This article discusses some of the aspects of grieving and anticipated grieving for a beloved dog. A somewhat different perspective from that of Kubler-Ross. This is based on many talks with grieving people.


by Pam Green, © Memorial Day, 2006

I've been thinking about this for a long time, but haven't gotten around to the hard work of writing it down. Maybe this is the right time because it is Memorial Day, and maybe it's the right time because a dear friend recently lost a very precious young dog in a very unexpected way.

This article represents one approach (my own) to thinking about the components of grieving that make a particular loss so painful. It's a somewhat different perspective or different organization from that of Kubler-Ross (with which you are surely familiar unless you have been living on the Klingon homeworld for the last decade), but by no means incompatible. Sometimes identifying components of pain helps you to heal or at least to talk back to some of the components that are self-inflicted.

While I will be talking about the loss of a beloved dog, a lot of this applies to other losses of other loved friends, including those with opposable thumbs. I will mostly be talking about a loss that has already taken place, but at times I will be talking about "anticipatory grieving", which is greiving for a loss that you believe is about to take place. Although I will be talking about the ultimate loss, death, these same feelings can apply to lesser losses , such as a loss of a body part or a functional ability.

These are merely my own personal views and there is no right or wrong about them. If what I say seems to fit your situation and is any help to you, I'm glad. If it doesn't fit, discard it and look for help elsewhere. Everyone grieves in their own way. If you find yourself having a hard time with your grieving and might need more help than friends can give, seek out one of the many Pet Loss Hotlines, such as the pioneer one at UC Davis Vet School, or seek other grief support groups or seek professional counseling.

Over the past twenty years I have been doing a lot of informal grief counseling because of my work in rescue. A lot of adopters have recently lost a beloved dog and are still grieving, so I try to help them the best I can. Also a number of people have phoned me for support when facing an illness or severe injury to a loved dog. It's easier to deal with all these issues on the phone than to write about them, because on the phone I have the person's voice and what they say to guide me and because the process is interactive. So I can only hope that something in this article will be of help to you.


I think there are three or four big issues or components in grieving.


What your dog has lost.

The intensity of this grief can be related to your dog's age and the life expectancy that you believe is normal for a dog of that age.

Grief is especially intense when the dog is young or a puppy, because you feel that the dog has lost an entire lifetime. And that is true. There is no real arguing against the fact that your dog has been deprived of many years that should have been good ones. Deaths of young dogs are also very likely to bring in "what if" questions, ie the wishes that something could have been done differently to avoid the death because so many youthful deaths are due to accidents and many of the rest are due to unknown causes, thus these deaths seem like they might have been preventable.

The death of an old dog who has lived a very full life and reached the limits of age likely for the breed or type may be less painful in this regard. But since we tend to measure the length of life our dog "should have had" in terms of the oldest dog of that breed we ever heard of, we are still likely to think that our beloved dog got cheated a bit. It can be harder in the case of a dog who was adopted in middle age or later and whose previous life was believed or known to be of poor quality, because we grieve for those wasted years and feel that only the good years the dog had with us really count.

In anticipatory grieving, where your dog is seriously injured or terminally ill, you have the grief of the fear of what your beloved dog may suffer, usually picturing the worst that might happen, and the doubts of your ability to cope, to maintain comfort, and finally worries and fears about your ability to help your beloved friend to dies peacefully. This last can be terrifying to some people and comforting to others. Many worry that they will misjudge when the "right" time has come, although in my experience and that of most vets, people who are really bonded to their dogs and know them well tend to be very accurate in judging an appropriate time. I also think that there is no one clear magic moment when it is the "right" time, but usually something of what I call "the grey zone" when there is no longer any real right or wrong choice.

What you have lost.

The intensity of this grief tends to be related to the number and quality of years you have spent with this dog.

The loss of a loved old dog is immensely painful. Kipling was so right when he said "the longer we've had them, the more we do grieve." Usually the relationship between a dog and person deepens over the years and deepens with shared experiences and adventures. If a dog has shared every part of your life, then there is no part that is free of the ache of absence. Reminding yourself to be grateful for this wonderful relationship and its length seems like it should be a comforting thought, but somehow I suspect it isn't much help. The time usually does come when remembering all the wonderful things you shared will give more pleasure tha pain, but that may not happen for quite a while.

While the relationship with a young dog is seldom as developed and deep as the relationship that would have developed over the next decade, most of us start out deeply enchanted with our puppies. It doesn't take long to fall in love with a puppy. So it's a big loss. Further there is the loss of the wonderful future you had anticipated.

A dog may also be the last legacy from someone you have loved and lost, such as the last gift from a parent, and in grieving for the dog you re-grieve for the lost person. Maybe your original grieving for that person was incomplete in some way, or maybe there is no final completion for any of us if the loss is great enough. For some people , imagining the dog re-uinited with the loved person who gave that dog to you is a comforting image.

Similarly this dog may be the last link to a particularly rewarding period of your life, and you grieve that this period is really over and you fear that the rest of your life will be comparatively barren. In this case, your fears about where your own life is going need to be consciously addressed in a rational fashion. Studies of human life patterns have discovered that all of us undergo periodic "reorganizations" of our lives in which our priorities are re-evaluated and often change and in which we "re-invent" ourselves and our "mission statement". So maybe your dog's death has triggered this early or maybe it is prompting you to heed a call you have been ignoring. Maybe the next phase of your life will be similar to a former phase or an outgrowth of it, or maybe you are ready to make a dramatic change.

For some of us it is harder to acknowledge that we are grieving for our own loss, as distinguished from the dog's loss, because to put it that way sounds "selfish" and our culture gives us very mixed messages about the concept of selfishness. My own view is well expressed by the Jewish saying "If I am not for myself, who will be ? If I am only for myself, what am I ?" , meaning that if you don't look after your own welfare, you cannot expect others to do it for you, but if you are only concerned with your own welfare, then you aren't really a worthy kind of person. You have every right to grieve for your own loss, and if you don't acknowledge this aspect, you will have a very hard time healing from it.

This aspect of grieving can be made more painful by remarks from insensitive people who say things like "it's only a dog." It's important to realize that these people are in a very real sense "defective" or "disabled" or "emotionally crippled." They are people who lack the capacity to form a real relationship with a dog (and possibly with anyone else), and this is as much a disability as would be the lack of visual capacity or auditory capacity or social empathy with people. You yourself may well be at the opposite end of the scale, being among the "dog talented" or "animal gifted". To have a talent for relating to dogs and understanding them and loving them is as much a special talent or gift as is the talent or gift for painting or sculpture or music or dance or mathematics, all of which seem to have an inborn (genetic) component that manifests very early in life. It is the Animal Gifted who brought dogs into human life in the first place, who saw potential in those less fearful wolves hanging around the camp garbage heap and began the co-evolution of wolf into dog and hominid into human. Likewise it was those with animal giftedness who brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and (most recently) cats into relationship with humans. So never waste time or thought on those who cannot understand your loss, but instead spend time with other dog lovers and especially with those who knew and appreciated your deceased dog.

the torment of "what if" and the potential for guilt or blame

I think and see that almost everyone has the tendency to agonize over whether they or someone else made a mistake that increased this dog's suffering or caused his death. "What could I have done to prevent this ?" is the haunting question. "What should I have done differently ?" "What should I have done better ?" This easily leads into guilt and self-blame or it can lead to anger and blame towards another. Some individuals have a strong propensity to direct blame at themselves ; some have a strong tendency to direct blame outwards. It's even possible to criticise the dog for dying("Why did you chase that cat into the street ?"), though I don't think this happens to the same degree that many bereaved blame a loved deceased person for dying and deserting them ("Why didn't you take better care of yourself?" being a common plaint).

In the case of deaths of a very old dog who has undergone a long deterioration or a terminal illness, the oppertunities for this guilt and blame should be minimal. But I have certainly seen people who anguished over whether they did a good enough job in keeping the dog as comfortable as possible and making life as enjoyable as possible. Some go back through the dog's entire life and berate themselves for each and every possible mistake or unkindness along the way. (Since none of us has ever behaved with perfect wisdom throughout a dog's lifetime, one can always find something to blame oneself for.) And I see many many people who worry over whether they chose the "right" time to give their dog a merciful release or whether they should have given release if they didn't or if it was wrong to do it if they did. While in some cases a dog will "crash" in so definitive a fashion that there is no room for doubt about the timeing and the necessity, in the majority of cases the person with tendency to self-doubt or self-torment finds this a rich oppertunity for anguish.

In just about every other case, there is plenty of oppertunity to believe that something might have been done more wisely by someone among those involved. As the saying goes, "Hindsight is always twenty twenty", and thus in retrospect is is almost always possible to think of something that might have made a difference for the better.

If the dog has died of a natural disease, it is always possible to wonder if you might have noticed early symptoms sooner and gotten veterinary help sooner. Perhaps a veterinary specialist or Vet School teaching hospital would have offered a better treatment. Perhaps your home care could have been better in some way. Perhaps your dog would not have gotten this disease if you had fed him differently, given more exercise, lived somewhere the air is pure and the ground uncontaminated (not on this planet !). Perhaps you should have tried some really off-beat alternative medicine treatment you saw on the Internet ? Or gotten him into a clinical trial of an experiemental treatment ? Or maybe it was that off beat or unproven treatment that caused him to die instead of recover ? The list is absolutely endless. The list for injuries is similarly endless. The answers are completely unknowable. (Except in science fiction, where time machines and access to alternate histories are classic themes.)

Of course the poor vet is also a possible target for blame and anger. This is especially true if the illness or injury was one that is normally survivable . Since no veterinary treatment or procedure is totally without risk, and likewise no drug is totally without risk, even the rare 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10,000 risks happen to someone. We never expect that the someone could be ourselves. That's human nature. (Even though we know that 100 out of 100 people will die sooner or later, we often manage to believe that we will be the one exception.) Now I don't deny that it's possible for a vet to make a mistake and for that mistake to have serious consequences. But the average vet is smarter and more diligent than the average MD. In most cases of a death that was medically unespected, your vet is damn near as shocked and suffering as you are and may be just as much in need of emotional support. If you genuinely think your vet goofed, either you had an autopsy (done by someone else for everyone's sake) and found out whether that is true or else you missed this oppertunity.

Finally of course there are those cases where the death unmistakably was due to a mistake by the owner. There's a Gary Larsen cartoon of two dogs sitting up on clouds in the Afterlife and one is telling the other that he had lived a rather high risk life, chasing cars and so on, but he "never would have guessed that my stupid owner ran over me in the driveway." It can really be that gross. But more usually it is something like having the dog off leash in what seemed like a fairly safe situation, only something happened that was unexpected, eg dog chases rabbit onto a blind curve of road and a car was coming fast. I think it is very important to keep reminding yourself that, as Judge Judy likes to say, "it was an ACCIDENT , not an ON PURPOSE". You almost certainly never meant to hurt your adored dog, but you lacked omnisient forsight, as do we all , even the best and wisest of us. It's even more important to keep reminding yourself that your dog would forgive you.

Many years ago , in a moment of great stress I made a mistake that put a foster dog into position to hang himself, and he did so. Now that is a horrible way to die. And at moments I wanted to throw a rope over the nearest tree and hang myself, but of course I couldn't do that because my own dogs and other foster dogs would have been left deserted and vulnerable to dreadful fates. One of the things that helped was to envision myself on trial for murdering this dog (actually negligent canicide, not murder) : I could see so clearly that the one being who would have come forward to defend me was that very dog.

Anguishing over the "what ifs" for something in the past is really just a way of torturing yourself or someone else or both. It's not a wise use of your energies and it is certainly something your dog would never ever do. Knowing it is unwise won't stop you of course, but it might help you set limits. While finding ways to blame yourself or someone else is pretty futile, doing reflective analysis of what could have gone wrong so that you can learn from it and do better in the future (and share the experience with others so they can benefit) is a very reasonable thing to do and may be beneficial. So do try to make that distinction.

However in the case of "anticipatory loss", when your dog is threatened by illness or injury, then giving very careful analytic thought to all of the available alternatives is a very wise use of your energies. You still have the ability to make choices and you want to make the one that seems to be the best. "Seems to be" doesn't necessarily guarrantee that this will result in the best possible outcome, but it does give you the best chances. This kind of careful weighing of alternatives is best done in partnership with the best available veterinarians , including second opinions and very much including relevant specialists or the staff of the Vet School teaching hospital. The more carefully you choose your alternative, the more likely it is that you will be able to comfortably accept the result, knowing you did the best that you could do.

release and relief and the potential for guilt

When a loved dog has been undergoing progressive decline or progressive illness, the eventual ending can bring feelings of relief that the dog has been released from a process that is causing or is about to cause suffering . Because the care at home of a dog in these circumstances often requires a great deal of effort by you, the human caretaker. to maintain as much comfort and safety for the dog as possible, the end can also bring feelings of relief that you have been released from this increasingly difficult and anxiety producing task. There is also the relief and release of no longer having to fear that the dog might experience something worse in the way of suffering , relief that some of the bad things that one feared would happen did not in fact occur.

While some people can accept this relief and release with a calm heart , confident that they have performed well and that their beloved dog is now beyond all further harm, for some the feeling of relief can trigger unwarranted feeling of guilt. Keep reminding yourself that you have performed diligently and even heroically, and that now it is time to rest a while in company of your beloved dog's ghost. Exchange smiles with the ghost and congradulate each other that you have kept faith with each other and that you have earned release and rest.


I pray to She who is Queen of All
Welcome thy soul now thy time has come.
Bravely we battled Decline and Fall :
Now be Released and in peace go Home.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 5/29/06 revised 6/21/06
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