Monday, May 14, 2018

In Grief: Preparing for The Loss of a Pet

[Reviewed and updated December 8, 2022]

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose; all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.  ~ Helen Keller 

A reader writes: I am a 44-year -old male with Sonny, an 8-year-old Golden Retriever who is spoiled rotten and so much a part of us. I really dread losing him. I mean really dread losing him. How do I stop worrying about losing him and just enjoy having him? I know you will think I am crazy for caring about a dog so much but I have very little in my life. I also want to know: Do you think dogs are with us in the afterlife? I do...

My response: Unfortunately my friend, I'm afraid I don't have any magic answers for you ~ but I do want to share some thoughts with you.

First, instead of judging yourself for worrying about losing Sonny, you might try thinking of it this way: Good for you for recognizing that how attached you are to this dog and knowing in advance how difficult it will be for you to lose him! By facing this reality now, before your cherished friend grows old, becomes seriously ill or sustains an injury that can't be fixed, it seems to me that you are in a far better position than most animal lovers! This is the very reason that I wrote my book, The Final Farewell: Preparingfor and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet. It is meant to be read before your dog gets sick and dies and before you are faced with overwhelming loss.

Because Sonny's life span is so much shorter than your own, you already know that it is quite likely that one day you will experience the death of your loyal friend. Good for you for recognizing that and not denying it. Accepting that reality now gives you a great deal of control over how you will handle the situation when it arises, because you can choose to plan ahead for it. You don't have to wait until you are overwhelmed with grief to think about the practical aspects of pet death and body care, and how you can best preserve and honor your dog's memory thereafter ~ and you don't have to wait until your dog is sick, injured or dying to treasure every moment you have with Sonny now.

Think of it this way: The time to make those special memories with your beloved dog is now, because it is those memories that will sustain you when his physical presence is no longer here with you. You can enjoy having him by making the most of whatever time you have left with him ~ colored by the constant awareness that his time with you is temporary. Nothing, nothing, nothing in this life lasts forever, and how much better off we all would be if we lived each moment with that awareness, and treated all our loved ones accordingly!

I don't know if the idea appeals to you, but some families choose to bring another puppy or a younger dog into the household a year or two before the anticipated death of their older dog. I've heard reports of senior dogs taking an active role in socializing their younger "siblings," showing them the "rules of the household" and helping them become part of the family. These people report that although the newcomer could never replace the older dog (and was never intended to do so), its presence certainly helped to ease the pain of loss when the older dog eventually died. This is very much an individual decision, but it is an option worth considering.

You also ask if I think dogs are with us in the afterlife. I'm not a Biblical scholar and I cannot point you to any passages in the Bible that address the issue of whether animals go to heaven, but I can tell you that you are not alone in asking that question. (I invite you to read an earlier post addressing this very topic: Pet Loss: Do Pets Go to Heaven? See also Pet Loss: Deciding on After-Death Care for a Cherished Pet.)

I hope this information helps, my friend. If there were some way to protect you from the pain of all your past losses and all the losses yet to come as you continue living your life, I'd be the first to tell you about it. But if I have learned anything in my own life, it is that loss is an inevitable part of living, none of us is immune from it, and we all need to find our own ways of coping with it and managing it.

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