The mourning from losing a pet, whether through abandonment, escape, rehoming, or death is usually difficult and painful. It is also concerning when the mourning results in pathological defensive coping responses, especially when it involves children.
Healthy mourning is directly related to pet loss and goes through a process starting with distress and ending in acceptance and the ability to move on. Sorrow, weeping, and anger are typical, normal, and healthy processing of the loss of an affectional bond with a dog.
It is important to not interfere with a healthy mourning process. Mourning which never resolves has taken a bad turn, usually as a result of being short circuited; redirected to another event and person; or dealt with in a manner to somehow make the hopelessly lost dog come back.
Short Circuiting: When a dog is lost, some people will say, “it was just a dog” or “whatever”. That dismissive attitude does more harm than good. Forcing, dismissing, or shaming someone and interfering with healthy mourning has the potential for harm. Likewise, being dishonest regarding the loss also interferes with, and postpones, healthy mourning and can also result in harm.
There are some people who are of no help when you are mourning the loss of a dog. They will try to shut you down in one way or another. When someone experiences a significant loss, it will cause harm to not be a helpful and caring advocate. You are sabotaging them and their recovery. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t care about or like their pet. You are being an awful, selfish friend or family member if you make them stuff their feelings to please you. You can be the difference between their recovery or their short- and long-term psychological breakdown. Furthermore, being dishonest about what happened isn’t helpful. Lying to people is never good, regardless of their age. If they know what happened, and you tell them some lie about it, that harms them immensely. It’s like you are telling them they are crazy. Even small kids, just over a year old, are smarter than you might imagine, and can tell they are being messed with. When you force anyone to live a lie, it can cause a multitude of psychological problems for them.
I think we all know people who you just can’t confide any painful feelings. They will always give you the tough guy response and keep interrupting you if you try to talk about something you are having trouble dealing with. They do this because they are also blocking painful stuff in their lives, and so they never want to talk about anything that might break that brittle shell they keep around them. My advice is to confide in someone else, however. Don’t bottle it up and don’t pretend nothing happened. Cry until you can’t cry anymore, and you’ll get past the hurt.
I had to tell a student once that her new dog would not be safe for strangers. She got the wrong dog for her home and expectations. I knew this news would upset her, but I had to be honest with her. She had put a lot of emotional investment into getting this dog and I knew how much it hurt her to hear what I had to say. She told me to please take the dog, return it, and take all the dog’s stuff with me, and she never wanted to speak of that dog again or see me ever again. I saw her several years later at a dinner party, and she acted as if I was invisible.
I have also seen this with people who throw away all a dog’s stuff after the loss of their dog and put away any pictures so that they never look at them again. I’m not sure that is a healthy way to deal with loss. You aren’t over it. it is like someone who gets divorced and decides to never get married again to avoid the pain, rather than moving on. I think a lot of single people remain single for defensive reasons, and a lot of past dog owners don’t get a new dog for similar defensive reasons. Losses happen in life. Life is movement, stagnation isn’t movement. Stagnation leads to rot.
Redirection: It is normal that a loss can cause us to see parallels with the loss of someone loved. On the other hand, it can go too far, spiraling down into a harmful depression that is well beyond the loss of the pet. Most people have had painful losses in their lives. The more painful experiences, the more difficult it is to overcome the next one.
An example of an unhealthy response is called mummification. The dog is lost, but the people live as if the dog is still with them. Food is made up every day, toys are purchased, dog beds left out, and such. Life becomes frozen in time. That’s just not healthy or helpful. Another unhealthy response is to redirect the hurt to someone else. For example, it isn’t unusual for a couple to break up after the loss of a pet or for the loss to ignite fights with others.
I worked with a couple who had adopted a 5-month-old pit bull puppy from the local pound. The puppy was unusually aggressive towards strangers and strange dogs. That can be the result of a traumatic puppyhood. As we worked with the puppy, things should have been getting better, but instead, they were getting worse. I also noted that the whites of the puppy’s eyes seem to have been redder than usual. I recommended a vet exam, which they scheduled. That evening, the puppy attacked the girlfriend as she was taking him out to potty. The next day, the veterinarian diagnosed the dog with distemper, it had gone to the brain of the puppy. The puppy had no chance and was going to die. They agreed to euthanize the puppy, and within a short time the girlfriend and boyfriend broke up.
Searching For A Dead Dog: It is normal to have experiences where you think your dog might still be around. You might hear a sound, look around and then remember your dog is gone. Or to have a good or bad dream that your dog is still alive and with you. Or you start doing something in your routine, such as putting out a food bowl, only to realize your dog is gone. The brain works that way. It also isn’t unusual for people to talk to their dead dogs, maybe making peace with themselves about what happened. Kids might repeatedly ask about where the lost dog is. Be honest with them so it doesn’t develop into something pathological.
There are unhealthy routes that people take which can cause harm.
I had a student who hired me to work with his new puppy. The new puppy was the same breed as his past dog. But here is where things went wrong. He had hired a psychic in Southern California, who promised she could transfer the spirit of his dead dog into the new puppy. He went through some kind of séance and told me his new puppy was really his old dog. After the first appointment, I had time to ponder what to do. I see way too much of this kind of thing in the pet world to bring back and talk to dead dogs of the past or to explain behaviors in terms of evil spirits. I know of someone who does this with her past pets and family members, she has past traumas in her life and can’t get beyond the hurts. In this case, I figured I’d try some logic on him. Next time, I said if this was the old dog then it wouldn’t need any training since whatever the old dog knew the new dog should also know. That didn’t work. The puppy also started developing hip dysplasia, which his psychic also told him was transferred from his past dog. When he took the puppy to the vet, the cost of hip replacement was so much he couldn’t afford to continue doing any training. This man’s emotional pain was causing him to make bad decisions regarding his puppy. There have even been cases where people say their pet has incorporated their spirit into them and now they are a dual person/ dog. This is also unhealthy mourning.
I remember another such searching situation. I was taking my Bouvier for a walk around Greenlake in Seattle, many years ago. This couple was walking their 2 adult Bouviers the opposite way, and we stopped to talk. They said they got the new dogs to replace their previous Bouviers, but they were disappointed. The new dogs weren’t anything like their old dogs. I felt sorry for their dogs. No dog should have to live up to those types of expectations.
Healthy mourning is necessary to address the loss of a pet. You can expect to be upset and to not be your best for a while. When Dillon, my Doberman died in my arms of a heart attack in 2005, it was very graphic and painful for him and for me. I had known for months that his cardiomyopathy would end his life. That same condition had already killed the rest of the dogs in his litter. But knowing that still didn’t prevent the pain of his death. I had feelings that he was still with me, and flashbacks of his death, for over 4 months. I was not at my best, and it affected my business and my relationships with others. I’m over that today, but I can still get some minor sad feelings if I look at his photos for too long. I’ve gotten over the deaths of family and friends over the years, as well. I think because I will talk about and through these things until I’ve settled them.
What is the right approach to loss? Recognize that all relationships, when they end, will hurt, that life will deal hurts to you and people you know, that it is best to be honest and open about it all, and to reciprocate kindness to others when they are going through their losses. If you find yourself doing unhealthy mourning, including contemplating self harm, since that might ruin your life and the lives of those around you, get professional counseling. It is ok to mourn, and it is ok and necessary to get beyond the mourning.