When Your Pet Dies

Recently, my beloved dog, Ginger, passed away. One day she appeared fine and the next we were being told that we needed to “make a decision.”

Ginger lived with us for seven years. She was a foster dog and her first three years of life were painful. She was shuffled from one home to the next, never finding anyone who was willing to give her a permanent residence. If you knew her, you’d wonder why this was the case. She had a kind, gentle soul and wanted nothing more than to please. Looking back, I guess she was waiting for me.

Ginger was a miracle in my life. She arrived two weeks after my mother died and one week after my son left for college. I was in the midst of a marital breakup and my life was a mess … as was I. For the next seven years, she loved me, listened to me, supported me, and kept me sane. She was my friend, confidant and child.

The morning of her scheduled “procedure”, I was a wreck. I took her to the hospital by myself and had decided that I would stay with her for the sedation, so the last thing she saw was my face. I planned to leave for the clinical part as I didn’t think I could handle watching her die.

As fate would have it, or Ginger would, she chose to pass in my arms immediately after being sedated. As we spent those precious moments together, I instantly knew that this was how it was meant to be. She died the way she lived – in my arms comforting me.

During the days that followed, I felt tremendous sadness and overwhelming grief. Since this was my first dog, I had no comprehension of what I would experience. My body felt weak, I was numb, and I sobbed continually throughout the day. I had experienced loss before so why was this so debilitating?

When we are grieving the loss of a beloved pet, we are actually mourning several losses at the same time.

Pets offer unconditional love. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we do, they love us. We are perfect in their eyes. The loss of a pet is the loss of true love.

Pets are our children. Having a pet is being a parent. We are responsible for their care and well-being and we go to great lengths to ensure their comfort. The loss of a pet can feel like the loss of a child.

Pets provide us with a daily routine. When a pet passes, our practical routines end. There is no one to walk, feed, or groom. We must say goodbye to the comfortable activities and create a new norm.

A pet represents multiple relationships. They are our friend, child, or significant other. In some cases, a pet is a primary companion. They provide social interaction, support and affection. When the pet leaves, we feel abandoned.

Our grief may be complicated by factors such as guilt (if only I had …), euthanasia (was it the right time?), or the awakening of an old loss. In my case, Ginger’s passing opened the wounds of the loss of my mother, sister and husband that had not healed. Her passing ripped off the bandage and allowed the sadness to seep out.

How to Survive the Pain

Experts recommend the following strategies to aid in mourning a loss. It’s important to note that these are grief tools for any type of loss.

Be patient. Losses are real and painful and they evoke memories. Give yourself time to mourn. Do not pressure yourself to get better and do not allow anyone to make you feel like you need to “get over it”. Doing so will only make you feel worse.

Share your feelings. Find a person with whom you can talk about your loss, someone who understands what you are going through. Some people do not comprehend the loss of a pet and their reaction can make you feel alone. Research support groups or pet grief websites. There are resources to help you get through the challenging time.

Have a memorial. When a loved one dies, we have a wake or funeral service. These memorials provide an outlet for grief. Create your own ritual for your pet. Hold a service in your home or plant a tree in his/her memory.

Dispose of possessions at your own pace. Often we encounter a food bowl, bed, leash or toy and immediately want to get rid of it. Other times we want to save the items as a reminder. There is no right or wrong process. Do whatever feels best to you.

Remember, the loss of a pet is a sorrowful time. What would your pet do if he or she found you in pain? Your beloved would give you love, comfort, and stay with you as long as it took. We can learn from their example.

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