This week I learned of the serious illness and death of two beloved show dogs. Their owners, breeders and admirers expressed an overwhelming sense of grief on social media. Some even tried to rationalize the death of a beloved canine with statements like the dog lived a good life but now was old and sick so death was expected. No matter how we try to justify their death, either naturally or by euthanasia, the fact remains that we miss them and we hurt. Some even go so far as to vow never to own another dog again because the pain is too great when the dog dies. Humans hurt because we have intense emotions. We form strong bonds with our dogs. For some, their dog is more important to them than family. For others, their dog IS their family. When that little spirit is suddenly gone, the owner experiences extreme grief, sadness and even depression. Well meaning friends and family try to emotionally support the distraught owner. Only those whose heart was owned by a beloved canine could possibly empathize with the pain experienced by the grief stricken owner.
Everyone reacts differently towards death but most cling to the physical items that reminds them of the happy and tender times with their dog. Photographs, pictures, videos even sound bites of their dog are not enough. The touch of their dog’s favorite collar or lead brings back vivid memories of walks and happy times. The sensation of your dog’s furry toys running through your fingers flashes back memories of fun and interaction with your dog. These mementos sooth the hurt and calm the soul. Grief is a process that each person must work through on their own terms. We can not run from, deny or avoid death. It is a natural process of every living thing on earth.
A warm little body snuggled next to you in bed with rhythmic breathing is soothing tonic for a restful night’s sleep. The first night your canine is no longer physically present next to you is probably the hardest night of your life. Reality confirms the finality that your little one is gone. Your eyes well up with tears of hurt streaming down your face. Heart wrenching grief penetrates your heart over the loss of your best friend, confidant, unconditional lover and stead fast true companion.
Overwhelming sadness and despair
With the death of their dog, some become nearly incapacitated unable to sleep, eat, drink or accomplish anything meaningful. Grieving is part of the normal human experience but when the time is prolonged and interferes with ability to perform usual duties such as work, manage a household or care for oneself, than the threat of depression ensues. In either case, professional help may ease the grieving process.
Hopelessness and anger
These two emotions are hard wired and often difficult to overcome. If the dog died young, tragically or accidentally, then overwhelming anger seizes the owner. Self blame floods the owner’s mind with a replay of the events associated with the dog’s death. Mentally, the owner tries to change the scenario to thwart their dog’s death.
If the beloved canine died during the watch of a caregiver, then unforgivable anger seizes the emotions and mind of the owner. Whatever tragedy or accident caused the death of the beloved canine, the owner will mentally replay how they could have intervened to prevent the fatal outcome.
Anger is a deep seated emotion and, depending upon the circumstance, forgiveness towards the care giver may never occur. At the very least, the owner is left with an unrealistic hypervigilance. Rituals may emerge to avoid unrealistic dangers, then anxiety and even neurosis may occur.
Helping to heal
No one understands the emotional heart ache of loosing a dog except others who have loved and lost. Progressing through the stages of grief is a very personal process with each individual handling sorrow differently. Unlike the death of a human, where most Western cultures hold a mass, funeral or even a celebration of the person’s life, offering a dog funeral is considered to be ‘weird’ or eccentric. The purpose of a funeral or mass is to allow family and friends an acceptable method to express remorse to the deceased and their family. Funerals allow closure. For Christians, a funeral mass provides a sense of hope for the departed person’s soul.
When a dog dies, even though the dog was an integral family member, no funeral occurs. In Western cultures, religious norms do not recognize that animals possess a soul. Thus, no funeral mass is offered. The best that is offered is the cremated remains in a plastic bag and placed in a box labeled with the departed dog’s name. The later occurs only if you are willing to pay the charges for cremation. I recently heard of a situation where a well loved 13 year old dog died peacefully in her sleep. The owner wrapped her little dog in a pink blanket and brought her to the local shelter to respectfully dispose of her dog’s body. At the shelter, the clerk demanded that the owner sign the only form available to cremate the remains. The owner signed a form to relinquish her dog for care and placement by the shelter. This occurred after the dog had already died! The heart broken owner was wounded again by the insensitivity of the technician at the shelter. From the technician’s viewpoint, her job was to get a form signed to cremate the body of a dead dog. For the owner, she was forced to sign a form documenting that she abandoned her little dog. The act of signing that form heightened the owner’s pain.
My belief is that we exist on earth to help others especially those who are hurting. Grief is a process. Studies now show that crying and reminiscing the memories you had with your dog, however painful must be dealt with in order to heal and move forward. If a person denies their pain, then real psychiatric pathology can occur. The person can become emotionally stuck. Hurt can transform into anger. Anger can fuel into fear. Fear can transform into a vow never to own a dog again.
In the US, dog ownership is increasing. Owners view their dog more as a family member than a pet. When the dog dies, the owner will naturally grieve. Our society needs to adopt a more sensitive approach towards owners whose dog recently died. Many Veterinary Schools and Colleges offer 24/7 phone or Internet counseling for an owner who faces the immediate death of their dog. Psychiatry now understands that death of a family dog can result in severe depression. Even clergy empathize with owners grief over the death of their dog. As a society, we need to appreciate the intense emotions of anyone who has lost a beloved canine and help them through their grieving process.
Barbara E. Magera MD, PharmD, MMM (Caracaleeb) is a Cavalier fancier who lives and practices medicine in Charłeston, South Carolina.