Letting Go: On Losing a Dog

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.”

-Marjorie Garber

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.

Photo by Greg

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.

21 responses to “Letting Go: On Losing a Dog

  1. Great article. This article will hopefully help people experiencing the loss of a pet as well. http://www.funpawcare.com/2012/07/12/when-your-dog-dies/

  2. The heartache of loosing a dog is simply awful. This is a beautiful post and I’m sure it will mean a lot to hundreds of people.

  3. My little man J.C. was not only a dog but my son. I lost my baby boy but he went in peace. He touched our hearts like no other could do. I know he is now over the bridge playing and enjoying his time. I worry cause he was so dependent on me and got sick if I was not there. I pray he is well and someone is taking good care of him till we meet again. RIP little man mama loves you and always will.

  4. Loosing my first dog was very likely on of the most devastating things in my young life .To this day i have not had anything that hit me as hard as when Bandit was hit by a car .. Inspiring words Sara well done :)

  5. My friends were extremely supportive after I lost Sophie and Buddy this summer. I have a Rainbow Bridge tattoo on my back and am able to have it finished finally. It’s for all those who have crossed the Bridge; mine, friends’, strays, fosters and shelter pets.

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  7. How fitting, yesterday we let our 16-year-old toy poodle go to the Bridge. She was my big, strong husband’s heart dog and he was devastated but your blog came, he read it and asked me to make a copy for him. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for weighing in on our dilemma. Losing Luke was such sadness for our family. He was such a dear friend and companion. It has been more than a year. We’re ready to move forward!

  9. When my wonderful Berner was diagnosed with lymphoma I made a commitment to share one good thing about her on Facebook every day that she lived from that point. I called these posts 100 Good Things About Coretta. I only made it to about 30 before she died, but friends far and wide who never met her in person got a chance to know her, and it helped me to have a chance to share how special she was.

  10. I lost my Digby 18 months after he entered my life and my heart and my home. He was a medical mess but full of spirit and had a strong will to live in spite of everything this world had done to him. I knew on our first vet visit that he would break my heart but loved him regardless. We shared waking and sleeping moments while we were blessed to have them. He was close to me in ways that few other dogs have been. Digby has only been gone 25 days so the pain and grief is still strong intertwined with the absolute angst and heartache of making that last decision to let him go. He loved me and I loved him unconditionally and the loss is great. I know a day will come when the smiles will come more than the tears. Til we meet again my little baby boy, a joy to my life and living on in my heart.

  11. Beautiful Sara, thank you.

  12. Five yrs ago today I lost my beloved Chelsea at the age of 8 & it was the hardest loss I’ve ever felt until 43 days ago when I lost My precious Daisy she was very sick the past yr. & we had to do what we said we would never do & let her go. She died one day before her 15th birthday, she was truely the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life…she was my heart & I truely don’t know what I will do with out her, for the first time in 15 yrs I feel so alone I don’t think I will ever get over this loss! These two dogs were truely the best of the best & I thank them for loving me the way no other has, they each have taken a huge piece of my heart, a piece that will never be replaced. Momma loves you babies…always & forever xxxx

  13. Dee Dee Cowan

    I let go of my dearest, most beloved Scout three weeks ago today. He was over 13 and I knew he was too uncomfortable to enjoy life anymore. I just truly didn’t think he would ever die. Of course I knew he would but clung to a silly hope that he wouldn’t. It was just him and me the last two years of his life and they were the best. We just adored one another. I rushed home from work to be with him. I didn’t want to spend time away from him….I knew that it would be ending, sooner than later. Letting him go was so, so devastating. I am on a roller coaster of emotion these days. I still wonder if I did the right thing. My wonderful vet gently encouraged it so I know deep down it was the right thing to do. Somehow, this does not comfort me. I miss his company so much. His loveliness. He was so incredibly affectionate in his last years. Really gushy. I loved it. We had a wonderful relationship….so understanding and forgiving. I miss him beyond words.

    • Dee dee, your words perfectly describe the love i had for my dog from beginning to end. I wonder if I let go too soon, and three months later, I still wonder. My house just isn’t the same anymore and while some days are better than others, I know that you can’t rush grief. I fight the urge to not search for another puppy. It just isn’t the right time or the right thing to do. Hang in there and know in your heart that you knew your dog better than anyone and the humane decision is often the hardest decision.

    • Dee dee, never think that you did not do the right thing. You tore your heart out to prevent Scout from having to suffer. You made the ultimate sacrifice.

  14. I received Sammie as a gift for my seventh birthday, and from that point on, he was my pal, my partner in crime, my cuddle buddy and constant ear. He listened to every complaint and frustration and exciting frivolous comment I had to give. Every morning, I would wake up to him bursting through my door and jumping on my bed to stand on my head and lick my face. Whenever we sang happy birthday, he joined in the last line howling at the top of his lungs! He was so full of life and excitement and joy; he made coming home an adventure. On May 27th of this year, I noticed a tiny infected cut on his lip that we later found out to be a rapid growing tumor. He had that removed, but the doctors noticed another tumor the size of a golf ball in his throat, so we had him put on steroids to help with the swelling. Throughout this summer, the swelling seemed to go down, and we thought he was going to be fine until last Sunday, he began throwing up infection. My mom felt his throat and was surprised by a lump that fit into her palm. We took him to the vet on Monday, and the doctor told us he was in terrible pain. We had no idea because he seemed perfectly normal and jubilant and happy! I have never felt so much pain in my heart like the pain I felt when I heard the news that they were going to put him down right then. It all just seemed to happen to fast. The doctors told us he was going to be okay. Its so unfair that my shadow of ten years is just completely gone. I cried and cried for the first few days. This week has been better, but literally everything reminds me of him- his toys, the smell of his food, his leash in the yard, his love for bananas, we also found the bottle of his steroid pills in the cabinet today and threw them out. I expect him to greet me at the top of the stairs when I get home from school. I don’t even know how to describe the way my heart hurts. My room is so empty without him. I feel sick not having to let him outside before we leave the house. I feel like I want to get another dog just for the sake of having another little companion, but then I feel like it’s completely dishonoring and disloyal to Sammie. I don’t know. I do know that as time goes on, the pain will ease, and I will move forward. It’s just terrible right now. :( I love and miss you, Sammie boy.

  15. When I bought my first house, I was finally ready to own my first dog.i bought a miniature schnauzer and visited her until she was fully weaned from her mother. I took her home 5 days after moving in my new home. It was our home. She belly bathed in the sunshine in the backyard and kept the squirrels in check about who lived in her outsoor space. She was beautiful and so, so smart. I learned how to groom her so she wouldnt have to go through the trauma of going ro the ‘beauty shop.’ I made organic food for her when i saw that she was becoming a finicky eater. She watched TV and waited patiently for an animal, any animal to appear on the screen so she could bark at it until it disappeared. We walked all over Austin. She developed a heart murmur which gradually worsened. Knowing this day would come, I didn’t expect it so soon. She was only 12 and It’s been almost three months since I let her go. I miss her everyday and I probably always will. I will never forget the joy and laughter she brought to my life. I love you piper and you will always be in my thoughts and in my heart until we meet again.Thanks for writing this article.

  16. Pingback: Saying Goodbye: Making the Decision to Euthanize Your Dog | Paws Abilities

  17. Danielle Bilodeau

    Today I will be ending my little coppers life. Oh how I ache inside. I feel like my life will never be the same again. He is 15 and a half years old. He was my son the son I never had. He has given me 15 beautiful years and I will miss him so. I am counting the hours and the minutes we have left. It’s just not fair. I only hope and pray that he forgives me for letting him go today. How do you say goodbuy to the best friend you ever had. I will love you forever copper son and I look forward to being with you again at rainbow bridge. Your owner who loves and will miss you xxx

    • Danielle I am reading this as I wait for another hour to do the same… my heart is in such pain. He is so uncomfortable and in pain so I know it is the right thing to do. The unconditional love and loyalty from my Murphy cannot ever be replicated by a human being… sheer devotion and I will miss him so much

  18. My dog, Sally died about 3 years ago at the age 11.
    I raised her alone from a puppy that entire time, and it was just the two of us.
    She had a long, happy life, and only in the last few weeks of her life she seemed to slow down, she had a few small seizures, but would get right back up like nothing happened.
    So when some random cold December Saturday she suddenly seized up and died in my arms unexpectedly, I was completely lost.
    It was such an unexpected shock.
    As a forty year old single man, I had never experienced the depth and torture of such grief in my entire life. Even with the loss of friends and family in the past.
    I couldn’t understand what was happening to me, I had never cried so much in my life compared to that first few weeks.
    I was so embarrassed to be a grown man crying over a dog, I hid it.
    I would feel it coming over me at work, and I would have to go outside and sob and dry my eyes so no one would know.
    It was a roller coaster of emotions, even weeks later I thought I was finally coming back to the surface and I would find one of her hairs on a coat and I would be crying again.

    I thought there was something wrong with me, it was just a stupid dog right?
    Why couldn’t I let go?

    But, it did get better, slowly, the main thing that helped me was about 3 months later some friends had a dog they could not keep and he needed a home, and I was finally ready to let another dog in my heart. (not as a replacement, but as his own dog)

    Here, three years later I still have him and I love him just as much as Sally, I still say goodnight to Sally as I pass her grave in the yard each night as I walk Arrow, but I don’t feel the pain anymore. The echos of the loss still are in me, and they have made me a stronger and deeper person.

    I’ve adopted two other needy dogs since then (and have been adopted by a cat too!) and I still have love to give, there is nothing wrong with me. Love for a dog is real and just as deep as for other humans, maybe even more sometimes.

    One of my dogs has been missing for three days now, and again that grief is tearing me apart, don’t know if he is alive or dead or if I will ever see him again. At least I know it wont last forever, grief will run it’s course, and life will come back again.

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