This blog originally appeared on KirstenLevine.com.
Our home is sadly quiet these days. I never realized how many everyday-life sounds a dog contributes to a home. The paw-patter, the gulping of water from a dish, heavy dog sighs, random barks and the thumping of a happy tail on the floor: These were the background sounds we blissfully took for granted until they were gone.
Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is the most difficult yet inevitable rite of passage a pet parent will ever endure. Last July, we said goodbye to Buck, our beloved 13½-year-old yellow Labrador–chow mix. Buck was a tough guy who embraced life despite a myriad of painful orthopedic and emotional anxiety issues. But we knew what was he trying to tell us when his sleeping time increased dramatically and his sweet doggie face began to look tired and worn.
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Buck left us peacefully — in my arms while riding shotgun in “his” golf cart after a long ride around the neighborhood, his favorite pastime. Our amazing veterinarian, Jim Lutz, came to our home to make the process easier for Buck — and us. In the hours, days and weeks that followed, the thing that helped us heal the most was not trying to put him out of our minds but rather finding ways to keep his memory alive.
Honoring Pets’ Memories
I’ve spoken to many people who’ve recently lost a pet and most agree that there are two essential parts of the grieving process. First, sharing your experience and feelings with others who can lend a sympathetic ear is a healthy way to acknowledge and express your loss. Second, preparing a public or private memorial can facilitate healing.
We all have our own ways of honoring the memory of our beloved animal friends, of course. Near me in Florida, there was a greyhound named Miss Bandit, who enjoyed a short racing career. When she stopped winning at the track, the Greyhound Rescue and Adoption of Tampa Bay found her a prize home with Cynthia Smoot, Tampa’s WTVT-13 news anchor and animal-welfare advocate, and her husband, Bill.
Since Miss Bandit was already a “geriatric” dog, Smoot had the good sense to commission a portrait on canvas soon after adopting her. Just a few months later, a serious health condition struck the greyhound, and the Smoots had to let her go. Like my Buck, she was also 13½.
“The timing — for the painting — couldn’t have been more perfect,” Smoot says. “It hangs in our foyer and is like a living memorial. We get to see her every day: the last thing before we leave and first thing when we come home.”
Miss Bandit also loved the hourlong car ride south to Manatee County, where Smoot rides her horse. The dog was afraid of the horse and the cats at the barn, but she loved to run free on the property. So when Bandit died, Smoot had her cremated and laid her to rest near the lake — and she’s reserving a spot right next to her for her 27-year-old horse.
Beth Rawlins of Clearwater, Fla., has a pleasant daily reminder of Rover, her 13-year-old beagle who died last November. “One day the kids and I were baking," she told me. "My daughter, Mia, dipped her finger in the red food coloring and gave Rover a dot in the middle of his forehead that looked just like a Hindu bindi. For the next week, as the dye faded, he went back and forth between looking ever so wise and utterly ridiculous. I took a photo and made it my computer wallpaper.
“Now I say ‘hello’ to Rover every morning and again when I turn it off at night. Nothing morbid or lingering, just a quick acknowledgement of how much he still means to me.”
Some people make a mini-shrine out of their pet’s remains. Larry Schmaltz of Temple Terrace, outside of Tampa, lost his beloved dog earlier this year. “We put Smokey’s portrait, paw print, ashes and a statue of her on our fireplace mantle in our master bedroom," he said. "That way we can see her every time we come into or leave the room.”
(MORE: Turn to Animals to Fill the Void When Kids Leave Home)
Tips for Dealing With Grief
Dealing with loss is a deeply personal experience, but there are things we can all do to ease the process. Helpguide.org, a free online service founded in 1999 by Robert and Jeanne Segal, offers tips for dealing with grief. The Segals’ driving mission — to offer people a sense of hope and direction — was born out of tragedy: their daughter’s suicide. They believe her death might have been prevented if she’d had access to information like what they provide on the site.
Here are six tips from Helpguide that specifically address grieving a lost pet.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel about the loss of your pet. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” It’s OK to be angry, to cry or not to cry, just as it’s OK to laugh and find moments of joy.
- Reach out to others. Check out online message boards, pet-loss hotlines and support groups. If your own friends, family members, therapist or clergy member do not work well with the grief of pet loss, find someone who does.
- Invent personal healing rituals. A funeral or memorial can help you and your relatives openly express your feelings.
- Create a legacy. Planting a tree, compiling a photo album or scrapbook or finding other, personal ways to share the memories can help you celebrate the life of your animal companion.
- Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
- Maintain your normal routine if you have other pets. Surviving pets also experience loss when a pet dies and they may become distressed by your sorrow. Keeping their daily routines, or even increasing play times, will not only benefit them but may also help to elevate your outlook too.