Ways to Cope With Losing a Beloved Pet
This is an article you’ll need some tissues for because there’s no way to remember losing a pet without a few tears. You’ve been warned.
I sat on the cold floor of the vet’s office. I had paid the day before, so I could just do the worst thing ever and leave. Sierra walked around the room, suspect of everything, sniffing what would be her last sniffs. Sniffing hard because her eyes were riddled with cataracts and her hearing was mostly gone.
The vet said to me, after seeing me the day before when I got the worst news ever and I was a wreck, “You are awfully calm.”
All I could say back was, “Nothing that happens in this room changes anything about the life we’ve had together. This day was always inevitable. I knew that the day I took her home. This room does not define us. She will see me smiling and loving her until she takes her last breath.”
She said, “Ok. Are you ready?”
A lifetime of memories flashed before my eyes before I could answer.
We spent 16 1/2 years together. She loved the dog park and chasing other dogs with no real intent to catch them. She would find treats, food, or random items and would bury them in the couch. She never went more than 5 feet away from me. She had the eyes of an old soul always listening to me when I talked. She knew my moods and when to come close and when to come closer.
She lasted exactly one night in the kennel for her “overnight” training. Then she came up on the bed and took over the pillow next to me. This was now “her” space.
She knew what “Snuggle Buggle McGuggle” meant and would crawl up next to me and we’d “doggy spoon”. Then I’d say “Give me the belly” and she would roll over so I could give her a belly rub.
Being a fan of rap music, I gave her a Rap Name. She was LBD – Little Brown Dog. I even stole the beat from DJ Quik to sing “LBD is in the Mutha F’ing House”. Dear Lord, I’ve never told anyone that before.
She loved every dog she ever met. She was so social and playful but not aggressive. It made perfect sense when I bought a house with a decent backyard to say “Hey, let’s get a second dog!”. Sierra was 10 years old at the time, and I didn’t want to ever feel like I was “replacing” her when she was gone. Besides, she was so playful – she’d love a buddy – right?
That day started the most unrequited love story of all time. Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these two. Donner was a Golden Retriever puppy. He was curious about the world and adored his big sister from Day 1.
Sierra was not impressed. She developed the doggy “Resting Bitch Face” from that day forward.
As she got older, she got arthritis. First in her back legs and then along her spine. She didn’t like to be touched but still wanted to be close. Her eyes were clouded with cataracts and I’d give her a treat but she’d have to back up and look sideways at it to see it. I would laugh and say, “Like I’ve ever given you something that doesn’t taste like bacon.”
One night, she was in her mostly blind and deaf haze soundly sleeping. Donner curled up next to her. It was a beautiful sight. I’ll be damned if Sierra didn’t eventually wake up, look at him, give a hefty sigh and then raise her painful body up so she could move three feet away from him on the bed. Defiant until the end.
Thanksgiving weekend 2017 something changed in her. I sensed it. Her eyes told me. My gut was heavy with the knowledge I didn’t want to accept. We went to the vet. She had severe arthritis everywhere. Her back legs had what appeared to be tumors on them taking place of where bone should be.
“You can take her home, but you’ll be back in no more than a few weeks with an emergency,” the vet told me. I cried. I asked questions through painful tears.
We agreed to schedule her appointment across the rainbow bridge the next morning. I just needed one more night with her I said.
I went home and ordered two pizzas. I opened up the boxes on the bed with the two dogs and we had a feast. The next morning I gave them both “wet dog food” (a rare treat) and let them eat side by side. My heart was breaking for Sierra but also for Donner because there is no way to tell him that it was her last meal.
As we watched the clock, we sat in silence in the living room. It was wrenching that she was in so much pain I couldn’t even touch her. She didn’t even want to be near me. She just stayed within sight, but not close.
But she did make one dream come true that day.
“Yes, I’m ready”, I answered the vet.
Moments later, Sierra was gone, having heard my voice and feeling my hands on her, guiding her to the waiting arms of my mother who most certainly found her way to the Rainbow Bridge from her own heaven. Even the last photo I took of her showed she was heaven-bound with an angel glow around her.
DEALING WITH THE GRIEF THAT FOLLOWS
I came home holding her collar in my hand. A familiar jingle I had lived with most of my adult life. I didn’t know better than to put it on the hook where it usually went. It stays there to this day.
It’s never easy to lose a pet. It’s an exquisite pain of unconditional love. There’s nothing controversial about it. It’s a love you chose and honored. It’s devoted and deep. They never let you down. Never made you mad (for more than a few minutes). You learned to forgive mistakes with grace, a trait you could carry into other relationships.
I sat on the floor with Donner as he licked my tears away. He was devoted to me but looked for his sister during a long hug. I could feel his head turning as he wondered why she didn’t come home.
ALLOW GRIEF AND GRACE
During this time you have to allow the grief to process. As I’ve learned with other losses in my life, no two people grieve the same. I needed solitary confinement at first. Just me, Donner, and the giant hole left in my life. You grieve how you need to. Not everyone around you is going to understand the pain you feel. This is called a “disenfranchised loss”. I’d avoid the people didn’t realize the magnitude of pet love.
UC Davis has a wonderful list of resources and guidance for how to deal with a pet loss.
You will have options when you have to put down a pet. Do you want the ashes? Do you want a paw print? Do you want to bury it yourself? Make those decisions now so you aren’t making it at Ground Zero.
I only wanted her collar.
I asked a colleague to take away all of her photos from my office. I told him I’d come to get them when I was ready.
If you want to talk about it, talk about it. If you don’t just respond “Thank you, but I need some time to process what happened.”, to anyone who texts you.
I had a friend who didn’t want me to sit and be sad so she asked me to watch her dog for the day. She wanted to keep my mind busy. In what would be my first post-Sierra laugh, Donner gave me this look when Wrigley came over.
You are going to have to deal with the pet toys, bowls, and other sentimental items. You do what you think is best. Maybe you want to get rid of it all. Maybe you want to keep it for a memorial or shadowbox.
I had Sierra’s ceramic food bowl on the kitchen floor from her morning feast. I could not move it. For months I mopped around it. It sat there as a quiet reminder of a love gone but not lost.
One day in a rush, I was quickly doing dishes and I accidentally kicked the bowl. It broke into 4 pieces. I stood frozen. Donner came in and sniffed the shards. I finally let out a giant laugh. God knew I was going to keep that bowl on the floor forever and took care of business his own way. As I picked up the mess I could hear my angel mother’s voice saying “Jennifer, you’ve got a dead dog’s bowl on your kitchen floor. Pick it up and move on. You’ve got more love to give.”
HOW TO HELP A FRIEND WHO IS GRIEVING
It’s not always easy to find the words to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a pet. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to you – not pushing you away – just too grief-stricken to talk about it. Sometimes they overload you with feelings about it. Be kind and listen.
What TO Say:
- I’m so sorry for your loss
- My thoughts and prayers are with you
- I know you will miss your loyal companion. I’m here for you.
- They are running the rainbow bridge pain-free
- What can I do to help you right now?
- Do you want to talk or do you want to be alone?
- If someone has posted the loss on social media, share a photo of the beloved pet lost and share a great memory. This is comforting.
- I wish I had the right words to say right now, but I don’t. But I love you and will support you any way I can.
What NOT To Say
- I know when I lost my pet I… (don’t make it about YOU, keep it about them)
- At least it wasn’t a person.
- You’ll get over it soon.
- Just get another pet!
- Throw his/her stuff away so you don’t have to think about it. (Let them decide when the time is right)
- Nothing. Say something to people you love even if words escape you.
When I returned to work after Sierra died (I was on vacation when it happened) one of my friend had left a gift for me.
It was a bracelet. But it was more than that. The Memorial Bracelet has meaning. There’s a paw bead to “symbolize the paw prints they left on your heart.” There’s a heart bead to “symbolize the piece of your heart they took with them.” There are 22 other beads, each representing a meal donation made in honor of the pet. That means 22 dogs got a meal because of this purchase. That means your dog’s loss helped another dog, just like the heart of a dog would want it.
Willow Tree is another option for a gift to a grieving loved one.
There are varieties of this available online as well. Here’s a simple search of ideas from Amazon.
There are tribute ideas as well, a way to make your pet’s memory live on. An owner in Wales made a tennis ball box to honor her beloved animal.
You can have a tree planted in their honor in a US National Park or Forest.
- If they are into gardening, get them a plaque to put in their garden.
- Print out a photo of the pet on canvas or wood. Walgreens and CVS have easy printing options for this. Usually, they can be made on the same day.
- A memorial keychain
- A printed copy of the Rainbow Bridge
THE RAINBOW BRIDGE POEM
“Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….”
As I write this article, through tears, I am now once again in that “borrowed time” phase with Donner.
His hips are failing him. The vet even called them “gnarly”. At one point he couldn’t walk up stairs and I had to carry all 105 pounds of him. He’s got good medicine now that keeps him moving. He still chases the ball albeit at 1/4 of the speed he used to. I’ve resorted to removing the headboard frame to let him jump on the bed easier. Most recently, we’re now down to just a mattress so he can climb up.
How long does he have? It could be months. It could be another few years. But he’s a large dog pushing 11 years old. He’s in a certain amount of pain and I’m not going to put him through surgery that would make his life worse. He’s a happy dog and he has welcomed a new puppy into our home.
Her name is Summerella.
Several times I have called her Sierra. Each time it breaks my heart but also makes me remember my LBD.
I know a day will come when I’ll come home with a collar in hand trying to explain to Summerella where her brother went. I know the grief that lies ahead. I know the pure love he’s brought into my heart.
I know “that day” is inevitable. It does not define the relationship and memories we have. It was always going to happen. It’s what we do between now and then that matters.
In that spirit, I’m going to go play with my dogs now. I recommend you do the same. Time is not in our favor, but love is timeless.
God bless anyone who is grieving the loss of a pet. Feel free to message me and tell me your story.
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