about euthanasia with loved ones and your vet can help get you through the grief process. The more we can cherish the time we have had with our canine companions, the easier it is to accept their passing. Our animals may be with us a short time, but the lessons they teach are guaranteed to make you a better human being. Mourning and grief are natural. It helps when we can embrace the time we have with our four-legged loved ones, knowing they are woven into the tapestry of our life. When the time is right, we might even see that a little piece of them seems to appear in another dog that comes into our life.
Deciding to have a dog in your life means opening yourself up for equal parts joy and heartache. Whether you have a dog from puppyhood, or you bring an older dog into your home to live out her senior years, the special bond and friendship is forever.
When we adopted our dog, we tried from the start to be pragmatic about her life with us. She is a large breed dog with an average lifespan of 8-12 years, and she is now in her golden years. Today, we are so grateful that we didn’t give up the chance to experience her incredible companionship and unique love. Oprah says, “When you lose a loved one, you gain an angel whose name you know.” This is the sentiment I and dog lovers everywhere hold dear, some more confidently than others. It echoes our need to remain close to our four-legged loved ones until we meet again. Loss may be inevitable, but today you do not have to navigate the grief process alone.
San Francisco SPCA Pet Loss Support Group http://www.sfspca.org/programs-services/pet-loss-support
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement website http://aplb.org
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Sharon Castellanos.