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For many dog owners, the bond is strongest in the outdoors. (Photo: Olga Sibirskaya/Stocksy)

How to Grieve for a Very Good Dog


When my yellow Lab died last spring, I was flattened by an overwhelming sadness that’s with me still. And that’s normal, experts say, because losing a pet is often one of the hardest yet least acknowledged traumas we’ll ever face.


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I was walking home from getting my second vaccination shot last March when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t stand. Everything about the vaccine was fine. It was just that I had lost someone very dear to me a few days prior and I was overcome with crippling despair.

I plopped in the dirt next to the side of the road, wailing while I fumbled with my phone to find the number for Blue Cross Blue Shield’s counseling hotline. I explained my needs to an obstacle course of automated gatekeepers and finally got through to a human.

“My partner died two days ago,” I managed to say between sobs.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” said the woman on the phone, clearly moved by my distress. She gave me phone numbers for grief counselors in my area; I headed home with tears running down my face.

What I didn’t say is that my “partner” was a dog. A beautiful yellow Lab named Sunny, who died at 15 and a half.

When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea. Now that I’m pushing 60, I thought I was fully experienced in coping with the death of loved ones. But the sadness from losing Sunny was far greater than what I had previously endured after the passing of my parents, grandparents, and other dogs. I was surprised and somewhat terrified that I had the capacity to cry so much.

The author with Sunnt in Flagstaff, AZ in 2019
The author with Sunny in 2019 (Photo: Courtesy Eirini Pajak)

If I had lost a human partner, there would have been the usual funeral rituals, and being an emotional basket case would have seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. Well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.

During our more than 15 years together, Sunny was faithfully by my side as I went through a bitter divorce, raised my son alone, dealt with caring for my mother and her dementia, and endured the death of my parents, as well as PTSD caused by childhood trauma, empty-nest syndrome when my son went to college, stressful jobs, scary health issues, moving to a new town where I knew no one and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.

Sunny was like a handrail along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Navigating life’s challenges seemed doable because I knew I could hold on to her if needed. Now the handrail was gone. Trying to understand why I was in such pain, I sought out a few experts, who explained to me what it is about these transitions that makes them so difficult.

“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.

As is true for many dog owners, my bond with Sunny was strongest in the outdoors. She shared my desire to wander in the wild more than anyone else in my life. And we did it daily, no matter the weather or what else was demanding my attention. I estimate that we hiked more than 15,000 miles together. On summer vacations and weekend trips, we hiked up to mountain summits and down to creek bottoms, through slickrock canyons and across snow-covered mesas bathed in moonlight. But mostly we just rambled for miles in the forest near my house, traveling cross-country on paths created over the years by our feet and paws. Sunny liked to walk about ten feet in front of me and insisted on carrying big sticks that were a minimum of five feet long. She would turn her head sideways to thread a stick through closely spaced trees and often looked back to make sure I was still there.

“Isn’t this amazing?” she would seem to say with her eyes.

“Yes!” I would respond, feeling life’s worries fall away.

We floated through the forest like synchronized swimmers, immersed in the joys of sticks and smells and towering pines bending in the wind. I needed this time with Sunny the way many people require coffee in the morning. It was hard to get through the day without it.

After Sunny’s death, my craving for our daily hikes—and for simply seeing her look back at me—was almost unbearable. I filled my house with pictures of her face and walked so many miles with her leash in my pack that I completely wore the soles off my hiking shoes. Eventually I connected with Richard Mercer, a grief therapist and facilitator of a pet-loss support group in Boulder, Colorado, who assured me I was not going crazy.

“The death of a pet is a very big deal,” he said. “I often have people tell me that they are surprised the experience is harder than losing their mom or dad. And there are many good reasons for why this is so.”

Unlike losing parents or other loved ones who don’t live with you, dogs and cats have an intimate place in our everyday lives. We miss their constant companionship, unconditional love, and presence as motivators: they’re a reason to get up and go on those daily walks. Mercer told me the death of a pet can also “activate grief over previous losses,” and I know what he means. I found myself crying about Sunny and also about my childhood dog Lucky, who was kept on a chain and was relegated to sleeping in a flea-infested doghouse—both at my parents’ insistence.

When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea.

But the pain of loss also involves neurobiology. “Our field is just beginning to understand the positive benefits that dog ownership has to human health,” says Kevin Morris, director of research at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Nothing against cats, but Morris says dogs are especially adept at being close friends. “All the dog breeds of today came from wolves that were, according to the theory, living off the garbage heaps of humans eight to ten thousand years ago. Dogs evolved to be companions to people in ways that other domesticated animals did not.”

Morris says researchers have found that a dog decreases anxiety and increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, sometimes called “the love hormone,” that’s associated with maternal bonding. A study published in Science documented how simply gazing into each other’s eyes created a positive oxytocin feedback loop between dogs and their owners. Loving stares increased oxytocin levels in the dogs by 130 percent, and by 300 percent in the humans. Another study found that kissing dogs mutually increased oxytocin levels. Research has also shown that prolonged interaction between humans and dogs lowers harmful cortisol levels in both species.

“We are really wired to get that good stuff from our dogs,” says Mercer. “We associate the physical response of the oxytocin release to our connection with our dog and that is a lot of what we miss when they pass.”

I tell Mercer how I put pictures of Sunny all over my house and was walking around with her leash, apparently in a desperate attempt to get my oxytocin fix.

Doing whatever you can to feel better is a good idea. Mercer says that our culture’s widely accepted push to achieve closure by “moving on” after the death of a pet doesn’t really work. “The best thing to do is integrate the loss into your life by building a new relationship with a pet who is no longer physically present,” he explains. “We can give form to this relationship by honoring the memories of our pet, telling stories, journaling, and acknowledging our pain.” These memories embody not only the actions of our pets during their lives but also the events of our lives when the pet was supporting us.

Sunny on the trail in the high country
Sunny on the trail in the high country (Courtesy Annette McGivney)
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(Courtesy Annette McGivney)

Last March, when my 24-year-old son, Austin, and I decided it was time to put Sunny down, he flew from Los Angeles to my home in southwestern Colorado so we could give her a proper send-off. Sunny was being ravaged by cancer, but she still had an appetite. Our tight three-member pack, which had been the bedrock of Austin’s childhood, gorged for two and a half days on salmon, hamburgers, sausage, and some of Sunny’s unusual favorites, including Gouda cheese and lemon cake. Sunny could no longer hike in the forest, but we waded out with her into the Dolores River, where she had loved to swim. After Sunny was euthanized on her favorite patch of lawn amid swirls of fat snowflakes, Austin carried her inside and placed her on my bed. I anointed her with essential oils of ponderosa pine and blue spruce and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck as we prepared her for the crematorium.

I had always joked that pink was Sunny’s best color, even though she was incredibly strong and fearless. In the coming days I would tie pink ribbons around candles, my wrist, the box that held her ashes, and a stick in the backyard where I built an altar, all to remind me of Sunny’s life and the tender, sacred ceremony of her passing. This brought me comfort—maybe even oxytocin—as did some of the other tips offered by grief experts.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was the license to cry as much and as often as I needed to. I have cried every single day since March 25, when Sunny passed.

Plenty of people experience this. “I wailed like a little boy,” Robert Neimeyer says of a cat he had several years ago that was killed by a car. “It was the purest and strongest grief I have ever felt in my life.” Copious crying is our body’s way of achieving homeostasis by physically releasing strong emotions.

Though letting the tears flow is healthy, it’s crucial not to remain stuck in despair. My thoughts often turned to Sunny’s tough final three weeks rather than to the wonderful years we shared. Mercer encourages people to make a conscious effort to focus on the good times and burn these happy moments into their brains.

“Meditate on these memories as if they are happening in the present and remember how you experienced them through your senses,” he says. “This is very grounding and builds resilience so that we are better able to handle the tough memories.”

Following another of Mercer’s suggestions, I joined the pet-loss support group he leads for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief and not everyone gets it,” he says. “So much of what comes out of the group is just normalizing and validating our feelings.”

The goal of the monthly meetings is to provide a safe place for grieving pet owners to share. Some participants hold a picture of a pet who died a few days prior and simply cry; others tell stories of a pet they lost years ago. I found every meeting to be like a giant hug.

One of the most surprising and hopeful things I learned was that my love for Sunny could be the bridge to bringing a new dog into my life—not as a way to replace her but to honor her.

“Some people may feel it would be too painful or disloyal to get another pet,” says Neimeyer. “But the deeper way of honoring the pet is to apply the lessons of loving and living this creature made possible for you by sharing that with another animal when you have reached the appropriate point in your grieving process. This kind of love is so robust that it survives the pet’s physical absence.”

As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.

In June, after speaking with Neimeyer, I decided to reach out to a Labrador retriever rescue operation near Colorado Springs, Colorado—a way to lay the groundwork for the day, maybe a year or two away, when I would be ready to adopt a new dog. I spoke with a breeder involved with the group and told her about Sunny. We agreed to touch base again in early 2022. Then she called a few weeks later.

“I know you weren’t planning to adopt anytime soon, but there is this dog who really needs you,” she said. “You would be the perfect owner.”

The dog was an 18-month-old yellow Lab named Trudy. Her owner had severe dementia and kept her confined to a cement dog run. A neighbor had contacted the rescue operation to report Trudy’s suffering. She’d been left alone in record summer heat and never walked. Nobody knew if her owner was giving her food or water.

The next day I drove eight hours to Pueblo, Colorado, to rescue Trudy. If I had not received counseling on pet loss, I probably would have declined, thinking I was too heartbroken to care for another dog. Instead, I took Trudy home and was soon watching her roll around in the grass and lie on a dog bed and play with toys—probably for the first time in her life. Trudy seemed like a gift from Sunny, or at least a karmic manifestation of Sunny’s positive influence on my life.

I bought her a bright red leash and have been slowly teaching her to walk in the wild. She is partly crippled from being confined to a cage, so there’s healing to do. We are healing together.

Trudy and I wander daily on a mesa near my house. It’s an awe-inspiring, oxytocin-generating landscape where a vast expanse of sagebrush is luminous green in the late afternoon light and the sky is a blue ocean filled with archipelagos of clouds. Some clouds are puffs of popcorn. Others are giant curtains of mist dangling over mountain peaks 50 or even 100 miles away.

I still carry Sunny’s pink leash in my pack. I expect I always will.

“Sunny!” I routinely shout into the sun-kissed abyss while Trudy delights in sniffing the ground. “Isn’t this amazing?”

As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.

On other days I hike alone through the forest following the favorite secret paths that Sunny and I made together. Several times I have come upon a tree or bush that takes my breath away. Tied to a twig in the middle of nowhere and for no explainable reason is a bright pink ribbon.

Lead Photo: Olga Sibirskaya/Stocksy