Humans can form intense emotional bonds with their dogs. In many ways, these bonds may be stronger and more enduring than our connection to most other human beings. And that’s why the idea of losing a beloved dog is something that pet parents try not to think about.
What people who haven’t truly loved and lost a dog don’t understand is the purity — and intensity — of the bond. Dogs are physically around us much more than most of the people we know; dogs are often with us longer than most of our relationships.
According to an article in an October 2000 issue of Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss, many people consider their dogs part of their families and not “just a pet” in the United States — but the fact is that dogs have long been considered family. The article notes that in 14,000-year-old skeleton was discovered with its arms around a dog skeleton.
There are things about a dog’s love that are unique. Dogs truly love us unconditionally, without judgement. They don’t care if we have a bad hair day, gain a few pounds or fail to keep up with the trendiest clothes. They don’t care if we fail a big test at school. They don’t care if we live in a rundown apartment and drive around in a junker. A dog will never ask “what do you do?” and then judge you on your occupation. They don’t give a woof about our bank balance. A dog will never pass judgment on your religion, your politics or the color of your skin. Dogs simply love us for who we truly are.
Not only do dogs give their whole spirits and lives to us, but they can sense our emotions. They help us get through bad days — and bad years. They know exactly what to do when we’ve had a stressful day at work. Dogs are simply happy when they’ve made their human happy.
Dogs are consistent and trustworthy. They are insanely happy to see us every time we come home — even if we just popped out with the garbage. They are distraught if we cry, but never annoyed. They may even lay their head on our laps and lick away our tears.
These are all the many ways that dogs make our live fuller and richer — and their passing excruciatingly painful.
What makes losing a dog even harder is the lack of ritual. When humans die, there are wakes, funerals and rituals like sitting Shiva. We choose caskets, write eulogies and put flowers or stones on headstones. There’s even a holiday: Day of the Dead.
None of these usually apply to our dogs. Dogs generally don’t get funerals. They aren’t viewed in their coffin. There isn’t a ceremony at the burial site. And while there are pet cemeteries that allow you to organize a dog’s funeral, the human may be disappointed to find that their family and friends are coming. They may even think the idea of a funeral for a dog is funny.
While there are resources for people grieving the loss of a loved one, the majority of those resources aren’t for people who have lost their dogs — despite the fact that the “stages of grief” after a human death also apply to people who have lost a cherished dog. These stages may include anger, denial, depression and acceptance, but there is actually one aspect of losing a pet that is more common in grieving a dog than a human. Because dogs are much more frequently euthanized when they become terminally ill and lose their quality of life, dog parents can add guilt to that list of grief’s stages.
Because of the general overview that dogs are “just pets,” friends and family may be sympathetic at first, but if the grief is prolonged, those same friends and family may minimize that grief with insensitive remarks like “You can get another dog,” or “It’s just a dog.” These comments tend to make dog parents embarrassed about their grief, which only prolongs the grieving process, making it that much harder to reach the place of acceptance that allows us to move on.
If you’ve lost a dog, and people just don’t understand why it’s taking you so long to get over it, try to remember this: “just a dog” is one of the most intense and unique bonds you will experience with living being. Your emotions are valid. “Just a Dog” was most likely a lot closer and influential on your life than the people who don’t understand.
And from all of us dog lovers: we’re so, so sorry for your loss.