Grief is something every pet parent goes through. It is the only real downside of sharing our lives with our four-legged family members. I recently had to say goodbye to my sweet girl Paige who lost her battle with Cancer less than 2 weeks ago and I am heart broken. She was her crazy self one minute and then overnight became very ill. After a week in ICU and chemo she rebounded and I was able to bring her home which meant the world to us both. She was doing quite well for a couple weeks, but then her body started to fail and she went downhill very quickly. I am grateful for the extra time we had and that she was able to come home even if it was only for a little while so she could be in the home she loved with the family she adored. I am still trying to get my head around the fact that she's gone and I will be honest it has devastated me.
I am writing this post to share how I am trying to cope with this heart breaking loss in hopes that maybe it will help others going through something similar. Grief, whether for humans or pets, is a very difficult journey. Experts will tell you that there are 5 stages of grief: 1) Denial 2) Anger 3) Bargaining 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance. Personally I feel like I am going through the first 4 all at once - such a crazy mix of emotions. How could this happen? Why didn't she have any symptoms until it was too late? How can we be happy again?
Even with knowing that there is a process to work through when coping with loss, it doesn't give me a way to move forward so I am trying different things/activities to help me to put one foot in front of the other while I wait for the "time heals all" to kick in.
Here are some of the things I have been trying which seem to be helping me during this difficult time:
Surrounding myself with like-minded people: There is a profound difference between dog-people and non-dog-people and it is never clearer than when you are coping with the loss of your dog because if you have never experienced the deep bond that we often have with our dogs then how can you understand the heart break when they leave us? Being around people that "get it" goes a long way in your recovery. I am fortunate to have an amazing family that knows exactly what I am going through, but I also have an amazing support group on Facebook of dog lovers, many of which have suffered loss themselves. While Paige was sick the encouragement for her flooded in and when she passed away, the words of support were moving. I am very grateful for all the love we have been shown. It has meant to world to me.
Exercise: Do not underestimate the value of being active during this time. Whether it's walking, running or some other form of exercise, there is something comforting that comes from exerting (or exhausting) yourself.
The Art of Distraction: Pouring yourself into something like work or even a hobby to help take your mind off things for a short while can do wonders. I work a lot, but I am fortunate that my work is my own business, Dog Quality. My challenge is that my dogs are such a part of Dog Quality. They help me develop, test and market products. They are my inspiration which makes it especially difficult to find the motivation when they are gone. It is the positive feedback from our customers who let us know how much we are helping to improve the lives of their dogs that keeps me going during these times.
New Experiences: With Paige ingrained in everything I did and everywhere I went, I find it helpful at this stage to try and do different things because being in familiar places reminds me of Paige at a point when these reminders are too painful. So I have been making an effort to take my dogs Milo, Lily and Winnie to new areas for our walks. Paige was super protective of me which made walking in public places very challenging, so we stuck to more private areas. Until I can go back to those places, we have been doing most of our walking closer to town to give us new experiences. I know how precious memories are and I know that I will come to love seeing Paige everywhere, but for now it makes me sad, so trying out new places is helping.
Upbeat music and movies: I am avoiding all sad songs and sad movies trying to go out of my way to listen to upbeat music and watch happy or exciting movies - sci-fi is a great example. I am also trying to create new music playlists. We do a lot of dancing with dogs at my house (don't laugh since I know you do the same) and Paige never missed an opportunity to be silly, so I find that most of the music I have reminds me of these times. Again eventually this will make me smile, but for now it only brings tears, so I have been creating new playlists to get me through this time.
Create a Tribute: The most therapeutic, yet the most difficult thing that I have done is to create a tribute to Paige filled with photos and videos of our incredible time together. I am always taking photos and videos of my dogs to ensure I am capturing special moments in our lives because I know that when they leave, these images become important reminders of the amazing life we had together. I never trust my brain to remember it all - I need these moments in time to keep them close. Creating a tribute is my highlight reel of my life with Paige and it is my way of showing others just how incredible she was and why it is so difficult to be without her. It is how I know she would like to be remembered. It makes me cry every time, but it also makes me smile, laugh and appreciate every second we had together. It becomes a reminder of why we go through the heart break. As empty as I feel right now, I would not trade a second of my life with her even if you told me what would happen. Here is the tribute I made for Paige:
Lean on your other four-legged family: I am fortunate to still have 3 wonderful dogs in my life and they have been a huge part of my healing process. They give me purpose at a time when things don't make sense. I could tell that they were hurting as well and the steps I have been taking have helped them as much as they have helped me. I have also been bombarding them with hugs and kisses and they have responded in kind. I believe they will become closer with each other than ever before and our bond will grow even stronger.
I am convinced that our dogs take a piece of us when they leave and we are never the same without them, but perhaps this is the point. To be forever changed because of our lives together. I refuse to be the type of person who says I will never have another dog - to do that would be to deny myself the amazing life each of my dogs has shown me. I hope that if you are reading this that you will always keep your heart open even at the risk of it breaking, because it is always worth it.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs.