As the title suggests, this post is about grieving the loss of a pet. However, I have put emphasis on how to prepare before you have to say goodbye. Of course, those of us who have gone through this experience know that it’s not possible to ever completely prepare for the loss of a pet. No matter how much time we have to accept that one day we will be separated from our animal companions, it won’t be easy or less sad. What I can say is that including these practices with your pet will help you feel more connected with them during the time that they are here.
We first began Sora’s cancer journey in June of 2015. She died in October 2018. Three years is a long time to think about losing a pet. Many of us fear that awful day as soon as we bring them home, others have no time to prepare for the loss.
Practicing the exercises and suggestions below helped me feel more informed and better prepared mentally to say goodbye. When the time came, I felt that I had told Sora everything I needed to say, gave her the best life I could, and used our best judgement in the end. The last thing we could do for her was set her free.
Do Your Research, but Not Too Much
Sora’s final two rounds of cancer occurred within six months of each other. After the fourth and final instance, I researched like mad. My phone glowed under the covers as I filled my brain with knowledge of cancer in dogs, nerve sheath tumors, recommended diets and supplements. I felt so overwhelmed with all of the information. Cancer is a beast and the information is vast and constantly evolving.
When I shared my feelings of cancer overload on Instagram, the best advice my peers offered was to not allow myself to drown in all the information and instead to spend that time with Sora. Understanding the cancer or other ailment is important, yes, but quality time together is limited and far more important.
Purchase the Dog Cancer Survival Guide
I discovered the Dog Cancer Survival Guide after researching foods and supplements to give a dog with cancer. Not only did the book help me understand more about cancer and help me determine which foods and supplements to give to Sora, it also suggested several exercises to do with your dog to help put the focus on the present instead of worrying about the future. These exercises were immensely helpful to be in preparing to say goodbye to Sora.
The Thank You Exercise
This exercise will undoubtedly bring tears, but will also help you remember the happy memories you’ve had with your dog.
Sit down with your pup in a quiet place and take five to 10 minutes thanking them for everything you appreciate about them. You’ll find that it will help jog your memory for moments you forgot or that you are grateful to your dog for things you had never considered before.
I would do this at least once per week with Sora and it became a ritual that strengthened our bond and made me appreciate her even more. Dave and I did it together a few days before she died and we were able to recall moments the other had forgotten or never experienced with her.
This is a great exercise to do with a dog of any age, and can actually help determine abnormalities or lumps that you might not otherwise notice. Simply ask your dog to lie down and take the time to give your dog a massage.
In addition to serving as a regular wellness check, massage helps your dog relax, accelerate healing after an injury or surgery, helps circulate blood flow, cleans the lymphatic system, and more.
The book outlines how and where to give massage, so don’t worry if this is new to you.
As with the other exercises, this requires just five to 10 minutes of time and can be done with as much or as little frequency as you like. Find a quiet space to sit down with your dog and try and have them lie down next to you or in front of you. I often did this on my yoga mat, because I knew that Sora would always lie down there (what is it with dogs and yoga mats?).
The goal of this meditation is to focus on the fact that your dog is still alive and not that your dog is dying. Place your hands on her chest and focus on its rise and fall with each breath she takes. Count each one and let is serve as a reminder that she is still here with you, right now.
Give Your Dog One Last Awesome Day
It’s not always possible to know when your pet is nearing the end of her life, but in times when you are aware, give her one last awesome day or weekend.
We rented a little house and took Sora to the beach for her final weekend. Sticking within an hour of home in case something were to happen, we set off soon after learning that she had something in her lungs, knowing that our time with her was limited.
That weekend, we awoke early for sunrise and took slow walks on the beach. I took hundreds of photos of her and of us together. I couldn’t take enough photos that weekend. We snuggled in bed for hours and we took her on one final adventure: paddle boarding. Since Sora couldn’t walk fast or far, paddle boarding was the perfect activity.
Take the day off from work if you can and spend it doing everything your dog loves to do. Dedicate the entire day to spending time with her. Try not to think about their looming death or that these will be your final days together. Just make it one last great day together.
Write Your Dog a Letter
I chose to write Sora a letter shortly after she died. Simply sit down and write whatever comes to your mind. It doesn’t have to be this perfectly well-written letter. I thought of it more like a journal entry dedicated to Sora. I read it regularly and it brings me comfort to read her the letter as though she were here with me.
Make Pawprint Art
I wish that I had thought of this before it was too late. By the time I had the idea, I didn’t want to leave her to go in search of paint and a canvas. I tried with beet juice, but failed miserably (it was the only thing I thought might work that I had on hand!).
A friend sent me the art she made with her dogs and I made note to do this with each of my pets before it’s too late. She said she simply used acrylic paint and a canvas and then had them walk over the canvas or pressed their paws on it. Simple and memorable.
Celebrate Your Dog
The week Sora died, I organized a virtual “fur”neral for her on social media. I invited all of her friends from across the world to join us in celebrating her life by posting a photo of her with their own dogs, going on a hike, trail run, or other adventure in her honor, among a number of suggestions. Our social media family joined our celebration by tagging us and using the hashtag #sorasnextadventure.
We were absolutely floored by all of the photos, dedications to, art made, cards sent, and beautiful words our friends and family said about Sora. By celebrating her life publicly, we saw just how expansive our network was. We learned how our journey has inspired others and felt incredibly humbled to know how many loved Sora from all over the world.
We did the same for our dog Maxwell long before we had a presence on social media. To help celebrate his life, we invited over our close friends and hosted a “wag wake.” We opened a bottle of wine I had been saving for “the right occasion” (the truth is, there is no “right” occasion”) and toasted Maxwell’s life.
Managing the Grieving Process
Because we have a large presence on social media and many doggie friends all over this world, I have seen many pet owners have to say goodbye to their beloved pet. Instagram is a special place where it’s safe to pour our hearts out to our community, and I did the same when Sora died.
As a consequence, however, I began comparing my grief to that of others. I wondered whether I was doing it “right.” Was I crying enough? Missing her often enough? I’d become angry with myself for not thinking of her all the time or looking for her when we entered the apartment. I felt stressed over my grief.
After reaching out to friends and family members who have lost a pet, they reminded me each of us grieves differently. I became kinder to myself and allowed myself to feel the sadness and celebrate the good times, in my own process.
A few things that allowed me to better process her death included:
Continuing with my daily routines. I kept running and envisioned Sora right there beside me. We went to our favorite beer bar and experienced our first “where is your other dog?” The most difficult chore for me was to vacuum. I waited at least a week and a half because I didn’t want to remove the evidence of her presence. But eventually, I had to clean the house. Now, when I find a clump of Sora hair (cause really, it will never all go away), I smile and say hi to her. We keep moving forward and face our fears of living without her.
Talking to friends and family members. I called friends who had recently lost their dogs and talked to my parents outside of our regular Skype calls. I wrote an obituary for Sora for the blog and posted in several dog forums. The love that poured in for Sora from all over filled my empty, broken heart with so much love.
Keeping a daily journal. I go in and out of the habit of writing daily, and after we lost Sora, I became more diligent about the activity. I set aside time each morning to write about how I felt that day, what I missed about her, and when I felt her presence. Just getting the thoughts out of my head helped clear space for even more memories and grieve when I needed.
Making a Sora shrine. We set up a table with flowers, Sora’s collar, her bandanna, the issue of Adventure Cycling with her photo on the cover, and a little baggie with a bit of her fur. I sit down and meditate in front of the shrine, feeling her presence next to me as I do, I say hello to her when walk past, and it simply gives us a place to have the last remainders of her physical self.
Read Finding Peace when Pets Die
My last piece of advice is to read Going Home: Finding Peace when Pets Die by Jon Katz. I read this book shortly after Sora died. I devoured it in two days. Not only did it help me understand my grief, it also reassured me that we took the right steps with Sora throughout the entire process of her cancer. It won’t be an easy read, but I think it is important to take a look at when you feel ready.
I hope that these suggestions help you as they did me. I hope they give you the strength to make a compassionate decision for your dog and the courage to say goodbye. I hope they inspire you to do that trip or activity you’ve always meant to do with your dog, or even simply just choose to incorporate them more into your daily activities. Saying goodbye to a furry family member is incredibly painful and difficult, and preparing your mental fortitude is what will help guide you through such a difficult time.