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Many Westie owners go through immense grief after losing their beloved dogs. Can you tell us if the grieving process is any different to that of losing a human?
Jacqueline Ferris-Woods, Founder of Westie Rehoming (J)
The grieving process can be different depending on the role the pet played in a person’s life. For an elderly person living alone the pet may have been the only living thing they saw and interacted with on a daily basis. This is particularly cruel when an elderly person has to go into residential care and cannot take their pet with them.
Sometimes the loss of a pet may trigger the renewal of grief for a human bereavement if they haven’t allowed themselves or been able to grieve for the human previously. They may then suffer an extreme reaction when their pet dies.
Bereavement isn’t always about death, however. The grief felt when a dog is rehomed or stolen can be immense. The owner isn’t able to draw closure over their loss and so the pain felt may be intense and very long lasting.
Angie Mountford, Founder of Westie Bereavement & Tribute Group (A)
Definitely losing a much-loved dog is the same as losing a child to a lot of people, it’s the one thing in their life that needs them, it can be the reason a person goes for a walk and socialises, a reason to get up and carry on, their dog is a friend and soulmate. A child grows up and becomes independent, but a dog never does, they stay reliant on you for their lifetime giving you their all. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand this and have less sympathy and are likely to say hurtful comments like “it’s just a dog” or “get another one”. You wouldn’t say this to a parent who was grieving a child, yet the loss can feel just the same to somebody that has just lost their dog.
Many people that have lost Westies describe the pain as being worse than losing a human. Why do you think that is?
Many people feel closer to their dog which may have helped them through some very tough times and given them unconditional love. They probably spent more time with their dog who depended on them for everything and was always there for them when they needed comfort. I think that possibly most people that I speak to describe the pain as worse than any they felt when losing a human friend or relative.
Can you share any tips that may help people in some small way to deal with their grief?
Some owners are comforted by a permanent memorial to their dog. They may plant a shrub or tree in a place that was favoured by the dog, maybe with an appropriate name (for example, a rose named ‘Little White Pet’). Some prefer a plaque or headstone to mark where the dog is buried, or to have its ashes scattered. It’s important to allow oneself to grieve and not hold back emotions.
As a qualified pet grief Counsellor the most common part of grief people express to me is the guilt, no matter how much they had loved or how much time they had given to their dog they still feel guilty especially if they had to make the hard decision to put their beloved dog to sleep, it weighs heavy on many people’s hearts, they question if they did it to soon, could of done more, some even feel they have killed their dogs. It’s a very stressful, emotional time. I usually remind people that putting their dog to sleep was the last act of love we can do for them, to stop the pain and let them rest, even though we know our own pain is just beginning. Grief is like the ocean you can have little ripples then a wave crashes over you and you’re drowning in sorrow again. What’s important is to give yourself permission to grieve and cry, you need to process and accept the loss before you can move forward. There is no time frame as everyone does it differently, after a time you will be able to remember your dog and carry them in your heart with love, but the loss never goes, with great love comes great loss, but it’s worth it.
Are there similar traits/feelings in common with most people you talk to? What feelings do they tell you they have?
The most common emotion that most people feel is a feeling of guilt. It is human nature to think that maybe we could have or should have done things differently during the final stages of the pet’s life. “Did I decide too soon?” “Did I leave it too long?” “Was there anything else I could have done for him/her?” are very common questions. They may be surprised by the strength of their feelings and feel alone in their grief. Most people hope that their pet passes quietly in its sleep although this only happens in a small percentage of cases. No-one likes ‘playing God’ and having to make the final decision to end their pet’s life.
Some people may feel as though they are losing their mind. They often think that they hear their dog, feel it next to them, and these are perfectly normal feelings to have. Occasionally someone may lose the will to carry on without their dog and the counsellor must recognise when an owner’s grief has gone exceptionally deep and they need urgent help beyond that of bereavement counselling.
Do you think people should jump right in and have a new dog during the grieving process or should they wait and give it more time?
Everyone is different. For me personally, my house and heart were so empty after I lost my Bonnie suddenly in an accident, that I rescued another Westie within one month and it was the best thing I did. I was able to give my love to Angus who needed lots of care and attention but was so grateful for every bit of it, he truly helped me heal the hole in my heart. I still get emotional talking about Bonnie 10 years on, but I can remember her with love now. I know some people feel like they are betraying their past dog if they get another and some just can’t face the pain again. Your heart will tell you when you’re ready.
Are there enough organizations that deal with this kind of grief?
I think there are services out their if you look, most pet crematoriums offer counselling, there are great face book groups that offer empathy and advice from people who have or are experiencing the same pain including a Westie tribute and bereavement group. I often reach out or get asked by Westie groups I’m involved with to help people who are struggling and help via FaceTime, talking to someone who knows how you’re feeling makes you feel less isolated and more normal for feeling so distressed.
Image credit: Katie McFarland