Finding Strength: Coping with Dog Loss, a Guide to Healing and Remembering

Jun 10, 2024

Dogs are more than just pets; they are beloved family members who bring joy, companionship, and unconditional love into our lives. The bond between a dog and their human is a unique and profound connection that enriches our everyday experiences. However, with the joy of having a dog comes the inevitable heartache of losing them. Whether you’ve experienced this loss before or are facing it for the first time, the grief can be overwhelming. 

Understanding Pet Loss

Why does the loss of a beloved dog hurt so much?

The loss of a dog, or any pet in general, can be devastating because of the strong bond and love shared between you and the dog. Dogs often occupy a special place in our lives, providing companionship, unconditional love, and emotional support. For so many of us, dogs are not just pets; they’re parts of our family we love unconditionally. While they’re obviously not human ‘children’, our roles as their caretakers and companions feel similar, and the bond between dogs and their people is undeniable.

That’s the thing about dogs… they play such a unique role in our lives. They are there for us in moments of joy and sorrow, offering a non-judgmental presence and a source of comfort. According to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, the human-animal bond is significant and profound, often equated to human-human relationships. The emotional support pets provide can be crucial, especially for those living alone or experiencing difficult times.

Dogs Offer Companionship, Fun, And Joy

Dogs bring a sense of joy and fun to everyday life. They can lift our spirits, provide entertainment, and even encourage us to be more active and social. A study in Frontiers in Psychology showed that pets are even good for our health, as they can help reduce stress and give us a sense of routine and purpose. Dogs are there for us in the everyday. They go through everything from trauma to joy and all the life-happenings in between. They really are our best friends, because they’re there for us through thick and thin.

My Dog Died: The Overwhelming Pain of LossPhoto: An old Golden Retriever is about to cross the Rainbow Bridge.

This unconditional filling of our hearts is why losing a pet can be overwhelming and trigger a range of difficult emotions, including sadness, loneliness, and even guilt. This intense grief is a natural response to the loss of a loved one, reflecting the depth of the relationship. While some people may say, “It’s just a dog,” the journal Veterinary Sciences found that the grief experienced by pet owners can be as intense as that experienced after the loss of a human loved one​.

Understanding the Grieving Process

Stages of Grief

Because losing a beloved dog can trigger a profound emotional response, it often follows a pattern similar to the well-known stages of grief identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Knowing these stages, but understanding that people still grieve individually and uniquely, can help you as you cope with the loss of your dog. It’s also important to know that these stages are not one-and-done. You may go in and out of (and likely will) all of them at various points, and this can last a long time. For many, some emotions and remembrances linger for years.

  1. Denial: Initially, it may be hard to accept that your dog is truly gone. This stage can involve disbelief and shock, as your mind tries to process the loss. Whether the death was sudden, or you had the unfortunate responsibility to help decide when your dog crossed the Rainbow Bridge, denial is your body’s way of helping you function in the rest of your normal life. It’s a chemical reaction that actually helps shelter you and allows you to do the things that you have to do, as well as make decisions that grieve your heart (cremation vs. burial, etc.).
  2. Anger: As the reality of the loss sets in, it’s common to feel anger. This anger might be directed toward yourself, others, or even the circumstances surrounding your dog’s death. Particularly when the loss of your dog is due to an illness like cancer where you didn’t even have much control as to how things played out, there’s often a lot of anger at your feeling helpless and watching your dog struggle. Even if there was no struggle and your dog passed peacefully from old age, anger can come in lots of different forms and ways–when we lose those we love, it hurts and we get angered at the ‘unfairness’ of life.
  3. Bargaining: During this stage, you might find yourself dwelling on “what if” scenarios. You may think about things you could have done differently to prevent the loss. Again, this can be particularly excruciating if you have to make decisions in the best interest of your dog, not suffering unnecessarily. The weight and responsibility of making the ‘right’ choices can leave us consumed with the “what if” situations. And, when your dog has passed, they can haunt us as we replay what might have been. The thing to remember is that you loved your dog and you did the best you could with the information and resources you had at the time. There’s no need to replay the “what if” because you DID what you could, and that’s the most loving thing.
  4. Depression: This stage involves deep sadness as you begin to fully grasp the extent of your loss. Feelings of emptiness and despair are common as you mourn your dog’s absence. Of course, you’ll likely be overwhelmingly sad in the days right after your dog has died. That’s situational, and to be expected. But you may find that you continue to feel sad, lonely, empty and anxious about how it could/should be different. And you’ll likely find you have some days that are better than worse. There IS a difference between situational depression and clinical depression, and knowing the difference can help you understand what you’re going through and when it might be helpful to talk to someone about walking you through your feelings.
  5. Acceptance: Eventually, you reach a point where you accept the reality of your loss. This doesn’t mean you forget your dog or stop feeling sad, but you start to find ways to live with the loss and move forward. And, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘healed’ from the grief. The loss of your dog is a life-changing event, and while it is true that you’ll one day be able to fondly think back and smile, you may also still have days it feels hard to believe you lost them. It’s okay to feel what you feel, and it’s okay to have days where there is more joy than sorrow. That’s the natural cycle of life, and what your dog would want most for you–your heart to be okay.

It’s important to note that not everyone experiences these stages in a linear fashion. These aren’t stages you go through and move on to. You most likely will move back and forth between stages, skip some entirely, or experience them in a different order and with different intensity. Each person’s grieving process is unique and influenced by various factors, including their relationship with their dog, personal coping mechanisms, and individual circumstances. And the bottom line is this: no one knows what the relationship you’ve lost is like but you and your dog. Again, it’s okay for you to feel what you feel.

The reality is that research has shown that pet owners can experience grief that is comparable in intensity to the grief experienced after the loss of a human loved one. One study found that the emotional pain of losing a pet can be profound and long-lasting, sometimes even leading to complicated grief symptoms. These symptoms may need additional support and intervention to help you move forward.

Understanding these stages can help you recognize that your feelings are normal and a natural part of the grieving process. There is no “right” way to grieve, and giving yourself permission to feel and express your emotions is an essential step toward healing.

To Summarize Grief After Your Dog Dies:

Grieving is a highly individual experience, and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving.

  • It’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the grieving process to naturally unfold.
  • Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. They’re family members.
  • Ignoring pain or keeping it from surfacing can make it worse in the long run. There is no shame in grieving or looking into grief counseling.

Factors Influencing the Level of Grief After A Beloved Pet Dies

Though there is never any winner in “Pain Olympics” because each person’s grief is unique, experts believe your level of grief experienced can vary based on several factors:

  • Age of the Pet: The sudden loss of a young pet can be particularly shocking, while the loss of an elderly pet may be anticipated but still deeply painful. There’s some sense of a ‘circle of life’ attitude when it comes to a well-lived life for our dogs. We never want to lose them, but old age is one of the heavy things pet parents bear as they take on the responsibility of being a pet parent. There’s something ‘unfair’ about dogs leaving us when they’re young, and our anger may show in that. Again, that’s a normal response that affects the grief level.
  • Circumstances of Death: Unexpected or traumatic deaths can intensify the grief, while a peaceful passing after a long illness may bring a sense of relief alongside the sorrow. Note we said ALONGSIDE the sorrow–it’s possible for us to feel that relief for their burden being over because we love them. We don’t want to see our dogs suffer, and as much as we will miss them, we love them enough to want them to have peace and no pain. An unexpected or traumatic death may bring us feelings of confusion and anger, as well as disillusionment about the death of a pet.
  • Personality and Attachment: Individual personality traits and the level of attachment to the pet play significant roles in how deeply the loss is felt. Emotional attachment is unique to individuals and can definitely color how individuals grieve. Many adults find their children actually handle grief a bit ‘better’ than they do, and that can feel weird and confusing.
  • Pet Parent’s Life Situation: Personal circumstances, such as living alone or experiencing other stresses, can amplify the impact of the loss. If you live by yourself and your dog was your main companion and ‘partner’ in life, so to speak, the loss may feel exponentially bigger as you feel isolated and alone.

Helping Children Grieve the Loss of a PetPhoto: A little girl cries as her Golden Retriever is about to cross the Rainbow Bridge at the vets office.

Losing a dog can be a child’s first experience of death, and it’s hard to guide them through their grief as you’re likely having a hard time dealing with your own. Being honest with children about the pet’s death and allowing them to express their feelings openly is a way you can both work to cope and get through this time. This honesty helps them understand the reality of loss and validates their emotions, and allows them to see how meaningful a relationship your dog had with you all. When our children see us be human, it leaves space for them to be so too. When children observe that it’s okay to be sad and to mourn, they feel less isolated in their own grief and more understood. Encourage children to share their thoughts and feelings, providing a safe space for them to talk about their dog.

Reassuring children that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death is also important, if the situation pops up. Kids may internalize the loss and feel guilt or blame themselves, thinking they could have done something to prevent it. Clear, gentle communication that absolves them of any responsibility can help alleviate these feelings of guilt.

Helping children also create a legacy for their pet, such as drawing pictures, writing stories, or holding a small memorial, can provide a sense of closure and a way to honor their beloved pet’s memory. This can also offer a positive focus during a difficult time, helping them to cherish the happy memories and find comfort in their grieving process.

As we’ve said, many adults find that children may handle things ‘better’ than we do. If that seems to be the case, ultimately, that’s what we want–our children to not suffer any more than they need to in the whole process. But, it can hurt our feelings too, and make us wonder why we’re having such a hard time. Remember that children really are children–their cognitive abilities just aren’t the same and that’s a good thing right now. Additionally, their concept of ‘permanence’ really is underdeveloped. There’s mercy in them ‘not getting it’. Many children have not yet faced significant losses or the concept of mortality directly. This limited exposure means that while they feel the loss, they may not connect it to broader existential concerns as we adults do. Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that children’s initial experiences with death are often shaped more by their immediate emotional responses rather than a deep understanding of mortality​, so they just may not feel it the same.

Children don’t have the same perception of time that we adults do. They live more in the moment and may not have the same long-term attachment or future-oriented thoughts about their pets. That means that a loss may seem less impactful when compared to us as adults as we have years of memories (and maybe a bit more attachment to the dog) than they do.

Most important to remember, children typically receive more direct emotional support from their parents, family members, and teachers when a pet dies. We work together to help support them, help them process their emotions, and navigate their grief more effectively. According to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the presence of a strong support system plays a crucial role in how children cope with loss​–of pets as well as humans.

Making Difficult Decisions: Knowing When It’s Time

Deciding to put a dog to sleep is one of the most heart-wrenching decisions a parent can face. It’s a deeply personal and emotional choice, made with profound compassion and love for the animal as the main goal. Recognizing when the time has come means you have to take a good long look at your pet’s health and well-being, ensuring that their quality of life is prioritized.

When you have to make the decisions, here are some factors to consider:

  1. Activity Level: Observe whether your dog is still engaging in activities they once enjoyed. A significant decrease in energy, lack of interest in play, or inability to move comfortably can indicate that their quality of life is declining. While we wish they could live forever, we don’t want them to live just for us and without feeling the joy they have had in life. Dogs love us unconditionally, and most would keep going until they couldn’t, so watching their activity level is important.
  2. Response to Care and Affection: Pay attention to how your pet responds to your presence and care. If they no longer seek affection, appear withdrawn, or seem irritable and distressed, it may be a sign that they are suffering. It’s gut-wrenching, but another sign their bodies are just tired and worn.
  3. Pain and Suffering: Chronic pain that cannot be managed with medication or treatment is a critical factor. Pets often mask their pain because they love us so, so look for subtle signs such as changes in posture, grooming habits, or vocalizations. Persistent suffering, despite efforts to alleviate it, is what no pet parent wants for their dog, and is a good indicator it is time to help them cross the Rainbow Bridge.
  4. Terminal Illness or Critical Injury: For pets diagnosed with terminal illnesses or those who have suffered critical injuries, consider their prognosis and the potential for recovery. If their condition is beyond treatment and they are experiencing severe discomfort, euthanasia can prevent further pain and distress. This is something you can talk to your vet about for sure.

A Note About Euthanasia For Dogs

It’s a controversial topic, but it’s one pet parents have to consider. Euthanasia is often the kindest option for pets who are suffering immensely from illness or injury. It’s a decision made out of love, to spare them from prolonged pain and to allow them to pass peacefully. Consulting with a veterinarian can provide guidance and support during this difficult time, helping to assess your pet’s condition and determine the best course of action.

Remember, choosing to make this decision for your dog is an act of compassion. It’s a decision that honors the bond you share and reflects the deep love and care you have for your furry companion. Allow yourself to grieve and seek support from friends, family, or pet loss support groups, knowing that you made the most humane choice for your beloved dog. It’s one of the hardest acts of love you may ever have to make, and it’s okay to grieve it and lean on those around you. Consider groups as well, as they’re full of those of us who’ve been down this road before.

 

Dealing with the Loss of a Pet When Others Don’t Understand Your GriefPhoto: An old Cocker Spaniel looks off to the side.

Losing a pet can be an incredibly painful experience, and it can feel even more challenging when those around you don’t fully understand or appreciate the bond you shared with your best friend. Dogs are often cherished members of our families, giving us unconditional love and joy. When this special bond is broken, the grief is profound and deeply personal. It’s also one of those situations where people who have no idea of what it’s like just don’t know what it’s like.

That’s why it’s important to remember that your feelings are valid, regardless of how others perceive your loss. Grief is a deeply personal journey, and no one has the right to dictate how you should feel or when you should “get over” your loss. Allowing yourself to grieve fully and acknowledging the depth of your pain is a crucial part of the healing process. Don’t let anyone’s lack of understanding diminish the significance of your emotions.

Creating a legacy for your pet can be a powerful way to cope with the grief and maintain a sense of purpose. This could involve creating a memorial, like a photo album or a dedicated space in your home with your pet’s favorite items. Engaging in activities that honor your pet’s memory, like volunteering at an animal shelter or donating to a pet charity, can also provide a sense of solace and continuity.

If your grief feels overwhelming or persists for an extended period, seeking professional help can be a vital step toward healing. A grief counselor or therapist can offer support and coping strategies tailored to your unique situation. They can help you navigate the complex emotions associated with pet loss and provide a safe space for you to express your feelings without judgment.

Surround yourself with a supportive network, whether it’s friends, family, or online communities of fellow pet lovers who understand your pain. Sharing your experiences and hearing others’ stories can provide comfort and remind you that you’re not alone in your grief. Remember, seeking help and leaning on others during this difficult time is okay.

Above all, be gentle with yourself. Healing from the loss of a pet takes time, and it’s essential to give yourself permission to grieve in your own way. Honor the love and joy your pet brought into your life, and hold on to the beautiful memories you shared. In time, the pain will soften, and you’ll find ways to cherish your pet’s legacy while moving forward with your life.

Moving Forward: Should I Get A New Dog?

There are many wonderful reasons to get another dog, but the decision is deeply personal and varies from person to person. It’s important to give yourself time to mourn the loss of your pet and to wait until you feel emotionally ready to open your heart and home to a new animal.

Grieving First

Allowing yourself to grieve the loss of your beloved pet is crucial. This mourning period helps you process your emotions and honors the bond you shared. Jumping into a new pet relationship too soon can sometimes be overwhelming and may not give you the space you need to heal. It’s important to remember that there is no set timeline for grief, and everyone experiences it differently.

Emotional Readiness

When you feel that you might be ready for another pet, consider if you are emotionally prepared to commit to a new companion. Reflect on whether you are ready to welcome a new pet into your life with the same love and care you provided to your previous one. This readiness signifies that you have moved through your grief to a point where you can form a new bond without feeling guilty or as if you are replacing your lost pet. There is definitely more room in your heart; allow yourself to know that getting a new dog does not replace the space for the one who passed. They’re always with you.

Volunteering as a Step Forward

Volunteering at a shelter or rescue group can help decide if you’re ready for a new dog. This experience allows you to interact with animals in need and can help you gauge your emotional response to being around pets again. Volunteering can also provide a sense of fulfillment and purpose during your grieving process, offering a way to honor your lost pet’s memory by helping others. It’s fulfilling for you and for those you help.

A Testament to Love

Deciding to get another dog really is a testament to the love you had for your dog who passed away. It’s because you had so much joy and companionship that you are considering another to love again. Feeling ready for a new pet does not diminish your love for your previous pet; instead, it honors the relationship by acknowledging its positive impact on your life.

No Guilt in Moving Forward

Remember, it’s perfectly okay to seek the companionship of a new pet when you feel ready. This decision should come without guilt, as it signifies a healthy progression through your grief and a readiness to create new memories with a new friend. Each dog is unique and will always hold a special place in your heart, just as your previous pet did.

Support and Resources For Grieving Pet Parents

If you are struggling with the decision or the grieving process, consider reaching out to pet loss support groups or a counselor who specializes in pet bereavement. They can offer guidance and support as you navigate these emotions.

Here are some resources that might help:

Every journey with our dog is one that we take at their pace. You can grieve them at your own pace, and when and if the time feels right, know that welcoming a new pet into your life can bring renewed joy and companionship.

If you are reading this because you are facing tough decisions, or grieving the loss of your beloved pet, please know that we all at Bernie’s Best are very sorry. 

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