There have been few events in my life which have affected me more than the deaths of my pets. I’ve always loved animals, and when I was in third grade my mother finally broke down and let my sisters and me get a dog. That very day, we went out and adopted a beautiful, moppy-headed Lhasa Apso puppy whom we named Ko-ko.
For much of the time, Ko-ko and I were inseparable. Adorable but stubborn, she nipped at my feet whenever she thought she was entitled to more space on my bed. But through all the puppy antics, she was there for me to walk with around our neighborhood, show off to my friends, “speak” on command, and to keep me company when I was lonely. By the time I finished college fourteen years later, Ko-ko had grown old. She became slower and slept a lot, and she had also developed some internal tumors which started to bleed. Our veterinarian told us it was time for Ko-ko to be “put to sleep,” or “euthanized,” which is a humane way to end a pet’s life. With one quick injection, my beloved Ko-ko was no longer in pain, and her long life was over.
But my pain was just beginning. I was deeply saddened with the loss of my best friend. My room felt empty and alone, and my grief was very real. I didn’t feel like eating, as I had a sorrowful pain in my stomach, and I had trouble concentrating. I even awoke during the night thinking that I heard Ko-ko’s collar clinking, but my mind was just playing tricks on me. She was truly gone. Some people understood that Ko-ko was as important to me as some of the people in my life, while others did not, and I remember feeling lost and crying often during those first few weeks after she died. I learned that the hardest part about sharing my life with my beloved Ko-ko was losing her.
After grieving for awhile, I knew I had to do some things that would make me a little happier each day. I’d always taken a zillion pictures of Ko-ko, so I had a few enlarged and framed so that I could still have her image close by me. Knowing that I would never forget what she looked like gave me great comfort. I also gathered some of the many personal items belonging to her, like dog dishes, blankets, and towels and brought them to a local animal shelter. Recognizing that Ko-ko’s special things were going to be used by needy dogs made me feel good about giving them away. I kept a few meaningful things, like her dog tags and her favorite red and white sweater, and I put them away with some photos in a little cardboard box.
I spent a lot of time outside that fall, thinking about her and the memories I still had, and as the weeks went by, I cried less and smiled more. After all, I was so very blessed to have Ko-ko in my life. She lived a long, happy life, almost pain-free. But, for a long time I didn’t know if I would ever want another dog. Eventually, though, I adopted Astro, a pitbull-mix who was as different from Ko-ko as night is from day. Astro taught me the beautiful lesson that I could love another dog, again. And many years later, Comet, is teaching me that lesson all over again.
If we are lucky and our dogs and cats are healthy and lead active lives, our pets can live for 12-15 years or longer; smaller animals like rabbits and hamsters live shorter lives and horses longer. But sometimes we are less fortunate, and they have a more limited time with us. We can still be grateful for the time they shared with us and how they filled our hearts. When you lose a pet, you might think that you are never going to feel happy again, but there are many things you can do to help yourself:
1. Talk to your family and friends about your feelings. Let them know if you are sad, angry, or maybe relieved that your pet's pain if over. These are all very normal feelings when you’ve lost a pet. There may also be feelings of guilt if your pet was accidentally hit by a car, but remind yourself that you would never knowingly put your pet in harm’s way. You can also talk with a teacher, school counselor, or other trusted adult.
2. Gather a few items that best remind you of your pet, like a special collar or bowl. Keep them close by if it makes you feel better, or pack them away to look at later, when you are less sad.
3. Frame a few photos or put them in an album, scrapbook, or a special drawer in your room. It might make you sad to look at them for awhile, but as time passes, you will be glad you have them. Thirty years later, I still look at Ko-ko’s picture on my nightstand before I turn out the lights, and it makes me smile.
4. Write a letter to your late pet expressing your feelings. It’s ok not to share your letter with someone, but it might make you feel better getting your thoughts out and down on paper.
5. Read a book about losing a pet. I sometimes find it soothing to open up some of my favorite children’s books on the subject.
6. Create a little memorial outside where you can go to sit and think about your pet. A special place that you shared or a simple sunny spot with a tree or grass will do the trick. You might want to take a flower once in a while to that spot to lift your spirits.
7. Think about making an “in-kind” donation to your local animal shelter in memory of your pet. You might find a bit of satisfaction by donating some of your pet’s usable items, such as towels and blankets, to animals in need. Also, at your next birthday you might want to ask friends to bring items posted on your shelter’s wish list instead of gifts.
8. Make sure you spend time with another pet, if you have one at home. Remember that he likely misses the company of the pet who died, too.
9. Spending time with other animals might give you some joy and make you smile. Visit a friend’s pet or volunteer to walk a neighbor’s dog or play with their cat or rabbit.
10. Your pain should lessen a bit as the days pass, but if it doesn’t, speak to your family, teacher, or school counselor. Adults can help you work through your feelings so that you feel better.
11. When your family is ready, consider adopting an animal from your local animal shelter. It will make you feel good to know you are giving an animal a second chance at a forever home.
Here is a helpful list of books (and there are many more at the library) that deal with pet loss:
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Goodbye Jake by Bam Schildkraut
Ocho Loved Flowers by Anne Fontaine
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad
Zoe’s Good-bye by Mary Schlangen
And here are a few articles about coping with the death of a pet: