Coping With Dog Loss And Grief In The Midst Of The Pandemic

by Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold

Do Dogs Grieve?

In short, yes.

I remember writing the following when Fergus my 15 year old wonderful yellow  lab died. At that time I had four dogs: Fergus, and three Bouviers des Flandres: Broodje, a boy, and two females Dova and Charlotte all from different liters. Their mother Élodie had died a year earlier.

That day, a young man who often assisted the vet came out and carried Fergus into a room set aside for euthanasia. Fergus was lying on a large round puff of softness. I lay down beside him and talked with him. I told him what a good guy he was and how I loved him. How he was a perfect dog so gentle, so loving, so spiteful, so intense and so easy to be with always. I told him how I would miss him and how much the other dogs loved him. How he had been such a comfort to so many of my patients over the past 14 years and how many had wondered how he was doing and why he hadn’t been coming to the office any longer. He saw in my eyes that I knew the pain he was suffering and I saw in his eyes we both knew it was time.  It was the right thing to do.  

John, a very old friend, and I carry him from the car together to the waiting grave. it was such a cold autumn day full of wetness. It is raining sheets of rain.  It is coming down in buckets and first I think, “how awful to be buried on such a day.” Then I remember whose funeral it is and I think “how wonderful his favorite kind of weather.” Fergus could stand out in this all day and if it were up to him he’d be lying in his plastic swimming pool while the rain came down.

Fergus is buried alongside Élodie , a Bouvier des Flandres who died the year before Fergus.  I have had her ashes in the house since her death from lymphoma. Now I place Fergus next to her and add his favorite raggedy doll from puppy hood and one of his pillows. In life they were inseparable. We start to fill the grave. What a fitting finale.  Now both at rest.

Bouvier des Flandres dog

The other dogs were silent in the house during this brief ceremony. After filling in the soil, we covered the grave with a piece of metal roof sheeting and rocks to ensure no animals would try to gain entrance. The rain continued through the long night without a moon. A night without Fergie as I usually called him.

None of the Bouviers ate their dinners that night and Charlotte even let Dova share the bed – an act of kindness and one rarely performed.

The next day I brought the dogs over to the grave sure that they would sense Fergus’ proximity. Charlotte stopped about twenty feet before the grave and refused to advance. I sat on a bench overlooking the wildly flowing river rushing down with the sound of the roar of the ocean from the cascades of rain from the previous day. Dova ran to the grave and sniffed. She then took off running around the property, up to the front and along the driveway toward the road. She galloped back and looked along the river and continued to search before returning to the house.

Then Broodje who was best pals with Fergus, walked over to the grave. At 120 pounds, his massive self looked like he was standing at attention in his funeral black. He bent his head down the way people do at gravesites and remained that way  perhaps three or four minutes. Broodje stood over the grave with his head looking down in what could only be regarded as a reflective moment of silence. It was a beautiful sight a tall erect dog, a friend and family member saying a last goodbye. If it were a painting it would need no explanation.

Charlotte would not approach the grave. Instead I found her in the backyard lying in Fergus’s plastic swim pool – an activity in which she never previously engaged. Charlotte in the plastic pool – Dova searching along the river. And all three dogs sniffing and grunting around the backyard.

It is some days later, five days actually, and the dogs remained subdued.  Dova threw up her meal and Charlotte not eating – unlikely for a girl who is always thinking of food. Charlotte staying in the house and going upstairs to sleep. Not wanting to go out.

 They were waiting. Waiting the way I imagine they wait when I am not home. Now I am home and they are waiting not for me but for Fergus. I do not know if dogs work through their feelings of loss in the same way that humans attempt or if the passage of time whittles down their memories. In each place we frequent, be it  the house, the backyard, the apartment, the car,  the office, each dog has their own space. Charlotte has her chairs and the bed, Dova usually on the floor a safe distance from Charlotte’s reprimands, and Broodje posts up at the entrance to whichever room where there’s activity. None of them attempted to take over the empty spaces left vacant by the death of Fergus.

Forgiveness

A pet dying alone is devastating, as owners mourn a relationship so full of love and loyalty to end in emptiness and disconnect. Plan a time by yourself to speak to your departed beloved dog to ASK YOUR DOG FOR FORGIVENESS. For the fact that you were not allowed to be there together in the last moments of life. To hold and to hug them, to rock in your arms before, during and after the deep sleep and final physical separation.

By forgiveness I mean asking your lost pet for forgiveness for not being able to be there in person with your best friend in their last moments . For not having the possibility of having your eyes meeting in a moment of love and understanding.

Not being able to say what it would have meant to the both of you.  Forgiveness for not being able to be there holding the loved one in your arms and crying and whispering final words of love.                                            

You can be sure your dog will forgive you I guarantee it. You may even find a new level of forgiving yourself within you which may be surprised. Just as you were always forgiven in life, your dog will forgive you after passing.

Bouvier des Flandres dogs

Depending on the circumstances you might include asking for:

   – Forgiveness for not being able to offer a final favorite meal.

   – Forgiveness for not taking that last really great walk you both loved.

   – Forgiveness for not putting your phone on off and paying more attention to those special moments with your dog.

Forgiveness for having to go to work everyday and those daily good byes accompanying  the look you got as the door closed.

 A helpful way of thinking about this unimaginable loss might be to consider formalizing some ceremony or ritual that you design to ask your pet for forgiveness. If you give yourself time to connect to your grief and even allow yourself to connect to your tears you will find your particular symphony of forgiveness for you from your beloved lost pet. As you feel those feelings find your own way to design a ceremony of forgiveness honoring your pet.

Grief and Loss In a Pandemic World

For people dying in a hospital or nursing home the rituals surrounding the traditional deathwatch have evaporated into a world of not knowing and uncertainty. Normally as one lay dying family, friends and possibly a religious leader were present to comfort the dying person. People would offer their last goodbyes – frequently with physical expressions of a final kiss, a final goodbye.

Now family and friends have no possibility of visiting in a hospital or nursing home and these practices are no longer possible.  There is no possibility of attending a religious service in a church, synagogue, or mosque, which can normally playing a large part in our ways of dealing with dying, death and grieving. The gatherings of friends, family and coworkers around the grave as final prayers and often eulogies, are given, followed by the first shovels full of earth fill the crevice to cover the coffin, no longer exist.

In this time, I have suggested to patients who have lost a family member to the Coronavirus that they might consider asking the deceased for forgiveness for not being allowed to be in the hospital, nursing home, house of prayer, funeral home, crematorium or cemetery.

 In these situations the organization of a “funeral of forgiveness” may be a consoling substitute for the immediate family and closest friends to acknowledge what was not permitted. That is, to ask the deceased to forgive not having a funeral that was impossible to hold in a normal fashion. Rather instead, holding a funeral minus a gathering of people or one reduced to fewer attendees to gather for a final goodbye.

This is not a new idea, but one that extends over many cultures and centuries when no psysical body was to be had for a funeral. People lost at sea or at war were typical examples.

 Possibilities exist to arrange and organize the funeral the deceased would have liked, including a ride to the cemetery along the route that would have been otherwise taken. If a family plot already exits, consider stopping there and conducting a ceremony asking the deceased for forgiveness for not being allowed to have a proper funeral.

 If there is no existing burial plot, instead somewhere that might be a desired spot for the deceased to be buried.There you can conduct and participate in each of the steps that would have taken place had the funeral occurred.   Finally, if possible, gather ariound a table to share food, drink ,and stories. All of these suggestions allow for mourning to begin.

Death and Dying: A Tough Subject

As a clinical psychologist I would say that how we regard death and dying is changing rapidly, perhaps only temporarily or perhaps forever. Until now we have been able to be together in mourning our loved ones, both human and animal. We now are facing grieving separately and alone.  Our grief and mourning are somehow suspended in space and our fears are covered over by existential angst. However, perhaps a new sense of commonality may prevail as well.

Putting down a dog or other pet in these trying times is even more agonizing and even more of a terrifying experience than usual. Besides not knowing what is comes next, owners must  be physically separated from the pet in its last moments of life. By exploring changes in dealing with death, dying, grief, and loss in light of the current pandemic, we hopefully will  find some helpful ideas on how to deal with those issues. Perhaps the most difficult of these issues is not being able to be there in person with your best friend at the end, not being able to say those final words, and what it would have meant to the both of you.

Religious Practices Offer Consolation

A brief  look at the major religions in the United States reflect great similarites in their efforts to deal with death, loss, grieving and mourning.

When humans lose a loved one most people adhere to the traditions and ordinances stemming from their religious affiliation. There are prescribed observances and rules regarding dying, death, burial and mourning. There is much to be found in these religious practices for people to chose from what they feel will offer solace, comfort, consolation, and respect for a loss in observing the particular values of their own or other denominations.

In these days of Corona pandemic, few practices are possible to adhere to, which intensifies the grief and loss of those left behind, unable to observe the age-old traditions around death. People at this moment in history have to surrender many of their traditional symbols, procedures and formalities enveloping their thoughts and feelings regarding death.  Not only do each of us view death differently, we also view funerals differently, to say nothing of our various symbols of departure that allow us to move from grief to the beginnings of mourning.

Difference Between Grieving and Mourning

There is a major difference between grieving and mourning. Frequently, in our everyday speech, these terms are used interchangeably without much attention being paid to their true meanings.  Grieving is an internal process of feeling the feelings and having thoughts related to the deceased person or animal.  Grief remains inside a person. It is extremely personal and may be experienced only inside a person without having to be expressed externally. 

Mourning is related to expressing grief to another person.  Mourning is outwardly expressed from the time a person engages in the activities of arranging a funeral. Going through the rituals, religious or not, for a ceremony, burial, or cremation is the process of mourning. 

Grief needs to be followed by mourning in order to be processed and allow a person to move on. Grieving is allowed to turn into mourning, which then allows one to begin coming to terms with the loss of a person.

What Helps? How To Cope

Remember, not only do each of us view death differently. We also view funerals differently, as well as our symbols of departure and mourning. 

 Frequently, people revert to similar rituals of personal behavior exhibited by their families while growing up. Often couples become upset with each other concerning how they choose to handle their grief behaviors and responses. People have very different styles of mourning. Everyone is entitled to their own way. There is no right way. .Do not argue about differences, and instead simply respect them.

TALK to friends and relatives who will understand your loss and grief. Talk about what this loss is like for you. Do not just bring in your thoughts without being sure to include your feelings. It is about connecting to your feelings that takes you through the mourning process.

WRITE about your wonderful relationship. Writing a pet obituary is a valuable experience that helps to memorialize what was so special to you about your dog. My own obits on all my dogs have been a tremendous help. Look at photos and videos watch them and save them all. Save something special that belonged to the dog that will remind you of great memories. I have saved the dog ID tags of my dogs.

Tears are good, as connect your body and your brain. Tears may come out unexpectedly from nowhere, but this is a normal reaction and indicates just how full of feelings you are. Tears help to refresh your mind and spirit. As one goes through the mourning process, tears change their significance. As time passes, tears may appear along with a smile as you touch a memory or two of the special relationship you had together. Some people may panic and find they have no feelings at all.  Rest assured, you are feeling numb because you are too flooded with feelings and not the reverse.

EXERCISE  because it will move your brain to a better place and is tremendously helpful and important in activating endorphins.

TREAT YOURSELF to favorite comfort foods, with portion control in mind. However, try to avoid binging, as it may leave you feeling guilty instead of comforted. If there is a problem with portion control , consider more exercise. (My choices are grilled cheese, rice pudding- tons of whip cream.)

If possible have a CELEBRATION OF LIFE rather than a gathering to mournWhile of course you will mourn the passing of your beloved dog also be sure to find ways to have a celebration of life, your dog’s life, and your loving relationship together. Gather to speak of what was fun and joyous about that wonderful relationship and what was special and particular about that connection. Be sure to include some wonderful comfort foods and drinks.

When Tess my first Bouvier had to be put down, I buried her on my country property. There was a quiet burial with a few friends. Troll my Lab and Charlotte the younger Bouvier were there. I am convinced the dogs knew what was happening and could not be more respectful – silent and calm.

After my Bouvier Élodie had to be put down, I later held a memorial celebration for Élodie. All of her pups from her liters were invited to the celebrationand they all showed up.  My friend Kathleen, a spiritual director, led the service and each person was invited to tell the group what their Bouvier meant to them. It remains a cherished memory for me and a dedication to the love Élodie spread everywhere.

Guilt

Get rid of guilt. Look for underlying feeling(s) that may be  getting covered up such as fear, anger, or states of hopelessness and helplessness. The more you allow your feelings to flow and feel them, the less chance of moving into guilt and depression.

Do not do the blame game and beat yourself up with thoughts like, “I should have seen this coming,” or “I should have paid more attention.” Any derivatives of these thoughts are usually an attempt to have some feeling of control of a situation that had been totally out or your control.

Understanding the differences between sadness and depression can be helpful. They are not the same and in fact very different:

SADNESS is usually felt in the upper chest and more often around the heart i.e., a broken heart, heartache or a feeling of shyness and frequently wishing to cry or else just bursting into tears. Thinking of your loss and even spontaneous crying which seems to be out of nowhere, are perfectly normal.

DEPRESSION: refers to feelings of dread, weakness, and excessive anxiety – which may or may not be accompanied by obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior. Depression is characterized with decreased interest in activities and being with people. It is often accompanied by loss of appetite, the beginnings of insomnia, and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, getting going, Ruminations of “why didn’t I?” often occur.

If you are not sure what you are feeling, check in with a psychiatrist. You might need some medication to help you get over a hump in dealing with your loss. If you find your grief is not diminishing at all after a few months, then definitely think about therapy which can be a great comfort and help you get to insights you might not arrive at on your own.

GET OUTSIDE YOURSELF:

Additionally one of the best things you can do is become active in your support for those in need. This might mean making masks, adopting or fostering an animal, helping in kitchens and if possible making a donation to a worthy cause. 

If you are in New York City or elsewhere with daily cheers for frontline workers, just keep clapping and banging those pots and pans every night at 7pm to thank all the health care workers and all those people who strove to keep us safe.

TIPS FOR WELL-MEANING FRIENDS and FAMILY:

I know that as well-meaning as people want to be, I found that in my own times of loss and grief when people would say: “what can I do for you, can I get you anything?”   Overcome with grief and loss I usually found myself declining their offer. Those who made specific offers or just simply showed up with whatever they thought I would like, without having to ask, made the most comforting gestures I appreciated the most.

DOG LOSS – THE NEW NORMAL?

Veterinarians all over the country have responded to the special needs of the pandemic, adhering to the rules now quite familiar to all of us.

While observing the restrictions set in place, vets in some areas have arranged a drive-in euthanasia process. Dog owners may bring the dog in their car and park in the animal hospital parking area.

Those with small dogs have the injection procedure done in the
car. As in earlier times, people with their dogs are given as much time as they need to say goodbye, after which they phone into the building for personnel to administer the euthanasia.  A favorite toy or blanket can be in the car and the pet can be hugged, kissed, whispered to or rested next to the owner before, during and after the procedure is administered.

Sad to say such is not the case with larger dogs. For those with larger dogs some final goodbyes are done in the car. Then the owner signals it is time for someone to come out to the vehicle and take the dog and go inside the building to perform what is necessary. The thought of dying alone fills one with pain and sadness. When and where one may say goodbye without obtaining physical access may prevent survivors from experiencing an acknowledgement of finality to an agonizing time of grief and despair.

If you are currently grieving, it is important to give yourself time.  Healing comes with time and it helps to remember although your dog is no longer physically with you, he or she will always live inside your heart and will always be in your memories. Celebrate anniversaries with the joy you had together.

Joel Gavriele-Gold

About the Author: Joel Gavriele-Gold is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. Dr. Gold is the moderator for the AKC Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Suzanne White says

    Thank you Dr. Joel Gold for this incredibly thoughtful and relevant piece. You are a masterful teacher and guide for sustaining emotional health.

  2. John Cabrera says

    Reading this article helped me deal with the loss I experienced a few years back. I wish now I would have had this writing available then. It would have helped me immensely. Still, going back through my memories I have benefitted from it, even today. It brought back memories and peace. Thank you Dr. Gavriele-Gold.

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