Death, Grief And Loss Of Your Dog
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If you have a dog that is dying, has died, or has been lost (such as run away, been stolen, or taken by someone else), the feelings of grief and depression can be overwhelming. You can feel alone, and even contemplate suicide. What can you do?
That grief you feel is the result of the breaking of the social bond (attachment) you had with that dog. Bonding is more than just a social relationship. It is a biological process that creates a social attachment with another person. And just like you can bond with a human, you can attach to a dog. Bonding results in strong feelings of affection, comfort, desire to watch out for the other, and inclusion into a social group. Bonding also has a biochemical effect, so that hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin are believed to be involved. When bonds are broken, it becomes emotionally painful and stressful. When a dog dies, is dying, or has been lost, that bond has been broken and a chain of normal feelings and behaviors are going to happen to you. Just as having a bond feels good and comforting, breaking a bond feels awful and is very stressful. If a bond is broken, that acts as a releasing mechanism for grief, and then we do a variety of behaviors to cope with that grief. What is our first reaction if we are afraid that we have lost or are going to lose our dog? We panic. We get scared. We try to prevent the breaking of the bond, and will go to extraordinary efforts to not let the bond be broken.
The manner of your dog’s death can also affect the intensity of your emotions. You are going to experience a unique loss depending upon how it all played out… euthanasia, accident, purposeful injury, short term illness, long term illness, dog fight, etc.
I’m reminded of the Parable of the Sheep: “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray.” If our dog is lost, we start looking around. We walk up and down the neighborhood, knock on doors, put up fliers, post notices on street poles and on the internet, we get our friends to canvas the neighborhoods with us, and we check into local shelters, veterinarian offices, groomers, trainers and with rescue organizations. That bond motivates us to get out there and find our dog.
But, if the dog is truly gone, we can’t do that. But, we will still try. We’ll look where the dog used to be, and it won’t be there. We’ll go over and over again in our minds what we might have done to prevent the dog from dying or being lost. And it is all the more painful because it isn’t as if we can just forget what happened and immediately go on with life as if nothing happened.
We are also struck with a massive wave of emotions, ranging from guilt, to grief, depression, despair, and anger. You might not be able to sleep. You might find your sex drive go away. You might feel tired all the time. Some might think about suicide. For women, it is typical to feel more depressed, and for men to feel more angry. You’ll usually feel confused, because the stress involved will make you not think very well. Those feelings are normal. It can even surprise you how much it hurts. You’ll think: I never realized how much I loved that dog. And you can find yourself praying to God to spare you from all of this.
You are also going to start engaging in behaviors to gain you some peace and comfort. You’ll talk to friends and family. You’ll talk to a counselor. You may find yourself sleeping more, or eating more, taking time off, or going to do something fun and distracting. Or, you might do behaviors that are self destructive or unusually risky, or entertain self destructive thoughts. This is the time to start dealing with the grief and not ignore it. Handle things well, and you’ll get out the other side. Handle things poorly, and you’ll just further traumatize yourself, and hurt others in the process. You have to decide to face it, deal with it, be honest and mature about it, feel it. Otherwise it will never go away. You have to feel it. There is no way to run away from life. You can try, but every path along that route leads to destruction.
Some people will tell you that is no big deal. It was just a dog. Those words won’t make you feel any better, even if they are saying these things to make you feel better. You’ll be thinking: Well, if it was just a dog and no big deal, then why does it hurt so bad? It hurt so bad because you loved that dog, and you had a bond. And when bonds break they hurt. They hurt a lot. Your religious values can also affect how you grieve. In some religions, dogs are considered unclean and should not even be in the home. Such a believer won’t be able relate to how you are grieving, and their words and lack of empathy can be hurtful, not helpful.
You may also be having to manage how others are doing, as well. Kids aren’t going to have the same kinds of coping abilities as adults, and you’re going to have to walk them through the grieving process. There is no one right way of grieving. You are going to do it the way you do it, and so will the rest of your family. Even other pets can grieve over the loss. Sometimes, you need professional help or to talk to clergy… you can even find yourself asking why God would let this happen. Sometimes you just need to talk to a friend or family member. Sometimes, you just need to do it alone. There are also people who can be unkind, who didn’t like your dog, or didn’t like that you loved your dog. They will be of no help, and can actually make things worse. Guard your heart from these people.
It is also important to know that bad things happen to good people. Even if you made a mistake along the way, you are going to have to forgive yourself and learn. You’ll have to resolve to be a better person for what has happened. But, please, don’t go and punish yourself. Take the high road. If there is a lesson to be learned from what happened, teach others. There are no perfect people.
It is also important to realize that even with all this emotional distress… there isn’t something wrong with you. Bereavement is a normal process after a loss, and you are just going to have to work your way through it. You should understand that if you have suffered a hard loss, then it can take many months to get over it. I have spoken to people that saw their dog killed by another dog right in front of them. For some, it took them several years to get over it before they could get another dog, and then their confidence in owning a dog was shattered, they became overly cautious about the next dog, and they were hiring a trainer to help them sort out how to best deal with the new dog because they didn’t trust themselves any more. A good trainer, good with people, who is compassionate and sensitive to what you’ve been through, can really help get things back on track with the new dog, that is for sure. Every old time dog trainer, that really loved their dogs, has been through what you’ve been through.
I have learned a few things about dealing with grief that work for me. I remember a time I was going through a particularly hard time in life. I was so filled with grief, and so depressed, I didn’t know what to do. A friend told me that there was no immediate solution. He said that you have to go through the process of grieving and not try to avoid it. There were going to be days where it was going to hurt like crazy. And then he said that the best thing I could do was bury myself in work, work on my fitness, take time when I needed it to get some comfort, talk when I needed to, and pursue my life goals, and one day the worst feelings would pass, and then I’d be able to move on. Grief isn’t a disease. It is a normal part of life. Embrace the suffering so you can move past it.
He was right. That is what I did.
One door had closed. And another opened, and life went on. I could put that tragedy behind me, see it for what it was in a mature way, take away some good life lessons, and have fond memories of what was good about the past.
I have also learned that once things have settled down, you should go out and get another dog. You’re clearly a dog person. You’ll be happier with another dog. The new dog won’t replace the old dog. It will be a different dog with different funny behaviors, annoying habits, and a different personality. But, the new dog will fill the hole. You’ll still fondly love and remember the old dog, and the new dog will fill your life with new joy and happiness. You will also get a greater appreciation for the fragility and sanctity of life. I do believe we’ll see our pets again in the afterlife, and I take comfort in that. Our lives, including our dog’s lives, are as just a whisper in the wind, as sand blows across the desert, and as water flows past the rocks in a stream.
Appreciate that dog you’ve got, because one day, that dog will be gone, and you’re going to miss them. I know this before I get a dog, and then I make the best life for every dog I have. And that is my hope for you and all your current and future dogs.
Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.