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How Can We Recover From The Death Of Our Dog?

Posted June 16th, 2010 in Coping With Grief, Dogs, Friendship, Losing Your Pet by Glenn Plaskin

In our neighborhood, brimming with more than 800 dogs, my cocker spaniel, Lucy and I, bump into our regulars daily–from Herman the Great Dane and Stanley the Dachshund to Sammy the Bulldog, Berta the Standard Poodle, and Captain the Fox Terrier, among numerous wagging tails.

In recent days, three of our canine neighbors have suddenly disappeared from the Esplanade of Battery Park City, which runs alongside the Hudson. One day they were out walking, the next they were gone.

Their owners are devastated. To them, their pet was more child than dog.

Sammy’s owner, Ben, has lost 15 pounds. He stopping shaving and has hardly left the house, in avoidance mode, uncomfortable at receiving condolences. His dog Sammy, at age 17, had survived far longer than most dogs ever do, but it’s never enough, the heartbreak no less when a dog dies at such a grand age.

The vacuum left behind is profound. What could be sadder than putting away your dog’s leftover toys, their food and water bowls, or their collar and chain? And what could be emptier than a bed that’s suddenly bigger than it should be, only the ghost of their spirit lingering in the room. Little wonder that Ben feels despondent and depressed. All in all, losing a dog is simply heartbreaking. Many say they’d almost rather lose an unwanted relative!–than their canine companion.

I’m sure there are many of you who have experienced the death of  your family pet. The bond between owner and dog is a profoundly close one. When a dog looks up at you with adoring eyes, tail wagging, or falls asleep in your arms—there’s nothing more blissful. Our canine companions are like little kids that never grow up. They need our protection and love—and give it back in spades.

Some nights, my dog, Lucy, is propped up against the pillows, staring into my eyes with wonder as I massage her stomach and stroke her ears. The feeling of total contentment is mutual. In fact, it’s been proven that dogs reduce stress and lower your blood pressure, creating a sensation of total well-being and peace .

And when that bond is broken by the inevitability of death, nothing hurts more.

I can tell you that losing my dog KATIE was one of the saddest moments of my life. Just pick up my book, KATIE UP AND DOWN THE HALL, and read the chapter titled Nocturne, the final good-bye.

On the last day of Katie’s life—though she was blind and deaf and barely able to walk, very much in pain—she still had the strength to let me know she loved me, licking my face one last time. And then, cradled in my arms at the Vet and breathing peacefully…she was sent to heaven. I bent over her, in tears, and nearly choking as I stroked her beautiful head for one last time, barely able to pull myself away.

The devastating pain of that moment, even years later, never completely goes away, just as our 15-year bond never ends.

But I’ve learned to concentrate less on the loss and more on the gift that was given to me. I always remind myself: Our dogs want us to be happy. They live for it. And it would be painful for them to sense, even in death, that they were causing us pain. Knowing this, more than anything, was one secret to recovering.

For those who may be experiencing the emptiness and loss I did, I want to share with you some secrets to feeling the grief and recovering from it.

Go Ahead and Cry: Being stoic in the face of profound loss never helps.  So acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it. Instead of bottling up feelings of sadness, let them out—and let them go. No matter how old you are, man or woman, young or old, crying is cathartic. It reduces stress and eases the loss. It did for me.

Tap Into Your Memories: I’d rather celebrate the memory of my dog than avoid it. So I keep a photo of her in my wallet and carry her engraved name tag on my key chain. Find your own way to remember. Write a tribute. Frame a photo. Compose a song. Take out your scrapbooks or watch videos, reliving the indelible moments that defined your life together. And talk about your dog with sympathetic friends and family who understand your loss, telling funny stories and recounting adventures. You’ll find yourself smiling.

Plan A Memorial: Create an event—a funeral, a ceremony, a party–something that celebrates your dog. Inviting all your friends and family, make it a personalized memorial related to who your dog loved, and what he or she liked to do. When Katie passed away, because of my classical music background, and because she was well-known in the neighborhood, I planned  two memorial piano recitals in my home, inviting 30 friends (and their DOGS!) to attend. I had a big carrot cake (my dog’s favorite) with her picture on it, candlelight, and photos of her around the room. Our local Pastor even came over and said a prayer. It was beautiful and fun—a fitting tribute to Katie’s spirit. Others choose to memorialize their dogs with a headstone or urn or a donation to a dog-related charity. Do whatever feels right to you—but do something special.

Reach Out To The Experts If You Need To: Don’t be embarrassed or too proud to get help. The loss of an animal, whether due to death, or being lost or stolen, is devastating and traumatic. For kids, losing a pet may be their first experience with death. A child may blame himself, his parents, or the Vet for not saving the pet. He may feel guilty, depressed, or frightened. Expressing your own grief reassures the child that sadness is OK. A therapist is another option, one that helped me. You can also ask your veterinarian, local humane society, the Delta Society, or your local animal shelter about pet loss hotlines or online chat groups. Not least important, give surviving pets lots of TLC, as they may whimper, refuse to eat or drink, or suffer lethargy. Maintain a normal routine. It’s good for them and for you.

Welcome Recovery: Much as we think it never will, the pain eventually passes and you’re going to feel better. The shock, depression, and emptiness are going to fade. But in the days following the loss of your pet, look after yourself—exercise, eat well, see your friends, keep active, take up a new interest, and indulge in small pleasures. One little thing that helped me was re-arranging my home, moving the furniture, changing the colors, adding plants, creating a new environment for a different life. Shift things around. Craft your recovery your way, but carve out a new path that fosters increased energy and optimism, without ever forgetting the joyful spirit of your dog. Doing this will pave the way for the next stage—getting a NEW dog.

Don’t Try To Replace Your Dog: Some people are ready for a new dog after days or months, while others, like me, take years. In any case, just as you could never replace a family member, it’s impossible to replace a dog. Give yourself time to recover from the loss before rushing out to get a new one. Consider a different breed, or a female if you had a male, or at least a different color. You can’t replicate what you had. And if you attempt to replace a day, you maybe be setting yourself up for disappointment, for every soul and spirit is different. Don’t be rushed. Take it easy. Take your time.

Do any of you have any other ideas or tips for recovering from the loss of a dog? I’d love to hear from you.

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