THE BLOG
10/30/2014 06:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Do You Do When a Pet Dies?

When a pet dies, what do you do?

This post first appeared on my BeliefNet.com blog.

Then, later on my personal blog.

Last Wednesday, we said "Good-bye" to our beloved Oscar, a mini-Dachshund, who brought to Pam and me more joy, laughter, and companionship than I can describe here.

I have never cried so much in all my life.

Will I be crying over Oscar 20 years from now?

I don't know. What I do know is that this has been one of the most painful things I have ever felt. It has been so painful, in fact, I have a new appreciation for the depth of pain and grief so bottomless that the famous trainer himself, Cesar Millan, once contemplated suicide after both a divorce and the death of a beloved pit bull.

You think that strange?

Then, I suspect it is only because you have not had a beloved pet die. If you had, you, too, would agree it can be one of the most painful experiences in life.

It is my hope that what I am experiencing and what I share here is helpful to those of you who have had a pet die. I hope my words will be an antidote to your pain.

Oscar died last Wednesday.

On Thursday, the house was so quiet and empty I could hardly stand it.

On Friday, Pam and I left for the mountains of Georgia on a trip we had been planning for several months. As it turned out, the timing was perfect because, frankly, I'm not sure I could have survived the weekend. Getting away was helpful to both of us, a bit of grace at a time when we needed it most.

It's been a week now since Oscar died. One week exactly. And, the pain is still raw.

I am ready, however, to share a few of my thoughts with you. At least, I think I am.

When a beloved pet dies, what do you do?

1. Be grateful for the little preparatory signs of death the universe provides you along the way. With Oscar, or Weiner as we called him, we had many preparatory signs.

For example, I've had two or three Dachshunds throughout the years and I know of their propensity to suffer from back problems, particularly as they age. They typically carry a lot of weight on their spine. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to suffer from degenerative diseases associated with it.

Weiner did.

I saw these as signs this past year. So, I knew he was aging.

I could see it in his face, too. You can, too, in the picture above. As a consequence, I have suspected many times this past year that our time with Oscar was likely limited. On more than one occasion, in fact, I had this feeling that Oscar was going to die. None of this made his sudden departure last Wednesday any easier. But what it did do was soften the shock of his death.

When I had these preparatory signs, as I'm calling them, over the course of this past year, I have tried to allow myself to feel what his passing would be like, instead of quickly dismissing the signs so as to protect myself from the pain of his passing.

I would recommend you do the same.

Death is real.

Separation is painful.

And, little signs that remind us of the reality of death are like little gifts from beyond given to prepare us for the inevitable.

That's how I view it, anyway.

2. I have tried not to edit, hide, or judge any of my grief, no matter where I am when I feel it and no matter how overwhelming it feels when I feel it.

This would be my second word of advice to you, too.

Grief and sadness come at the oddest times. But, when the flood of emotion begins to rush over me, I have found it helpful to give it permission to roll all over me like a wave of the sea you cannot control. This has been a new experience for me because, for much of my life, I've tried to guard my public display of emotions.

Not any more.

It has helped me greatly to live into the pain and sadness I feel about Oscar, not run from it or try to replace it with a better feeling.

I admit, my first impulse was to rush out and find another dog. I fantasized visiting the local pound for dogs or looking online for a breeder and another dog, even another Dachshund.

I'm glad I have not succumbed to these natural impulses.

Yes, Pam and I might get another pet one day. And, we have both agreed, if we do, we are going to get two. Dogs need friends, too, don't they? Of their own kind, that is?

Nevertheless, Pam and I have agreed we would not buy another dog to pay the wage of grief we feel for Oscar, we owe to Oscar. We have  resolved instead to grieve Weiner's passing before we ever consider welcoming another pet into our household.

Why do I think it is important to let yourself freely and fully grieve when a beloved pet dies?

I do for two reasons...

1) For one thing, the death of a beloved pet may serve to help you express the pent up and often unresolved grief you felt but edited, dismissed, or buried when a loved one died.

For example, I think the heaviness and sadness I've felt with Oscar's passing has been, in part, the unfinished grieving I didn't do when my Dad died.

I preached my Dad's funeral almost twenty years ago now. Back then, I had to be strong for Mom and everyone else and I don't think I felt free to experience the pain I needed to experience when my beloved father unexpectedly and suddenly died.

So, when Oscar died last Wednesday, I decided I was going to feel and express my grief, no matter when it chose to make an appearance. So, while standing in the grocery line earlier today, I saw something that made me think of Weiner and I broke down. I don't know if anyone saw me but, frankly, it really didn't matter. What did matter is that I felt the sadness completely. Thoroughly. Deeply. That's all that mattered to me.

Do this for yourself. Maybe you'll find it helpful, too.

In fact, this is 2) the second reason you should allow yourself to freely and fully grieve when a pet dies. It is the only path to inner healing. It's the only path I can see, anyway.

Do not expect your emotions, however, to all be the same. I have found myself experiencing many emotions and some feelings I do not know how to describe.

Do not expect the emotional pain to dissipate any time soon either.

Sometimes, it is deep sadness I feel. At other times, it is just a profound feeling of emptiness. I don't know what emotion to call "emptiness" or what feeling to associate with it. All I do know is that it is like a big hole I feel in the bottom of my gut and it robs me of everything, even my appetite.

Which explains why I have not eaten much this past week.

A few times, my grief has expressed itself as anger. Whatever it is I feel, however, even laughter, I try to feel it. As I do, it is as if for a brief period the pain subsides.

This is the pathway to inner healing.

Pam and I have done some laughing this week, too, as we've recalled funny things our loving companion used to do.

I'm pretty certain that laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a broken heart. Or, so said someone. I don't remember. What I feel, however, is that hand on my shoulder and, when I do, I laugh or cry - whatever it is I feel like doing -- at all the wonderful memories I carry with me of Oscar and will likely carry with me for the rest of my life.

3. There is one other thing I hope you will find helpful. I would advise you to follow the advice you'll likely receive from those who have experienced both pain and loss when a pet dies. Like even the little advice I have here. I know it isn't much. But maybe it helps you a little.

I am finding the advice of others is actually quite helpful. Not like it was, however, when my Dad died and thought-less, but well-intentioned church people tried to explain his death with empty cliches' like, "God took him because he needed another angel in heaven."

What kind of stupid statement is that?

Or, worse, "God took him because it was his time to go."

That one I hear still by thoughtless religious people who are so afraid of death they hide it behind cliches' they call "faith."

With Oscar's passing, people have offered sympathy and understanding. That has been helpful to me. They have not felt the need to theologically explain Oscar's passing or offer their unexamined theology of death and the hereafter.

Why cannot people do that when humans die?

In spite of all the support I have received, however, I still have moments when I feel all alone.

You likely will, too.

When a Beloved Pet Dies, What Do You Do?


When Oscar passed last Wednesday, for example, even though I was with Pam and our daughter Allison and one of her friends, all of whom elected to be together during Oscar's euthanasia, I felt unspeakably alone, especially the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, the house was so quiet on the day following his death I could hardly stand it.

Life goes on, yes.  But it stops, too.

Pam had to go to work but, since I was not traveling last week during the week, I was home.

And, alone.

And, more than once, I felt like life had just ended.

So the talk by phone with friends and even colleagues, none of whom knew of Oscar's death until I told them, was helpful. One by one, each had a similar story of pain when their pet died and, what they shared of their experience, I found and am finding immensely helpful.

What I found online was helpful, too. For example, I read a wonderful article on BuddhaNet entitled "Helping Your Family Cope When a Pet Dies," by Dr. Alan Wolfelt. Among other things, he advises, "Children need to be involved."

I think our first impulse is to shield our children from the painful realities of death, even when a pet dies. I'm so glad, therefore, Pam thought to call Allison and give her the opportunity -- which she grabbed -- to join us in Oscar's passing.

Had all our children been available, I would have invited all of them to share in his death. Not that all of them were that close to Oscar, but all of them are very close to Pam and me. Allowing them to share in our grief in the face of loss and death, I realize now more than ever before is an important part of spiritual and emotional growth.

Theirs and ours.

When a pet dies, something in you dies, too. It's a little death, to be sure. But it is a death, nonetheless. I now realize that Life helps us prepare for the big passing by giving us opportunities along the way to experience little passings.

Oscar's passing was a little one... big to us... but a little one and his last gift to us was a gift to help us in the face of our own dying and death.

Will I ever see Oscar again?

I don't know.

It would be wishful thinking disguised as faith to say that I will.

The most I can say,  and with utter honesty, is that I hope I will see him again.

This much I know with certain, however. My life... our lives... are the richer for having loved Oscar and for having been loved by him.

In many ways, Oscar was an odd little dog. Just ask any one of our kids.

Few people understood Oscar and some of his odd behaviors. But Pam and I understood him and to us, he was not only utterly and completely loyal, he was and is a blessing we will miss and miss for a very, very long time.