Coping with the loss of your dog isn’t easy. I know this from very personal and very recent experience. It creates a hole not just in your heart, but in your home. The entire energy changes. If you have them, your other dogs mourn the loss in their own way, dealing not just with the question of what happened to their pack mate, but the overall change in pack dynamic. In our home, Maia paces constantly, looking for Tasha. Cooper barks at everything now. Every move we make, he barks, as if he expects tragedy to strike at any moment. It’s only been two weeks, so I’m still learning to deal, but I’m going to share with you what has helped me in case you are faced with coping with the loss of your dog.
Coping with the Loss of Your Dog
I’ll break this into two parts: coping with the loss of your dog for you and how to help your other animals adjust. I want to say one thing, though. Everyone copes with loss in different ways. I’m not wired for handling death. I don’t deal with it well at all. I lost my grandparents eight years ago, and I’m still stuck in the grief cycle. How you go about coping with the loss of your dog will depend very much on your way of accepting and understanding death. That said, let’s talk coping skills.
Coping for You and Your Family
Prepare yourself and your family
If you know the loss is coming, prepare yourself and your children the best you can. We knew Tasha’s end was near. She was in pretty bad shape, and we had to make the decision to let her go. It was the hardest decision, but it was right for her. I didn’t tell my son the exact time because I didn’t want to bring him with me. He couldn’t handle it. I did sit him down and explain to him that Tasha would be leaving us that week. That we should spend as much time possible with her and say goodbye.
I made her last days as special as possible. She got all the treats she wanted. All her favorites. Not enough to give her a stomach ache, I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable, but she had more than her regular share of “junk food.” I brushed her and collected her fur in a bag. Why? I don’t know. I just wanted it. We took pictures. We snuggled. While I did these things every day of her life, I made sure I cemented every last moment into my memory those last few days.
Take the day off
Whether you know the loss is coming, or it happens unexpectedly, if you can, take the day off to grieve. I know some jobs aren’t too great about letting you take off for the loss of a pet, but many are quite understanding. Back when I was 19, I worked at a popular sandwich chain. My boss didn’t even blink when I told him I needed the day off to mourn the loss of my iguana, Clyde. I loved that lizard.
With Tasha, I knew it was coming, so I arranged my work load to finish up on Thursday and have the day off. I also arranged to have her put to sleep on a Friday, so I could have the entire weekend to give me a little more time to cope with the loss.
Memorialize your dog in your special way
We opted to cremate Tasha, and I purchased a tasteful memorial box for her ashes. That way, she’s always with me. I’m most comfortable with that option, as we rent and don’t plan to live here forever. Burying her wasn’t an option. You may opt to bury your dog on your property. You may even choose to let the vet handle it and not keep your dog’s ashes. There isn’t a “right” way to memorialize your dog. Whatever you decide, that’s the right way.
If you have children, I do recommend letting them have some say. Even if you aren’t burying your dog or keeping the ashes, ask them if they’d like to share memories or say something happy about your dog. It helps give them closure. My son freaked when he realized what cremation entails, but then he felt better knowing Tasha was always with us still.
Don’t downplay your grief
I think this is probably the best piece of advice I can give you when it comes to coping with the loss of your dog: don’t hold back. There will be people who don’t understand. People who’ve never had a pet or who just don’t feel a strong bond with the pets they have, who will say things like “it’s just a dog.” To me, Tasha was never “just a dog.” She was my friend, my fur kid, my companion and my occasional therapist. Don’t let anyone diminish your grief simply because you’re mourning a friend with four legs instead of two.
Let the good memories flow
For the first day, all I could think about was Tasha’s face in those final moments. All I could feel was the exact second the vet said: “it’s over.” It played on loop, over and over. It still threatens to overwhelm, as I sit here writing this. After the first day, every time I’d start to think about that saddest memory of her life, I’d force in happy memories. The face she’d make when she wanted to play fetch. The way she helped my son cheat during hide and seek by finding me first and barking. Let those good memories start flowing. Try to focus on them when grief starts to overwhelm. You’ll still be sad, but you may also find yourself smiling through your tears.
Help a dog in need
One fantastic way to cope with the loss of your dog is to help another dog. I’m not saying go out and adopt another puppy right away, especially if you have other dogs in the house. I’m not ready for that! You can help dogs in need in so many other ways. Donate extra food to a family struggling to keep a pet through a tough financial time or to a shelter. Offer to walk dogs at the local rescue. If you don’t feel like you can spend time around other dogs just yet, make a monetary donation in your dog’s name.
Helping other animals cope with the loss
Helping the other animals in your home cope with the loss of your dog is a bit trickier because they don’t understand what is happening. All they know is that one of their pack mates is gone, and their humans are sad. As with humans, all dogs process grief in their way.
Let them see
I didn’t do this with Maia, but Cesar Milan recommends letting your other dog come along to the vet when you euthanize your dog. If that’s not possible, he suggests letting your dog see your deceased dog’s body. Again, I didn’t do that either because we went right from the vet to the crematorium.
Give extra attention, but don’t “reward” depression
Maia didn’t eat much the first few days after Tasha passed away. I was tempted to hand-feed her and give her more treats just to get her to eat. The thing with Maia, though, is that if she knows you’re willing to do something like that once, she’ll expect it all the time. Give your dog extra love and affection during this sad time, but not as a way to cajole them into doing things that you expect of them, like eating.
Expect a few changes
Maia reacted to grief in a most unexpected way. She had what I can only describe as a massive panic attack. We thought she was having a seizure and rushed her to the vet. Since Tasha’s death, she’s taken up pacing around the house as a new activity. She’s looking for Tasha, I suppose. Cooper reacted differently. He didn’t stop eating and, by all appearances, didn’t seem depressed. However, as I said earlier, he’s started barking more often and at random things. He seems a bit more anxious. He also spends a lot more time with his boy, my son.
Don’t jump to replace their lost friend
There’s no replacement for your lost dog. You know that. Still, you might think “maybe Fido will feel better with a new friend.” This is the worst thing to do. First, you’re most likely not feeling ready, so you’ll have a harder time bonding with a new dog. Second, your dog is already dealing with changes to the dynamic of the home. Bringing in a new pack member can just confuse things. We won’t be getting a new dog for a long time. Maia hates puppies. I kid you not. She loves kittens, but puppies freak her out. She doesn’t want to hurt them or anything; she just hides from them. Once she jumped up on a buffet table to escape a puppy we were dog-sitting! She’s a 70-lb dog!
One last thing that will help both you and your other animals cope with the loss of your dog: time. How much time? I couldn’t tell you. I’m still coping. I still miss my Tasha. I lost a German Shepherd when I was 11, 29 years ago. I still miss him. In fact, I named my son after him! Just give yourself, your family and your other pets time to learn how to patch the hole left in your home and your heart by your lost pet. I don’t think even time completely seals the hole, but it does get smaller.