Pet Loss: Grieving For My Dog

Audrey - by Marion Evamy
Audrey’s memorial portrait by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery

I’ve been preparing to write this post for about 8 months…

thinking that it would be helpful for those who have felt left out of the discussion around grief because they are “only” grieving the death of a pet. For those who have been told that pet loss is “not the same” as mourning a person. In a sense, that much is true. There is no such thing as “the same” grief.  Every death is a terrible loss. Every grief is a complex experience of memory, pain, and myriad other emotions. No one wins in the competition of “who hurts worse?”

My dog, Audrey, died four weeks ago, and the preparation made no difference at all.

I have been conscious of watching myself grieve pretty constantly since then. It’s an odd experience, being fully immersed in the feelings and direct experience, and then unexpectedly finding myself popping back up into my head to think “I’ll have to remember this, so I can write about it later.” I don’t really recommend it, but it’s what is happening, so I guess I’ve just got to go with it. My hope is that both you (and later I, too) will find it useful.

Having to hit the “reset” button every other moment …

For me, anyway, that’s what it felt like for the first few days. That scuffle I’m hearing: no, that’s not Audrey following me, it’s just wind outside. Her collar jingling? No, that was a cellphone in the next room. Thinking that I should wait a few more minutes before getting up to go to the kitchen to make sure Audrey’s soundly asleep so I don’t disturb her? Oh, she’s not here; I can get up and do anything I want without bothering anyone. Except what I want is to have her here, to have to (to be privileged to) consider her, to be irritated by her constant needs. While I am surprised less frequently by her absence now, after a month (which feels like about two weeks), it still happens more than I expected, and I imagine that it won’t go away entirely any time soon.

Self-Care, whether you think you need it or not

I  thought it might be a hard decision to cancel appointments in my Art Therapy practice when Audrey died. I knew I’d “probably” need to give myself the same time and permission I advise to others to deal with her inevitable death. Good old ego, thinking only in terms of “probably,” and thinking that all the other pet losses I’ve “had experience” with would have anything whatsoever to do with this loss. I thought I’d feel responsible and a little guilty, so I might let myself waffle a bit on self-care. In the end, there was no question. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted so badly not to see anyone that I gratefully accepted my clients’ graceful responses to my last-minute emails telling them I had family circumstances that required my attention for two days. Thank goodness I did. And thank goodness there was a weekend and a “business and paperwork day” as a buffer zone in there too. I would have been good for absolutely no one if I had stuck it out and kept my appointments. I’m still catching up on paperwork.

So what would be useful for me to say here?

It surprised my “witnessing self,” how many of my assumptions about my own reactions were inaccurate. I thought my previous experiences were going to make more difference for me than they did. I thought I was completely committed to one particular course of action, and in the end I went with something else. What my heart wanted in the moment was stronger than any of my rationally considered plans. Perhaps what I want most to get across here, and what I know is still just outside the reach of my language, is the sensation of grief, beyond the whirling thoughts that want to explain explain explain – not really able to mask the true experience. No matter how often I slide upwards into heady observations, turning clever words and ideas over and over in my mind, that I would write a great little essay with, the solidity of the feeling remains, and grows oddly comforting. Stay with that, I remind myself. That is the truth; that is the medicine that will heal me.

Since my own art and poetry haven’t quite come through yet, I leave you with the image of Audrey painted by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery (above) and the words of David Whyte, a master of finding words for grief:

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

from River Flow
New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press © David Whyte