Can a Dog's Life—and Death—Heal You?

Is it easier to offer comfort to someone grieving the loss of a pet than someone grieving the loss of a human? Are people more comfortable with pet-inspired grief than with people-inspired grief?

When someone you love dies, especially if it's the shocking death of someone way too young, nobody knows what to say. There's a lot of apologizing for your unspeakable loss and offers of "if there's anything I can do." These are all genuine and appreciated responses, of course. But everybody stumbles and mumbles around it. They don't want to make you cry or say something inadvertently insensitive or wrong. They want to delicately indicate their support and sadness, and then let you decide what you want to do with it. And you're so fogged up in the shroud of grief you have no idea what to do or say. You spend most of your days just trying to stay upright.

Grief and Loss

In the early days, weeks, and months of grieving the loss of a human, nobody really knows how to get in there with you and walk in the muck. It always seems to be too soon. Nobody says—“Hey, my brother died, too, and it's the worst pain ever. I know just how you feel.” Even people who have been in your place don't know how—or if—it's okay to share their stories with you. Maybe they're worried it seems indelicately competitive or insensitive or not the right time or they don't know you well enough. Whatever it is, there's a lot that goes unsaid.

When a Dog Dies

It's completely different from the reaction you get when your beloved old family dog dies. At least, in my experience. I wrote about the recent, devastating loss of our dog, Bernie, in Our Dog Was Ready, But I Couldn't Let Him Go.

Unfortunately, my family and I have lived through both kinds of losses recently and I am struck by the variation in responses. The minute I posted my sad little note on Facebook that we'd had to let go of our beloved Bernard 'Bernie the Bear Cub' Malamutt, my Facebook page lit up with dozens of messages from people sharing their own losses and offering deeply-felt sympathy.

Everyone, It Seems, Has Lost a Dog

In real time, or in my real life, I should say, the minute I tell anybody I'm blue because we recently made the agonizing decision to let go of our beloved 13-year-old big bear of a dog, they immediately share THEIR story of the beloved pet THEY had to part with and how awful it was and how they grieved and what they did with the ashes and how long it took to find a new puppy etc… It's like an immediate flood of empathy, understanding and information.

Comfort Among Dog People

And it makes me feel so much better. For whatever reason, I found it easy to accept comfort about my dog dying recently but I still find it nearly impossible to find any comfort from anyone about the death of my brother. Even though I know rationally there are so many people who have suffered a similar loss of a sibling, somehow that journey of grief is one I make utterly alone. Maybe it's by choice. I don't know. Until a couple of weeks ago when we lost our dog, I thought I was destined to grieve all losses alone.

As closed up and shut down as I am about the loss of my brother, I am a shockingly eager and grateful recipient of all empathy and shared experiences from any and all dog people. People have stopped me in the parking lot and in the grocery store to tell me their stories and offer condolences. I have been known to shop at midnight just to avoid seeing people I know. Yet I found myself going up to someone I knew at T.J. Maxx and actually telling them about my dog.

What has come over me?

There is something deep about feeling part of a community of dog people. (I know cat people feel just as passionately and some of my very best friends are cat people so if you're a cat person please consider this all about you, too.)

It's like when you take your dog to the dog park and all the hounds are galumphing around and all the dog parents are sharing grooming secrets, comparing training notes, gossiping mercilessly about the "bad" dog parents and the mean dogs and generally letting their hair down because they are among family of a sort. Every dog park or beach I've ever been to with my beloved Bernie, the people have always known each other by the names of our dogs. "Oh, that's Wrigley's mom!" or "I was just telling Keiko's dad about this great trainer…"

Honestly, I've spent years seeing the same people and could not for the life of me tell you their names but I can give you a detailed description and history of the daily life of every one of their dogs.

A Dog's Life 

When you lose your dog, especially an old one, the message you get up front is: You are not alone. Not by a long shot. You will survive this. You did the right thing. Everybody understands. You are not crazy to feel this sad.

It could be that this is the very same message I got about the loss of my brother, but I've been too shut down, too broken, and too angry to hear it. Maybe there is the same comfort out there for me, too. Maybe, my beautiful, soulful, beloved dog found one last way to save me.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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