This past week, a friend of mine said a final goodbye to her beloved dog. It is a kindness we give to our pets when pain, illness, injury or old age take their cruel toll. But that final goodbye is also the part of having a pet that tears out your heart.
Everyone who’s ever loved a dog knows the feeling. The house is suddenly too silent. No toenails click on the floor. No tags rattle against the water bowl. You can’t force yourself to move the empty dog bed, yet looking at it makes you cry. You can sometimes forget, but then it hits you — randomly and suddenly, for weeks afterward — that your beloved pet is gone, and your heart breaks again.
The bond between people and their dogs is intense and deep. Dogs are members of our families. The unconditional love, loyalty and attention they give us mirror the unconditional love, loyalty and attention we give them. They are an important part of our lives.
That’s why we agonize over the decision to say that final goodbye. Is there still quality of life? Is it enough? Do the good days still outweigh the bad ones? No one can answer those questions for you. You — and only you — have to decide when the time is right, when both you and your dog are ready. And that makes the decision all the more heart-wrenching.
I think most dog owners have doubts about their decision. Did I wait too long? Or not long enough? Guilt is there, too. We mourn the loss of our faithful companion, as well as the disruption of a daily routine that was centered around taking care of our pet. The loss of a beloved dog can be every bit as devastating as the death of a human loved one.
People who don’t have pets may not understand. “Why are you so upset,” they’ll say. “It was only a dog.” Others unhelpfully suggest, “Just get another dog.” As if you could replace the special relationship you had with your dog the same way you replace a favorite sweater when it is worn out.
In 1982, the San Francisco SPCA became the first humane society to offer a grief counseling service for those dealing with the loss of a pet. It does help to talk about how you’re feeling with others who are going through similar emotions. Somehow, just knowing you’re not the only person who feels so devastated can help you cope. Now many humane societies and veterinary hospitals offer support groups or hotlines you can call to help you work through your grief.
Or just find a friend who understands how important your pet was to you and talk with them about what you’re feeling.
When I talked with my friend in recent weeks about her dog and her upcoming decision, I struggled to find the magic words that would help ease her mind. All I really could think to say was, “I know. I’ve been there.” Anyone who’s ever loved a dog knows.
When my dog died several years ago, another friend sent me a candle in a tall glass container. She had glued a photo of my dog to the outside of the candle and added angel wings and a halo. That candle sits on a bookcase in my living room. I find comfort in the ritual of saying a prayer as I light the candle when I hear of the death of someone I know or their pet.
Last week, I lit the candle in honor of my friend’s dog. It seemed to burn especially bright, perhaps a testament to the deep connection between her and her dog, and in recognition of that last, heartbreaking act of love between them, their final goodbye.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.