In her final weeks and months, our old dog, Daisy, had trouble with her legs, struggling painfully to stand up or lay down and occasionally getting her front feet tangled. The vet theorized that she had a tumor on her spinal column, but at her age (16 or so) surgery was too dangerous.
The focus turned to comfort care and the looming question of when.
Then Daisy — always a bit of a neat freak — started losing control of her bowels and bladder. Her hip and leg pain seemed to be worsening. Eyesight and hearing were going. It was clear that she was suffering.
I hated the idea of saying goodbye to our beloved shelter pup in a sterile exam room — she despised vet visits. I also didn’t want to leave her body with strangers, albeit kind ones. After seeing our family through 14 years of good and bad times, I felt a duty to honor Daisy by caring for her body myself.
We booked a home euthanasia appointment with a licensed vet. I started poking around the internet for information on postmortem care.
When the day came, the vet was wonderfully calm and kind. Daisy laid on a cherished blanket taken from my late father-in-law’s house. It was a beautiful day, the March sun melting a recent snowfall, birds chattering in the trees.
She passed so quietly. I’d given myself permission to let it all out, so once the vet confirmed she was gone, I held her and wailed.
Then the work began. It was hard. It was scary. It was terribly sad. But I also felt like I did right by our beautiful friend.
If you have an animal companion you’d like to honor with a wake of your own, here are a few tips I can pass along.
Learn About The Euthanasia Process
The basic order of events is basically the same, whether at home or at the vet clinic. The vet administers a sedative that puts the pet into a deep sleep. Once they’re out, another drug is injected that stops the animal’s heart. And that’s it.
It costs more to have the vet make a house call, but it was totally worth it for us. Daisy fell asleep with the taste of steak in her mouth and with my husband and me at her side. We petted her and whispered in her enormous ears the whole time. Her breathing quickened a bit after the fatal drug went in, then it slowed, then it stopped.
Talk It Over With The Family
We have two kids, ages 4 and 8, who’ve never experienced a loved one’s demise. They knew Daisy was old and would probably die soon, so we explained a couple of weeks prior that the visiting vet would speed her transition to prevent further suffering.
From there, I let them decide how — and if — they wanted to participate. My 8-year-old son preferred to stay out of it. My 4-year-old didn’t want to attend the procedure (a relief), but she helped decorate Daisy’s body with flowers afterward, and gently petted and kissed her as we sat with her that afternoon.
Not everybody wants to get this close-up to death, and that is absolutely understandable.
Get Childcare If You Can
I was fortunate my mom and sister were available to help out that day. We didn’t have to worry about what the kids were up to while we said goodbye, and I think having some extra family at home was a comfort for everyone.
If the kids will be around, consider scheduling the euthanasia appointment for later in the day — that way bedtime won’t be too far off and you can (hopefully) have some space to grieve.
It Won’t Be Gross
There’s a misconception that dead bodies are instantly grotesque, all leaking fluids and lolling tongues. Not true. The body still looks like your loved one. Fur is soft. Ears are floppy. The body stays warm for a while.
The only slightly yucky thing that happened: When my husband hoisted Daisy up to move her body, a little pee dribbled out. Nothing we hadn’t seen before.
You Have Time
After your pet passes, there’s no need to rush. Rigor mortis — the phase of death that causes tissues to stiffen — takes two to three hours to set in. You have that time to hold your dearly departed, cry, snuggle, say a prayer, whatever you want.
Keep Ice On Hand
Ice keeps the body cool, staving off the beginnings of decomposition. We filled an old plastic baby pool with bags of ice, covered that with a tarp, then put a blanket on top for a cozier look. Daisy laid on the blanket, appearing to be in a deep slumber.
It helped that it was cold in the garage, too — warmer temps require replacing ice as it melts.
Plan For Your Needs
Once the novelty of having a dead dog in the garage wore off, our kids were back to their usual snacking requests.
I hadn’t thought much about the, uh, catering, so I was left trying to arrange meals for people between bouts of tears. Have frozen stuff ready to go, get something delivered, whatever works — just make the plan in advance so you’re not trying to create menus while in the throes of new grief.
Go Easy On Yourself
There’s no wrong way to do any of this. If the idea of an at-home dog wake is bizarre to you, that is totally fine. If some parts sound nice, but others don’t? Also fine. The key is to lock into what works for your family and go from there.
Daisy’s home wake felt like the grieving equivalent of ripping off a Band-Aid. I cried more, and harder, in those 24 hours than perhaps I ever had. But it also helped me, on some primitive level, truly accept her loss.
Taking care of her on her last journey took a little of the sting out of it all. She had a good life — and a good death.
I didn’t grow up with pets but I remember wanting to be a vet since I was 8 years old and working on my stuffed animals as if they were patients. I went into college wanting to be a vet but I failed chemistry three times and ended up going to art school.
In 1991, I moved to LA on a whim. I was broke and looking for a job and ended up working in a nursing home. That led me to nursing school and chemistry started to click. I worked in areas of home hospice and palliative care. That dream never left and I began to think that maybe I could be a vet.
I started taking my prerequisite classes for vet school, and I continued nursing actually to pay my way through vet school. I finally graduated vet school in 2001 and went directly into emergency and critical care.
I spent 13 years working in a veterinary ER, and during this time, our care evolved and we became a specialty hospital with internal medicine and oncology. I started to see that during the most critical time in people’s relationship with their pet, when pets were ill or had multiple comorbidities, people would need more time to process complex issues and decisions and they weren’t getting it. We would diagnose their pet with cancer in the ER and people would be left in that state of shock.
I felt like we were failing, and I decided I was going to start offering services strictly focused on hospice and palliative care for pets. But in 2012, when I started offering three hour in-home appointments, people told me that the idea wasn’t financially viable. I said I was going to try. I felt in my heart it was what people and pets needed.
My first hospice patient was a dog named Sunny. Sunny was brought into our veterinary ER with multiple urinary issues by her owner’s fiance, because he was in Colorado at his father’s funeral. I did an exam and discovered it was a tumor that was blocking the urethra so the pet wasn’t able to urinate. It was a situation that is technically one where we would euthanise the animal. But I discovered that Sunny was the pet that had got the owner through his wife’s death. I so clearly remember being in the ER and finding all of this out about the owner and realizing that he could not come back to be with Sunny and say goodbye.
I ended up providing Sunny with an in-dwelling urinary catheter, something which should be in-hospital only. I remember others saying we couldn’t send Sunny home with this catheter, but the alternative was euthanasia, breaking this human/animal bond, not allowing the owner to say goodbye.
Sunny was able to go home and three days later the owner returned and they spent an amazing two weeks together. They managed the catheter and completed their bucket list. Sunny swam in the ocean with her owner and they had a huge party with other dog friends where they ate grilled filet mignon and had these “pupsicle” ice creams. We were able to facilitate a goodbye on the lawn of his house. To be able to create that kind of goodbye for someone, when the alternative would be so different, was life changing for me as a person and a doctor. That is a situation that has lived with me and been my north star since I started this.
For me, hospice and palliative care begins at the time of diagnosis, when there are signs of decline in the pet, because there is so much we can do to improve quality of life and prepare the pet and pet parent. We have had pets in hospice for 18 month to 2 years, so that’s technically palliative care.
Hospice care is done in the pet’s home. We are under the umbrella of the Pearl Pet Hospice but our goal is to be that bridge between the hospital and the home. One of the things I found interesting early on in these 3 hour in-home appointments was that 75 percent of the care people needed help with was non-medical.
Families typically need help planning and goal setting for how they wanted their pet’s end of life to look, help deciding what their bucket list was going to be, whether they wanted a memorial. We discuss what they are struggling with and what their resources are. A lot of the topics are things vets aren’t typically able to address with families because there’s just not the time.
When a family enters their pet into our hospice program, they have an entire team on their side to support them every step of the way. Families work with me, a dedicated nursing team, care coordinators and pet loss support specialists. During our in-home appointment, we educate and empower the family, including in how to recognize signs of decline, how to give medications or injections, and how to monitor progression of their pet’s disease. Following this, the majority of our care continues virtually via telehealth where the family has 7-day a week access to their hospice team for guidance and support until the time of in-home euthanasia. Generally, the pet’s quality of life sky rockets, and the time to euthanasia is generally much farther out than what their pet’s diagnosis would dictate. I’m surprised every day by the difference we can make, and that just makes my heart so full.
The vast majority of my hospice patients are dogs and cats, it is a little more weighted towards dogs, which is surprising since cats don’t generally like to go into hospitals as much. I have had a couple of bird patients. When birds can live for 80 years, people are very bonded to them.
I have helped thousands and thousands of pets in hospice care. I have been doing this close to 10 years and as we have grown as a team, we’ve been able to affect a lot of lives, which is amazing.
Over the past 10 to 15 years I think the human/animal bond has changed dramatically. Millennials are now the largest pet owning population and their pets are their children. When I started this in 2012 in the Bay Area of California, there were four other practices doing something similar. Now I believe there are close to 30. That area may have a unique demographic that supports that but I am seeing this trend across the country.
Pet hospice care is growing pretty rapidly. It has been widely known for around 10 years and in the past five years there has been a large increase of practitioners. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) is an organization where in the earlier days there were just a couple of hundred of us and now there are close to 2,000 members.
People often say they wish they had known about this for their last pet, or
sooner, and that’s something I want to erase from people’s thoughts. I want everyone to know this is available. The other thing I hear a lot is people asking me how I can do this every day, because it must be so sad and make me depressed. Oddly it’s just the opposite. I spent 13 years in the ER doing everything I could to save lives and I have never been so gratified as being able to end them well. People are so grateful that you are taking the time with them and being caring during one of the most intimate times in their relationship with their animals. Of course, it is sad and I still get teary at every euthanisia, but I leave with my heart so full that it’s hard to say this is anything but the most amazing career in the world.
Jan Holman, 68, had been away from her beloved pet dogs and horse for six weeks and was missing them all until she received a special visit – facilitated by her hospice
By Millie Reeves
A terminally ill woman has had the chance to say goodbye to her two dogs and horse thanks to hospice staff.
Jan Holman, 68, was admitted to hospital six weeks ago and is now a patient at the Hospice of the Good Shepherd in Chester.
Her quick referral to the hospice meant she hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to her dogs, Monty and Rowley, or Bob, her horse of 10 years.
Due to the pandemic Jan was unable to have any visitors at the hospital, and her husband of 46 years, Dennis, said she found having no visitors or personal contact difficult.
After four weeks, Jan was moved to the hospice to receive end-of-life care.
Knowing Jan was also missing her animals, the hospice arranged for a visit from her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Monty and Rowley, as well as her horse, Bob.
Even though she was unable to get out of bed, Jan was excited to have the chance to see the gang one more time.
Dennis said: “It was just such a relief once Jan was moved from the hospital to the hospice in Chester and we were able to have named visitors who could come and see Jan regularly, however we never imagined that we would be able to include Monty, Rowley and Bob on the visiting list.”
He continued: “All the staff here have been wonderful. Jan has been so well cared for, nothing is too much trouble even down to the chef coming every day to see what he can tempt Jan to eat.
“Nothing is too much trouble, including arranging for a horse to visit!”
Before her illness Jan, who has lived in Chester all of her life, could be seen dressed as Chester’s Tudor Lady delivering tours of the city where she has been a Blue Badge Tour Guide for 37 years.
Jan said: “I just can’t believe what the staff here at the hospice have done for me. Until a few weeks ago I was still riding Bob every day and he is such an important part of my life, and I have missed him so much.
“I knew that arranging for my dogs to visit was possible as we had a neighbour who was a patient at the hospice a few years ago and we were allowed to bring the dogs to visit her, but I just didn’t expect that they would ever be able to give me the chance to see Bob one more time.”
Louise Saville King, deputy ward manager at the hospice, said: “It was obvious when Jan first came to us that she is passionate about her animals and that horses have played a large part in her life for many years.
“The ethos of hospice care is not just about caring for the clinical needs of our patients but also looking after their emotional and spiritual needs as well.
“It’s about making a difference to our patients and their families in whatever way we can.
“We know that sometimes people are scared at the thought of coming to the hospice, but it’s a positive place where people are supported and well cared for.
“The work of the hospice really does make a difference to people’s lives.“
“Many times we adopt pets because we’re struggling ourselves, and we need that companionship. During the pandemic, or during other difficult times in your life, you often hear, ‘This pet got me through such a difficult part of life.’ That emotional connection to your pet is so vital.”
Dealing With the Loss of a Pet: Why Is It So Painful?
Given how much comfort pets bring, it’s understandable that losing them can be emotionally devastating. “Our animals become a part of our family,” says Dr. Sullivan. “They provide unconditional love and support, which is something that people don’t get from a lot of different places.”
As an example, she cites how excited pets often are to see you when you return home after being away. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been gone for two hours or two days, the way that they greet you is just so beautiful,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It’s like you’re their world.”
Losing this unconditional love is understandably very difficult. “As humans, we need to feel that love and connection and to know that something views you in such a special way,” she adds. “That’s why it becomes so painful when we lose our animals.”
Grieving a pet after euthanasia
Understandably, it’s perfectly normal that grieving the loss of a pet from euthanasia can be much more difficult. “We want to see a pet death occur naturally, when they are at a ripe old age,” she says. “But part of the problem is their lives are so short. You never get enough time with your pet.”
Euthanasia is often the right decision for your pet, so they’re no longer hurting. But knowing a health decision you made led to their death can add extra layers of guilt and exacerbate your pain and grief.
“You certainly don’t want to see your pet suffer,” says Dr. Sullivan. “But there is that grief that’s associated with that guilt, and questioning yourself: ‘Am I making the right decision?’ That’s why it’s important to make that decision with your trusted medical professionals and other family members.”
Is grieving a lost pet different than grieving a human?
Sullivan stresses that grief isn’t “one size fits all” after a death. In other words, it’s impossible to compare your reaction to losing a cherished pet versus losing a loved one. “For some people, grieving a pet is more difficult,” she says. “For other people, grieving a human is more difficult. For some people, both are very, very difficult. But I don’t think a pet death causes less grief than a human one.”
However, because a pet is such a treasured member of your family, it’s not out of the ordinary to feel a death very deeply. “It depends on your relationship with a pet,” adds Dr. Sullivan. “Pets are a part of your life. They provide that additional support and love, and they’ve gotten you through some very difficult times. And so in some cases, grieving a pet is even more difficult than grieving a human being.”
How to Grieve a Pet
As with grieving a loved one, dealing with the loss of a pet takes time. Here’s what to keep in mind:
Realize your grief is valid
Dr. Sullivan says being an emotional wreck after a pet dies is completely OK. “There have been times when patients have been in my office absolutely more devastated by the loss of their pet, or by having to make the decision to euthanize a pet, than about anything I’ve ever seen them upset about,” she notes.
This extreme reaction to loss goes back to the idea that pets are part of our family. “They may be the most important thing to a person, honestly,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to have to normalize that this grief is real.”
Recognize that grief looks different for everyone
Experts often explain grief using the Kübler-Ross model, which outlines five different phases you go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (Dr. Sullivan prefers to use “adaptation” over acceptance: “Acceptance is more passive, whereas becoming more adaptive is more active. It lets us ask, ‘What can we still do?’”)
Still, your journey through these phases can be different, even from one day to the next. “There’s no consistent way that you approach grief, denial, anger, bargaining, or any of those phases,” Dr. Sullivan explains. “Each person moves through these stages at their own unique time and in their own unique way, and they can go back and forth. It’s not a linear phase.”
“What’s important is that we recognize that people are experiencing these feelings, and we support them and guide them in each of these different domains of emotion,” she adds.
Create physical memorials
Physical memorials are one of the easiest ways to remember a pet. When Dr. Sullivan’s family lost a beloved Yorkshire terrier, Reiley, the vet sent them sympathy cards and gave them a printout of the dog’s paw and muzzle prints alongside a poem called The Rainbow Bridge.
Dr. Sullivan also put together a memorial photo book, and she still keeps the terrier’s collar and tags hung in a special place of honor in her house. Her family also created a special place in their backyard near where he’s buried. “We have a space set up with a special flower that blooms year after year for him, and it has a little statue with his name on it, so we can go back there and look at it,” she says.
Join a support group
Some people prefer to grieve privately, out of the public eye. However, for those who find solace in talking to other people, Dr. Sullivan says joining a support group can be helpful. These can be social media-based spaces for grieving or even in-person groups.
Make sure your entire family is supported
Losing a fuzzy buddy affects everybody in your household. Dr. Sullivan says you might have to comfort your other pets, as they are also feeling grief. “If you have multiple pets in the household, they’re going to grieve the loss of their companion.”
Kids might also need extra support, as losing a pet might be their first personal experience with death. “This may be their first opportunity to really lose somebody,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to make sure that we help support them in situations of grief, death and dying. It’s very new to them, and it can be very scary to them.”
Above all, keep in mind that coping with the loss of a pet takes time. You may not get another pet right away — and, even when you do welcome another pet into your family, things will still take an adjustment period. “In the end, you realize your pet wants you to be happy,” says Dr. Sullivan. “I don’t think you ever move on — you move forward, and the relationship you have with each pet is different. No one’s going to replace that.”
Scientists have documented hundreds of instances in which ape or monkey mothers continue to groom and hold on to the corpses of their infants for days, weeks, and in some exceptional cases, even months after the babies passed away. In a new study, scientists have analyzed more than 500 such documented cases among 50 primate species, finding that the behavior is more widespread than previously believed. The distressing behavior is seen as an expression of grief.
“Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in similar ways to humans: it might take experience to understand that death results in a long-lasting ‘cessation of function’, which is one of the concepts of death that humans have. What we don’t know, and maybe will never know, is whether primates can understand that death is universal, that all animals – including themselves – will die,” Dr. Alecia Carter, a researcher at University College London, said in a statement.
A striking coping behavior
The practice of carrying around dead infants didn’t have a clear explanation until now, considering it is costly and provides no apparent benefit to the parent. However, the widespread nature of the practice across time and many species motivated primatologists at the University College London in the UK to embark on a study.
The team analyzed reports dating from as far back as 1915 to 2020, compiling 509 cases of infant corpse carrying among 50 primate and monkey species, 80% of which engaged in this practice regularly.
Our closest relatives, the great apes — bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — had the highest frequency of cases, along with Old World Monkeys. Both of these groups carried their dead infants the longest.
For instance, in their study, the researchers describe a case recorded in 2017 involving a female macaque in an Italian wildlife park who carried her dead infant for four weeks, before eventually cannibalizing the mummified corpse. One of the most extreme cases of this activity was observed in 2003, when the corpses of two infant chimpanzees were carried around by their mothers for months.
Although we can never be sure what are the motivations behind this behavior, there are some patterns that point towards a form of stress management. Some of the primate mothers would shriek in alarm when the corpses of their babies were taken away from them, which suggests carrying the corpse is a form of coping strategy to alleviate the great stress caused by infant separation.
When live primate babies are separated from their parents, both the infant and the mother show signs of significant anxiety. A 2011 study showed that rhesus monkey babies do not fully recover from the stress of being separated from their mothers at birth, leaving them prone to a life of anxiety, poor social skills, and depression.
The researchers in the UK found that the younger the infant, the more likely it was for the mother to carry the babies for longer, perhaps because the bond between them was the strongest then.
The age of the mothers was also an important factor. Young mothers were more likely to carry their dead babies. The researchers write that older mothers may be experienced enough to recognize that their infants are gone and may be more psychologically equipped to deal with the broken bond with the baby.
Traumatic deaths, such as infanticides or accidents, were less likely to result in corpse carrying compared to deaths caused by non-traumatic events, such as illness. A death resulting from an illness may not make it immediately clear to the mother that her baby is lifeless.
“We show that mothers that were more strongly bonded to their infant at death carry the corpse for longer, with emotions possibly playing an important role. However, our study also shows that, through experience with death and external cues, primate mothers may gain better awareness of death and therefore ‘decide’ not to carry their dead infant with them, even if they may still experience loss-related emotions,” said co-author Elisa Fernández Fueyo of University College London’s Department of Anthropology.
Clues about the origin of human mortuary practices
The findings have important implications not only for advancing our understanding of how non-human primates grieve, but also how we’ve come to deal with death among our own species. Human social bonds are very similar to those of chimpanzees and bonobos due to our shared evolutionary history. Human mortuary practices and grief may have their origins in these shared social bonds.
“The thanatological behaviours that we see in non-human primates today may have been present in early human species as well – and they may have transformed into the different rituals and practices during human evolution,” said Elisa Fernández Fueyo.
“However, we need more data to enable us to further develop our understanding of this, and of how much primate behaviours relating to death may not only be explained by bonds but also by the associated emotions and, thus, resemble human grief.”
Last week, Maria Isabel Benites Chamba was laid to rest at age 95 in Ecuador. Chamba’s family and friends were in attendance to pay their respects at her funeral — but one attendee in particular insisted on doing even more.
It was Chamba’s beloved dog, Bumer. He refused to leave her side until the very end.
During the wake for Chamba, organized by Funeraria Santa Rosa, Bumer stayed close by — just as he had done while she was alive.
“You could see the loyalty and affection that existed between her and her dog,” a spokesperson for the funeral home told The Dodo. “He was always there with his owner.”
When the ceremony ended, a procession formed to follow Chamba’s coffin to the cemetery. Bumer, of course, insisted on coming, too.
“He circled the hearse before hopping aboard as if to say, ‘I want to go and say goodbye to my mom,’” the funeral home spokesperson said. “A tremendous example of loyalty.”
Bumer was heartbroken — but in that moment, his immense love for Chamba was clear for all to see.
Chamba may have passed, but Bumer’s faithfulness lives on. Hopefully, in time, his broken heart will begin to heal — but that’s a process he won’t have to face alone.
According to the funeral home, the little dog was last seen in the warm company of Chamba’s family, united in their remembrance of the person they loved so dearly.
When my yellow Lab died last spring, I was flattened by an overwhelming sadness that’s with me still. And that’s normal, experts say, because losing a pet is often one of the hardest yet least acknowledged traumas we’ll ever face.
I was walking home from getting my second vaccination shot last March when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t stand. Everything about the vaccine was fine. It was just that I had lost someone very dear to me a few days prior and I was overcome with crippling despair.
I plopped in the dirt next to the side of the road, wailing while I fumbled with my phone to find the number for Blue Cross Blue Shield’s counseling hotline. I explained my needs to an obstacle course of automated gatekeepers and finally got through to a human.
“My partner died two days ago,” I managed to say between sobs.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said the woman on the phone, clearly moved by my distress. She gave me phone numbers for grief counselors in my area; I headed home with tears running down my face.
What I didn’t say is that my “partner” was a dog. A beautiful yellow Lab named Sunny, who died at 15 and a half.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea. Now that I’m pushing 60, I thought I was fully experienced in coping with the death of loved ones. But the sadness from losing Sunny was far greater than what I had previously endured after the passing of my parents, grandparents, and other dogs. I was surprised and somewhat terrified that I had the capacity to cry so much.
If I had lost a human partner, there would have been the usual funeral rituals, and being an emotional basket case would have seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. Well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.During our more than 15 years together, Sunny was faithfully by my side as I went through a bitter divorce, raised my son alone, dealt with caring for my mother and her dementia, and endured the death of my parents, as well as PTSD caused by childhood trauma, empty-nest syndrome when my son went to college, stressful jobs, scary health issues, moving to a new town where I knew no one and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.Sunny was like a handrail along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Navigating life’s challenges seemed doable because I knew I could hold on to her if needed. Now the handrail was gone. Trying to understand why I was in such pain, I sought out a few experts, who explained to me what it is about these transitions that makes them so difficult.
“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.
As is true for many dog owners, my bond with Sunny was strongest in the outdoors. She shared my desire to wander in the wild more than anyone else in my life. And we did it daily, no matter the weather or what else was demanding my attention. I estimate that we hiked more than 15,000 miles together. On summer vacations and weekend trips, we hiked up to mountain summits and down to creek bottoms, through slickrock canyons and across snow-covered mesas bathed in moonlight. But mostly we just rambled for miles in the forest near my house, traveling cross-country on paths created over the years by our feet and paws. Sunny liked to walk about ten feet in front of me and insisted on carrying big sticks that were a minimum of five feet long. She would turn her head sideways to thread a stick through closely spaced trees and often looked back to make sure I was still there.
“Isn’t this amazing?” she would seem to say with her eyes.
“Yes!” I would respond, feeling life’s worries fall away.
We floated through the forest like synchronized swimmers, immersed in the joys of sticks and smells and towering pines bending in the wind. I needed this time with Sunny the way many people require coffee in the morning. It was hard to get through the day without it.
After Sunny’s death, my craving for our daily hikes—and for simply seeing her look back at me—was almost unbearable. I filled my house with pictures of her face and walked so many miles with her leash in my pack that I completely wore the soles off my hiking shoes. Eventually I connected with Richard Mercer, a grief therapist and facilitator of a pet-loss support group in Boulder, Colorado, who assured me I was not going crazy.
“The death of a pet is a very big deal,” he said. “I often have people tell me that they are surprised the experience is harder than losing their mom or dad. And there are many good reasons for why this is so.”
Unlike losing parents or other loved ones who don’t live with you, dogs and cats have an intimate place in our everyday lives. We miss their constant companionship, unconditional love, and presence as motivators: they’re a reason to get up and go on those daily walks. Mercer told me the death of a pet can also “activate grief over previous losses,” and I know what he means. I found myself crying about Sunny and also about my childhood dog Lucky, who was kept on a chain and was relegated to sleeping in a flea-infested doghouse—both at my parents’ insistence.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea.
But the pain of loss also involves neurobiology. “Our field is just beginning to understand the positive benefits that dog ownership has to human health,” says Kevin Morris, director of research at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Nothing against cats, but Morris says dogs are especially adept at being close friends. “All the dog breeds of today came from wolves that were, according to the theory, living off the garbage heaps of humans eight to ten thousand years ago. Dogs evolved to be companions to people in ways that other domesticated animals did not.”
Morris says researchers have found that a dog decreases anxiety and increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, sometimes called “the love hormone,” that’s associated with maternal bonding. A study published in Science documented how simply gazing into each other’s eyes created a positive oxytocin feedback loop between dogs and their owners. Loving stares increased oxytocin levels in the dogs by 130 percent, and by 300 percent in the humans. Another study found that kissing dogs mutually increased oxytocin levels. Research has also shown that prolonged interaction between humans and dogs lowers harmful cortisol levels in both species.
“We are really wired to get that good stuff from our dogs,” says Mercer. “We associate the physical response of the oxytocin release to our connection with our dog and that is a lot of what we miss when they pass.”
I tell Mercer how I put pictures of Sunny all over my house and was walking around with her leash, apparently in a desperate attempt to get my oxytocin fix.
Doing whatever you can to feel better is a good idea. Mercer says that our culture’s widely accepted push to achieve closure by “moving on” after the death of a pet doesn’t really work. “The best thing to do is integrate the loss into your life by building a new relationship with a pet who is no longer physically present,” he explains. “We can give form to this relationship by honoring the memories of our pet, telling stories, journaling, and acknowledging our pain.” These memories embody not only the actions of our pets during their lives but also the events of our lives when the pet was supporting us.
Last March, when my 24-year-old son, Austin, and I decided it was time to put Sunny down, he flew from Los Angeles to my home in southwestern Colorado so we could give her a proper send-off. Sunny was being ravaged by cancer, but she still had an appetite. Our tight three-member pack, which had been the bedrock of Austin’s childhood, gorged for two and a half days on salmon, hamburgers, sausage, and some of Sunny’s unusual favorites, including Gouda cheese and lemon cake. Sunny could no longer hike in the forest, but we waded out with her into the Dolores River, where she had loved to swim. After Sunny was euthanized on her favorite patch of lawn amid swirls of fat snowflakes, Austin carried her inside and placed her on my bed. I anointed her with essential oils of ponderosa pine and blue spruce and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck as we prepared her for the crematorium. I had always joked that pink was Sunny’s best color, even though she was incredibly strong and fearless. In the coming days I would tie pink ribbons around candles, my wrist, the box that held her ashes, and a stick in the backyard where I built an altar, all to remind me of Sunny’s life and the tender, sacred ceremony of her passing. This brought me comfort—maybe even oxytocin—as did some of the other tips offered by grief experts.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was the license to cry as much and as often as I needed to. I have cried every single day since March 25, when Sunny passed.
Plenty of people experience this. “I wailed like a little boy,” Robert Neimeyer says of a cat he had several years ago that was killed by a car. “It was the purest and strongest grief I have ever felt in my life.” Copious crying is our body’s way of achieving homeostasis by physically releasing strong emotions.
Though letting the tears flow is healthy, it’s crucial not to remain stuck in despair. My thoughts often turned to Sunny’s tough final three weeks rather than to the wonderful years we shared. Mercer encourages people to make a conscious effort to focus on the good times and burn these happy moments into their brains.
“Meditate on these memories as if they are happening in the present and remember how you experienced them through your senses,” he says. “This is very grounding and builds resilience so that we are better able to handle the tough memories.”
Following another of Mercer’s suggestions, I joined the pet-loss support group he leads for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief and not everyone gets it,” he says. “So much of what comes out of the group is just normalizing and validating our feelings.”
The goal of the monthly meetings is to provide a safe place for grieving pet owners to share. Some participants hold a picture of a pet who died a few days prior and simply cry; others tell stories of a pet they lost years ago. I found every meeting to be like a giant hug.
One of the most surprising and hopeful things I learned was that my love for Sunny could be the bridge to bringing a new dog into my life—not as a way to replace her but to honor her.“Some people may feel it would be too painful or disloyal to get another pet,” says Neimeyer. “But the deeper way of honoring the pet is to apply the lessons of loving and living this creature made possible for you by sharing that with another animal when you have reached the appropriate point in your grieving process. This kind of love is so robust that it survives the pet’s physical absence.”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
In June, after speaking with Neimeyer, I decided to reach out to a Labrador retriever rescue operation near Colorado Springs, Colorado—a way to lay the groundwork for the day, maybe a year or two away, when I would be ready to adopt a new dog. I spoke with a breeder involved with the group and told her about Sunny. We agreed to touch base again in early 2022. Then she called a few weeks later.
“I know you weren’t planning to adopt anytime soon, but there is this dog who really needs you,” she said. “You would be the perfect owner.”
The dog was an 18-month-old yellow Lab named Trudy. Her owner had severe dementia and kept her confined to a cement dog run. A neighbor had contacted the rescue operation to report Trudy’s suffering. She’d been left alone in record summer heat and never walked. Nobody knew if her owner was giving her food or water.
The next day I drove eight hours to Pueblo, Colorado, to rescue Trudy. If I had not received counseling on pet loss, I probably would have declined, thinking I was too heartbroken to care for another dog. Instead, I took Trudy home and was soon watching her roll around in the grass and lie on a dog bed and play with toys—probably for the first time in her life. Trudy seemed like a gift from Sunny, or at least a karmic manifestation of Sunny’s positive influence on my life.
I bought her a bright red leash and have been slowly teaching her to walk in the wild. She is partly crippled from being confined to a cage, so there’s healing to do. We are healing together.
Trudy and I wander daily on a mesa near my house. It’s an awe-inspiring, oxytocin-generating landscape where a vast expanse of sagebrush is luminous green in the late afternoon light and the sky is a blue ocean filled with archipelagos of clouds. Some clouds are puffs of popcorn. Others are giant curtains of mist dangling over mountain peaks 50 or even 100 miles away.
I still carry Sunny’s pink leash in my pack. I expect I always will.
“Sunny!” I routinely shout into the sun-kissed abyss while Trudy delights in sniffing the ground. “Isn’t this amazing?”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
On other days I hike alone through the forest following the favorite secret paths that Sunny and I made together. Several times I have come upon a tree or bush that takes my breath away. Tied to a twig in the middle of nowhere and for no explainable reason is a bright pink ribbon.