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Those of us who can’t imagine life without pets must face the inevitable—that we will almost certainly outlive our four-legged friends. While some small breeds can live up to twenty years, the average dog lives twelve years. Those years often forge a bond so strong that the dog’s death leaves his human companion overwhelmed with grief – and a host of other sometimes – confusing feelings. After all, it’s not like losing a possession such as your car keys or even your favorite sweater; you’re losing a longtime companion, a familiar friend who has become part of the family.
Many people are embarrassed by the intensity of the grief they feel when a pet dies. But just as we go through a fairly universal process when faced with our own deaths or those of human loved ones, we tend to approach the loss of our furry companions in a way that others can usually identify with and understand.
In the beginning, we seem to feel a certain amount of denial. Of course Marley will get better. No, he’s not really gone. This next treatment will cure him. The logical side of us may know that we are deceiving ourselves, but for some reason the heart and the brain seem to need that little hiatus from reality to begin to adjust. This is especially true when the death is sudden, as in a car accident, or when it follows the briefest of illnesses.
After that stage we often experience a period in which we try to make “deals” in exchange for a different outcome. We say, if Marley will only get better, I promise to take him to the park every day. I’ll stop smoking. I’ll go to church. Not surprisingly, when Marley continues to get sicker, we feel angry. We get mad at the veterinarian, at the neighbor who used to yell at Marley, at our higher powers, at the disease – and at ourselves. This leads to what is probably the most common (and often the least deserved) feeling, guilt. I should have noticed that lump. I shouldn’t have let him off the leash. I should have made the veterinarian operate.
Realistically, it does no good to second – guess yourself, or Marley’s doctors, or anyone. The old adage that “hindsight is 20 – 20” is very apt in these cases – we all know instances where if we had only known what was going to happen we might have done something differently. The important think to remember is that you didn’t know what was going to happen. Anger can be a crippling and destructive emotion.
Eventually, anger gives way to sadness. Taken to extremes this can become a problem, as a prolonged depression and unremitting despondency is not healthy. But in many ways, the beginning of sadness also signals the beginning of getting through the grief. For a while you might feel reluctant to spend time with friends who have dogs, or find yourself crying over Marley’s empty collar, or staring at his picture instead of doing your work. That’s normal. It passes. And after a while you’ll find that you have accepted Marley’s death. That doesn’t mean you have forgotten the pain, or that you are all gung – ho to go find a new puppy to take his place. It merely means that there are times when the happy memories eclipse the sad ones. And soon you will be able to think about Marley without falling completely apart.
Sometimes death is not a surprise. Maybe Marley has some form of cancer, or has simply aged to the point where you know he can’t possibly live out the year, the month, the week. In these cases, it is not hard – hearted but therapeutic to make some of the decisions early on. The most difficult one for most people is whether or not to consider euthanasia.
For most people, the issue is quality of life. Your veterinarian can gauge how well or poorly Marley is responding to a given treatment, or how fast an illness is progressing, but you are the one who spends your days with Marley. It is important that you step back and view his current life – not your life, and how much pain you will feel when he is gone, as selfishly prolonging his life to delay your own grief does not honor your friend.
You need to take an honest look at whether Marley still seems to be eating well, whether he seeks out or at least responds happily to your attention, and whether he seems aware of and interested in what’s going on around him. Perhaps most importantly, you need to know whether he is in pain – and whether it will become progressively worse and unrelenting. Difficult as it is, most of us just “know” when it is time – when it seems that Marley has more bad days than good ones. We know when we are making Marley’s life better, and when we are in danger of increasing his suffering needlessly. No one wants to euthanize a pet, but it can help to think of it as your final loving gift to a devoted friend.
Whether you are present or not during the euthanasia is usually your choice. In most cases now the veterinarian gives two shots. The first one is a tranquillizer. Marley will relax, sometimes so completely that he will feel like a ragdoll. This calming drug makes it possible for you to spend your final moments with Marley, saying your good – byes, when he is not in pain and not frightened. This can be immensely helpful to your healing process. After a few minutes, the veterinarian then injects the actual euthanasia drug and, again, you are often given the choice whether to be present or to leave before the final shot.
If you do have time to prepare, it can also make the period immediately following Marley’s death easier to bear if you have already made arrangements about certain things such as whether he will be buried and where, or whether he will be cremated and how you will treat his ashes. There are a growing number of companies dedicated to pet memorials, pet crematory urns, and even remembrance websites, and many people take comfort in such arrangements. Some people hold memorial services. Rituals can be very healing.
If you have children, you will need to deal as well with their feelings. For many children, losing a pet is their first experience up close with death, so you need to be sensitive to how you discuss matters. Telling your child that Marley has been “put to sleep,” or has “gone away” might make the child fear that he, too, might die if he falls asleep, or that he – or you – could go away at any time, too. How much you say will of course depend on the maturity of the child, but it is important for children to know the essential truths so that they, too, can move through the process of grieving.
The most important coping strategy, however, is honesty. Don’t listen to those who laugh and tell you to “get over it” – that Marley was “just” a dog. If you feel pain, anger, guilt, and sadness, don’t be afraid to acknowledge those emotions to yourself and to others. You have lost a loved one, and the fact that the loved one was fur covered and four footed doesn’t take away your right to feel sad. Share it with others if that helps. Put Marley’s picture on your desk.
If weeks and then months go by and you still feel overwhelmed by Marley’s death, it’s time to consider seeking some professional help. There are counselors who specialize in bereavement and loss, both human and canine, and their support can be invaluable. For most people, however, the pain eases over time, and eventually our first reaction when we think of Marley is to smile, not cry. That’s when you know that someday you might just be ready to get another dog.