Niki Perry’s Tips on How to Cope with Pet Loss, Inspired by Gunnar
By Niki Perry, CPDT-KA, KPACTP, CEMT
Dogs are, undoubtedly, a huge part of the lives of many people. We not only exist together but also, mutually benefit each other and improve each other’s lives. Whether they are with us for 4 years or 18, our dogs bring us so much joy, laughter and love. So much so, when the day comes that we are faced with saying goodbye, the grief can be overwhelmingly difficult.
“We love them unconditionally. We dedicate our lives to raising them to have an incredibly comfortable and high quality of life, sometimes even to our own detriment.”
Dogs are beloved members of the family, and when they die, you may experience a significant, even traumatic loss. The intensity of the grief may depend on many factors including the circumstances of their death, their age, the strength of your bond, nature of your relationships – such as the relationship between a working dog and their handler – or the role they played in your life and even your own personality and grieving process.
Saying Goodbye to Gunnar, My Best Friend
Gunnar was my best friend and my partner in my canine behaviour practice. With me humbly at his side, Gunnar contributed to the healing of hundreds of dogs over his nine-year career. I will never forget the day the doctor said the words, “Bone Cancer” to me. In my heart, I knew the lump on his leg was cancer but hearing the words to confirm my suspicions was absolutely heart-wrenching. The tears filled my eyes instantly as I came to grips with the inevitable fact that I was losing my ‘heart dog’ and coming to the end of an era in my life.
As the weeks went by I tried my best to keep Gunnar comfortable but I knew that the day the sun would set on his physical life was quickly approaching. When the special day arrived, surrounded by our loved ones, I held Gunnar tight and guided him across the rainbow bridge to eternal life. Gunnar was one of three beloved dogs I said goodbye to last year. Each time it was uniquely difficult and tragic.
Although I knew losing Gunnar would be difficult, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming feeling of grief that I experienced on that day. I am blessed to have this opportunity to share my experience in hopes that my words might help comfort someone one day as they grieve a loss as I have many times over.
Niki’s Top 10 Tips on How to Cope with Pet Loss
1. Allow yourself to Grieve.
Grieving is a very personal and highly individual experience. Give yourself the space you need to grieve in and allow the process to happen. For some, grief will come in stages, for others, it will come in waves or a series of dramatic highs and lows. Always remember that your grief is normal for you, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else and don’t feel like you need to suppress your feelings of grief because others don’t understand.
2. Reach out to others for support.
Whether it is loved ones who have experienced the loss of a pet, friends who understand your need to grieve, message boards, grief counsellors or church groups, find someone to talk to about how you are feeling. Allow people to be there for you and help you in any way that you need. Having someone to help make arrangements for euthanasia, cremation or a memorial can be invaluable to coping with and healing from your loss.
3. Feel comfortable with your grieving process
and don’t allow anyone to tell you how to feel – this includes yourself. Just allow the feelings to happen in their time without judgment or embarrassment. It is ok to feel angry, it’s okay to cry or not to cry and it’s okay to find the moments of joy in memory and laugh. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when it is “time to move on” so to speak. You decided when it is time to let go.
4. Look after yourself.
Losing a pet can deplete your energy and emotional reserves so be prepared to need a couple of days to rest and recharge. It’s hard to estimate the stress you will feel when you lose a pet but looking after your physical and emotional needs will contribute to your healing and allow processing the grief and let go when you’re ready.
5. Create a legacy in memory of your pet.
For example, planting a tree, contributing to an animal rescue, compiling a photo album or scrapbook or otherwise sharing your memories of your beloved dog to celebrate their life.
6. Try to maintain your normal routine.
Especially if you have other pets that might be distressed by your sorrow. Keeping to their daily routines will help them cope with their loss and may even help elevate your mood as well.
7. Include your children in the dying and grieving process
with honest expression and communication. Hold a special memorial service such as releasing a balloon or help them create their own memorial to celebrate the life of their canine companion.
8. Do not rush into filling this void.
Each animal is different and will bring something special to your life that you might want to replace right away but the decision to add a new companion to your life is best to be made once you have moved on from the loss you experienced. It may be very tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your dog’s death but I recommend that you mourn your loss first and wait until you are emotionally ready to open your heart and home to a new animal.
9. Stay connected with friends
even though it may be difficult to get out and socialize. Regular face-to-face interactions with loved ones can help keep you positive and help ward off any depression you might experience after losing your pet. Perhaps boost your vitality with exercise or by joining a new sports club or meet a friend for a walk.
10. Try to find a new source of joy in your life.
Dogs occupy a lot of our time and bring a lot of meaning to our lives. The time previously spent with your dog can now be filled by volunteering, starting a new hobby or restarting a neglected hobby, taking a new class, joining a club or spending more time with friends and family. I will be creating a memorial walk to remember Gunnar and to raise awareness for ‘last chance dogs’ that are left in shelters because of reactivity or perceived aggression.
I hope my tips have offered you a healthy way to cope with your loss and begin the healing process so you can move on and love another pet one day. You are not alone in your grief and there is no need to be ashamed of your feelings. Find the peace and light in your heart and honour your friend through your life after their death.
Written in loving memory of Gunnar Lewis Perry.
Born July 7, 2005. Passed away peacefully April 16, 2014.
Tu me manques, mon ami.