The heart dog post: it never goes away

It’s funny how grief works, isn’t it? After my grandmother died, I was devastated. But I also felt kind of numb- her illness had been going on for so long, and her suffering so great, that it was both a blessing and a terrible sadness to see her go.

I was in the card section of the store looking for something to give to my grandfather. I can’t figure out how a piece of paper could possibly contain a lifetime of memories, envelop what she has meant to me in a piece of cardboard that I then present as if to say, here is my grief, and I share it with you.

But I was thinking about it, and prepared for it, so I held myself together as I worked my way down the aisle.

I picked up a card with a little dog on the front, a little dog with wings. I opened it. “With sympathy on the loss of your beloved companion,” it read. A pet loss sympathy card.

And for some reason, I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t prepared for that or just that I hadn’t thought about it for a while, I started thinking of Emmett, and then I did begin to cry.

When my grandmother passed away, the expressions of sympathy poured in, flowers and donations to charities and acquaintances saying yes, you are sad, and I understand.

But when your pet passes away, it’s different. People give you a sympathetic pat and then expect you to shrug along with them and continue on your day.

It’s not that losing a pet and losing a family member are the same. But the sense of loss can be vast, the craggy hole harder to fill without the support of those around who do not understand what you need in order to heal. Or even that you do need to heal.

I’m so grateful to have this blog as a place to talk about loss, and to share with those who understand. It would have been so much harder with Emmett had I not had this.

I know so many of you know what I am talking about. What helped you get through the days and months after a loss?

Filed: Blogathon, Blogathon 2010 Tagged: , ,
  • I refer to those people that “don’t get it” as outside the bubble. It’s not that they don’t care, I just don’t think they can fully comprehend what grieving for a beloved pet, especially a heart animal, means until they experience the love and loss of a special pet for themselves.

  • Jamie

    I never had to encounter people’s reactions to a pet death until Chase died. I called off of work the next day. (and I wish I could have had the few days off we get for the death of a family member) When I went back, I think a few people looked at me like I was crazy, a lot of people didn’t know what to say or do. So it was just kind of swept under the rug. I didn’t have many people to talk to about it, except the Husband and he was almost more choked up than me. Even almost 2 years later, I get choked up randomly about it. Hell, I got choked up at breakfast (in public at a restaurant) 2 weeks ago, while we were talking about Chase and then thinking about our 2 current dogs dying in the future.

    I guess I just talked about it as much as I could with my Husband and let myself know that what we did was best, and that unfortunately cancer won. We would tell good stories about Chase and how grateful we were to have him for the 9 years that we did. I also joined a forum on Yahoo about Hemangiosarcoma and that helped me get through it a little bit, sharing stories with strangers.

    I still don’t think I got to deal with it as well as I would have liked to, because even my family was a little weird on what to say or do, but I always put on a strong face and move on. But that’s also why I still have a good cry every now and then over the loss of Chase. (and nothing against Chase, or my other boy Beethoven, but when my girl Akira goes… I may just have to call off of work for a week. Hopefully that will be a loooooooooooooong time from now.)

  • Lisa W

    I went to a pet loss support group at my local SPCA, and I happened to have been scheduled to attend the HSUS Taking Action for Animals conference about 3 weeks after Bailey passed. It was great to be around other animal lovers who understand what you’re going through. A couple of months later we adopted Oscar, who has been a ray of sunshine in my life. And I have written several letters to her since she passed. But, really, what I found is that nothing really helps except time. And now focusing on how to manage to start the senior dog sanctuary that I plan to establish in Bailey’s honor. I still miss her every day, but somehow over time I’ve managed to (mostly) internalize the joy and love she brought to me more than the loss. I was so blessed to have her in my life as my heart dog…

  • Nancy

    My online friends on dogster helped me a lot. With the first loss several years ago, there was also a 24 hr chat available on It helped in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. They have a Monday night candle ceremony which helped me also. There are now a lot more forums, chats online which help others. Also, focusing on the wellbeing and routines of the dogs still with me helped tremendously. I also became involved as an administrator in a dog loss group on dogster – helping others, which helped me. And writing in their dogster diaries, a place where I never had to hear judgments about how I was feeling. In day to day life, most people don’t get what I go through with the loss of each pet. Thank goodness for our online resources and friends!

  • Linda

    I have lost 4 dogs in the past 5 years and I still grieve for all of them. Arnie, Molly and Min were all over 10 years old so I knew it was coming although it was still too soon. The last was this past March, she was a lab/great dane cross and only 4.5 years old. I still cry when I think about Daisy, it is particularly bad right now because this month is the anniversary of me bringing her home. She was only 8 weeks old and fit into the end of a copier paper box. I knew something was wrong when she started to limp and seemed to be cold all the time. She was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her on March 19.

  • Kathy, RVT

    I agree..those that “don’t get it” don’t get ME. Thank the doGs, most of my friends are just like me, and “get it”.
    What gets me thru? Music…for almost all the dogs, when I lost them, there was one song that while yes, made me cry, also made me remember, with the smiles those dogs deserve. For my Gem, it’s “I have been blessed”, for Pocco, “I still miss you”…for my foster Captain, it’s “I will not say goodbye”. For my first horse, Smokey, “A bad goodbye”
    When I hear those songs…memories come rushing back; I can smile thru my tears, and remember those beloved dogs(and horses) by singing very loud(and perhaps badly).
    And my friends and family just smile at me, and leave me be.

  • Thank GOODNESS folks in “my universe” have adored my beloved 4-legged kiddos ‘almost’ as much as I have, so have always understood and been there for me when sadness has befallen me…and they still do. Pictures and videos were my saving grace after putting Roderick, then Bailey down, five years apart. When I had to make that heart-wrenching decision, I always had another pet to go home to, Bailey when I put Rod down, Rudy when I put Bailey down. But alas it’s Rudy and me now, so nothing can happen to that pooch. Nothing. Mind you, the syndrome and disease gods do throw just about everything they can at him; diabetes, Horner’s Syndrome, now Cushing’s Syndrome, but darn if he isn’t just my Energizer Bunny who keeps going, and going, and going….hopefully continues to. <3

  • Losing pets is just awful. We still grieve the loss of our recent pets daily.

  • I so understand! I read about others losing their dogs & I cry, for them, their dogs, for me, my dogs. Even though I’m a strong person. I’m a very emotional person. I think losing a pet that is with you every day is very hard. I only see my relatives once a year since they’re so far away. Getting Xander after losing Willow helped. It’s very true about co workers not getting it. Unless they have experienced that love & then that loss.

  • Steph B

    My dog Amelia was killed unexpectedly last month, so I’m still in the midst of figuring out how to get through it. The thing that has helped me the most so far, besides the support of my wonderful family, has been going to classes. Amelia and I were in the middle of our third K9 Nosework class when she passed away, and it was our favorite thing to do together. My classmates turned into friends over the months we spent together, watching and learning from and rooting for each others dogs. Going back to class the following week was the best thing I could have done. It felt good to be around the dogs, to see everyone’s progress, and to have the love and support that only other “crazy dog people” can offer. This would be so much harder without them!

  • I’ve had pets die that I’ve missed and been sad about, but the pet loss that was hardest for me wasn’t actually a death, it was when my ex made me sell my horse. I cried for days and weeks, and couldn’t handle the thought of looking at any of his tack or equipment in my garage. I literally couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about him, because in addition to the feeling of loss was a HUGE amount of pain and regret over having to sell him (having to choose between my horse and my husband) and I felt like I’d given up a child. I kept telling myself it was better for him… but I never actually believed it. Eventually the pain subsided to a dull gnawing ache, but it was still there, and along with it, a feeling of failure–he was the horse I’d always wanted and dreamed of, I’d promised him I’d keep him forever, and I loved him so much, and then I sold him.

    It actually completely killed my desire to ever own another horse. I’ve thought about buying another horse many times over the past 2.5 years since I left my ex… but I just couldn’t do it. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, and I wanted my horse, and I was scared of having that pain all over again.

    …and then six weeks ago today, Moose stepped off a horse trailer and back into my life, and the second I took his lead rope from the woman who’d bought him and who was selling him back to me, all that pain was gone. We picked up pretty much right where we left off–he really hasn’t changed much.

    That horse-sized hole that was in my heart this whole time was filled in an instant. And this time I’m not letting him go for anything–if I’m ever forced to choose between a romantic partner and a horse, sorry, but the horse is going to win every time. No more ultimatums. I have my Moose back. 🙂

    • Lisa W

      So glad you have your Moose! I learned the same type of lesson several years ago — if they’re not animal people, they’re not for me. My hubby loved Bailey almost as much as I did, even though he didn’t come into our lives until she was seven. He had to pass the “Bailey test” to even be considered for a relationship!

      • LOL @ the Bailey test–yeah, I definitely have a Moose test! Fortunately, my boyfriend has been completely supportive from the second I got the email from Moose’s owner about selling him back to me, and I started instantly bawling so hard I couldn’t speak, and had to pass him my phone so he could see what my problem was. 🙂 And he even offered to lend me the money to buy Moose back if I needed it (she hadn’t given me a price in her initial email)–fortunately I didn’t need to borrow money from him, but his offer was so wonderful.

        And he comes out to the barn with me on weekends–he’s not a horse person, but he wants to learn. So he’s definitely passed the Moose test–I’m thinking this one is a keeper. 😉

        • Lisa W

          Yes, this one sounds MUCH better! 😉

      • Lisa W

        (Feel that perhaps I should clarify — learned the lesson from an ex. Current hubby is definitely a dog person!)

  • Liz H W

    I still miss every dog I’ve ever had. Each one was special and unique in their own way. Skipper was the crazy boy. I could write a book about his adventures. Rudy was the gentleman, Molly my most loyal, and on and on. I don’t know how you get over them, just keep them tucked in a safe place in your heart and go on and rescue another one because they need you but more important you need them.

  • Melissa Wetherell-Moore

    I don’t take the death of my pets well. Not at all. A few years back I lost my beloved Galadriel and Deliliah within 3 months of each other. Delilah was somewhat expected, she had hemangiosarcoma and we knew it would be grim. (but she lived happily for another year after diagnosis.) Galadriel developed lymphoma and was gone in what seemed like an instant. I had trouble walking around and functioning after the second death. When my sweet Bob died this last spring, I thought I could handle it better…I mean, she was 16..what a grand long life for a kitty. But still, this year, I am moved to tears by little things. Or I think I catch a glimpse of her in the shadows when I’m quickly moving through a room.

    Each life impacts us differently, and so will each death. I love my kitties and dogs with all my heart, and do my very best to take care of them. I surround myself with people who love people and animals as much as I do – and let go from my heart people who don’t feel the same way.

    I have began to think that although we always say “it’s different than a human death” that saying it is a lie we tell people who don’t have pets… We grieve and mourn just the same and finding people who will walk that road with you and share that with you is the important thing.

  • What a wonderful post. Losing a pet is such a difficult thing. The connection with pets is so different than with humans. We have just now, after more than a year, really started to be able to talk about our little Miss Girl kitty without being overwhelmingly sad. Grief is grief though – it just affects you differently with each loss. Our memories of her are happy now, even though her loss remains (and always will) very tough.

  • Cathey

    When we lost Jake, our 12 year old Lab, we had 4 other dogs at the time-all living in our home. Some people would say we shouldn’t even have noticed the loss – 4 dogs, 5 dogs, what’s the difference? But Jake was my friend. And like I have other two-legged friends, each one of them fills a different part of your heart. Loosing one of them WOULD make a difference.
    I actually grieved WITH the four dogs, because their world was upset, too, and they were also trying to find their way. “Aunty Mick” the other lab, led the way, being the oldest. She was always Joe’s dog really, but during this time, she would lay at my feet at the strangest times – something she had never done before, and didn’t do much once we started to move on. They all adjusted their behavior and we eventually found a new way for us to live together, but it’s never been the same. It has since been good, but sometimes, even now after 15 years, I still think Jake would love to see my Lizzie and hunt a few pheasants with her. RIP – Bigstone Jacob’s Shadow.

  • Chris

    The passing of our girl Precious was really really difficult for both my wife and myself. A lot of that difficulty had to do with the circumstances surrounding her death. One thing that helped us tremendously was counseling through the Argus Institute at the Colorado State University Teaching Hospital. The ladies who work there are literally angels, they certainly get it when it comes to losing a pet.

    We lost another dog Katie just a couple months ago, and her loss was easier for us to deal with because we were with her when she passed and did everything possible for her at the end. We had no regrets or what ifs, just happy memories of our time with her.

    Another thing that has helped us recently has been working with an animal communicator who can give us perspective on what death was like for our beloved girls, and keep us in touch with them.

  • Kathie

    When I lost my first berner in 1987 I was completely devastated and wanted my next one to be “just like her”. I quickly learned that that would never happen, and in fact I wouldn’t want it to happen, and so over the next 20 years I never compared them or thought of one as a favorite. That is until I learned that Gretl had malignant histiocytosis and I would lose her in a matter of days or weeks. I learned then what “heart dog” meant and that she was indeed the one who had burrowed her way so deeply within my heart. She was an amazing animal assisted therapy dog and had touched literally thousands of children in her 8 years and when I lost her the children who had been reading to her for 3 years cried with us. I was taken aback by how eloquent the children expressed their sadness at her loss and recognized what a great loss it was for me. I was grateful for the children and for my truly dog-crazy friends. But I also encountered well intentioned comments such as “Is she going to get better”. No I replied. “Well then I hope it’s quick” or my sister asking if I’d be over it in a couple days. It’s almost 3 years and I’m still not “over it”. However last year I had what I consider a message from Gretl. I happened to lie down in bed the evening of November 17th (which would have been her 10th birthday) to read my newly arrived copy of The Bark. There was a feature article on “Wonder Dogs” highlighting the many ways in which animals provide service – and there on a full page spread of pictures was a picture of Gretl and a child reading – one I had taken at one of the school reading programs. Unbeknown to me the Marin Humane Society had provided the photo to the author and there Gretl was – when I least expected it!
    Yes – Gretl is my heart dog. The loss was great but the lifetime of memories are rich.
    One of my favorite sentiments:
    As I walk across your heart
    And find my place to stay,
    Nearer to you I will be and
    Never go away

  • Christian Kay

    Honestly, I really, really understood and appreciated your “heart dog” post. So much so that I emailed you and poured my heart out to you about how I had just lost MY heart dog. I know you get tons of emails, but it felt so strange to open up about something I felt we completely understood about each other and to get no response. It may sound so selfish of me, but now I feel strange when I see you say that no one reaches out or understands. I reached out and I understand and yet you didn’t respond to me, which left me feeling the same exact way. I don’t know why I am leaving this comment. I thought it was a community I could easily join but now I just stop by every now and then because every time I do, it stirs the same feelings in me. It’s just a reminder. It reminds me that no one else understands or cares and everyone just expects me to get over it. Call me too sensitive. I AM very sensitive about this subject. I am also still very sorry for your loss, I know just how much it hurts.

    • Christian, I feel terrible about that. I just sent you an e-mail.

    • Chile

      Christian, I don’t know if you’ll see this but I wanted to let you know that you’re in my thoughts. I know how devastating it can be to lose your heart dog. I’d like to think that your heart dog is still looking over you while enjoying the friendship and companionship of my heart dog, Blade. As well as Lisa’s Bailey and Dr. V’s Emmett and Mulan (plus countless others). I hope you can find comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone even though you may feel like it. *hugs*

  • Chile

    I think I’ve been lucky. I don’t know if it’s me or it was Blade (I think it was Blade because he was just such a wonderful dog) but I had a wonderful experience with people reaching out to me. Every year on the anniversary I look through the cards that I received. I still have some of the flowers that were sent (some were dried and put into a shadowbox with the image of his pawprint).

    I had lost a pet before, my childhood OES, but the grief wasn’t on the level that it was with Blade. Alex was an amazing dog, Blade was my canine soulmate, my true heart dog. The book you sent me helped tremendously, in fact in dark times, I still refer to it. My sister also gave me a book about how every dog has an angel and it gave me comfort as well. I wear a beautiful pendant around my neck that my best friend sent me; it carries some of his hair. My tattoo is a constant reminder of his love, strength and a beautiful tribute to him. I continued to transport dogs in his honor. Anything I could do to help out another dog helped me heal the huge gaping hole in my chest.

    My friends and my family really took care of me and I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their kindness and love.