I’m going to warn you, dear reader, that this article is a sad one. Death is never a happy subject. Yet eventually all of us will face some sort of death in our lives, with our pets often being the first goodbye we say.
Ace had just been in for his annual vet check-up in mid-December. He was only 6.5 and in great health, so when the vet did a tumor check and pronounced him free of tumors, I wasn’t surprised. I expected as much from my young and healthy pup. I think that’s why, a few days before Christmas when we started noticing a menacing lump appear on his hip, the absolute last thing I expected was cancer. He just had a check-up. He must have injured himself. He might have hip dysplasia. He has an infected bug bite. He has anything but cancer.
Cancer. Liposarcoma. Malignant. Fast-spreading. Painful. Fatal.
In a week, he was gone. We said goodbye in front of our fireplace on his favorite bed. Our incredible family vet came to our home to put him down. He spent the day eating all the things he was never supposed to have (especially his favorite chocolate chip cookies) and allowing us to hold and thank him for giving us a lifetime of selfless love that only a dog can give.
I wasn’t remotely prepared for the level of grief that hit me. My goodness I cried. I cried for days. I cried so much I didn’t think I could cry any longer. I had a hard time eating. “He’s a dog! He’s a dog! I didn’t lose a human family member!” I kept saying, trying to somehow shame myself out of the misery I was feeling. That only made it worse. On top of all that, we had the boys, both of whom couldn’t remember a time in their lives when Ace wasn’t part of it. How was I going to help them?
I’ve always known that society has funerals and life celebrations not for those who left us, but for those remaining. These social constructs help us channel our grief. 95% of pet owners consider their pets part of the family. Yet the rules of grieving for a lost pet are not the same as those for a lost person. You navigate these murky waters without the help of societal framework. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that helped us through:
- Grieve. Cry. Scream. Get that emotion out. Don’t be embarrassed you’re this upset for a pet. I have spoken to numerous people who said they cried more for the death of their dog or cat than a family member. You can’t pick and choose the level of grief you feel. They are never just a dog or cat. It’s ok to feel intense emotions as you go through the grieving process. Don’t try to suppress them, and don’t be ashamed by them.
- Your routine will change, which is harder than you’d expect. Not having to fill that bowl in the morning; not buying that cat litter; it’s another innocuous reminder of what you’ve just lost. It hurts.
- For many children, saying goodbye to a pet may be their first experience with death. It was for my boys. The idea that they will never see Ace alive again was incredibly hard for my older son (8). My younger son (4) didn’t have the same realization. Death is a very large concept for him. Don’t expect your children to act the same. Do be ok grieving in front of them and with them.
- As always, lean on your family and friends. My mom was instrumental in helping us through. She bought the boys some beautiful books (this was my favorite) and some special ornaments to remind them of Ace. It helped them tremendously.
- Honor your pet your own special way. We made a stepping stone for Ace the day before he passed with his paw print in the center. We had him cremated, so come spring we are going to plant a garden for Ace in the backyard and spread some of his ashes there with his stone. It’s a living memorial for him we can go back to whenever we want.
- We bought Ace a star online. We named it after him and told the boys that Ace is there right now, living free from pain and watching us with his silly lopsided grin. This has been especially helpful for my youngest, who always asks to see Ace’s Star.
- Grief comes in waves. Initially it feels like you’re drowning in it, but as time passes, the pain dulls. Suddenly from out of nowhere, a wave of it hits, and in that instant you’re drowning once again. This happens with children too. Occasionally my oldest will start crying from seemingly out of nowhere. This is so difficult for my husband and me. We always try to acknowledge his feelings and let him cry. I will never say “man up” or anything as asinine as that.
- And most importantly, the rawness, the anger, the sadness — as time goes by, those secede to more happy memories. You can remember their bark, their meow, or a funny memory of them, without crying. You’ll never forget them, but you can allow yourself to be happy again.
There is no question that I will miss Ace till the day I die. His time with us was far too short. I hope that if you have pets, you will not need to visit this article for a long time. But if you do, these little steps helped us tremendously. If Ace’s legacy can be helping others through their grief, well, is there any better legacy a great dog can leave?
I love you sweet boy. – Mom