sawyer in memory

How to deal with the death of your dog (without losing your mind)

I never really knew true agony until my dog Sawyer died. Sure, I had known a variety of pain, various modes of depression, and even different sorts of suffering. But the death of my beloved dog in 2014 pierced my heart with a level of agony that I never knew existed.

It actually DID feel like I was losing my mind, the anguish was so intense. I wept, wailed and moaned for days. Felt apathetic and unmotivated for weeks. And even saw no point in living without this massive part of my life now gone.

Then I went back into therapy.

There, and with help from supportive pals, I learned several ways to handle the grief that comes from the death of a dog. I’ll share them in the hopes they may help others get through their own grief from the loss of a pet.

Know what to expect from grief

I had a big strike working against me when Sawyer died – I had never really met grief before. I recall throwing a huge tantrum of anger and anguish when my grandpa died when I was 16, and then I just kind of shoved any subsequent grief from other deaths down into a black hole somewhere over there. I avoided funerals like the plague.

When Sawyer died, I had no choice but to actually meet grief head-on. And it wasn’t just the grief of losing Sawyer that hit. I had to now deal with all the past grief that I had never given myself permission to feel over the years. I had nowhere left to run – except to Amazon, perhaps, to read up on what to expect from this newfound non-friend. Books that helped:

It was a relief to learn that the crazy feelings, thoughts, actions and ideas I was experiencing were actually side effects of grief. I wasn’t losing my mind after all. I was grieving.

It was also a relief to learn that I was not the only one who actually felt losing a dog could be harder than losing a person. A Tonic article even tells us why. A dog can be our best friend. Our confidant. Even our soul mate of sorts when we find a dog relationship that provides a special, intense connection like none we ever knew before. That was Sawyer all the way.

Sit through the pain

Learning about grief on a logical level was one thing. But actually EXPERIENCING it on an emotional level was another. I knew I could no longer simply shove it away into that black hole, as that just made it fester, grow and explode down the road.

So I sat with it. I squirmed with it. I let my heart explode with it. I let is fiery forks of pain rip through my very being. I let it flow so it could go. While grief doesn’t seem like it’s one of those things that will ever completely leave, each wave of grief was just a bit different that the ones that came before.

The only way it will lessen is if you let it exhaust its power. And the only way to exhaust it is to sit there and let it do its thing. Yeah, this part sucks. You might want to have your phone nearby so you can call a pal if needed.

Honor thy dog

In addition to writing an obituary for Sawyer, I bought a fancy-ass urn for ashes, hand-painted the clay imprint of his paw print, wrote poems, created art and otherwise honored him in any way that felt right. I wasn’t able to do all of this right away, mind you, as it still hurt too much.

But after a year or more, I was finally able to create a silver memorial dog charm in Sawyer’s likeness. I also created a painting on velvet that depicts Sawyer chasing demons out of heaven, which is surely what he’s doing up there (in between snacks, of course).

Break the ‘rules’ if needed

Even though books can fill you in on what to expect when grieving the loss of a pet or person, there are no hard and set rules on dealing with grief. You need to do what feels right for you. In my case, I went against loads of well-meaning advice that told me to wait before I got a new dog.

I went out and adopted one the next day.

While Sawyer still had a surviving sister dog, the void he left in the house, heart and soul was just too big to live with. I figured getting a new dog would give me something else to focus on other than that big, gaping void.

So Sawyer’s sister and I went to the Pima Animal Care Center to get a new brother for her. While I had showed up with a list of dogs we wanted to meet from my online research, most had already been adopted since it happened to be free adoption day.

One big guy from the list was left. He was sad. He was scared. He had huge scars down his sides and a mangled foot from past abuse. He huddled in the corner, looking as if he were trying to shrink into invisibility until we went away.

That’s when I heard Sawyer in my head. He said:

“You gave me a chance. Give him one.”

We took scared, scarred-up Elmo home, where he promptly ran outside and hid in a corner of the backyard that I didn’t even know existed. He slowly came around, however, and is now a loving, lovable, forever grateful member of our family.

Passing on the love is one of the finest ways you can honor your dog, or any pet or person who died. While you don’t have to go out and adopt a new dog the next day, you can pass along your love by doing loving things for others. That one just makes sense, feels good, and helps to keep the love alive – until you meet up with your dog again between his bouts of chasing demons out of heaven.

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