Before I share my response to his inquiry, I must state that part of what hit me with his note wasn’t his question itself but that he would ask me. Am I an expert on the topic of grief at the loss of a dog? God, I hope not, but after losing seven dogs in twenty-two years, perhaps I have a little more experience than others. I will share what I can and hope it helps my friend and any others who face the void left when a beloved pet dies.To give justice to my answer I need to go back to when I was a kid on the ranch. Death was a part of everyday activities. I remember helping my parents attempt to save an orphaned calf, only to walk up in the morning to bottle feed it and find its lifeless body. With livestock there was some level of detachment but not much, at least not for me. I worked with these animals, and my brothers and I helped raise some of the orphaned calves, only to end up selling them for slaughter. I don’t regret those events: it was simply life on the ranch. When you add to that the game hunting my family did, it raised my awareness of the fragility of life all the more. Seeing something die is one thing but to take a life is another. I’m thankful my dad taught my brothers and I that we must respect the animals we hunt, even thanking them for the meat they provide after the kill. Though my dad got into trophy hunting it was never my thing; I hunt to put meat in the freezer. The old adage that you can’t eat antlers is one I still live by. Though I enjoy hunting, the act of taking a life never fills me with pleasure. Rather, it is a job, a task that needs to be done and I ensure I perform the task as efficiently as possible. Nothing twists my emotions more than having to walk up to a wounded animal, to look it in the eyes, and then to have to finish it off. It is a mix of emotions for me: on one side, sadness that the animal suffered in any way and on the other, anger that my first shot wasn’t effective in preventing that suffering.
I know that my emotional connection with the animals I hunted came from an incident that occurred long before I could hunt. I was in grade school when the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks asked if we would foster a fawn deer and antelope that had been orphaned when their mothers had been killed. The policy nowadays would be that the babies be euthanized, but back then the FWP had a facility where orphans were kept, almost like a zoo. At the time they were out of space at the facility so they asked my dad if we could help. I remember bottle feeding both animals, but without their mothers their chances of survival were slim. Sure enough, the deer died first, then the antelope. I remember seeing the antelope fawn take its last breath and it haunted me in ways I still can’t describe. It wasn’t a fear of death, mind you, but the full acceptance of how fleeting life can be.
Now, these stories were about animals I didn’t have much connection to yet I still felt somber at their ends. When our family dogs passed away, though, I really experienced true grief. In high school and college, I was spared such grief by not having any dogs of my own. It wasn’t until 1994, when I got my first two dogs, that I bonded with animals whose ends caused an extreme impact. Taz went first, suddenly and without warning at age four. I still don’t know what happened, I just know that I was devastated. When Mickey’s turn came after ten years, I had tried to prepare myself, but her passing left me depressed and prone to sudden tears at just the mention of her name months later. I used to be ashamed of this and never shared the reality with anyone. It was when I was talking with a good friend and fellow Rottweiler owner, that I saw I was not alone in my emotional connection with a pet. My friend was and still is in law enforcement and is one of the toughest people I know; however, for more than a year after the passing of his female Rottweiler, a dog that was a part of his wedding, my friend still teared up when talking about her. This helped me to realize that my grief was normal and even stronger with dogs because of one thing - time. You see, when my dad died I grieved but not nearly to the depth I did when Mickey died. This wasn’t because I didn’t love my dad - far from it - it was just that I had spent so much more time with my dog than I had my dad in the years prior to his passing. The sudden absence of Mickey from my life was more of a shock to my system.
As time went on, I took in more rescues and experienced loss upon each of their passing’s. Most dogs I adopted were older so my time with them was short. There was one stretch in which I lost three dogs in three years. This compounded loss felt as if I had been repeatedly hit in the gut without the opportunity to catch my breath. Still, I learned from it.
One lesson I learned was to pre-plan for having to put a dog down. Having a plan helped offset the shock a little when the time came. Also, by pre-planning, I pre-grieved. What does this even mean? Well, when my girl Belle had bone cancer I knew I would have to set a date to have her put down before her leg became so weak that the bone broke. Mentally and physically, besides her leg, she was in good health. Still, I had made the decision that Belle would go with dignity and that I would pull her from the game before the cancer beat her. The problem with this plan was that for the three weeks leading up to it, my mind dwelt on what was coming. I would sob late at night as she snored next to me, knowing that soon I would have to end her life. Yet those weeks of grieving before the event helped somewhat. The pain of the act itself was as severe as always, even the few days afterwards were hard, but I bounced back faster than I had before. Why? I believe it was because I had already released much of my sadness.
The above was part of my answer to my friend: pre-planning and pre-grieving. But the biggest thing that helped me through such times was still having another dog in my home. The other dog was grieving, as was I, at the loss of their pack member and they looked to me as the alpha to lead on. That remaining life, that companion, still needed me to walk them, to feed them, and to love them. This, in my experience, is probably the best cure for the loss of a pet
|Carly and I on an early morning hike last weekend.
If you want to know more about my efforts as a writer, be sure to check out my Facebook and Twitter pages. You can also learn more about me at my website www.troykechely.com There you can also purchase my first novel, Stranger’s Dance. For those outside North America, Stranger's Dance is available through Amazon UK and Amazon JP in both Kindle and paperback.