Losing A Dog: Dealing With The Grief
This blog entry is going to be a little different. It will still touch upon dog training a little bit, but it’s definitely going to be one of the more personal entries you’ll see on this website blog. It covers the topic of death, specifically the death of your furry loved one, and how to cope with it.
This past February, our Atlanta dog trainer Christina, lost her best friend, Moses (the Rottie pictured). Moses was around 10 or 11 years old, and her death was quite sudden. Christina had Moses since she was about 3 or 4 years old, when she rescued her back in North Carolina, prior to moving to Atlanta. Moses was a female Rottweiler mix, who was known for being one of the sweetest and most behaved dogs many people have ever met. Christina only half-jokingly says that Moses was more popular with people than Christina ever was, due to Moses’s sweet nature, exceptional intelligence, and loyal companionship.
Losing a dog is hard. Not only are you losing your best friend and family member, but one that demonstrates nothing but unconditional love. Despite any flaws, quirks, or peeves your dogs may have had or exhibited, it pales in comparison to the love they have for you. Because dogs are loyal, no matter what. Even the dogs our trainer works with, the ones that might show skittish behavior or aggression, are not doing it because they hate their people and want to cause misery for them. It’s because they are unsure on how to find that happy, healthy relationship with their families.
Our trainer wanted to share her own personal ways that she has and still is coping with losing her best friend. This is not necessarily for everyone, as people go through grief in their own individual way. These pieces of “advice” and personal anecdotes are coming from both a professional dog trainer and a regular dog lover/owner. Take what you will, ignore what doesn’t work for you…everyone is different, and these just want to give those who are also grieving some comfort, validation, and ways for you (and your family) to potentially cope and carry on with the loving memories.
1. Do not set a time limit for your grief. If I were to give a time span on how long my grief lasted, it would be impossible because I am still going through it. For two weeks, I cried every day. After that, it was maybe every other day, and at that point I was able to laugh about things once again and able to sing music with some modicum of pleasure once again. Today, I cried this morning and I hadn’t cried in weeks. For quite some time, I have been laughing over memories of Moses more than I was weeping.
During those initial hellish two weeks, I found myself commanding myself to “get it together” and “It’s been weeks, I gotta stop crying over this!”
It’s important to transition back into your daily life and its routines, because it can actually help you through those days of torturous grief. But, there’s no need to shame yourself if you’re still struggling to overcome the pain. Some people might feel a little more normal in two weeks, some might need two months or two years. However long it takes, take that time to grieve and while also working back into your regular life — work, social time, personal projects, creative endeavors, etc.
2. Routines. One of the things I like to talk about as a dog trainer is that dogs do much better with routines, because it gives them a sense of comfort, knowing what to do and what is coming. This can be just as comforting for people, especially when they are going through emotional trauma like losing a dog.
One of the HARDEST things I dealt with after Moses died was losing a lot of the routines we had together — the daily walks, the play time with her toys and me rolling around with her, feeding her meals, going on trips together with her in the back seat, etc. Sometimes there would be these routines that just seemed pretty small or trivial, but in actuality, it was just as significant and made her absence more apparent. For example, whenever I made fresh chicken broth, I would normally save the boiled chicken and veggies for her, taking it out of the crockpot, letting it cool and then giving small bits of it in her food for the next few days. When I was at the store last and considered making broth again, I thought of this and just bought broth in the soup aisle, with tears in my eyes. I also can’t eat a banana without thinking of her because she would always get a piece from me, no matter what.
You have to let go of some of these routines, and it’s heartbreaking. Try to identify and cling onto other routines that keep your world turning. For instance, crafting has helped, and also doing semi-regular workouts has helped me physically, plus kept me mentally busy. If you can’t work out or some things seem too hard, do easy and boring (but helpful) things, like do laundry, prep your breakfast for tomorrow, make your bed, dust your living room, purge your closet, etc. It may seem unimportant, but these are still accomplishments and what I like to call “small victories”. Also try things that can bring some light into your life — have your morning jog, write in your diary, read your book every night before going to bed, do your weekly client calls or emails to see how they are doing, call your mom to chat and maybe get together if you’re up for it, sing your favorite songs in the shower or at kareoke night, etc. Try creating new routines that might make you feel better — walk your best friend’s dog to fill that void a little, volunteer with a non-profit, hike a mountain, take a dance class, work on a house project fixing something up, try a cooking a new recipe for you and your date, etc.
The routines will but also won’t replace the routines you had with your dog. You’ll still remember and hold onto the old ones. But these routines can help you function again. They’re like baby steps back into your normal life. If you have family members (human or animal) grieving as well, this can help them too. Dogs experience grief as well, and if you have another dog in the home, they might need your help to overcome their grief. You can battle your pain by helping them.
3. Get it out. That means talk, write, draw…get your emotions out of your system, ideally in a healthy and productive way. Whenever I am upset, I try to channel my sadness or anger into something that I can create, whether it be a short story (or blog post, ha!), a dance routine, a knitting project, etc. If I can’t, I might just scribble nonsense down on paper, or call my friend to blubber and have them listen to me ramble, or sometimes I’ll go to the gym and hit a punching bag a couple of times.
However you do it, don’t bottle up your grief up because it will eventually blow up in you or someone else’s face at some point. It will hurt you inside. For the first few days, I didn’t really discuss Moses’s death other than with my husband. I couldn’t really talk about it, and if you can’t actually talk about it, then that’s okay. But do what you can to get it out of your system that is not harmful to you, your life, or the people in your life.
4. Ask for help. There is NO shame in asking for help, whether it’s from your family or a professional. There are counselors and therapists that WILL help you through your grief and loss over your dog. Anyone who loves and knows you, know that what you’re experiencing is painful, and it’s not a situation where, “It’s just a dog!” is uttered. Many trained therapists understand that losing a pet can be even more painful than losing a human family member, and they will help you through it if you ask for help. If one-on-one therapy is not for you, look into group counseling. I discovered that every month, there’s a grief counseling group session at the pet crematorium, Paws Whiskers and Wags. And of course, call up your parent, your close friend, the people you trust the most, and see if they can be there to talk, listen, and give you the comfort during your time of need.
5. Honor your dog. The day Moses died, I grabbed all of her photos and set up basically an altar for her in my bedroom. I lit candles and incense, I put her collar up, I slept with her toys, I clung to one of her blankets so I could still smell her scent, and I listened to songs that reminded me of her, despite it making me bawl uncontrollably. When the tears would subside, I knew it wouldn’t bring her back, but I felt like I could still honor her and all the service she provided for me during her lifetime. It didn’t make me stop feeling bad, but it gave me a sense of comfort and in a way, preserved her memory and presence more.
I also gave away some of her stuff to friends with dogs. It wasn’t immediate because for awhile I could not let go of her stuff. But then after some time, it felt good to give another dog her food, her treats, an old bed, etc. This is not necessarily for everybody, and while I gave away some things, her bed in my bedroom with her toys and blankets has not moved since she died. Maybe I’ll save it for another dog in the future or for someone else’s…whatever makes it easier. It’s not ridiculous to memorialize your dog or even hold a funeral service for them. Whatever makes it easier for you to cope and honor your dog, then follow your heart.
6. You are NOT crazy. One of things I always said to my friends when I actually could start talking to them about Moses is about how crazy I was acting. I’d show some sign of grief–holding onto her toy at night, saying goodbye to an empty room as I left for work, jumping at the unknown sound in my empty house because I thought maybe that was her, or even talking to Moses out loud even though she wasn’t there. I’d laugh to hide my pain and shame, “I know, I’m acting like a crazy person.”
No. I wasn’t. And any grief you’re going through isn’t crazy. It’s just grief, and it’s part of dealing with losing a loved one. If you need to talk to an empty room as if you were talking out loud to your dog, do it. If you need to keep your dog’s food bowls still in place because it would tear you up to give those away, save them for now. Practice self-care through your grief, and avoid self-harm or destructive habits, as these will only make the grief worse. Suffering through grief doesn’t mean you’re crazy. I personally think it is a kind of madness to the mind, but it’s not something that invalidates your existence or your sanity.
Again, these are not for everyone and anyone that is grieving over the loss of their dog. For anyone that has lost a dog or any pet, they have my deepest love and sympathies, and I hope you find the way that works best for you to deal with this devastation. To me, it’s most important to take care of yourself as best as you can, give yourself tasks and things to keep yourself productive and busy, also give yourself time to meditate and absorb everything, find ways to get your grief out of your system before it eats you up inside, and to honor your dog through memories and your current actions.
Coping with the loss of my dog was a lot like actual dog training, but instead, it was training myself. It was training myself to stay physically and mentally healthy and make sure my life didn’t fall apart. It was hard but I knew I couldn’t stop working with my clients just because I was so upset over Moses. Once I got back on the metaphorical horse, I found out working with my clients and their dogs helped in many ways…I was helping other dogs and rewarding myself through this practice by watching their progress and seeing their lives dramatically improve. I also continued doing my other routines, my hobbies, seeing my friends, enjoying some solitude…it helped relieve the anxiety and pain of the grief.
I will conclude this blog post with this thought and fact: the one thing that always gave me some comfort during my grief is that the pain, the suffering, and the madness of my grief over Moses’s death, only proves what heavenly bliss she and I experienced together when she was alive. The pain I experienced and still experience cannot exist, without the joy. We both enriched each other’s lives and while I will always wish she was still here being the best dog I ever had, I am thankful for having the life I had with her, and will use the rest of my life to offer my services for all the lessons and services she gave me, just by existing, just by being a dog. She inspired this dog training business when I first started it, and will continue to do so.
The love of a dog is priceless. If you have the privilege of having a dog as a friend and family member, make your life with them the most blissful it can ever be!
-Christina of Peachtree Dog Training