Dogs are our best friends, family members, and most loyal companions. The ultimate unfairness is that their life spans are so much shorter than our own, and some day, all dog parents face the death of a beloved dog.
When it happens to you, remember to treat yourself with kindness and let yourself to mourn. Grief when a pet dies is as normal and as real as grief over the loss of a human loved one. Read on for suggestions on how to deal with your dog’s death, and strategies for coping with pet loss.
How to cope with the death of a dog
Capture your feelings creatively
Studies have proven that the creative arts can help people process and verbalize their grief (source). If your dog died, you may not know how to talk about your feelings, but artistic expression can help you work through your loss. Are you an artist? Draw, paint, or sculpt a likeness of your dog the way you remember her best. Are you a writer? Compose a poem or story that captures your dog’s spirit. If you need some prompting, try using a guided pet remembrance journal to help you express your feelings.
Read poetry and stories about the death of a dog
Reading other people’s writing about the loss of a dog can help you understand your own grief, bringing comfort and connection during a difficult and isolated time. Of course, we’ve all read the ubiquitous Rainbow Bridge. Poets as lauded as Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver have meditated on the loss of a dog. And for a more charming but touching example, watch this video of actor Jimmy Stewart reading a poem about his departed friend Beau.
Reach out to others through pet loss hotlines and support groups
Something people and dogs have in common is that when we are in pain, we often retreat into ourselves and try to hide it.
After your dog dies, you may feel lonely and isolated. Of course, the added tragedy is that you are suddenly without the one companion you could always count on to make you feel less alone.
But the truth is, you are not alone, and talking to other people about your loss can help you make it through the hardest time. You can call the ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline any time at (877) GRIEF-10, or search for a hotline closer to home.
You can also ask your vet about bereavement resources for helping you through pet death—they can help you find a support group or counseling service in your area.
Memorialize your pet’s remains
When your dog dies, your veterinarian will speak to you about cremation, and can help you decide what kind of aftercare is best for you.
It’s a personal decision whether or not you want to have your dog individually cremated and receive her remains.
In my family, we’ve always kept our dogs’ ashes in beautiful wooden boxes engraved with their names. The boxes are kept in a cabinet, so they’re not on display all the time, but it’s nice to be able to “visit” them and remember our four-legged family members.
Another option is to have your pet’s ashes incorporated in memorial jewelry or objects. A necklace urn or beautiful glass suncatcher are both wonderful ways to keep your dog’s memory close long after she is gone.
Bury your dog in a special place
Burial is a lovely way to honor your pet and provide your family with a spot for quiet contemplation. Pet cemeteries can be beautiful, peaceful places, and chances are there’s at least one in your state.
You may also opt to bury your dog at home, so long as local laws allow. Even if your pet is cremated, you can bury her ashes in a special spot and visit it to reflect on your dog’s happy life.
Have a dog memorial service
Whether or not you choose to receive your dog’s remains after she dies, you can hold a memorial service to honor her life.
It may simply be a family dinner at which you tell treasured stories about your dog, or an open house gathering for friends who knew her well. As with human funerals, a dog funeral or memorial service is an opportunity to share memories of your departed loved one and celebrate the life you shared together.
Take comfort in other animals
The ASPCA recommends waiting at least one month before bringing a new dog into your home, and of course, some people need a lot more time than that. After all, there’s no replacement for the friend you’ve just lost.
But one of the reasons we love dogs so much is they help us live in the moment, and they can be a great comfort during sad times. When you feel ready, plan a walk with a friend and his dog, or visit your local animal shelter to help care for pets waiting for homes.
Communing with dogs can be a helpful, healing measure, and a reminder of why we choose to share our lives with them despite knowing that someday we will face a difficult loss.