Dog gone: Coping with grief after the death of a dog-child

Guest post by Michele Kraft

offbeatLokiIt’s been the best and worst year of my life, starting when I got married to the most wonderful person I know. Then my husband and I packed up our respective dogs and moved from Wisconsin to Maryland; I returned to school after a 14-year hiatus, which led to the realization that many of my classmates were young enough to be my children.

Having no children of my own, nor friends or siblings with children, I seemed to have forgotten I was aging. There was no physical reminder growing up before my eyes. I have dogs, not children. Puppies become adult dogs, but they never tell you that you “aren’t cool anymore,” or have friends with parents who look ancient until you find out you share the same birth year.

While riding all of these challenging but mostly happy waves off the coast of my midlife crisis, I got a cancer diagnosis, and had to quit the now beloved program with the now beloved kids at school, and then, while recovering from cancer treatment, my dog was diagnosed with cancer, too. He died.

Loki was as much like a son to me as a dog could be. He was smart, inquisitive, and expressive; legendary for his comedic behavior with our Wisconsin friends. A Great Dane/Labrador mutt, he was human-sized and happy; he taught me a lot about love and how to get it by putting it out there. The loss of his presence is almost a presence itself, a phantom hole everywhere our tiny family goes.

It feels like a betrayal to consider the next dog, though I know there will be a next dog; I would have 50 dogs if there were enough hours in the day — if I had enough energy to give to that many relationships.

Eager, but ashamed, I was hoping to find some kind of timeline for adoption amongst my virtual and actual friends — a permission of sorts which would remove some burden of decision-making. It’s so much easier when someone else tells me what I ought to be thinking — my reaction of agreement or disgust is at least a place to start.

It crossed my mind, a few weeks after Loki died, that I could march down to the SPCA and stroll back home with a new love. My former psychologist wasn’t going to find out and frantically call me to suggest a meeting, and Loki was not going to appear, as if I am Macbeth, and go all Banquo’s ghost on me.

I was not ready yet. But I went to the SPCA anyway, just to see what would happen, and felt worse, now bearing the burden of all the dogs I couldn’t bring myself to take on.

I was surprised to learn that many people get a new dog immediately after the death of their old dog, sometimes on the same day their pet dies. Others are quickly given a new puppy by friends or family members who cannot stand by and idly wait for their beloved to get through their grief and return to normal. I understand the sentiment on the surface, the desire for a rapid recovery, the return of love, a warm, wiggly source of reassurance that life doesn’t suck.

But as anyone who has dated someone who is recently single will tell you, the rebound is awful for the one being rebounded upon. The same must be true for pets, and worse, the new dog cannot possibly know how dear departed Spot used to manage his affairs, nor mount much defense of himself as he falls short of unnamed, monumental expectations. At least we humans choose to put ourselves into the perilous rebound; and better yet, we can leave when we’ve had enough of being seen through the haunted fun-house mirror of loss.

As Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed. states in her article, How Soon Should You Get a New Pet?:

The time to obtain a new pet is when you have worked through your grief sufficiently to be confident that you can look forward to new relationships, rather than backward at your loss.

As much as part of me wanted to rise above it, my eyes were still trained on my rear-view mirror, or, as my Freudian typing skills insist, my tear-view mirror.

We need to grieve, and, according to Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D, the Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, our culture, and, I would add, ourselves, would rather we skip it.

Mourning in our culture isn’t always easy. Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful… I have learned that if we are to heal we cannot skirt the outside edges of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it… Part of your self-identity comes from the relationships you have with other people. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, your self-identity, or the way you see yourself, naturally changes.

Awareness of this change in my self-identity has settled in, and for me, the sorrow is not only about grieving the loss of my dog, but all of the losses of the past year: moving away from all that was familiar, my perception of my youth, my belief that I can beat any obstacle by just trying hard enough. Some battles cannot be won.

My dog, my big furry friend, was in many respects an avatar, an embodiment of everything I loved best about myself from a time when I was the happiest I had ever been. Moving onward in my life, even for its intended and still expected happy outcome, also means the loss of all that once was, including, it seems, my Loki.

And yet. A new dog! A new life to invest in, a new dialog to open, oh yes, a new vicarious living partner. Loki was abandoned and starved before I got him, frightened to death, cringing at every quick move or raised voice. We worked on his self-confidence, and he bloomed before my eyes, a transformation arc I traced right along with him, through divorce and new friends, new marriage, returning to school, through it all, having a happy life. What will New Dog’s story be, I wonder as I pore over the photos on Petfinder.com, what kind of adventure am I choosing? What kind of crazy fun are we going to find together?

When I am ready to meet New Dog, and I begrudgingly admit I will know when I’m ready, I will find him. He will come with his own particular bag of problems, because all pets do. Loki taught me his lessons by example and by needing my guidance. New Dog will provide a fresh emotional blueprint for me to understand and grow with. He will lead to me learning more about myself, the same person Loki loved, the same person who will be a New Person, too, shaped along with the New Dog, with everything we will live and learn together.

Comments on Dog gone: Coping with grief after the death of a dog-child

  1. Our beloved Schnappsie passed away from Cancer a few years ago. We were devastated… We were prepared for her death, it wasn’t sudden, but still the grief of losing a dog in any way threw my entire family into a grieving process. She was the second dog that we had lost – both she and bruno lived long lives and well past 12 years (bruno made it to 18 years, bless him) and I know we made them the most comfortable and loving lives.

    I remember I took off from work the day I learned – I sometimes wish pets were made part of the bereavement time we can take when a family member dies. I was living away from home at the time and took charge in taking care of the arrangements. We cremate our pets because we move frequently, burial would not feel right as each move would make us feel as we are abandoning their resting place.

    We were so lucky that the vet we worked with throughout her cancer and treatment found us an amazing local business that took care of all the cremation and with tenderness.

    I think I cried for 2 days straight at least. My parents have three dogs at the moment… and Callie, the eldest, is our special senior. She’ll eventually return to the earth and we’ll start the process over again.

    And me, I have two kitties that are our children. We had a scare with one who has pica… and the thought of losing one is soul crushing.

  2. What a beautiful article. As a veterinary student, I see this happen quite often and tell people about the same thing when they ask when is a good time to get a new pet, but not nearly as eloquently. I may share this with clients some day if that is okay. I am so sorry for your loss of Loki and wish you well on your journey (however long it may be) to finding a new dog to love and be loved by.

  3. My great dane, Sierra, had degenerative myelopathy and I chose to have her put down a few days before her 12th birthday. She was my first only dog. My first dog that was 100% mine. And a great dane IS just like living iwth another person. Her body had quit on her, but she was still bright and loving the day she left us. She left behind her little Chinese Crested brother (who is 10yo) now. It’s been almost a year now and we put off getting another dane until we were married, until…
    We checked out the rescues, considered how another DANE would impact little 10 pound Poe and now have decided to wait until he passes and get a puppy from a breeder. It’s a decision that feels right.
    For each of you grieving, wait until it feels right- a day later or years later.

  4. I lost Lulu very suddenly two days ago. I still can’t get my head around it, my heart is confused by her absence and I feel like I’m neglecting her because I’m unable to care for her now. This only adds a new dimension to the pain. My arms are screaming out to hold her again. I’m lost without her.

  5. This looks like an old post but I need a way to cope with the passing of our dog so I need to say a few things. Our daughter brought home a dog from the pound one day against my wishes. She was still in high school with alot of activities and I knew that I would be providing most of the care for the dog. I was upset. When she moved out she took the dog but later when she moved away she pawned the dog off on us. Ya know I grew to love that dog and spent so much of my life making sure he was taken care of. I had Bandit for approximately 4 years and he basically died of old age. I hadn’t a clue. I never thought of him dying. I know now he was helping me cope with my chronic depression. He was a needy dog and I was a needy human. I miss him so much.

  6. Losing my dog Cody has been one the hardest experience of my life. It has been 98 days since he is gone and I have cried every day. He was 15 years 8 months and I could see he was entering a stage of terrible physical illness and as a dog with epilepsy that we successfully treated over the years I didn’t want him to suffer a seizure in his debilitated state that would kill him in real agony. We two were roommates and best friends for 14 years 7 months. I am sure I will never get over losing him, there’s just too much shared experience and love for that to ever happen. I have no children and live alone and he was a child to me. I am 61 soon to be 62. I think perhaps I don’t have the energy or the health to care for a dog again. I am not sure right now. Time will tell me if I should adopt again or not.

  7. Hi all,

    I had a beautiful Yorkie named “Sallie” she was great! She was trained to go outside to use the restroom, begged for a snack, pawed at us when she wanted a belly rub, and growled when someone got near her food. My kids, and fiance’e absolutely adored her as well. She was wonderful!!!! We had her for 5 1/2 years, but she was 10 years old and on October 4, 2014 she lost her battle from heart failure and old age. I can’t stop grieving. Everything that I do I think of her! We buried her next to a tree in our front yard. That morning that she passed will always remain vivid in my mind forever. I am just glad that I was the only one here, and not my kids or fiance’e because it would have been a lot more harder! Does anyone have any ways to get passed this grieving process?? I really need help because I am constantly finding myself talking to her, and watching her grave site to make sure nothing is messing with her grave!!

  8. I’m so sorry for your loss. There is very few kinds of pain that can compare to the pain that follows the absence of such an important part of our lives.

    You will find the right four-legged ball of love soon. And I’m sure your Loki will be wagging his tail and happy you’ve found love again.

    We lost our little furbaby, Severus, a few months ago. We went to the Humane Society and, unlike you, we couldn’t resist the love of one little guy who stole our hearts the minute he jumped into our laps. It’s been hard, battling my sadness for the loss of Severus along with my joy at finding Emmet, but I’m constantly reminding myself that Emmet is not Severus. Emmet is his own dog that will not replace the love we had, but will be its own fantastic story.

    I’m sending you lots of love. Hope your heart heals soon.

  9. I had two Jackzoo puppies 9 months ago to join my 2 year old Chonzer . The two pups were crated together at night to sleep and played together with the older dog.
    Had to take one of the pups to the vets on Friday as she had a badly swollen belly. The vet diagnosed congenital heart failure and had to put her to sleep. Of course we went home empty handed and now her sister cries constantly, anyone got any suggestions on how to comfort her please ? At wits end with grief for the lost pup and the remaining sad one.

  10. Become a dog foster parent. Many rescues need foster homes for dogs that aren’t ready for adoption either because of illness, injury or behavior. It’s also a great way to non-commit, its like dating, you get to bring home a pup & see if you are compatible, if not you get to see him off to a home where he does fit.

    I honestly fear the day my 12 year old girl leaves me, I’m hoping for a few more years or forever. But there is the part of me that thinks i may want to introduce a new dog to the pack before she goes so that I don’t have to face that empty spot on the bed.

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