Grieving the Loss of a Pet
By Karin Krisher
The New York Times is a great catalyst for our reactions here at Pet Naturals. There’s always a new bit of information about dog or cat health, or even about human and animal interaction, to get us thinking. Last week, NYT did it again by posting a blog about why grieving the loss of a pet is sometimes even more difficult for mourners than grieving the loss of a relative or friend.
The reasons are simple: You spend a ton of time with your pet. You call yourself their owner or their human, which means you, on some level, know that your relationship with them is totally unique in both possession and proximity—this is a proprietary relationship. (A person, on the other hand, could have three hundred good friends, or be thousands of miles away and only a small part of your day-to-day life, whose absence is less noticeable hour to hour. )
When you develop a routine of caregiving and pleasure sharing with your pet, an abrupt end to that routine can be a shock to your system. Opening the door and stepping back so your lab can charge through might remind you how wonderful those once annoying moments were, but it can also exacerbate the terrible feeling of emptiness that comes with such a loss and its continual realization.
The debate over the proper grieving period is overdone and totally unnecessary. There is no proper grieving period—there is only what you feel. My own grieving process lasted for over a decade, and the feeling that something’s missing persists though it has lessened. I wish I could tell Christie that I miss her—but we lost her in 1996.
Christie’s birthday was the day that I was supposed to be born—November 8th. I always took that as a sign that we were meant for each other, and her insistence on sleeping at the foot of my bed reinforced the connection I predicted. I showed up two weeks earlier, ready for the world and all it had to offer, and my parents decided that two babies (of different species of course) were better than one.
Her little, soft black body was home to a rather careless mind. As a puppy, she was relaxed, complementing my rambunctious nature. She sat alongside me when I toddled to the water and cast my first line with my dad’s hand guiding mine. She watched me from the porch when I rode down the cement sidewalk on my first huffy. She wasn’t a barker, just an observer. As we grew it never concerned me that I couldn’t pin her down—she was just Christie, just like I’m me, and that thread of self persisted until the spool ran out.
She wasn’t aggressive, or nice, or good, or bad, or quiet, or loud, or anything so obvious. Looking back, I can now identify her introverted attitude. Her long trips and my hours spent clapping at the door to call her home were a clear indication that her adventures alone were far more important to her than being indoors. She wasn’t lazy or active, really—she was just an adventurer, and she liked to do it independently. But when I wanted to adventure, she was my favorite companion.
Countless hours crept away as we wandered through the woods, traipsing over pricker bushes and tiny strawberries in the clearing and wading into the shallow brook. She liked to fish out the minnow trap—I remember that.
Days before my tenth birthday, my older brother knocked on my bedroom door. “Come here,” he said, and led me into the bathroom, where a turkey baster sat in the half-full sink.
“Have you ever seen one of these?” He asked, picking up some water and squirting it out. I shook my head. “Well, this is what it does.” He kept up with the act. Squirt. Squirt. Squirt. He didn’t break concentration when I asked why the turkey baster mattered.
“Everything’s ok,” he said. “Everything will be ok.”
That’s when I knew it wouldn’t. I ran to the living room and saw my mom out the picture window, standing silently in the dark in a raincoat that Thursday night. My dad came trudging down the gravel driveway, carrying Christie in his arms, the weight of her dense Labrador frame pulling him forward. Her adventures had taken her to the road, and ended her days of exploration.
It was the first time I saw my dad cry. Christie was very much my companion, but she was like his daughter. He was her human. I watched his heart break right in front of me, and I watched him dig her grave alone.
It’s been nearly 16 years since that night, and I remember every detail perfectly. I remember how I felt the next morning, and how long it took me to get used to the fact that I had no protector in my room, no one to go sledding with, no one to stomp strawberries. I remember her smell, and the exact look she gave me just before bed, when she’d curl up on my blue carpet and I’d kiss her on the top of her head. She was there before I could remember, and was gone before I knew what that meant.
It’s been nearly 16 years since that night, and I now understand death as much as I think any human can. I’ve lost dozens of young friends, and many others: pets, uncles, coworkers. But the poignancy of saying goodbye to my dog has never been lost on me. A dog adds something to your life that no human truly can—a love and an acceptance unrivaled by human affection.
To lose that is to lose a feeling of security and normalcy, and whether you’re in fourth grade or you’re teaching it, whether you’re a child or her father, grieving that loss for as long as you need to is a right you should never question. Feel how you feel, and then remember all the happiness your pet brought you, because nothing can replace those memories, or the pet that helped create them.