First, my heart goes out to you over the loss of your beloved pet. So often people minimize the pain of losing a beloved furry friend (or not furry), regardless of what type of pet it is. But we as humans have a deep ability to love and bond with our animals, and our pets often see us through some of the worst times in our lives, loving us unconditionally, licking away our tears, or just being there at our sides when we need them most. They are the most content when they are with us! They seem to have an innate ability to know when we are suffering or feeling blue, and they will be with us to try and soothe our sorrows. In fact, even though we can’t actually test animals’ emotions, it is quite clear that joy, grief, compassion and sorrow are seen in our four-legged friends. Just watch the video, “When Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry” through this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDtcFWBaO7E.
Let me share a personal story with you. My beautiful and amazing daughter, Erika Whitmore Godwin, died in 2002 from an extremely rare sinus cancer. She was our only child and my best friend. She was 32 years old when she died here in our home, surrounded by her husband, father, mother-in-law and me. Erika was just starting to live the best part of her life with a new husband, living in Canada, and getting her teaching credential. We had never seen her so happy when we discovered that what we thought was simply a sinus infection turned out to be a stage 4 aggressive and extremely rare sinus tumor. She fought hard for a year, and we fought alongside her, but it was not to be.
Losing Erika was and is the most catastrophic and devastating experience of my life, and that is why I started griefHaven and became a grief expert—to help others who are grieving. But the death of our beloved furry family member, Brandy, was the second most painful and difficult of my losses. In fact, before Erika passed, she said to me, “Mom, I’m worried about you and how you will survive this because I saw how you were with Brandy, and I’m your daughter!” She knew Brandy was not “just” a dog because we all grieved deeply when Brandy died, especially me. So I get it!
Our pets are with us through thick and thin. Our pets also completely rely on us for survival, love and guidance. There is no way to sugar-coat it— it’s painful and takes time before anything can really feel normal again after our pets die. It’s the “new normal” we need to create once they leave our sides. Some people grieve over their pets more than others. Some will go out right away and get another pet, and some are unable to ever get another pet; both of those approaches are perfectly fine and normal. That’s why you cannot tell another person what they should or shouldn’t do, or even “encourage” them to get another pet if they aren’t ready. Everyone has to grieve in their own way and their own time.
It can also be difficult when people make comments like, “It’s just a dog,” or “It’s not like a human died.” Those comments are hurtful and inaccurate. It often IS as if a human died, and often it is felt more deeply than if a human had died, depending upon the relationship with our human friends or family. Some relationships with humans are very strained and difficult, yet our relationships with our furry loved ones is often not strained and simply filled with beloved moments and special emotions. After all, who thinks that our capacity to love is so limited that to truly love another being means it has to be a human? That love that we have for another comes from within us and is based on our relationships and histories with everything and everyone. Love is love. A pet is, simply put, as much of a member of the family as anyone else. Also, our four-legged family members often give our lives purpose when, sometimes, there seems to be no purpose. This is especially true for elderly people who are alone, for empty nesters, for those whose spouses have died, for those who are immobile, and for those who love having the joy that a beloved pet brings. In fact, I regularly hear in my work after the death of a parent, child, sibling, grandparent, etc. that people’s pets saved them. People will often say, “I had to get up every morning for my dog when there wasn’t any other reason to get up. He needed me.” For instance, growing up with a dog or cat by your side is a wonderful thing--it's like having a best friend with four legs instead of two. A dog is always happy to see you and can always make you feel appreciated when you're feeling low. A cat purrs and snuggles and plays funny games, bringing us joy. A dog, cat, or any pet fills in those little gaps in the heart and completes every picture. Going from a house full of wagging tails, loud barks, meowing and purring, joyful looks, or begging eyes just waiting for that piece of food to fall to a house full of silence can shatter anyone's heart.
After your pet dies, you might find that you feel regrets. This is something we all do whenever anyone dies. You relive the moments you could have done something better or different or feel you should have done this or that. We call it the wouldas, couldas, shouldas. That’s normal. You look back on the time you could have been more patient or you should have taken her on that walk but didn’t. Just know that with all of the animals in the world who would love to be in a home, your pet had one! You weren’t perfect, because it’s impossible to be perfect.
Please know you aren’t alone. All of those feelings of grief and loneliness and the tears you are crying are normal and healthy. The more deeply we love, the more deeply we grieve. Your dog may be physically absent but will stay in your heart and memories forever. The unconditional love that you had for each other will never go away. All the memories you shared will always be available to play over and over again in your head and to laugh about and appreciate. Isabella Duenas-Lozada once wrote a letter about losing her dog, and she stated, “As cheesy as it may sound, Dr. Seuss once said, ‘Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened.’ Know that it's always okay to cry and get the feelings out that cannot be explained with words, but when you're ready, smile. Smile because you and your pet were the lucky ones! You both had experiences that changed your lives. If the connection wasn't there, and the whole relationship was meaningless, saying goodbye would be easy. But the fact that it was such a difficult separation only means that it was true, genuine love.”
You may also be thinking about how much your life has been changed by your pet having come into your life and now how much it’s changed by your pet leaving your life. This is true with any loss we have when we love. Research consistently shows the joy and healing that comes when you share your life with your pet. Remember, too, that while your life was changed by your pet, so too was your pet’s life changed by being with you. You were there to bring them into your home, play with them, teach them new things, show them what it's like to be loved and make every moment special.
As you begin this new journey without your pet, follow all of the regular information out there today about grieving, for anything that applies to the death of a human applies to the death of a pet. As always, some losses are worse than others, and that will be the same for you. That’s why we can never compare another’s loss to ours. But if you were willing to open your heart and allow the love to flow back and forth between you and your pet, then you already know how difficult losing him or her can be. This I can promise you: you will find a way to create that “new normal” without your pet there, just as anyone does whose loved one has died. Keep your heart open and allow yourself to grieve. Don’t listen when people minimize your loss. You know that love is not finite—it’s beyond measure. As you go forward into your life, keep your pet’s memory alive, talk about him or her, and remember that humans have their own ways of wagging their tails!
So never stop wagging!
Susan Whitmore, BSBM, CGC
Founder and CEO