August 6, 2012. The day after my daughter’s 18th birthday and five days before we moved her to Fayetteville, Arkansas to begin her college career, we adopted a six-year-old 130 pound, baby faced Yellow Labrador Retriever named Buddy. We were getting ready to be empty nesters, except for our rescue Golden Retriever named Indy, and our alpha dog, a rescue Shiatzu named Skittles. (How is it the 15 pound dog is the boss of the entire house?) Anyway, did we really need another dog? Maybe I was trying to keep my “nest” full.
The first couple of years in our home seemed to be a difficult adjustment for Buddy. He grieved for his previous family. Buddy was never far from me and spent many hours curled under my desk at my feet. After we had Buddy about a year, we lost Indy. Skittles and Indy had always played together like dogs do. Little Skittles now turned to his 130 pound counterpart and wanted to play. Buddy humored him at times and other times, tolerated more than he should. Buddy was gentle, loving and a good sport.
Due to Buddy’s size, life expectancy is typically shorter. We knew he must have cancer due to the many tumors throughout his body and his joints were a problem, too. Medication always kept him content and comfortable. He started breathing heavily on the Monday after Mother’s Day, May 14, 2018. Within a few short hours, he had died in my arms. We had six blessed years loving that big yellow dog.
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor. I know about grief, but it does not make it easier. I cared for my mother for seven years until her death. I have lost family members, friends, pets, and helped clients young and old in their grief. Buddy’s death has been particularly hard for me. I have cried with Skittles more than once as I move through this grief. Skittles was sad and moped around for a time as we all adjusted to the new normal; although, I do think he is rather enjoying his alpha and only dog status. Pet bereavement is real.
I thought I was ready to move on. You have seen the Facebook posts of dog owners needing to rehome their pets for a variety of reasons. A soldier being deployed and having to give up his Lab/Heeler mix seemed like a good fit for our one dog family. I was concerned how Skittles might react to a new dog member in our house. We met the sweet pup and her heartbroken owner. Skittles was polite, curious and like a new puppy following the potential candidate around the yard. When the Lab/Heeler mix investigated Buddy’s grave site, it took my breath away. I knew I was not ready. Healing takes time. Pet bereavement is real.
Pet loss is something we do not often really talk about. Your dog died, you are sad, life goes on. Sound familiar? Why are you not able to get over it? Each person’s grief process is different. Our pets become part of our family and give us unconditional love. It is not wrong to feel these intense emotions about our loved ones. Some folks may not understand and that is ok! You may have heard of the famous Five Stages of Grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: Stage 1: Denial Stage 2: Anger Stage 3: Bargaining Stage 4: Depression Stage 5: Acceptance. This gives individuals a frame work or idea about what they may feel. However, you probably are not going to go through each stage and be finished with grief. Generally, there is no specific order to grief and you feel what you feel.
What can you do about it? I have created a list of ideas. You can create ideas of your own to suit the needs of your grieving family.
- Talk about your deceased pet; remember the funny stories. (Buddy did not like to share the sofa with anyone and he was convinced he was actually a lap dog, even at 130 pounds!)
- Look at pictures of your pet. (Yes, they are still on my phone and I will show you.)
- If you are a Facebook fan, post about it. It is uplifting to hear words of comfort from friends and family. You might be surprised how many people can identify with your feelings.
- Create a memorial. This might be a space inside or outside. (We planted daisies and put Buddy’s name tag on a cross in our back yard. It is comforting to have a place to sit and remember.)
- Give yourself time. It is ok to feel all your feelings.
- If you realize you cannot move forward, find a counselor or a support group.
A pet loss can trigger memories of other losses. Maybe you or someone you know has struggled with loss. I have been there, and we can walk through your grief together.