How to cope with losing the pet you love

“Hey, something’s up with Molly. She’s not right.”

On Monday, April 8, we were getting ready in my house like any other day. I was going to Harrisburg, my wife was getting ready for school and the kids were eating breakfast. It was around 6:45am. Molly, our ten year old German Sheppard, was having trouble walking. She had an old leg injury, but it didn’t usually bother her like that. She was stumbling and just looked off.

Hmm.

I let her out to the backyard to load my car, as per usual. When I got back from the garage, she was lying down and panting. Not like her at all.

We made a vet appointment, but by the time my wife got home from work it was apparent it was more serious than that. I was in Harrisburg, ironing a shirt in my hotel room, when I gave Brenna the number for the vet. She ran Molly to the veterinary hospital, and I could feel a chasm opening in my chest. My father in law had run over to watch the kids, and he said, “Mike, Molly really doesn’t look good. She’s having trouble walking.Be prepared.”

Brenna had the kids hug Molly goodbye before she went to hospital with her, just in case. I’m glad she did.

Molly collapsed in the lobby of the hospital. They put her on a journey and ran her back. I was at a dinner that I abruptly left, and I was in the car, in the parking lot of the hotel room, when Bren called me back. She put the Vet on speaker phone, and the very nice woman sadly explained that Molly had a tumor around her heart. There was nothing we could have done, and nothing we could do.

I was able to get home in time. And we said goodbye.

Losing a pet is agonizing. I’d been through it once before, but it was my childhood dog. Losing the dog that your rescued and raised from puppyhood to old age is horrible. She was our practice child. We got her before we were married, before kids, before I was an elected official, before books. Molly was with us for more than 1/4 of our lives. Losing her has created a puppy-shaped hole in our lives.

Broadly speaking, some thoughts:

It’s gonna take time: It’s been about two weeks now. We’re getting there, but still have plenty of moments where we just burst into tears. I mean, the last time I cried was…yesterday. This is gonna take time. A lot of time.

The grief comes in waves: Let me acknowledge how lucky I am. I still have my parents and most of the people in my life who are close to me. So, this was one of the worst grief-laden experiences I’ve ever had. And it comes it waves. The first couple of days are horrible. Then it fades. And then out of nowhere…you find a dog hair. Or you drop food that the dog would normally eat. And it feels like you’ve been punched in the gut and you’re a weeping mess. Best advice I can give: Ride the storm. It fades. And it does get easier. Try to remember that.

Try to put your pain in perspective: Bren and I have both repeatedly commented on how we thought she had more time – how badly we wanted more time with Molly. What’s helped me get through that? I try to remember everything that went right. We had her for ten years. We gave her love and attention and time – and a lot of money caring for her, haha (side note: PET INSURANCE IS A GREAT IDEA). But Molly was found in a box in downtown Allentown. She was sick with hookworms. She should have died. But we took her into our home and loved her for ten wonderful years–and for those ten years she loved us and our kids and was with us for our greatest and darkest moments. More time would have been wonderful. But to have a friend like this for so long – and to remember the time you had together – makes a world of difference.

Yes, saying something on Facebook does help: Every time one of my friends posted on FB that they had lost a beloved pet, I said how sorry I was. And, in recent years, with an older dog, it always occurred to me – I’d write that update one day. When the time came, I was floored. I did it just to update people with what was happening in my life. I was blown away at the responses – how kind they were – and how much better they made me feel. When I returned to Harrisburg a day later, I had members, staffers, lobbyists telling me how sorry they were. Someone even mailed me a stuffed dog with a sweet note (I don’t know who you are, but if you’re reading this, thank you so much).

Those messages of support made a world of difference. I remain so touched by their kindness, but I was reminded that losing a pet is largely universal. So many know that pain. Share yours with others and let them be there for you, too.

The absence is louder than any scream: Being home alone has been the worst. Not having Molly in the living room staring at me. Begging to go out. Looking for attention. I can feel her absence like it’s physical. There are no more little noises anymore. No more tinkling of her dog tags. No more claws against the hard wooden floors.

Be prepared for that. I don’t have a solution yet, except time.

The loss of routines: Every morning, I wake up. Molly runs to the bed, pacing, grunting. She’s gotta pee. I let her out. She does her business and runs back to the door, jumping. I feed her. Then I gotta let her out again. For nearly ten years this was our dance, right up until the morning of the day she died. Before we go to bed, we let the dog out. At 4pm, she gets dinner. Every time I go to the kitchen, I check her water dish to refill it as necessary.

And just like that, those routines are gone. Brace yourself. That part is awful. 

Helping the kids: Our kids are 8 and 6. They’ve never known a world without Molly in it. They were, of course, besides themselves – they cried so hard that night. We snuggled with them and told them as appropriately as possible what had happened: She had cancer and had died. Auron, the older one, is more curious: Had she died with her eyes open? How had she died? I answered both of those questions later – without my daughter around.

The night she died we sat on the couch together and spoke about how much we loved her. We told the kids this would hurt – that it would take time – and that they could cry on our shoulders. We let them go late into school the next morning but we did bring them in together – we thought it was better for them to be surrounded by friends. Their teachers and classmates were SO KIND they even made cards. 

Both kids reacted differently. Ayla – my youngest – now walks around with a stuffed German Sheppard that we got her (named Molly, obviously). She brings it to school and says it helps. We got one for Auron too, but I have no idea where it is now – he didn’t really use or need it.

Broadly speaking, my experience with the kids has been this: Let them lead. They want to talk about Molly? Go right ahead. They don’t? Let it go. But just telling them to express their emotions, that death is a part of life, that you love someone so they have no regrets when they are gone and that we were there for them if they needed us – that made a world of difference, I think.

Take the punch: I had an already scheduled appointment with my therapist the other day, and naturally, this is largely what we discussed. I’d been working on trying to be more present and less in my head, and I asked him how to reconcile the pain of grief with that concept. His answer was great: You do it to take the punch. You do it to get stronger, because grief is an non-negotiable part of life.

Take the punch. It was worth every moment. I miss Molly deeply. And will for what I imagine will be the rest of my life. To quote a tweet I once saw: Owning a dog is like borrowing happiness from the future. My family and I are now in our repayment plan, but if you hold to that metaphor, the happiness we borrowed was like an investment. It was repayed countless times over. Dealing with this grief is rough but manageable. We will get there, and we will be dog owners again, both because it’s what we want and I think what Molly would have wanted for us. This house isn’t the same without a four legged friend, and when the grief has passed to a manageable level, we’ll be there again.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope this was as helpful for you to read as it was for me to write.

4 thoughts on “How to cope with losing the pet you love

  1. My huge and sincere sympathies to you all. Nothing hurts or feels as raw and destroying as the grief for our best friends. It’s strange in all the years I’ve worked with and around terminally ill people, lost my own family members and seen countless people to a peaceful end, there is no pain like that felt on losing a dog.

    Few people will ever understand that and many suggest “It’s only a dog” and will even try to downplay or dismiss the grief but anyone and everyone that ever had the complete privilege of experiencing friendship through a dog knows it hurts like hell.

    As you say the silence is deafening. You’ll probably find yourself slipping into certain routines and find habits hard to break. It took my Mum a good year or so to stop throwing chicken over her shoulder when she was cooking a Sunday roast. For years she made a full roast and Bess stood behind her in the kitchen catching whatever bits of chicken Mum slung over her shoulder with the precision of a trained sea-lion.

    The last dog to leave me “Cass” was only 8yrs old and after two weeks of intensive care, treatment and two collapses in as many weeks I had to call it and have her put to sleep without chance to consult anyone.

    Kids are far more resilient than we give credit and if your daughter should raise the subject and ask you those painful questions about Molly’s last moments my advice would be to tell her in as simple, straightforward way as possible the same way you have so openly and honestly said here.

    It often helps us as adults and pet owners to reassure other people (kids especially) about their last moments and gives you that much needed sense that what you did was right and to know Molly is OK now. At some point in the future you’ll no doubt feel the time is right to bring another dog into your lives but make that something that happens when it happens and the time is right.

    We never forget or replace our animals we simply make new friends.

    I swear we will someday catch up and be with all our animals loved and lost – certain of it in fact. When Cass and I had our telepathic conversation that morning she’d collapsed again, I agreed to let her go to sleep if she promised to come wake me up when it was time.

    Not a religious person but hand on heart, I’m sure when my time comes all the animals loved and lost will be there. It has to happen that was the deal closed with Cass so she has to make good on it 😀

    Take it easy, remember what you did for Molly and what she gave you in return. Before too long the sadness will give way to nothing but happy memories xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is one of the longest and most insightful comments I’ve ever gotten. Thank you so much!

      I love the notion that they are waiting for us. I certainly hope so. Right now I have two dogs waiting to greet me when I get there. It’s a pleasant thought.

      And thank you again for the kind words!
      Mike

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are absolutely welcome I’m glad if it helped even if momentarily.

        It’s strange how things work and the weird way we find strength often in the most bizarre places.

        An hour or two after Cass died and I’d make calls, told whoever needed to know and settled bills and straightened out with the vet, I got in the car with my younger collie, drove to a nearby golf course and then went on a long walk where I just broke down and heaved the worst, most heavy almost physically painful sobs that took me by surprise because I’m not one for crying and was suddenly hearing myself bawling like a little girl.

        It was stored up and postponed until I had the chance to go off and do it in private I guess but all of a sudden two very angry golfers were shouting at me to get their ball from my dog who had nicked it and was running off with it in her mouth and pulling this daft face.

        So out of character she never did anything like that and even more bizarre – she would not drop it. I’m there “Pud drop it – LET IT GO!!” and she just kept bouncing in front of me with the same goon face like “No… no… stop crying bitch we’re being chased c’mon stop crying” and for some reason I actually went along with her stupid idea and we hid behind reeds from these two golfers like kids that had stolen sweets from a shop.

        Why I did that instead of just getting the ball and giving it back I will never know but it went from bawling and sobbing my heart out to laughing uncontrollably then hiding out in the reeds with that daft idiot. Was so unlike her it felt deliberate like she was making a point and letting me know “Hey – the world hasn’t ended, it’s just moving differently but I’m still here and you need to get a wiggle on cos I’m not giving those two this golf ball back so less crying and more hiding”

        My daughter had recorded this short clip of Cass asleep where she’d drifted off as I played piano.

        She died less than 24hrs after this and when I saw it the first time, I welled up with tears at how restless she was even in her sleep then as I was about to give way and start the tears and snot bubbles again, my younger dog rocked up doing her casual face all “Sup bitch? Waking me up again I’m trynna sleep” and made me belly laugh.

        Weird how things work, where you’ll find comfort, strength and go from feeling like your heart has been ripped out to howling – almost screaming with laughter within a few seconds.

        Lots of love and following to see how you get on and where this part of your journey takes you 🙂

        Jeez still can’t believe we actually hid from two grown men behind reeds…

        Like

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