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Saying goodbye and grieving for a beloved pet

January 11, 2018

When my dog slipped away at the veterinarian’s office on Tuesday, I felt inconsolable, but knew I needed to pull it together. My son would be getting home from kindergarten soon. When I walked in the door, I wanted to appear normal, to talk with him about our pug’s passing almost matter-of-factly, as though death were a natural thing, a new phase, no big deal, and not something that could flatten you.

So I held Mister Tuppence one last time, stroked his fur, breathed in his scent, told him I loved him, and couldn’t stop crying. I let him know he was the best dog in the world (because he was). Then I walked out, sat in my car, and felt his absence. My head pounded, and I felt like throwing up.

Grieving for Mister Tuppence, the best pug and friendOf course, my son at 5-years-old has keen detective skills. When I walked in the door, he looked at my face, cocked his head, and said, “You’ve been crying. I can tell by your eyes. They’re red and wet. Why have you been crying, Mommy?”

“Did Daddy tell you about Mister Tuppence?” I asked him.

“Yeah, he did,” Charlie said and went back to playing. He told me, not unkindly, that I should go upstairs and be alone if I needed to cry.

And so I went upstairs.

How to talk to children about losing their pet.

That night, I wrote that Facebook post, the one where you tell your friends that your sweet pet has died—the request for consolation. The kind thoughts came pouring in, and I accepted them gratefully, reading all the messages and appreciating them, even though I felt too exhausted to reply.

I’m still processing the death of my little guy, and here’s what I’m learning:

Even though your dog wasn’t a person, he was your family, and his life and death matters. Allow yourself to grieve fully.

If you think it will help, let yourself make that Facebook post, the sappy one that essentially asks your friends to console you. Because they will, and it helps. Loss is a universal, so even if your friends didn’t know your pet, they know the experience. Care and love from your friends always makes it better, even though it can’t take the entirety of the hurt away. And if your friends did know your pet, then a Facebook post can be a really good way to consolidate memories.

Let yourself cycle through memories. The night Mister Tuppence died, I was preoccupied with what was left of him, the empty water dish, his collar and leash (still redolent of his scent), his kennel and dog bed. But when I woke up the next morning at 4 a.m., the memories of his entire life came rushing back. This was a good thing, and also powerful. When I thought about all that he meant to me, I was gasping with tears.

My family was lucky enough to have Mister Tuppence for nearly 16 years, and it floored me to think about all the life events that he had been a sweet, simple part of.

I remember how, in his final days, his doggy dementia had progressed. He would back himself into an odd corner of the house and howl. We would give him food and water, and he would howl; we would let him out, and he would howl; we would pet him, and he would howl. This agitation was new and scary and seemed to happen mostly at night. It reminded me of what my friend Tris, who had worked in nursing homes, had described as “sunsetting,” the agitation that people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia experience particularly once the sun goes down. I Googled to see if that was a thing in dogs. It was. 

But I also remember walking him on a leash for the first time, how he bounded forth so quickly, straining the leash, pure energy. Back then, he seemed to always be saying, “Why walk if you can run?” When we let him out of his kennel every morning, he’d run down the stairs so quickly, his back legs seemed to disappear.

Tuppence and little girlI remember the way he bonded with our first foster child. She was only 10 months old when she came to us, so neither of them had language, per se, but even so, they became fast friends and soon devised a chasing game that gave them both a lot of joy. For one week before she was reunited with her family, that little girl was thrust into a strange environment, but having Mister Tuppence around made her happy and gave her comfort.

I remember a cabin trip we took to Grand Marais in 2016. By then, Mister Tuppence was blind and deaf, but he seemed to enjoy the fresh air and large expanse of backyard wilderness as much as we did. One day, I put him out back to do his business, went inside, got distracted, and forgot about him. When I went outside, he was nowhere, and I panicked. We all searched for him, calling for a dog who couldn’t hear his name. I ran into the front yard and there he was, walking along the shoulder of the road. The funny thing was, he wasn’t walking away from the cabin, but toward it, as though he was returning from a great adventure. For the rest of that vacation, we joked, “Where had Tuppence gone? Had he been partying? What was he doing out there?” Even now, my son will ask me, “Remember when Mister Tuppence walked along the road? Where was he?”

All of these memories.

I remember the joy of meeting my little boy for the first time, smelling his puppy breath, holding him in my arms and loving him instantly and fully—knowing we were about to begin a great adventure.

Betsy Taylor, who wrote this story, works at Canvas Health. 

Learn more about counseling services at Canvas Health.

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