Monday, July 10, 2023

Pet Loss: Regrets Following Dog's Burial

Bones mend. Regret stays with you forever.  ~ Patrick Rothfuss

A reader writes: I am writing in hopes that you may be able to provide advice or support that I can give my parents who just had to euthanize their 12-year-old Golden Lab, Barney. He had to be put to sleep because he could not walk anymore. It was a very sad event for the whole family, especially for my mother who was home alone a lot with him. Since he was buried last Sunday, my mother has not been able to let go of the fact that neither the vet nor my mom closed Barney’s eyes before he was buried. I know it sounds silly, but it really has been bothering her. She says she still can't control her emotions. Do you have any advice or comfort I can give her so she can let this go? Does this matter that he was buried with his eyes open?

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother’s beloved companion, Barney. You ask if it matters that he was buried with his eyes open, and all I can say in response is that it probably does not matter at all to Barney, whose spirit no longer lives in that body ~ but obviously it matters very much to your mother. Feelings associated with grief and mourning don’t always make a lot of sense, either to the one in mourning or to the rest of us, but still those feelings are very real and need to be expressed. Once expressed, they can be exposed to the light of day, carefully examined, worked through and then released. It’s only when we work hard to deny or to repress our feelings that we get ourselves into trouble.

What I suggest is that you simply let your mother lament the fact that this happened. Let her express all of her regret and remorse about it, however long that takes. Unfortunately, guilt is one of the most common reactions in loss, and I suspect that if your mother weren’t feeling guilty about this particular “failure” on her part, she would be feeling guilty about something else she did or failed to do. It’s just part of the process, unfortunately, that we humans tend to beat ourselves up like this in the wake of the death of a loved one.

It's also not unusual for an animal's eyes to stay open after death. When clinical death occurs, the animal's muscles relax, and the body goes limp. This is true for the muscles that control the eyelids as well.

The sad fact is that there is little if anything your mom can do now to change the fact that Barney’s body was buried with his eyes left open. Perhaps she can be comforted by the knowledge that his body is just a shell, after all, and all that was Barney no longer lives there. As a wise man once observed, “the best place to bury a dog is in the heart of its master.” I hope that is where your mother eventually will bury her companion. 

Barney's death was just six days ago, so your mother is just beginning this grief journey, and I hope you allow her to be patient with herself. Expecting to control one's emotions when one's heart is broken can be very difficult indeed. Give your mother time to sit with her grief, to experience the pain, and to mourn the loss of her beloved Barney. Help her find some ways to preserve her memories of him. Encourage her to share her thoughts in a journal, or find a pet loss support group and surround herself with other animal lovers who understand and share in her grief. And know that I am sending her my heartfelt wishes for comfort, peace and healing.

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