What I Learned About Grief When My Dog of 16 Years Passed Away
Last Monday was in the top three worst days of my life. My doggo of 16 years passed away. Actually, it might have been the worst . Until now, all of the very close deaths in my family were not only expected but a relief to some extent. His death was unexpected and I was so distraught, my neighbors called the Sheriff out for a welfare check.
I have cried - no blubbered - every day since Monday afternoon. My dog Chaz was my constant companion. My unwavering protector. My "I'm always here and I understand" best good friend when the world felt overwhelming or bleak. He was also there when things were great - celebrating every single day when I'd get home. Even though he suffered with kidney disease that made him need to use the bathroom - he'd always pause when I got home to properly greet me and tell me just how much he missed me that day.
I was and am still raw with emotion. There are moments when I feel kind of silly for grieving my dog's passing so hard. But according to The Washington Post a 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling found that dog owners placed their dog as close as their closest family member and the closest of all in 38 percent of cases. The article goes on to state that this notion that mourning a pet is silly can lead many to not grieve their loss properly. But research has shown that losing a pet can be as hard, if not harder, than losing a human loved one.
It has been a week since my beloved Chaz passed away. And I've learned a lot this week about dealing with grief.
Take some real time to grieve. I immediately texted my bosses and everyone who I had meetings with the next day. I knew I couldn't handle going in and trying to work the next day. I spent it in my jammies watching soul-soothing movies and crying. I was better the day after. But I needed that day of reflection and grief.
Allow friends and family to be a part of the grieving process. My mom asked if I wanted her to travel the hour and a half to come spend the day with me. I told her I wouldn't be much company but she came anyway. I'm glad she did. Really glad. And my bonus daughter asked if she could bring me dinner. I declined. She brought me TWO tubs of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Did you know really good ice cream has a numbing effect on emotions? Ice cream is never a bad idea. Never. Several friends, co-workers and family members reached out to me sharing condolences. Some brought me memorial gifts. And even though they all made me cry, they hold a special place in my heart and helped me through.
Make mindful decisions about your friend's final resting place. When there's a human death, we take time to make careful decisions regarding their final send off. My husband immediately offered to bury my dog but after deliberation, I decided to have him cremated by gentle cremation. I couldn't stand moving and leaving him behind. Or feel separated from him. I always want him beside me. Local funeral homes offer various types of pet cremation and even offer pick up services. But some people decide to bury their pet and plant a flowering bush or tree above them. Whatever you decide to do, do it with intention. Do what's best for you.
Gather up their things and put them in a designated spot. I went through the house and picked up Chaz's sweater, his collar, his chewies, his bed, and anything else that reminded me of him. I put them all together in a bag that's not out of sight but tucked away. I didn't want to keep running across his things and breaking down. But I didn't want to just erase him from my home.
Relive memories. I talk about Chaz frequently. I have to. I reminisce about the time we went to the beach when he was really young and he had the time of his life running through ocean waves. I remember the Thanksgiving I thought he was in the truck as we left my mom's and when I looked in my side mirror, I saw a little brown spot running down the road after me as fast as those little legs could take him. I remember how he used to howl like a coyote. I remember the first moments we met and I even painfully recall his last breaths. Reliving these memories keeps him alive in my heart.
Comfort others who are also grieving. I'm not the only one in my home who is completely heartbroken. My 13-year-old Akita, Kodi, doesn't know a world without Chaz. His constant companion is gone too. And I can tell he's grieving. When Chaz first passed away, he ran around the house barking and crying. It was heartbreaking. From that day, he sits outside waiting for Chaz to come home. I am taking extra time to take him for walks, give him massages and hugs, and talk to him. He's alone - he's missing his friend. We grieve together.
There's a new normal. Life is hard. Life without him is harder. But I can't just stop living. Big Bill Love wrote this note to me and it resonated. "I don't know how he came too be in your life but unless he was born right in your home he most likely could have ended up with someone else or possibly no one. Your sadness right now is for yourself. The little one has gone on and is not unhappy but what you must remember is all those many years of happiness he gave you AND the years he got from you. I would bet that no dog ever placed on Earth had better treatment than he did. He didn't have much choice of 'owners' but he won the dog lottery when he got you. Our little friends don't require a lot. They need food and water and a good safe place to sleep and some attention. But some get lucky and get another feature--love. I know he got that in bunches from you. And you know he felt it. You will always miss him but it will get less with time. When you feel one of those episodes of missing him coming on, please remember what a great life he had. It was probably the best he could have possibly had. He thanked you for it every day."
It's okay to be happy again. A few days after Chaz passed, I looked through the pets on Petfinder that needed homes. It was comforting to know that I rescued him and one day I'd rescue another. Did I feel guilty? Yep. But, it was with good intention and I knew that both Kodi and I needed something to take our minds off what happened. Also, Chaz had slowed in recent years. Heart and kidney failure took a toll on his body and he slept a lot. I missed having a spirited little friend to hang with me for a while. So, after discussing it with my family, we decided to find a dog to foster. I had a LOT to choose from but one little guy stuck out to me. I wanted another chihuahua but he had to be friendly with kids, cats, and dogs. Basically - a tiny unicorn. Chihuahuas aren't known for being fun and friendly. Also, I didn't want a young puppy that needed a lot of training. I'm not ready for all that. Late last week, one popped up on Petfinder that I took a second glance at and inquired about. I think it was God making the very best out of a terrible situation for me. His face reminded me of another face that needed me and he met every one of the qualifications. Here he is...
My bonus daughter and I went and picked him up and I'm happy to report he's absolutely loving it at our house. And we are growing quite attached to him. He's full of life and loves to snuggle. And his presence has brought joy to all our lives. Spoiler alert: there's a 99% chance he's found his forever home.
Do I miss Chaz with all my heart? Yes.
Would I trade the perfect new dog in a heartbeat for one more day with my very imperfect senior dog? Yes.
Do I break down multiple times a day? Yes.
But, I'm allowing myself to grieve. And I'm also allowing myself to move on. I have a foot in both worlds right now and when I get Chaz's ashes back, I hope I'll find closure.
An unknown author said, “Dogs come into out lives to teach us about love, they depart to teach us about loss. A new dog never replaces an old dog. It merely expands the heart.” Chaz was my best good friend. He won't ever be replaced but his life and his death have taught me so much.
If you are struggling with pet loss, there are resources to help.
Pet Loss Grief Hotlines:
ASPCA: (877) GRIEF-10. Available 24/7.
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: (607) 253-3932, available Tuesdays & Thursdays 6:00- 9:00 pm Eastern Time.
Chicago Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) Pet Loss Helpline & Support Group: (630) 325-1600
The Rainbow Bridge:
"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."
- Author Unknown