I was recently interviewed as a grief specialist for an article about the grief and loss people often experience when a pet dies. It’s such a deep and meaningful topic, especially for those of us who have experienced these types of losses in our lives firsthand. These losses are often our first experience with death when we were children ourselves, and are often our own children’s first experience with death as well.
Here’s my story…
As often happens after being newly married, my husband and I weren’t ready for kids right away, but we were ready to be dog parents. We started with one Labrador retriever and soon got a second puppy. These two grew up together as we were growing together in our marriage. They were our first running buddies and constant companions on the weekends as we explored our new home of San Antonio, Texas, and the hiking trails and numerous lakes, as well as the house projects that included a from-scratch doghouse.
When we were ready for our own kids, these two made room in the pack for one baby and then three years later a second baby. Instead of runs and trips to the lake, they were happy chasing the ball and Frisbee in the backyard and going on short walks around the neighborhood, with a stroller and a slow walker on short little legs.
When my daughter was four, we found out that were moving overseas. We explained to her that we would be leaving our country, our neighborhood, our house, and our family and friends to embark on this new life adventure. We also explained that we would all need to learn Spanish, as that was the primary language spoken in Peru. She asked if our dogs would be coming with us, and was very excited to hear that this new adventure included our beloved pets too. Her next question, “Are the dogs going to learn how to bark in Spanish?” (Excerpt taken from my book, Life Transitions: Personal Stories of Hope Through Life’s Most Difficult Challenges and Changes).
Both dogs were getting older by this time, but still made it down to Lima, Peru! And, we still had some fun times with them in the yard (as there were way too many loose dogs around to take them on walks), but they sure did love to swim in our backyard pool.
Two years later, we boarded them at a highly recommended “Doggie Hotel” when we went to vacation, and came home to two very, very sick dogs. One had to be put to sleep right away (our vet was appalled by her condition and demanded to know “who did this to them?” as no one was contacted about them being so, so sick).
The vet nursed the other dog back to health as best he could, and then we finally took him home. He immediately went to the backyard looking for his companion. He looked in all her favorite spots, and then lay down defeated, like he somehow knew that she was gone.
And as I watched him, I thought of all the people I’d lost in my life, and how isn’t that what we all want? We all want to find our loved ones in their favorite spot in the backyard, soaking up the sun, simply enjoying the moment.
I wish I could say that our other dog faired better, but after a year of failing health, to the point where we were carrying our beloved 100-pound dog up and down the stairs, we finally realized that his time had come to join his companion.
We all cried and said goodbye, just as we had with our other dog, and then he was gone too. I felt that vast emptiness that only people who are used to having a pet around for years on end can truly understand; that utter silence of no longer having pets in the house.
For us, it was also the end of an era. An end to the young pups and the new marriage; an end to the newness that we all somehow figured out together; an end to the calming presence and unconditional love, always; an end that we didn’t see coming, one a short goodbye and one a long one, but goodbye all the same.
As I’m writing this, our new dog is sleeping at my feet, a great reminder of new beginnings. Our family lasted exactly a month before getting this new puppy. The house was just too quiet, and I missed the companionship, as I was the one working from home. Yes, this new dog filled a void, but he’s also the start of a new era for us. One filled with school-aged kids who can help with his care, a dog mom who he seems to view as someone he takes for a daily run (my purpose in his mind, I think), and now, a seasoned, married couple.
So, what’s my point in sharing all this? That losing a pet can be just as traumatic and heartbreaking as losing a person, and sometimes, for some people, even more so. We need to have compassion and empathy and caring for all types of grief and loss, that we may be going through personally, or that people around us may be experiencing in their own lives. People want to be seen, heard and understood by others, especially when they are grieving a significant loss in their lives, and we can all do our part to make this happen. It really does make a difference.