We bought our daughter Julie a St. Bernard five years ago. Each evening "Mackie" climbed up on my lap to take a nap (even after she was full grown)! A couple years later Mackie died of a kidney disease. We buried her under her favorite tree, made a marker, and thanked God for the wonderful gift of Mackie. But each of us experienced grief and pain over the loss of our beloved dog. This article will give you several guidelines to help you experience good grief as you suffer the loss of your pet.
As I share the following guidelines to help you grieve the loss of your pet, please keep in mind that each person's grief process is as unique as the relationship between that pet and its owner. However, pet grief can be good grief.
1. Just as in the loss of a spouse, parent, child, or other significant person, you must ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS of your beloved dog or pet. I know that sounds obvious, but denial is a powerful emotion during times of significant loss. In fact, pretending that you are not hurting during times of significant loss can actually be detrimental to your physical and emotional health. There really is such a thing as "Good Grief." Grief is a healthy emotional process. Admit that your cherished dog or pet is gone. Don't let others trivialize the importance of that dog in your life. A couple quotes will show you that we recognized many years ago how important dogs and other pets are to us. For example, Roger Caras once said, "Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole." Josh Billings noted, "A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself." And Will Rogers once quipped, "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."
2. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO GRIEVE. The fact is that people often invest as much love and affection in a pet as they do in many personal relationships. (Don't laugh: dogs miss you when you're gone, dogs never complain about your cooking, dogs don't criticize your friends, dogs don't shop, dogs mean it when they kiss you, dogs think you sing great, and a dog's parents never visit). Other people might scoff, be confused, or misunderstand, especially those who have not experienced a loss of this kind. Don't worry about what others think or feel; this is a time to be true to yourself. Allow yourself the time and freedom to be sad, to cry, and to miss your friend and companion. Tell yourself it's OK - because it is. Pet grief can be good grief.
3. THANK GOD FOR THE GIFT OF YOUR PET. God created the animals that become our cherished pets. Good grief comes when we begin to recognize that God is the giver of all good gifts, and dogs are definitely good gifts. Do something symbolic to give thanks and show respect for this wonderful gift from God. Cheri and I buried Mackie and made a makeshift concrete headstone in the ground over her grave. Just the other day my son went out and found the marker in the woods, cleaned it off, and spent a moment remembering Mackie fondly. Pets matter! You can give a donation to an animal shelter in honor of your pet. Other meaningful acts people have shared with me include writing a special poem or story, commissioning a painting of their pet from a photograph, or framing an enlarged photo to hang on the wall. A fairly new phenomenon is the Pet Cemetery, where you can actually bury your pet, place a marker, and bring flowers. The bottom line is this; it was your pet, and it is your pet grief - do something that is meaningful for you. It will make you feel good about yourself and your pet, and it will assist you in bringing good grief to your grief process.
4. SHARE YOUR PAIN. Pet grief hurts. Talk to someone you trust about what you are feeling. Grief is a painful process; don't go through it alone. Most of us know someone who has experienced the pain of pet loss. Talk to them. There is a healing process (Good Grief) that occurs when we hear ourselves talking about our pain, our grief, our loss. And there is empathy when two people can share similar experiences. It helps to hear someone else say "I know how you feel, I've been there too." It helps to know you are not alone in your feelings. If there is no one you can talk to in your immediate family or circle of friends, consider talking to your pastor, or joining a pet loss support group in your community. Check the internet, and you may be able to find a pet loss "blog" group to join.
5. CELEBRATE YOUR MEMORIES. Pet grief can be good grief. When you think about the relationship you had with your pet, what is it that brings a smile to your face? Think on those things. Get out the pictures of your child and pet dressed alike for Halloween. Or the one of you and your pet covered in soap suds and soaking wet during bath time. Franklin P. Jones says "Anybody who doesn't know what soap tastes like never washed a dog." Or remember all the "tricks" your pet used to do just to please you. Recall those winter evenings relaxing together by the fire, or the summer days romping in the park. I remember opening the front door one day and finding my St. Bernard sitting right there, looking up at me, with a huge "bubble" poking out both sides of her mouth - looking like she chewing bubble gum! It's a scene I will never forget. That's Good Grief! "We give dog's time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made" - M. Facklam.
6. BE A VOLUNTEER. Pet grief can consume you if you let it. This is a great opportunity to volunteer some time and energy to help someone else. You can volunteer some time at your local animal shelter. You could help feed the homeless at the local soup kitchen. Be a volunteer at your local church. And the list goes on. Volunteering is a healthy way to give something back to your church or community. Helping your fellow man is a good thing, and it makes you feel good about who you are. It takes your mind off your pet loss and the emptiness you feel, and helps the process of good grief.
7. RELY ON YOUR PERSONAL FAITH. Pet grief is just as real as losing a person. Lean on your spiritual belief system. The scriptures tell us that God loves us and wants to comfort us during times of grief and loss. Does God care about animals? Is God concerned with my pet dying? You bet He is! Does God really care about my pet grief? Absolutely! The Bible says God knows when a sparrow falls out of the sky. And it says every hair on your head is numbered, so He cares about you very much! During this time of grief and loss, reconnect or recommit to your personal faith. Spend some extra time in devotion, worship, meditation, and prayer. God's comfort and help during this time will help you experience good grief.
8. DON'T REPLACE YOUR PET UNTIL YOU ARE READY. Statistics show that after the loss of a spouse, many people remarry too soon, because of the fear of loneliness. Pet grief can cause the same mistakes. Don't be too anxious to fill the void left by your precious pet. Remember that every relationship is unique, just as every person and dog are unique. Pet grief can be immense for some, and can take significant time. How soon should you get a new pet? Experts disagree, but estimates range from a few weeks to a year. They do agree, however, that you should be sure you are emotionally ready to explore a totally new relationship before you get a new pet. They also agree that the vast majority of people can and do benefit from getting another pet, as long as they cherish each new pet relationship as unique and special. Do not expect your next pet to be like your last, but love the next one just as much. Each one is a fantastic, life-changing experience. And a part of the process of good grief is to replace that love relationship you had with that dog, with another dog or pet.
We all know that dogs and other pets are not human, but they certainly do bring a great deal of joy and happiness to our lives. (Andy Rooney says "The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.") The loss of a beloved pet should not be taken lightly or dismissed as unimportant. If you have lost a cherished dog or pet; if you are experiencing Pet Grief; use the suggestions we've outlined here to experience good grief, cherish the memories, and prepare yourself for your next awesome pet/owner relationship. Then go out and find that amazing dog or pet that can benefit from the love and affection only you can give.