In my thirty something years on this planet, I’ve never seen my father cry. I think part of me assumed for a really long time that men simply just didn’t feel things as intensely as women did, which of course is not true at all. As a society, men are pressured from the get-go to bottle up any sort of sadness or grief, hammer it down, force it inward. The very word “man up” sums it up: outward signs of sadness are feminine, wussy, and will get you devoured.
I don’t think it’s inherently this way. My seven year old son wears his heart on his sleeve: laughter, tears, frustration, the opposite of stoicism. I look at him, going through his first boot camp experience with a Marine for a football coach and see it beginning already, the pressure to stuff it all down. I feel sad about that, which as a woman is perfectly socially acceptable to express.
My job puts me in a unique position of guiding a lot of men and women during a really rotten time. When it comes to losing a pet, I’ve seen it all in terms of reactions. Everyone is different, and no one can really predict how they are going to react until they are in the situation. I honestly think the intensity of the experience takes a lot of men by surprise (women too, but they seem to be more comfortable experiencing it). Then, when the time comes, they are so worried about being embarrassed in front of me that they feel they can’t express what they are feeling and just be in the moment with their beloved companion.
I’m not a psychologist, just someone who has tried to learn what I can to make a hard time just a little bit easier. So, with a combination of my own experience and my research into how grief works, here is my completely unscientific Dude’s Guide to Losing a Pet.
If you are a guy who is losing a pet
1. I swear, pinky swear, that I will not think less of you for crying/cursing a lot/wearing sunglasses for the whole appointment.
I once had a soldier, in uniform, come running into the office with his dog in his arms. When his beloved companion died, he cried, and I had to choke back a few tears myself as he told me about what his dog had helped him through when he returned from Afghanistan. He is about as tough as it gets, and I am SO GLAD he allowed himself to experience that moment, even if it only lasted a minute. He’s still a badass, by the way.
2. You may not expect it to hit you as hard as it does, and that’s OK.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed, and it’s not every time, but I’ve had many men (and some women too, but less often) say to me “I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.” You are not alone in that. All it means is that you didn’t realize how big your heart is.
3. There is no one right way to grieve.
I think many people have this expectation: you either grieve by reading Rainbow Bridge over and over while sobbing over pictures of your pet (this is my way of doing it) or you don’t grieve at all. And it just doesn’t work that way, does it? Some people need to talk about their pet, write blog posts and seek support from others. Others need to keep a tag that they touch in passing here and there but prefer not to talk. Some people like to go to the beach and think. And others like to smack a punching bag around.
When my grandfather passed away, my father became the busiest bee I’ve ever seen. He did not cry, but he lifted furniture, drove people back and forth to the airport all week, grocery shopped, swept, refilled everyone’s drinks. He became the Uber Host. I am told by people who know better than I that this need to have something to do is a very normal grief response. So if you find yourself suddenly needing to refinish the floors after your dog passes, go for it.
If you know a guy who is losing a pet
1. Offer to be there when the time comes.
When I go to a home visit, often the person is alone signing paperwork, and while they are sitting there pondering how sad they are, a friend will pop in. “Oh, not yet?” they say. “Should I go?” And every single time, the person says, “Please stay.”
He may not ask for you to be there, but I have seen the shoulders relax when you arrive. Offer to come. It stinks to go through it alone- which I had to do with Kekoa, because my husband had to leave with the kids.
2. A simple “This is the right decision” means more from you than it does from me.
And for whatever reason going out for a beer afterwards is a common thing as well, if you’re a beer person. When my husband’s BFF Kevin died, his friends went straight from the ICU to Kevin’s favorite Mexican restaurant and had a margarita in his honor. (I, on the other hand, was unfit to be seen in public for days.)
3. If I catch you doing the “buck up! It’s just a dog” talk I will hunt you down.
If a guy trusts you enough to share his grief, for the love of Pete please don’t minimize it and reinforce every stereotype out there about bottling up sadness. Give a pat on the back, an “I’m sorry,” the aforementioned beer run, charge up the Xbox, whatever you want as long as it’s not that.
I’m not a pro grief counselor by any means, just a vet who tries to be somewhat sensitive to people’s differences in a rough time. I’ve seen a lot of talks about pet loss but they all seem geared towards people like me who already kind of know we’re going to be a hot mess and are OK with it, but my work lately has really got me thinking about all the amazing, animal loving guys who seem to get left to their own devices. If I’ve missed something helpful, please do share- I’m always looking for ways to be a better support.
This is an amazing post! A friend’s fiance just went through losing a pet and I’ll be sure to share this with them!
Dr. V says
Thank you! I hope it helps in some small way.
sandy weinstein says
i get so upet w/ my friends-both male and female that act like it is just a dog….many of my friends get upset w/ me b/c of all of the money and time i give to my 3 girls…..they are my children, in my will and trust and have money set aside to care for them, have pet insurance, etc. my oldest is almost 12 now, i have had her since she was 6 wks old, i look at her and start crying, begging her not to ever leave me….(she is in good shape, it is just the thought of her not being w/ me everyday….my mother still cried whenever she thought of my first min schnauzer, rose, yrs after she passed. she would take to her. rose was buried w/ my mother so she could be w/ her 2 loving grandparents, who adored her. my dad would get so upset when rose would get sick or hurt. he wanted to sue the vet that screwed up her surgery when she was spayed. he was so mad….he loved that dog and she loved him. my parents would actually fight over who loved her more and who rose loved more. when my dad was not doing well when he had open heart surgery, my mother took rose over to the hospital- it was b4 pets were allowed in hospitals. she jumped out of the car window and ran up to him and jumped in his lap when they rolled him out in his wheelchair in front of the hospital. my mother had not even stopped the car yet. both my dad and rose were not eating and not doing well. after this scene, they both did much better. all of the kids would be home for a holiday and the first person my dad would hug and kiss when he got home from work would be rose, it was like we were not even there…he would take her everywhere w/ him, if she was not allowed, he would not go in…she was his first grandchild…and she was spoiled rotten, she could do no wrong.
Dr. V says
Wow, what a wonderful bond your father and Rose shared.
When my father-in-law died (very unexpectedly, in the middle of the night), my husband ended up being the one comforting me more than the other way around. It didn’t seem right, but it was his way of dealing with the pain — he helped those around him, much in the way he’d seen his dad help others throughout his life. Once or twice since then he’s teared up, usually after having a really deep conversation after a few drinks, but he’s never broken down.
When we had to put our 7-year-old dog to sleep after a freak illness, and several years later, when we said good-bye to our geriatric cat who’d struggled with kidney issues for a couple of years, he absolutely broke down. We both did, but it was especially poignant coming from him because, hell, I cry at commercials. I cried reading this. There’s something about the loss of a pet that just strikes him deep inside his heart, and I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I love him so much.
Dr. V says
I always suspected he was something special, based on how you speak of him. 🙂
Mason Canyon says
Great information here. I especially love #3. For some of us who do not have children, our pets are like children to us. We lost our English Shepherd Brisco to a sudden attack (vet thinks possible stroke) in June. He would have been 11 yesterday. We’re still crushed by his loss. Thankfully there are people out there that do understand the deep felt pain one feels when they lose a pet. Thanks for an insightful post.
Thoughts in Progress
Dr. V says
I’m so sorry for your loss. I am glad you have support that recognize just how much Brisco meant to you.
Cathey Avery says
A wonderful post about a hard subject. And guys do seem to take it harder. When Brea had to be put down, Joe and my son and the male Vet were all three crying before it was all over. She left us, but she left smelling my son’s hand and knowing she would be missed. Grief is a very personal thing, but it’s hard to know how your guy will take it – Dr. V. has hit the ‘types’ on the nail and I’m sure this post will help someone out there.
Dr. V says
Thank you Cathey!
I’ve lost several dogs in the past few years. It’s always hard. But when they are old and sick and you know the end is inevitable, then you have to accept it. But a few months ago I lost my young dog in a car accident. She was only a year old, healthy, beautiful, full of life and full of love. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and it still hurts more than I can describe. I think it always will, no matter how long I live.
Dr. V says
Oh, how awful. I am so sorry that happened to you.
Really well thought through and said! It helped my a lot to write my dog’s obit, copy it on nice paper, tie a black ribbon around it and loop it on door handles of the friends and neighbors we spent time with.
Dr. V says
What a great idea. I like that a lot.
Brook Whyte says
i am so ready to punch in the nose of the next person who tells me, “stop stressing out, it’s just a dog”. i’ve been a basket case for months dreading the day the lymphoma wins and Astro will be gone.
Dr. V says
Ugh. I am so sorry people have responded to you like that.
Ohhh I so understand, from the “it’s just a cat” angle. ((( hugs ))) for when the time comes….
Kim McNeill says
Thank you for this post. I lost the very best dog in the world on Friday, so I am dealing with a lot of grief and gratefulness. (I was lucky that he was almost 17 years when he passed.) I found this particular website on grief has helped me understand a lot of my emotions. I have not gone through “THE” 5 stages of grief and it’s okay. Hopefully it’s okay to post the site and it will help others.
Dr. V says
I’m so very sorry for your loss, Kim. Thank you for sharing that link, and I hope the next few weeks are gentle on you.
Lisa W says
This is great info. The only time in 10 years I’ve seen my ex-Green Beret hubby shed a tear was after Bailey died.
Kelly Little says
When I lost Roxy and baby Nin’a I felt like a ton of bricks hit me and the grief over- whelmed me…I never knew losing a pet could hurt so much.
Nine years ago my wife and I were in a pet store shopping for toys with our new Maltese puppy (Sita) when we met a 78 year old woman and her daughter who were also shopping for dog toys. The older woman had recently lost her 16 year old mini Schnauzer and had decided she needed another companion.
She said the day you bring a new dog into your home you know it’s going to break your heart, but it’s all the wonderful years of love and joy in between that make the grief worthwhile.
A few months ago Sita suddenly became ill and died. It was totally unexpected and happened in less than 12 hours.
The pain was immense and I cried like a baby. Sita wasn’t the first dog my wife and I have lost over the years and the pain at her loss was just as bad as the pain at the loss of our first dog, but that woman’s words provided me with a small measure of comfort. She verbalized what I knew at a gut level but had never put into words. It’s what makes us bring another dog into our lives, even though we know we will eventually feel the pain and grief again.
Even though I’m a guy, I’m not the least bit ashamed of the emotions I felt – and showed – when Sita died. It didn’t make me any less a man. It’s not a sign of strength to keep these emotions bottled up, or to grieve in private. Your family and friends are there to provide comfort and support and you can also provide comfort and support to them in a difficult time. Remember, they are grieving too.
Thank you for a great, insightful post
Nice post. The only thing I might add is suggesting that the vet and vet tech not hold back their tears either. When my first cat was put down it was crazy traumatic as the cat resisted the sedation and it went downhill from there. There was nothing peaceful about the “putting to sleep”. Seeing the tears of the vet tech really validated my own pain and allowed me to cry even more. Her tears were a precious gift in a crazy painful place.
Being a “dude” and a counselor with an interest in pet loss and grieving, I’m intrigued by these themes. Grieving is a natural process that leads to further enhance life while repressing emotions leads to depression and anxiety. Grieving is not easy nor pleasant but the life on the other side of it is beautiful.