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What to Do When a Pet Dies

When a pet dies, what do you do?

This post first appeared on my BeliefNet.com blog.

What to Do When a Pet Dies

What to Do When a Pet Dies

Last Wednesday, we said “Good-bye” to our beloved Oscar, a mini-Dachshund, who brought to Pam and me more joy, laughter, and companionship than I can describe here.

I have never cried so much in all my life.

Will I be crying over Oscar twenty years from now?

I don’t know. What I do know is that this has been one of the most painful things I have ever felt. It has been so painful, in fact, I have a new appreciation for the depth of pain and grief so bottomless that the famous trainer himself, Cesar Millan, once contemplated suicide after both a divorce and the death of a beloved pit bull.

You think that strange?

Then, I suspect it is only because you have not had a beloved pet die. If you had, you, too, would agree it can be one of the most painful experiences in life.

It is my hope that what I am experiencing and what I share here is helpful to those of you who have had a pet die. I hope my words will be an antidote to your pain.

Oscar died last Wednesday.

On Thursday, the house was so quiet and empty I could hardly stand it.

On Friday, Pam and I left for the mountains of Georgia on a trip we had been planning for several months. As it turned out, the timing was perfect because, frankly, I’m not sure I could have survived the weekend. Getting away was helpful to both of us, a bit of grace at a time when we needed it most.

It’s been a week now since Oscar died. One week exactly. And, the pain is still raw.

I am ready, however, to share a few of my thoughts with you. At least, I think I am.

When a beloved pet dies, what do you do?

1. Be grateful for the little preparatory signs of death the universe provides you along the way. With Oscar, or Weiner as we called him, we had many preparatory signs.

For example, I’ve had two or three Dachshunds throughout the years and I know of their propensity to suffer from back problems, particularly as they age. They typically carry a lot of weight on their spine. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to suffer from degenerative diseases associated with it.

Weiner did.

I saw these as signs this past year. So, I knew he was aging.

I could see it in his face, too. You can, too, in the picture above. As a consequence, I have suspected many times this past year that our time with Oscar was likely limited. On more than one occasion, in fact, I had this feeling that Oscar was going to die. None of this made his sudden departure last Wednesday any easier. But what it did do was soften the shock of his death.

When I had these preparatory signs, as I’m calling them, over the course of this past year, I have tried to allow myself to feel what his passing would be like, instead of quickly dismissing the signs so as to protect myself from the pain of his passing.

I would recommend you do the same.

Death is real.

Separation is painful.

And, little signs that remind us of the reality of death are like little gifts from beyond given to prepare us for the inevitable.

That’s how I view it, anyway.

2. I have tried not to edit, hide, or judge any of my grief, no matter where I am when I feel it and no matter how overwhelming it feels when I feel it.

This would be my second word of advice to you, too.

Grief and sadness come at the oddest times. But, when the flood of emotion begins to rush over me, I have found it helpful to give it permission to roll all over me like a wave of the sea you cannot control. This has been a new experience for me because, for much of my life, I’ve tried to guard my public display of emotions.

Not any more.

It has helped me greatly to live into the pain and sadness I feel about Oscar, not run from it or try to replace it with a better feeling.

I admit, my first impulse was to rush out and find another dog. I fantasized visiting the local pound for dogs or looking online for a breeder and another dog, even another Dachshund.

I’m glad I have not succumbed to these natural impulses.

Yes, Pam and I might get another pet one day. And, we have both agreed, if we do, we are going to get two. Dogs need friends, too, don’t they? Of their own kind, that is?

Nevertheless, Pam and I have agreed we would not buy another dog to pay the wage of grief we feel for Oscar, we owe to Oscar. We have  resolved instead to grieve Weiner’s passing before we ever consider welcoming another pet into our household.

Why do I think it is important to let yourself freely and fully grieve when a beloved pet dies?

I do for two reasons…

1) For one thing, the death of a beloved pet may serve to help you express the pent up and often unresolved grief you felt but edited, dismissed, or buried when a loved one died.

For example, I think the heaviness and sadness I’ve felt with Oscar’s passing has been, in part, the unfinished grieving I didn’t do when my Dad died.

I preached my Dad’s funeral almost twenty years ago now. Back then, I had to be strong for Mom and everyone else and I don’t think I felt free to experience the pain I needed to experience when my beloved father unexpectedly and suddenly died.

So, when Oscar died last Wednesday, I decided I was going to feel and express my grief, no matter when it chose to make an appearance. So, while standing in the grocery line earlier today, I saw something that made me think of Weiner and I broke down. I don’t know if anyone saw me but, frankly, it really didn’t matter. What did matter is that I felt the sadness completely. Thoroughly. Deeply. That’s all that mattered to me.

Do this for yourself. Maybe you’ll find it helpful, too.

In fact, this is 2) the second reason you should allow yourself to freely and fully grieve when a pet dies. It is the only path to inner healing. It’s the only path I can see, anyway.

Do not expect your emotions, however, to all be the same. I have found myself experiencing many emotions and some feelings I do not know how to describe.

Do not expect the emotional pain to dissipate any time soon either.

Sometimes, it is deep sadness I feel. At other times, it is just a profound feeling of emptiness. I don’t know what emotion to call “emptiness” or what feeling to associate with it. All I do know is that it is like a big hole I feel in the bottom of my gut and it robs me of everything, even my appetite.

Which explains why I have not eaten much this past week.

A few times, my grief has expressed itself as anger. Whatever it is I feel, however, even laughter, I try to feel it. As I do, it is as if for a brief period the pain subsides.

This is the pathway to inner healing.

Pam and I have done some laughing this week, too, as we’ve recalled funny things our loving companion used to do.

I’m pretty certain that laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a broken heart. Or, so said someone. I don’t remember. What I feel, however, is that hand on my shoulder and, when I do, I laugh or cry – whatever it is I feel like doing – at all the wonderful memories I carry with me of Oscar and will likely carry with me for the rest of my life.

3. There is one other thing I hope you will find helpful. I would advise you to follow the advice you’ll likely receive from those who have experienced both pain and loss when a pet dies. Like even the little advice I have here. I know it isn’t much. But maybe it helps you a little.

I am finding the advice of others is actually quite helpful. Not like it was, however, when my Dad died and thought-less, but well-intentioned church people tried to explain his death with empty cliches’ like, “God took him because he needed another angel in heaven.”

What kind of stupid statement is that?

Or, worse, “God took him because it was his time to go.”

That one I hear still by thoughtless religious people who are so afraid of death they hide it behind cliches’ they call “faith.”

With Oscar’s passing, people have offered sympathy and understanding. That has been helpful to me. They have not felt the need to theologically explain Oscar’s passing or offer their unexamined theology of death and the hereafter.

Why cannot people do that when humans die?

In spite of all the support I have received, however, I still have moments when I feel all alone.

You likely will, too.

When a Beloved Pet Dies, What Do You Do?

When Oscar passed last Wednesday, for example, even though I was with Pam and our daughter Allison and one of her friends, all of whom elected to be together during Oscar’s euthanasia, I felt unspeakably alone, especially the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, the house was so quiet on the day following his death I could hardly stand it.

Life goes on, yes.  But it stops, too.

Pam had to go to work but, since I was not traveling last week during the week, I was home.

And, alone.

And, more than once, I felt like life had just ended.

So the talk by phone with friends and even colleagues, none of whom knew of Oscar’s death until I told them, was helpful. One by one, each had a similar story of pain when their pet died and, what they shared of their experience, I found and am finding immensely helpful.

What I found online was helpful, too. For example, I read a wonderful article on BuddhaNet entitled “Helping Your Family Cope When a Pet Dies,” by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. Among other things, he advises, “Children need to be involved.”

I think our first impulse is to shield our children from the painful realities of death, even when a pet dies. I’m so glad, therefore, Pam thought to call Allison and give her the opportunity – which she grabbed – to join us in Oscar’s passing.

Had all our children been available, I would have invited all of them to share in his death. Not that all of them were that close to Oscar, but all of them are very close to Pam and me. Allowing them to share in our grief in the face of loss and death, I realize now more than ever before is an important part of spiritual and emotional growth.

Theirs and ours.

When Your Pet Dies, I Hope My Experience Will Help YOU!

When a pet dies, something in you dies, too. It’s a little death, to be sure. But it is a death, nonetheless. I now realize that Life helps us prepare for the big passing by giving us opportunities along the way to experience little passings.

Oscar’s passing was a little one…big to us…but a little one and his last gift to us was a gift to help us in the face of our own dying and death.

Will I ever see Oscar again?

I don’t know.

It would be wishful thinking disguised as faith to say that I will.

The most I can say,  and with utter honesty, is that I hope I will see him again.

This much I know with certain, however. My life…our lives…are the richer for having loved Oscar and for having been loved by him.

In many ways, Oscar was an odd little dog. Just ask any one of our kids.

Few people understood Oscar and some of his odd behaviors. But Pam and I understood him and to us, he was not only utterly and completely loyal, he was and is a blessing we will miss and miss for a very, very long time.

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13 Responses to What to Do When a Pet Dies

  1. Sue October 31, 2014 at 2:07 AM #

    I had to put my Beagle down in2011, I still cry. I also had a Shepherd mix that I had to give away a month later. Also was separated from my husbandof 12 yrs. We lost our home because he was ill. In 1 yr. I lost everything that I loved. I know how you feel. Brody the Lil Beagle got a hold of a Tiger salamander they can put down a horse, they secrete a poisonous mucus from the tail area. He tried to stick around but after 3 weeks I was carrying him outside to potty. The Shepherd Boo grieved for her little brother. I had to move to a hot climate Boo couldn’t tolerate. Its been a tough 3 yrs I had a painting done of them it helps.

    • Dr. Steve McSwain October 31, 2014 at 5:42 AM #

      Wow,Sue. Could not imagine losing all of those family members in one year. It is so hard not to become attached and, as a consequence, grieve so deeply when one of them transitions. I’ve tried to let myself “go,” so to speak with the loss of Oscar and not edit my feelings whenever they appear – and they often appear in the oddest and most unpredictable times and places. That seems to help. It is getting easier now to think of him, laugh at things he did, without just falling apart. I wish you well. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Leaping Larry November 4, 2014 at 7:36 PM #

    I has two service dogs from Paws With A Cause. my 1st a beautiful Chocolate Lab, my 2nd a beautiful Golden Retriever. No words can express the help, laughter and unconditional LOVE they gave me for 20 years. I dis not get a 3rd service dog, because of my age and the bad Michigan winters. I really miss their companionship. This is the poem Paws send to us when or service dogs transition. I hope it helps you like it did me.

    Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
    When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

    All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
    They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

    You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

    Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….

    Author unknown…

  3. Leaping Larry November 4, 2014 at 7:40 PM #

    I had two service dogs from Paws With A Cause. my 1st a beautiful Chocolate Lab, my 2nd a beautiful Golden Retriever. No words can express the help, laughter and unconditional LOVE they gave me for 20 years. I dis not get a 3rd service dog, because of my age and the bad Michigan winters. I really miss their companionship.

    This is the poem Paws send to us when or service dogs transition. I hope it helps you like it did me. Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together…. Author unknown…

    • Dr. Steve McSwain November 4, 2014 at 7:53 PM #

      This is beautiful Larry. Thanks so much for sharing it. Each day gets a little easier for my wife and me. It has been most difficult, to say the least. I know from your wonderful words you understand deeply. Thanks for your expressions of compassion. Blessings.

  4. janet November 8, 2014 at 7:40 PM #

    through the labyrinth of the web i found your piece. my beloved catboy, my deepest closest soulmate friend comfort and support during these past 15 years of trials and traumas and only real family is still with me..on lap/in hand at mo..but since being diagnosed very late with skin cancer on the nose i have been swept away into dark dreadful places terrible fears and that sense of loneliness and as you also say that hollowness in the stomach/solar plexus area..and that feeling SO SO alone..and this is whilst he is still here. i only have to remember jimmy-james is alive and somewhere in house/garden/world to feel healed and ok again after whatever awful upset has just happened to me..and i do dread how i will cope..have always told him he must live forever, and that i cannot live without him..the galling thing is that it is not old age and he wont go naturally as I had always hoped and prayed for, he is in brilliant strong health/fine fettle esp for his age, but the think the cancer will spread and ..he is so good, a stoical fighter, and gorgeous ‘pretty’ handsome boy too -all saffron and clotted cream (he IS Cornish after all..) smells of fresh linen and wool, not like other cats, and i 1. don’t know how i can get through this feeling this way and 2. even less cope if things get worse. i even had a terrible nightmare about fighting an evil shadow in the bedroom with the words repeated ‘god kill you’ (bit odd but what i said!) ..sometimes regularly tho the horrendous black bleak atmosphere completely takes over me and is unbearable..just hope this is me already starting to process the grief/loss before it actually happens..(tho i cannot stop praying for miraculous healing too or searching internet for help/remedies) so is not so bad when we (i believe and hope) temporarily part – but i have never been good at letting go of things or relationships but least of all beloved pets, and he has been the only one I have been solely close to and for the longest..and with the rest of my life in disarray/chaos and no other succour/loving partner or family i just am sooo scared what space i will enter esp having had depression in the past and being still quite vulnerable now. As I said, Jimmy has always been my medicine from heaven and so long as he was here, I could get through anything..now, not only have I just had a relationship end, and my father slowing dying of stomach cancer, (which is a complex relationship so even harder to deal with due to it not being just a simple loving relationship without issues) I have the prospect of losing my one and only means of comfort..it is unbearable now, and i am dreading it…

    • Dr. Steve McSwain November 8, 2014 at 9:28 PM #

      So sorry to hear of your anticipated loss. Will be thinking of you. This has been truly a painful experience for us as well.

  5. George December 4, 2014 at 1:06 PM #

    I’m sitting at my laptop with my Chiweenie in my lap. We had to have our beloved Tino put down almost a year ago. Now Lucy has replaced him, but in reality, there will only be one Tino. I have buried friends and both parents, but nothing hurt as bad as losing Tino after 12+ years. Many times, especially at night, I still miss him terribly. The only difference between losing a dog and a loved family member or friend, is that the worst pain doesn’t last as long. It gets less every day, but really hasn’t gone away yet and probably never will.
    We initially hesitated getting another dog because we knew we would have to go through the pain again some day. But we decided to get another dog and I’m happy that we did. Every dog is different with unique personalities.
    The pain was and is still very real. But the joy of having a loving dog is well worth the inevitable pain.

    • Dr. Steve McSwain December 4, 2014 at 1:14 PM #

      I understand the pain and Pam and I are thinking of securing two new family pets sometime after the start of a new year. I wish you well…both in your recovery…and in your love and care of your pets.

  6. tamra January 14, 2015 at 4:05 PM #

    Thank you for the article and advice

  7. tamra January 14, 2015 at 4:38 PM #

    Thank you for the article and advice ..im still having a rough time n it has been two months..they say u can have a soulmate that is with a dog and she was mine… i cant seem to get it out of my head the night she died next to me in bed that i wasnt expecting that night, on our way home from the vets , she stared at me all the way home as if she knew it was her last time with me, or that she was scared and wasnt ready to leave me……its a horrible, horrible, feeling to feel…..hoping to make me feel better n just to preoccupy my brain, n curiosity, i guess, i have been on line looking at poms to buy or to rescue….it makes me feel like im trying to replace her or that i didnt care about her…..maybe im trying too hard to get over her. I dont know…..i know i would love again but not sure if i could completly give my heart to something that belongs to her…….

    • tamra January 14, 2015 at 4:51 PM #

      Like u said, a part of you is missing….the worst part is there r so many who need homes n r desperatly wanting to be loved…..so in my eyes, i feel im being selfish in a sense, and in reality, i am………xo

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  1. What Do You Do When a Pet Dies? | What Do You Do When a Pet Dies? | Social Dashboard - October 30, 2014

    […] a pet dies, what do you do?This post first appeared on my BeliefNet.com blog. Then, later on my personal blog. Last Wednesday, we said "Good-bye" to our beloved Oscar, a mini-Dachshund, who brought to Pam and […]

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