One of the hardest aspects of our relationships with dogs is the great difference in our lifespans. When you open your heart to a dog, you do so knowing that you’re probably going to outlive him or her. The joy that dogs bring to our lives is worth the pain we feel at losing them, but oh, how awful that pain can be.
“If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.”
I think it’s worth it to acknowledge that losing a dog hurts. Whether your dog lived a long, happy life, was euthanized at a young age, or was lost tragically early due to an accident or illness, it hurts to let them go.
Sometimes we are given the enormous responsibility of making that difficult decision to euthanize. The empathy and selflessness required to say, “I understand that it hurts too much, and I love you enough to end that suffering” is enormous. Whether your dog’s suffering was physical or emotional, helping them to cross over when there’s no other option is never the wrong thing to do if it comes from a place of compassion.
Life without your canine companion is going to feel empty and raw for awhile. This is normal and healthy. Embrace the grief. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s hard to adjust to life without your dog when they’ve been a fixture in your life for any amount of time.
There are constant reminders that they’re no longer there, and it’s normal to keep poking at that raw and painful place that they used to fill up, the same way that your tongue keeps revisiting the socket where a tooth used to be. The empty dog bed, the silence when the mailman visits, waking up without the staccato accompaniment of that thumping tail… it will be difficult.
I came across a photograph of him not long ago… his black face, the long snout sniffing at something in the air, his tail straight and pointing, his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.
- Willie Morris
Oftentimes the pain of grief can feel like a physical wound. Social distress (grieving) is processed in the same part of the brain as pain from injuries. Take care of yourself as if you just sustained a major injury or underwent surgery, because that’s what your body thinks just happened.
Do what helps: I find it’s helpful to write about my loss, but others find it more helpful to talk or to do volunteer work. Surround yourself with understanding and empathetic people. Make a memorial for your dog, if you wish. Plant a tree, sponsor a homeless dog at your local shelter, or bring freshly baked cookies to an adoption event for the volunteers.
At some point, grief does fade, although it never truly leaves us. You’ll find yourself smiling and laughing at memories of your dog instead of crying. Reminders of your dog’s happy moments will make you joyful instead of remorseful. Perhaps a new relationship will blossom with another dog, never replacing that which you had with your previous companion, but richer for the lessons that your old friend taught you. Each new dog benefits from the teachings of the ones who came before, and opening your heart to a new dog when the time feels right can be a beautiful tribute to the dog you lost.
There’s a stone I had made for Luke at the top of the hill road, where the pasture opens wide and the setting sun highlights the words carved into its face. “That’ll do, Luke, that’ll do.” The words are said to working dogs all over the world when the chores are done and the flock is settled: “That’ll do dog, come home now, your work is done.” Luke’s work is done too. He took my heart and ran with it, and he’s running still, fast and strong, a piece of my heart bound up with his, forever.
- Patricia McConnell
For the Love of a Dog
My heart goes out to my friends who have said goodbye to wonderful dogs recently. If you have lost a friend, what helped you get through the grief? What lessons did your special dog teach during their time with you? Please share your memorials in the comments below.