5 Things I Learned When My Beloved Dog Passed Away

Photo: AnnaStills / Shutterstock
woman cuddling her bulldog

It was a warm day in June, the air was already getting hot by 8 a.m. I enjoyed my morning coffee with my best friend, my lovely American Bulldog. His breathing was becoming more labored and I had a sense of dread and weariness at what lay ahead. He went for his last walk enjoying the grass, looking back at me lovingly, enjoying our special time together early morning. 

The death of our family dog has been a profound loss. I still have not fully recovered. The phrase bittersweet can only be used to describe my recollection of my memories of him. Remembering what joy and happiness he brought to my whole family, and the positive ways he improved our lives and the lives of everyone he met, makes his loss even more poignant.

Our family dog grew up with my children and witnessed all of their ups and downs, growing pains, and maturity into the beautiful girls that they are. His love was unconditional and his loyalty was unparalleled. This article is written as a tribute to my wonderful brave dog Bravo but also to support those who have loved and lost and help others understand the intense grief that is felt when losing a family pet. 

It is often the case that when people lose a pet, friends, and family don’t understand the intensity of grief and do not give the support they would for the loss of a family member. However, the loss of a pet is as painful, if not more so, than human loss as it is disenfranchised grief. Society may not fully recognize or validate the depth of the bond between a pet and its owner. This can lead to individuals feeling unsupported or invalidated in their grief following the loss of a beloved pet. 

To all the individuals and families who have loved and lost a pet, your grief is real, valid, and needs to be honored and respected, as any other type of grief. These tips helped me find peace and acceptance around the loss of my family pet.

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Here are five ways to find emotional peace after the loss of a beloved animal companion

1. Accept all the feelings you have

I remember feeling unable to get out of bed and could not stop crying throughout my day for weeks, as I remembered my sweet dog. I felt a deep sense of loss and being completely alone after his passing. I did not know what to do without our morning walks, “talks” on the deck, and cuddles throughout the day. I felt a profound sense of emptiness that most people could not understand. After the first week passed, family members and friends seemed to feel like, well it happens, move on it’s been a couple of weeks, but I could not.

I needed much more time to grieve the loss of my friend and companion. I experienced, anger, despair, remorse, and sadness over the loss of my pet, I know now all of those feelings need to be honored and respected as part of my healing. 

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2. Understand and accept regret and remorse

My dog’s illness came on swiftly and without warning. He was getting older, especially for a large dog, so it was not surprising he did not have as much energy. He still loved his walks but slept more. Little did we know he had cancer until the end, which did not show up immediately in the blood work. He never complained, so we did not know that he was doing poorly. His vet visits a month before looked good. His lack of energy was attributed to getting old. 

I still look back at the last month with a strong sting and guilt and blame for not catching it sooner and pushing for more tests to undercover cancer. Would it have made a difference? Perhaps not, but that feeling of not doing enough in the end for our beloved dog is a painful emotion that I often push down and feel tremendous guilt and shame about. 

I “should” have caught it, I should have done this test, the “should have” dance around my head incessantly. I have had to accept some painful feelings, to fully honor the loss of my dog. 

3. Understand the stages of grief

Pet owners often go through similar stages of grief as those experienced after the loss of a human loved one. These stages may include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, it is important to note that the grieving process is highly individual, and not everyone will progress through the stages in the same way or order.

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4. Honoring the human-bond relationship  

There is often a significant level of attachment between the pet owner and their companion. Pets play a significant role in the owner's life. The loss of a pet can lead to a significant disruption in the owner's daily routine, social interactions, and emotional well-being. It is important for you to reach out to supportive friends who understood your connection, talk about your beloved pet, and find support groups to help you manage the grief. Groups such as the Rainbow Bridge and Lap of Love offer online and individual pet loss support. 

5. Conduct a ceremony to honor your beloved pet

As painful as it is, making sure to honor the memories you shared with your pet is very important. Getting photos framed of your pet, having a celebration of life ceremony with friends who knew and appreciated your dog, can you have the closure you need to say goodbye and move through the grief process.  Planting a bush or tree in your yard and putting their ashes in the dirt, can also be a wonderful way to remember your pet and help other family members say goodbye. 

I remember on the day of his passing, there was a beautiful yellow butterfly that kept appearing, on our walks, and anytime I went outside, and when I am missing Bravo, I often will see that butterfly. I do believe he is still saying hello and letting me know he is ok. So whatever ceremonies, reminders, or photos are meaningful and celebrate your beloved pet, don’t feel that they are silly or dumb, respect them and bring them into your life. They may be just what you need to remember your pet with sweet reverie and love. 

Losing a pet can be a deeply emotional and challenging experience for pet owners. The grief that pet owners go through is often comparable to the grief when losing a human loved one. The loss of a pet can have a significant impact on the mental health of pet owners.

Studies have shown that pet loss can contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even complicated grief. It is important to prioritize self-care and seek professional help if needed to address any prolonged or severe emotional distress.

RELATED: Science Says You Love Your Pets As Much As Your Children

Monica Ramunda, MA, LPC is a licensed psychotherapist in Colorado and the Owner and Founder of Rocky Mountain Counseling Services and Sacred Healing Journeys. She offers individual and family therapy at her office in Louisville, Colorado as well as remote therapy and women’s retreats.