The loss of a pet is a truly tragic, heartbreaking, and unparalleled experience. We look to our pets for support, comfort, camaraderie, affection, and love that knows no bounds. So what do you do when it is time to let your best furry friend go? The number one thing you must understand is that you are not alone in your grief. Even if those around you do not understand why you are so upset because its “just a dog,” don’t forget that there are people like you all over the world who love their pets with all their hearts and grieve their loss just like the loss of any other loved one.
First, with an aging or critically ill dog, you must decide when it is time to euthanize. After the passing of your beloved pet, you must understand how to handle your grief, how to help your family through this difficult time, and what you can do to make it all a little easier.
How Do I Know When Its Time?
Euthanasia is the act of ending your dog’s life with a quick and painless injection given by your vet. This is, of course, not an easy decision. It is not to be taken lightly and it is best you discuss your choice at length with your vet before making a final decision.
The best way to gauge if it is time to say goodbye to your dog is if his quality of life has declined to the point where the bad days outnumber the good. At this point, keeping your dog alive is only forcing him to live in pain.
If your dog still enjoys the company of his companions, if he still gets excited about his favorite toys and tasty snacks, if he can move about without pain, and still readily participates in play, euthanasia is probably not the right choice. However, if your dog has to endure difficult and stressful treatments on a regular basis, has trouble moving about, is generally uninterested in life, is unaware of his surroundings, does not want to be petted or played with, or if he soils himself regularly, it might be time to make the choice of euthanasia. It is important that you be honest and unselfish with yourself and your family when making this choice. Deciding to let your suffering pet linger may feel like the easier option because you do not yet have to say goodbye, but really it is just a means continuing the agony of your pet and your family.
Whether you’ve chosen to euthanize your dog or you’ve lost your dog to a sudden accident or illness, you must be prepared to go through several of the completely normal stages of grief.
A common, early stage of grief is denial. You might not want to admit your dog is gone. You might wake up in the morning expecting Rover to be wagging his tail at the foot of your bed. Allowing yourself to grieve is the best way to get through this stage. Don’t try to just shove your feelings away; this will hurt far more than it will help in the long run.
You might also experience anger. This might be directed at your pet for getting sick, at the vet for not being able to make him better, at your loved ones for not doing more to help. Your anger can also be directed towards yourself in the form of guilt. You might be upset with yourself for not having done more, not spending as much time with your dog as you think you could have, or not taking him for that long daily walk he would have liked so much. The best thing you can do is let go of these feelings. Whenever you feel angry, try to think of something your pet did that made you smile or something you two liked to do together, and how it made you feel. Remember that although your dog is gone, no one can ever take those happy memories away from you. Instead of holding on to anger, hold on to those good feelings.
Often following denial and anger, you might find yourself in a period of depression. You might lose interest in day to day activities, have trouble sleeping, and feel generally lethargic; you might even experience headaches, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of extreme stress. This is ok, but you must not let it snowball out of control. If your depression gets to the point where it interferes with work or caring for your family, you should seek professional help. There is absolutely no shame in seeking help in this situation; strong, intelligent people do so every day. Sometimes the strongest choice is asking for help.
Eventually, you will find yourself in the acceptance phase of your grief. You will understand that your pup is gone and not coming back; that he is safe and no longer in pain; and that this is for the best. This phase might feel exceptionally far-off if you have just lost your dear friend, but just like any other heartbreak or sadness, it will fade, and the sun will shine again.
How to Deal
You must understand that you are not over-sensitive, silly, or crazy for being miserable because your dog is gone. These feelings are completely normal. A good way to work through your feelings is to talk to a friend or close family member. However, many of us do not have friends or family who understand the unassailable bond of a dog and owner. If this is the case, seek the guidance of your vet, local humane society, or the club that represents the breed of your late pooch. There you will find supportive, kind individuals who appreciate how you feel, many of whom have been through the same experience. You can also visit our forums which have a specific category for stories and conversations In Memory of beloved pets.
You can also try moving things around in your home. Especially if Rover had a certain corner where he liked to curl up, and it breaks your heart every time you look in that direction and he’s not there—redecorate your living room and stick an end table or a lamp in that corner. You’ll be surprised how simple changes can help with the grieving process.
Helping Yourself and Your Kids ThroughL
When it comes to children, you absolutely must be honest. Telling your kids that Rover went to a farm may seem like the gentle way to help them through the loss, but it is counterproductive. Not only does it do nothing to help them understand the natural processes of life, about which they will have to learn eventually, but when they do find out the truth, it will breed in them a mistrust and anger that may be difficult to counteract.
When you explain the situation to your children, avoid euphemisms like “put to sleep” or “passed on.” These expressions are confusing and misleading, especially to young children, and can even be frightening. If you tell a young child that Rover has been “put to sleep” without explaining exactly what that means, he or she may themselves be afraid to go to sleep for fear that they might not come back. Speak to your children gently, but frankly. Delicately explain that living had become painful and difficult for Rover in the end and that saying goodbye was the kindest thing you could do for him, even though it is so hard.
Do not feel as if you need to “be strong” for your children. Crying in front of or with them over the loss of your dog will show them that it is ok to feel sad about the loss and that it is ok to cry. But try to bring conversation back to a positive angle by finding ways to smile through your tears. Reminisce with your family with funny stories about your dog, or silly things he used to do. Encourage your children to draw pictures or write stories about the good times with your dog.
The lack of control in the situation of losing a pet is difficult for a child, especially if he or she was not involved in the choice to euthanize. Help him or her gain a sense of control by letting them plan a memorial service, or decorate an urn or burial marker. This will give children an important sense of closure, and will help you with your grief as well.
If this is your children’s first experience with death, they will probably have quite a few questions. Do your best to be extremely patient and forthcoming. The more information they seek and find, the more comfortable they will be with what has happened, and the more ready they will be when they inevitably face death again later in life. Think of it as a learning experience that they will look back on with appreciation as they grow up.
Absolutely do not try to replace the pet who has passed. It is more than ok to get another dog eventually, in fact it is recommended, but this new dog is NOT a replacement. Avoid getting another dog of the same breed or naming him the same thing. This will be confusing to children and can breed resentment towards the new dog. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and it is not fair to expect a new dog to take the place of a beloved, deceased friend.
If your children are having an exceptionally difficult time handling the death of your dog, take this as a sign that you have raised compassionate individuals with huge hearts. After all, those with the biggest hearts have the greatest capacity for heartbreak. There is no shame in seeking clergy, support groups, or grief counselors to help you and your family through this difficult time. Just remember that, as Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “sadness flies away on the wings of time.”