Monday, March 15, 2021

Pet Loss: Still Mourning, 3 Years Later

The bond with a dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be.   ~ Konrad Lorenz

A reader writes: I know this is seemingly weird but possibly you can help. I am a 37 year old male and I still cry at night sometimes. Here’s why. Three years ago my beloved Copper had to be put down due to cancer. I got him as a pup 13 years prior and for the first 3 years of his life it was just him and I. (We lived on a farm.) I got Copper to try and get through a very difficult time in my life and looking back if it was not for him I probably wouldn't be sending you this message. Anyway after the first 3 years I met my current wife and we left the farm. For the next 5 years I drove a truck for a living and yes every day Copper went to work with me, just like the farm days. Finally I got sick of driving and moved to another state and became a machinist. Then he would always wait by the door for me to come home. The night before he died we played fetch and the next morning he fetched the paper but seemed not to be himself. He gave me the paper, licked my hand and off to work I went. When I came home he was not there by the door so I went looking and found him laying in the backyard. After rushing him to the vet they informed me he had a massive tumor on his pancreas. In short the decision was made to put him to sleep. (I still can’t get into it too much).

My Question....about 3 weeks after putting Copper down I got sick with a high fever and throat infection. (I was not taking care of myself.) My wife came home with a new Golden Retriver pup. I named him Joe. I still feel like I am betraying Copper for having this new dog. Naturally I have not bonded as well with this dog. Don't get me wrong, I take very good care of him but I tend to stand off a little with him out of some kind of loyalty that I feel for my deceased Copper. What can I do?  I want to bond with him he is a wonderful dog he tries hard. Is it right that I let this dog take Copper's place in our pickup truck? Should I take Joe fishing like I used to with Copper? Or am I just an idiot and I need to get over it. He was just a dog is what my friends say..........

My response: First of all, I am so terribly sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Copper three years ago. Because of the very close bond you had with him, I can only imagine how devastating a loss this must have been for you. When an animal companion helps us get through some of the most difficult times in our lives, as you say happened with Copper in those early years of your relationship, we form incredibly close bonds with these dear and loyal ones, and losing a dog like this is no different from losing one of our nearest and dearest friends or closest family members. So I want to honor the grief you feel for Copper as legitimate and real, and the depth of your pain at losing him is a measure of the love you have for him. 

I also want to suggest to you that the relationship you have with Copper will remain in your heart forever, just as long as you decide to keep his memory alive. There is no reason for you to "let go" of that. When love is true, it does not die. Death may have ended Copper's physical life here on Earth, but it did not end the relationship you have with him. I don't know what you did with Copper's remains, but I hope you've found some ways to memorialize him. I hope you have a special place in your home or in your yard where you can go to think about him, to remember him and to honor the role he played in your life. 

For example, my beloved dog Muffin died in 1986, and to this day I still have a picture of him hanging by my back door, because that's where he always was, right by the door, itching to get out and go chase rabbits. Under the picure is a little brass plate, and on it are engraved the words, "Dear Little Muffin, 1977 - 1986. Chasing Rabbits in Heaven." Every time I open that door I see his picture and I think of him and remember him. At first it was painful to see his precious little face ~ but one thing I feared the most the day he died and I held his dead body in my arms for hours on end was that one day I might forget that beautiful little face. Now I know that will never happen, because I see his picture every single day. Now it brings me comfort and sometimes it even makes me laugh, because it triggers such fond memories of him and his goofy ways. 

You say that shortly after Copper died your wife tried to comfort you by bringing another puppy into your household. You say that Joe is a Golden, but you didn't mention what breed Copper was. Perhaps he was a Golden, too, and your wife was hoping that puppy Joe would grow into a dog who would resemble Copper. Now, three years later, you're still quite ambivalent about your feelings toward Joe and wondering why you're feeling so reluctant to let him into your heart and your daily life. I want to say a couple of things to you.

First, what you are feeling is normal. Grief is not a pathological condition; rather it is a normal response to the loss of someone we love. How you're reacting to the loss of Copper depends on how attached you were to him, on your relationship with him, and on the role that he played in your life. It's only natural that, when we lose that which we love the most, we feel the overwhelming pain of loss. No matter who or what we love, the greater the love, the worse the pain feels when we lose the object of our love. 

Second, although your wife's intentions were honorable, by bringing a new puppy into your life so soon after Copper died, you probably never took the time to fully grieve the loss of Copper. Grief takes an enormous amount of energy, and you probably didn't have a lot of emotional energy left over to invest in another puppy right away. That partly explains why it's taken you so long to bond with Joe ~ you simply weren't finished with the grief work you had to do with Copper and it kept getting in the way of your attempts to develop a new relationship with Joe.

I suspect your reluctance to let Joe become more a part of your daily life (riding in the truck, taking him fishing with you, etc.) is not so much that you will never allow yourself to become as attached to another dog as you were to Copper. Rather your fear is that you will have to go through all this pain again when you love and lose another dog at some future point. I can tell you that the one sure way to avoid repeating the pain you're feeling now is to decide never to love like that again. Yet you know (in your head, if not your heart) that whenever we take a companion animal into our lives, sooner or later we are going to lose that animal, simply because their life span is so much shorter than our own. We like to think our animals will be with us forever, but deep down we know that cannot be. This reality is very hard for us to accept when we are confronted with the death of our cherished animals. Far better that we acknowledge that harsh reality when we opt to bring an animal companion into our lives in the first place.

What usually stands in the way of our loving another dog is our sense of loyalty to the one who died. We confuse loving our other animals with "replacing" the one we've lost, and you may think no one could replace your precious Copper. As you say, it feels like an act of disloyalty, a violation of your dog's memory, an intrusion. After all, no other dog could ever be like the one you lost. No other dog will have Copper's unique qualities, nor should you expect it to. Instead of viewing Joe as a "replacement," try to think of him as making a new friend, one that you will learn about and come to love over time. 

As I said, I don't know if both Copper and Joe are Goldens, but I happen to believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting another dog to have characteristics as similar as possible to those of the ones we've loved and lost. Good heavens, that's why breeders work so hard to preserve the best qualities that distinguish their dogs from everyone else's! There is nothing wrong with being partial to a particular type of dog! That's why some people like Chihuahuas and others like Great Danes! My last dog was a Tibetan terrier, and I knew that when he joined all my other fur babies at the Rainbow Bridge, eventually I would want another Tibetan, simply because before I got him I researched the breed and he turned out to be exactly what I wanted him to be, based on what I had read about Tibetan terriers. To me, his breed is the best in the entire universe, and I would never settle for anything else. If I cannot have another Beringer, at the very least I can have another Tibetan terrier!

I suggest you think about what Copper wanted from life, and what he would want for you now. One of the most endearing things about our animals is that they just want us to be happy. If death takes them away from us, once we've expressed and worked through our sorrow over losing them, wouldn't they want us to be happy once again, and to open our hearts to other animals in need of all our love? Some folks are so full of love that they can always find another chamber in their hearts to accommodate another precious animal ~ others could never do that ~ and still others discover that it's not so much that they go looking for another animal, but another animal just seems to find them. Let your own heart be your guide. No one knows you better than you do.

Finally, I want you to know that unresolved grief can eat you alive unless you find someone to talk to about your feelings, someone who will help you look at the situation more objectively ~ Is there anyone you can talk to who understands the relationship you had with Copper, who understands the mourning process and will listen to you without judging you? I don't know if there are any pet loss services in your area, but since you have access to a computer, you might try visiting some of the wonderful sites on line that offer comfort and support to those who've lost a cherished animal. You might also try posting a message in the Loss of a Pet forum within our Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which can put you in touch with others whose experiences may be similar to your own ~ and which helps you feel less alone and "crazy" in your grief. And be sure to explore some of the articles listed here: Pet Loss as I think they may offer you some useful information as well as some comfort.  

You might also go to the library or your local bookstore (or to Amazon) to find and read the accounts of other animal lovers coping with pet loss. Such accounts will reassure you that you are normal, will give you some idea of what's ahead and what you can expect in grief, and can give you hope that you can survive and move beyond this loss. 

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my friend.  You are not crazy, you are not an idiot and there is nothing wrong with you.  You are an animal lover, you lost a very special dog and you still miss him ~ a lot. My prayer for you is that the day will come when you can think of Copper without the wrenching pain. You will feel yourself open to love and intimacy with another dog, and you'll be willing to risk loving and losing and letting go again. That's the way it goes when we live our lives to the fullest and open our hearts to let a new dog in. We love. We lose. We learn. We let go of the pain. And then the day finally comes when we're strong enough to risk doing it all again.

 In the meantime, please know that you are in my thoughts, and I hope that when you're ready to do so, you'll let me know how you are doing.

Afterword: Thank you for such a fast reply. To answer the question, yes Copper too was a Golden. Actually Joe could be a twin to Copper. I am very partial to the breed. Just reading your response has helped me some and puts a little more perspective on my feelings. Thank you. 

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Image by labsafeharbor from Pixabay
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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