“The Greatest Wish” is a song by the American artist Curtis Salgado that tells us that we want so many things in our life, but the greatest wish of all is “I want my dog to live longer.”
Well, I am living with a dog that suffers from a chronic disease and periodically her general health declines. A few months ago she dipped lower than usual. It was by far the deepest so far and I actually thought I was going to lose her. To such an extent that one night I gave her permission to leave. We looked very deeply into each other’s eyes and I told her that she did not have to fight anymore, that everything would be fine and that she could go quietly.
This episode made me think a lot about the loss and I decided to write this article.
As Curtis Salgado says in his song, the life of a dog often seems way too short. At regular intervals (if you have more than one dog in your life) the inevitable happens: your friend crosses the rainbow bridge and you stay behind with your heart in pieces.
But losing someone you love doesn’t have to deprive you of all your power and zest for life, at least not for long. You don’t have to be a complete “victim” of your emotions. Your pain can be overcome in different ways and it takes different people more or less time. You just have to allow yourself to do it “your” way.
Grief and loss can be quite difficult on their own, but sometimes we make it even more difficult for ourselves. For example, by not allowing ourselves to grieve as much or in the way we need to. Sometimes we think too much about what is “normal”, how “others” grieve and what others may think of us. We don’t want to cause “trouble”. We try to be “strong” and we don’t want to “sink” into our own pain. Especially if it is “just a dog”. By doing this, we waste a lot of our energy on everything other than what we really need energy for, that is, to cry and heal.
Pain has many faces
Grief is different for different people and is usually also proportional to the ties you have had with the one you have lost. Also, grief obeys its own trajectory and there is no timetable for feelings of pain after loss. The course of grieving, the feeling of guilt, despair, shock, etc. is also related to how and when the loss presents itself. When a dog dies suddenly and unexpectedly, when you haven’t had time to prepare, the impact can be overwhelming and can last a long time. And while you’re in shock, you can’t really deal with or process your loss.
For some people, and I think that myself is in this category, grief is a short-term deep phenomenon, also known as acute grief, although the pain may return unexpectedly somewhere further on up the road. But some people may experience a prolonged grief, lasting months or years. This grief is also known as complicated grief and without help and support, such grief can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.
So it’s about giving yourself the time you need. Losing a young dog has usually a slightly greater impact than to lose an older dog. But then again, this is not always the case. We are all different individuals and we react differently. Additionally, it can definitely be shocking and take time to recover if the older dog passed in a sudden and traumatic way. Obviously there is a big difference if you are facing the loss on your own, or if you are surrounded by family, friends and loved ones.
If the loss presents itself when you are in an active and creative phase in your life, usually leaves completely different tracks than when you have nothing that really occupies you. It is not that one loss is greater than the other, but the way we experience the loss or the opportunities we have to deal with it may differ significantly for the same person during different stages of their life. This is an important fact for you to consider and keep in mind.
No matter how you react and no matter what your life situation is like, it is important to try to recognise and accept all the different emotions that follow a loss. It is self-evident that negative emotions have an essential role in our evolutionary past and under specific conditions in the modern world. However, when emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear take over and negatively impact the quality of our lives, it may be time to seek professional help. Sometimes a single call may be enough to give you the guidance you need to move on.
And sometimes what’s needed is a close friend. Many mourners want those around them to listen, ask questions, and share memories, thereby confirming the depth and validity of the griever’s feelings and helping them heal. Just knowing that there is someone to talk to about what is closest to your heart can be comforting. And if we don’t have such friends (unfortunately, many disappear when the wind blows a bit) well then we have to trust ourselves and try to be our own best friend. This can be such a good time for us to get to know our own inner strength, become my own friend, and maybe find someone who has been there my entire life without me knowing.
The substitute dog
Sometimes we panic when the loss hits us like a Mike Tyson right. We will do whatever it takes to ease the anguish and despair – whatever it takes. And sometimes we get the advice, well-intentioned but, in my opinion, a really bad one, to get a new dog. It is an advice with great lack of understanding.
Another dog cannot replace the love you felt…
A new life does not make the previous one continue…
The unique connection cannot be exchanged…
You cannot transfer your feelings from one to another…
It is not only a mistake for you. The error also applies to the new one coming in. During the time of mourning you cannot give your heart to another, as it is full of pain and suffering. So my advice would be that not until the process of grieving is completed, you get yourself another dog.
For some people the feeling of guilt is a big part of the process and it does not matter if it is reasonable or not. Guilt is to have something to direct our pain to. But guilt is an illusion.
Of course there are a lot of things we could and should have done differently. A lot of times we have done or said something that we regret. This exists in all relationships, with humans and with animals. We are not perfect and we do and say things that we later regret and one day it becomes guilt.
We all make mistakes – no one is perfect. So we have to forgive ourselves. Face the guilt-ghost and don’t let it make the grieving any more difficult than it already is.
We may also be ashamed of grief over losing our dog. This is a projection that we believe others thinking it is wrong or a sign of weakness to mourn a dog.
Shame is like guilt, an illusion. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, neither for ourselves, nor for others. Most likely, our closest environment understands perfectly and if not – maybe it should not be our closest environment.
Mourning a loved one is normal, necessary and yes – healthy.
Tips for dealing with grief
Don’t cry alone. It is vital that we stay connected with others during the time of grief. Our supportive environment may include our family, friends, our dog trainer, a bereavement support group, and / or a licensed mental health professional to help us cope.
Our supportive environment can help with:
Preparing and facing the farewell.
Sharing our pain with other people who can understand.
Process our difficult emotions in a safe environment.
Take good care of yourself. It can be easy to forget your own needs when you are recovering from a loss, but neglecting yourself will not help you deal with your pain effectively.
You should do something creative to express your feelings (write something, paint, make a photo album).
Eat, sleep, and exercise to avoid adding physical fatigue to the emotional one.
Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Understand what triggers your pain and prepare for those triggers (plan to take a day or two off work, let your friends and family know that you will need additional support, etc.).
Grief is difficult and hard, just as intense and deep as the love you felt for your dog. The pain goes so deep that no remedy can make it go away.
But think about it for a moment – your best friend deserves all that grief. It’s that simple…
I also had inspiration from the Anders Hallgren book “Farväl till en vän”. A book on this topic, but unfortunately only published in Swedish and Danish.