The morning of Mother’s Day, everything was fine with our beloved Coco, a 6-year-old giant German shepherd with the sweetest disposition. We went on a family hike and Coco did her normal thing — running ahead to sniff trees and bushes and picking up pinecones and sticks. She seemed so happy to be playing outside with all of her humans — my husband, our three kids, and me.
It was only later that day, when we got home from lunch, that I started to notice something was wrong. When I opened the front door, Coco couldn’t even get up from her bed in the living room to greet us. We walked over to her and rubbed her head and belly, and she seemed happy. Still, she didn’t get up.
By the next day, Coco was even more lethargic. Her fur was matted and clumping in spots, like it was getting ready to fall out in tuffs. She seemed spacey and only half there. We placed her favorite treat in front of her as she lay on the deck, and she could only muster the effort to lick it with the very tip of her tongue. My heart sank.
I took her to the vet, expecting that he would tell me she needed such and such medication and would be good to go in a few days. Instead, much to my shock, Coco was diagnosed with immune mediated hemolytic anemia. Her immune system was attacking her own red blood cells, making her anemic and reducing oxygen delivery. We rushed her to the emergency vet in Reno for a blood transfusion and tried to remain hopeful. But the next morning, I got the news I had been dreading — her bilirubin, which is created by the breakdown of red blood cells, was off the charts and flooding her brain. She was losing cognitive abilities.
My husband and I wept. We had no choice but to put her down. Yet I didn’t know how I would find the strength to say goodbye to this creature that had become my heart. How was I going to kiss her for the last time, to place my forehead against hers and tell her how much I loved her, how much she meant to me? She had been my constant companion for the past six years, always by my side. My favorite thing in the world was to hike with her. We explored new trails together, hiked old ones, went on long hikes with friends and their dogs. We mountain biked together, too, and in the winter we skied together. The back of my car was permanently covered in dog hair. I liked to joke that I spent more time with Coco than my own children. My children joked that she was my favorite child.
How could I carry on with her gone? Why the heck did losing a dog hurt so much? And would I ever be the same again?
Thankfully, there are experts who have the answers and resources to help grieving pet owners manage the bereavement process.
“We have more contact with our pets often than with people,” said Bonnie Goodman, a grief counselor who runs the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe’s Pet Loss Support Group. “Many people consider them our soul mates. We often spend more time with them than our people. Therefore, our connection with our pets can be very intimate.”
Also, our relationship with our pets is uncomplicated. Unlike with friends and family, we don’t have issues or emotional baggage with our pets. They love us for who we are, unconditionally.
“Pets for a lot of people satisfy a different kind of need, a need humans can’t satisfy on a level that pets can,” said Erin Ellis, HSTT’s community engagement director in charge of the pet loss support group, which started last fall. “Pets are there regardless of who you are, what your job is, how much money you make. They are faithful companions. Their death can leave a void.”
How we deal with the void is deeply personal, but Goodman recommended processing the loss by talking about it. This can include writing a goodbye letter to your pet, talking with friends, or joining a support group. Rituals are also helpful, Goodman said, like lighting a candle next to your dog’s picture or creating an altar with her collar, bed, and condolence letters.
One thing Goodman said that resonated with me was this: “The way we bond with our pets tends to determine how we grieve.” I found this to be incredibly true of my experience after Coco died, when I became engulfed in pain and grief, unable to talk to anyone except my immediate family. I knew the only way through the grief was to do what Coco and I had always done together — walk in the woods. So for five days straight, I hiked a different trail every day, clasping her pink collar to my breastbone as I walked and I cried, walked and cried, until on the sixth day, I finally felt like I had moved beyond the anguish to something like acceptance.
Steve Woods, who owns A Beloved Friends Pet Crematory in Reno and is a certified pet bereavement consultant, said the most important thing to do when grieving an animal is to be good to yourself.
“I tell people to take it easy, people are pretty upset when this happens,” said Woods, who founded A Beloved Friends in 2008, the first accredited pet crematorium in the country. “They need to eat and take care of themselves instead of just sitting in a stupor. You have to carry on with activities and daily living. It’s okay to grieve for pets, everybody does.”
This may be the most important aspect of a support group — knowing you are not alone in your feelings.
“For some people, it’s nice to just be validated that the grief is real, that it’s normal to feel this way,” said Ellis, who lost her two dogs within months of each other over a year ago. “It’s nice to feel the support of a group that is also feeling this way. It can be oddly uplifting for some people to know it’s okay to grieve like that.”
The HSTT support group is purposefully kept small — up to seven adults — to allow people who wish to speak ample time to talk.
There are also no rules about when is the right time to get a new pet. Goodman noted that some people may feel guilty about adopting a new dog and worry that they will forget their deceased canine. To combat that, Goodman advised doing things that keep your bond with your former pet alive, like donating to the humane society in your dog’s honor or keeping a photo of your beloved pet in a special place.
A new puppy, Blue, came into our lives two months after we lost Coco. At first, I felt like I was betraying Coco, but then I realized that all dogs come from the same source — love. So in a sense, Coco lives on in Blue. That makes me both tear up and smile every single day.
The HSTT pet loss support group meets the third Wednesday of every month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. over Zoom (for now) and is free. To sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about A Beloved Friends Pet Crematory, visit belovedfriendspetcrematory.com.