Recently I experienced a sudden and tragic loss. Not once, but twice, just days apart. Both were pet sitting clients in our care. Both dogs had not shown any signs of illness in the days and weeks prior. But when we showed up on those fateful days, neither dog was well. Upon further examination, it was clear both needed emergency care and so we transported them to their veterinarian. Tests were run, and in both cases it was determined both were too ill and little to nothing could be done to help them. Sadly, both owners made the heart wrenching decision to let their furry loved ones go.
The one dog, Spyke, has been a long-term client of mine. Walking him daily during the work week for 5 years, he was a regular part of my afternoons. With a sweet disposition that reminds me of my own Izzy, he quickly became one of my favorite dogs to walk. A Rhodesian ridgeback, he was strong, stubborn, a little wary of people he didn’t know, but very loyal to those he did. He had these incredible deep eyes, allowing me to look into his soul and see the gentle creature that he was.
The other dog was a new client of ours. His owner had some concerns about how he would do before he left for an overseas trip. Initially all was well, but one morning when he could barely stand up nor breathe easily, it was clear he wasn’t. X-rays revealed large masses throughout his internal organs, most likely indicative of cancer.
Emergencies with my pet sitting clients are actually very rare. In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, we’ve taken less than a dozen pets to the vet. But when a pet has passed away, I am often one of the first people his owner call to notify. Like them, I have come to know and love their furry friends almost as much as they have. No matter how many times I’ve had this conversation, it never gets any easier. Today I thought I’d share a few tips on what not to say to someone who has just lost their furry best friend.
Don’t: Ask how old was your pet was. While this may sound like a gentle and harmless question, it’s not. Just because our cat or dog has lived to 13, 14 ,15 or more years, doesn’t make the pain of losing them any easier. We all know that pets’ lives are too short, but for many of us, even if we’ve been blessed to have them for many years, it’s still never enough. And what if the death was sudden and tragic taking the life of a 2 or 3 year old? Then it only brings to the surface just how awful their passing was.
Don’t: Say it’s just a dog (or cat or horse or guinea pig). No, it’s our family. We make a promise to care for them and with that we create routines…walking, changing the litter box, cleaning out the cage, mucking the stall, but mostly loving them. When they are gone, they leave a huge void in our lives. Our homes feel empty, our hearts broken and our lives forever changed. They were our best friends and they cannot be replaced.
Don’t: Share your story of a pet loss, especially tragic ones. You may be trying to make me feel better when you tell me the story of how your dog was so excited to see you when you got home from vacation that he ran out of the house and got hit and killed by a car. Yes, it’s awful. But it doesn’t help comfort me in my time of sadness and sorrow. Maybe my pet’s life wasn’t cut short with a sudden loss, but that doesn’t make the pain any less just because we had many years together.
Don’t: Ask if they will get a new dog/cat/horse. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. I’ve known some people who got a puppy days or weeks after they lost their dog. Or waited a year or longer to get another cat to share their home with. There is no right or wrong answer - you just have to do what is right for you. And what may be the case this time, may be different after another pet loss. Listen to your heart. You’ll know when the time is right to love another furry friend again. I know it hurts, and some days it may feel like you don’t know how you’ll ever feel normal again. But don’t shut out the possibly of bringing another friend into your life. Believe me, you have plenty of love to share.
Don’t: Tell them to get over it. Life goes on. Everyone and everything eventually dies. While that is true, it doesn’t help someone who is in the midst of grieving. In fact, saying this will probably make them feel worse. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that we never really get over things like death or loss. We get through them. With love. And patience. And understanding. You’ll be a better friend if you listen to someone who has lost a pet share their memories, their pain, their sorrow. It isn’t meant to make you feel uncomfortable, it’s where they are right now. I’ve also learned that you need to honor the feelings you have. If it’s grief, then grieve. If you don’t process those emotions, then it will linger and keep you from working through the feelings. Pushing them down doesn’t make them go away. It will manifest some other way, maybe harder, worse or more painfully. If it means you need to take some time off work or a break from friends and family, then do it. You’ll be better for it in the long run.
I’ll share my personal story of loss. My first dog, and golden retriever, Mika, was my heart dog. It was just she and I for the first five years of her life. I had boyfriends, dates, breakups, bought a house, met my husband, got married, moved to Philly, back to State College and so on. She was the one constant throughout those years. We had a bond that ran very deep. When she passed away, my heart broke in a million pieces. It was hard for me to be around other pets who were still alive. I didn’t resent them for it, it just made me sad that my dog was no longer with me.
Two days after we lost her, we took a trip to St. Michael’s Maryland. I needed to go someplace where no one knew me, where I could cry whenever the tears flowed, where I didn’t have to put on my happy face and talk to clients. I took a full three days off work and together my husband and I grieved and celebrated her. It was the best thing I ever did. This way I could honor my feelings, my relationship with her and the new “normal” my life was about to have. I was fortunate that every night for a month, she came to me in my dreams. I know it was hard for her to let go of me, just as it was for me to let go of her. It took me a year before I was able to love a dog again, and so Izzy came into my life. I was guarded at first, but she eventually won my heart over. I love her in a different way than I loved Mika. We have a different, but in some ways, a similar relationship. So many times I wish the two dogs could have gotten to know each other. I believe they would have been the best of friends. While it was hard for me to open up and love again, I’m so glad I let Izzy in my life. When it’s her turn to leave this earth, I will grieve again. But my life will be better for having shared it with her.