Tuesday, 6 January 2015

"Just a Dog" - Coping with the death of a pet

The point of writing this very personal account is because a friend of mine recently lost her dog, and, if I hadn’t been so personally affected by witnessing her journey through her grief, then I probably would have kept my own story private. Wearing your heart on your sleeve after all, can be a painful experience in itself; but my friend was really struggling to deal with her emotions, and she was made to feel silly for being so sad by those who just don’t understand. I know, when I lost my dog, I experienced that too – so I thought I’d write about it.

“I know she was just a dog, but I miss her so much” – my friend told me.

For me, there is no such thing as ‘just’ a dog (or cat, or horse…etc.)

The death of a pet is a very personal emotion for that animal’s owner, and we all deal with it in very different ways. When my lovely old boy Riker died, I didn’t handle it very well at all. In fact I completely crumbled, and his passing had a profound effect on my life from that moment on.

I was faced with the same words as my friend said above: Another friend of mine was actually trying to help, but, because she didn’t understand, she said those awful words “It’s just a dog”. Nothing could have lit my fuse any faster, or with more force than those four words. How dare she say he was “just” a dog. I was angry with her, that short sentence hurt me so deeply I didn’t think I could still be friends with her. But as time went on, I realised that it wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t an ‘animal person’, so how could she possibly relate the pain I was feeling to what others might feel, for example, when losing a close member of their family?-  (because that’s how it felt to me).
Each of us have our own special bond with our animals, and the reasons for those bonds have a million-and-one different roots. Whatever the reason, feelings of grief when a pet dies are entirely valid.

For me, I've never been blessed with children. I found out at the age of 21, after losing a second baby, that I would never be able to have children naturally. Instead of putting myself through the emotional pain of IVF, I found that I was able to express my natural nurturing instinct through caring for animals. That doesn't mean I walk around with my dog dressed in clothes and give him home-cooked meals - no! My dog is a dog. He runs through mud, rolls in fox poo, deposits half the beach on my bed, and eats dog food like any of a million other dogs would do! I don’t think of him as a replacement child, not at all – but I do love him with every cell in my body most definitely – and I’m not ashamed to admit that! Through Riker I was able to fulfil my natural instinct to care. You see, when you’re told you can’t have children, they don’t give you a magic pill to take way any of those natural instincts hankering inside of you.

I was given Riker when I lost a baby in pregnancy. He became the centre of my world. I was of course suffering emotionally at the time; it’s a hard pill to swallow when, at the age of 21, all of the plans you’d already made for your life are taken away from you. Through that emotional time, he gave me reason to get up, get dressed and get out; instead of sitting and stewing at home over how terrible I was feeling – that would, of course, have been the easy option. I had to walk him, feed him and care for him. He also made me smile and laugh again, (something I hadn’t done much of since my world had turned upside down), and he bought me complete and utter joy and comfort – he, in short, saved me from what was, if I’m being perfectly honest, the worst time of my life. How on earth could I make my friend, who thought he was ‘just a dog’ understand that? She’d never experienced that with an animal, she couldn’t possibly understand, so I didn't try to make her, and eventually accepted her point of view (although, of course, I entirely disagreed).

The other thing that happened a lot was that I was made to feel silly for crying over him. It’s not that I wanted to cry, no one wants that! But the hurt of losing him totally overwhelmed me and I just couldn't help it. I felt I had to hide what I was feeling, because others couldn't understand. But, when I was in a particularly tearful place one of those awful days after, someone said something that made me see things more clearly. I stopped feeling silly about the emotions I was feeling, and I allowed my grief to run its natural course.

“He was worth your tears."

Yes! Yes, he was! My tears were actually honouring my gentle boy – his existence meant something to me, and he was worth every single tear I cried (and still do, at times) for him.

There is no shame in grieving over a life lost. There is no rule to say that we can only express sadness over the loss of human life, and there will always be those who just can’t understand why we place such importance on the life of a dog, a cat, a horse – that’s their issue.

Ironically; the friend who told me that Riker was ‘just a dog’…well, she went on to have a dog of her own. I received a text a year or so later that simply said “I understand now – I can’t imagine my life without him.”


  1. Is that Riker in your banner photo? He sounds like he was a very special dog with a wonderfully deep bond with you. It is so heart-breaking to lose a dog like him.

    I've been there too. I lost my heart dog to bone cancer about 2.5 years ago at age 8. I still miss her (and feel mad that I got only 8 years with her) but, fortunately, most people around me seemed to understand what an incredibly huge loss it was for me.

    1. It's strange, but I still find it difficult to look at pictures of Riker. He was a cocker spaniel too (like Harvey, my boy dog now) - the picture in the banner is of a client's dog who was just as amazing :)

      It's an awful heartache isn't it. They are so special, ask for nothing but give so much. Here's to our Heart Dogs at Rainbow Bridge - may they be running free and happy always.

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