A NATURAL GRIEF by Dee Woodcock
We know – of course we know – that the lifespan of our dog is
much shorter than our own. Over the years we may share our home with many
dogs. Each one will be special to us in his or her own unique way, and we
knowingly have another dog knowing that in time we shall suffer again the
pain of losing a treasured companion.
We may grieve for him for weeks, months, and even years. At
the time each of us may feel isolated in our grief, but the feelings
experienced when a dog dies are startlingly similar to those felt at the
death of a human friend or relation. That realisation may be hard to face,
and we may be made to feel by those who do not share our love of dogs that
we should feel less strongly. The fact is that generally we spend more time
with our dog than we do with the very large majority of our human family and
friends. Should it be surprising then to feel profound sorrow and to be
aware of the sudden gap in our lives?
It is not unusual to be taken unawares by the strength of our
reactions. Tears are a wholly natural expression of great joy or great
sadness. Yet so often we are told that we must keep a stiff upper lip, be
brave, anything in fact rather than show what we are feeling. Shock, grief,
anger and feelings guilt may be experienced, some more deeply and longer
lasting than others. We may punish ourselves for having brought about
the last act of love in asking for euthanasia, even though we know that our
dog was terminally ill and suffering. Sometimes there is a short
period in which it is impossible to accept that death has taken place.
It is easy to direct anger at ourself even when we know that
everything possible was done, thinking “I should have done more”.
Anger may be directed at the person or object thought responsible for an
accidental death, or the vet who gives our dog a gentle peaceful ending.
Newly bereaved owners sometimes speak of a dreamlike feeling from which they
struggle to escape, or speak of being in the midst of a nightmare from
which we will soon wake. Some will speak of feeling the presence of
the dog in the house, hearing the click on his claws or his soft breathing.
This sense of presence is one that many owners mention.
When newly bereaved we may feel incredibly lonely, even when
surrounded by family and friends. There is a strong sense that no one
understands how we are feeling, and this may be even stronger if friends
suggest the immediate purchase of a new puppy. This well meaning
suggestion may well cause animosity and friction. Often there is a deep
need to speak of our dog, to reminisce, and to remember and the suggestion
that his place can be so easily filled is painful.
There will be far reaching changes in our lives if the dog is
the only one we have. If we live alone and have relied on our dog for
company and protection there may be a natural feeling of anxiety. There
may be some physical signs of our distress – difficulty in sleeping, little
desire for food, and sometimes headaches and stomach pains. The daily
routine of feeding, grooming and exercise is lost, and for a time this space
may be hard to fill. Saddest of all, perhaps, is the lack of excited
greeting when we return home from even the shortest of absences.
Just how long we grieve depends a great deal of the strength
of feeling we have for our dog. It is possible to feel more for one than
another, and this too may engender guilt. It is a fact of life that we
like, love, or care for one person more than another. It is wholly normal
therefore to have differing strengths of feeling for our dogs. Family
and friends may suggest that having several dogs at the same time will make
it easier to bear the loss of one. But because we value each as an
individual and recognise his different qualities and appeal, we are saddened
by the loss of each one. Owning several does not seem to make the
emotional readjustment any shorter or less painful.
Eventually we will reach the stage of acceptance, the first
step on the road to recovering from the pain and distress. Just how
long it takes for any one person to reach this stage is wholly individual as
is every aspect of grieving, and the path to this point will also be
different for each of us. But at some stage we will begin to recall
happy memories, the comical incidents and the individual characteristics of
the dog which made him important to us. In the months ahead, there will
be moments still when the loss brings a fleeting sadness, but the time to
grieve is passing. This too is natural, and in the years ahead we will
remember with increasing pleasure the special relationship we shared with
that particular dog.