The unique grief of losing a four-legged best friend

Andrea and Dewey.

Andrea and Dewey.

His life with us began and ended on the backseat of the car. It takes exactly four-and-a-half minutes to get the vet, or the exact length of You're a Big Girl Now by Bob Dylan. I know because we'd made that trip a lot lately. But this time, it was early morning rush hour, and we were halfway into the next song from Blood on the Tracks. Dewey, our old English sheepdog was out of sorts again, his breathing heavy, he wouldn't sit down. Then it happened. I can't talk about it, still, without welling up.

I'd never considered myself a "dog person", I was always more susceptible to the playing-hard-to-get charms of cats. But one day, when I was picking my husband up from a friend's house, an old English sheepdog ran down the footpath and jumped into the backseat of the car. This dog's eagerness for us to get going wherever it was we might be heading won me over, a human in a fur suit. I immediately began my quest to contact breeders Australia-wide.

When we picked Dewey up from the breeder as a six-week-old pup we didn't have a clue what we were in for. Daily rituals for 13 years, one month and six days revolved solely around him: the 5am yip for breakfast; the walks along the river with punctured soccer ball in snout; the smothering upon entering the front door; and late at night, the call to get on the bed to retire for the night butted up against us.

Holidays were always organised with him in the lead role. Dog-friendly beach shacks with names like Thistle do, or The Last Resort, were hired, interstate flights, where he'd appear from the cargo hold eager to explore a new city, were booked. He gave us an inexhaustible supply of attention and adoration. Sure, he couldn't speak, but we were happy to fill in the blanks of what we thought might be on his mind. Everyone's dog is special. To us, he was "the one".

We became sheepdog obsessed, we'd watch The Shaggy D.A. with enthusiasm and, on one overseas trip we missed him so much we tracked down a dog show featuring rescued old English sheepdogs on parade. I even latch-hooked a rug in the shape of a sheepdog face, without irony.

When it happened we were stuck in traffic 200 metres from the vet. My husband opened the car door and cradled his floppy body, running towards reception. I trailed behind, leaving the car doors splayed open, parked in a thoroughfare. Commuters looked on with curiosity.

As he lay there in my husband's arms in the back room of the animal hospital, the vet on duty handed me a laminated card on pet cremation. There were pictures of urns, wooden boxes, silk pouches. Ten minutes before, Dewey was walking out our front door towards the car on his lead, looking back at me, as always, to check I was coming too, rounding us up. And now I was tossing up between a handmade scatter box with italicised name inscription and a silver paw pendant to hold his ashes. I chose both.

We moved him onto a dogbed on the floor. The vet closed the door behind her. Lying there on his side, he looked peaceful, his skin still warm. I took one last sniff of his fur, we both stroked him, our boy Dewey. We told him we loved him and walked out.

At seven years of age, a large dog is considered "geriatric", it was a given that the day would come sooner or later, so why do I feel so sad? A 1994 study found that, with few exceptions, the grief experience associated with the death of a companion animal is similar to that associated with the loss of a significant human. I have had close friends and elderly family members who have passed away but the difference was, I realise, they were separate from the ongoing daily routine of home life.

In her book The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion wrote that, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.”

Now, late at night, when the house is at its quietest, I might trawl the internet and read sorry tales of pet loss and find myself weeping over footage of actor Jimmy Stewart on a talkshow in 1981 reading a homespun ode to his departed dog, Beau. Mostly though, I prefer to be out of the house, where there are no cues, where I can't take a fleeting look outside for him by his dinner bowl, or think I hear his nails clip across the floorboards towards me.

Well-meaning friends are beginning to ask, “When will you get another one?”

Dr Mille Cordaro recently wrote about what's known as disenfranchised grief. Because a pet is not a human being, the grief felt when a pet dies is not always validated as legitimate and can inhibit people from mourning fully.

One day I'll be ready to look into adopting a dog, I've been on an alert for rescued old English sheepdogs for years. But not yet. His lead hangs where it always was, and the box of ashes sit there, ready to be taken down to his favourite beach on the south coast right in front of The Last Resort.

29 comments

  • After almost 17 years we had to make the difficult decision to let our beautiful dog go. It was heartbreaking. That was over six years ago and I don't think a day goes by when I don't think about him.

    Commenter
    Catherine
    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 8:50AM
    • What a beautiful article, I actually teared up a bit when reading it! Our old girl is getting close to 17 years old and although I know that she is basically on borrowed time I can't imagine how hard it will be to say goodbye. It sounds ridiculous thinking it, but we got her when I was ten years old and she has been through every big life event with our family. They might be furry friends but they are friends just the same.

      Commenter
      Citygirl
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:05AM
      • As hard as it it, just don't wait too long. We probably held on for six months too long before putting our boy out of his misery. It's a very hard process but you need to consider the dog rather than yourself. I still feel guilty about keeping him as long as we did. I feel your pain.

        Commenter
        Catherine
        Date and time
        March 14, 2014, 6:38PM
    • Our girl Chloe, a Border Collie, passed last August, she was 3 months short of 15. She joined our family when my kids were 6 and 2. She was a part of the family, running around with the kids in the back, jumping on the trampoline, getting dressed up by my daughter – she was always there. In her twilight years, we looked after her through torn cruciate ligament, incredibly horrible ear infections, and lastly kidney disease. In her final years, she loved nothing better than to be with my daughter and I as we listened to guided meditations, or watching chick flicks, she loved being one of the girls. She would also sit patiently next to my son during his late night gamer sessions.
      We knew her time had come and the kidney disease had finally taken a toll. We made arrangements for her final moments to be peacefully at home with the three of us being there with her at the end. She fretted while my son was at school that final day and only relaxed once he was home with her. We all had our moments with her to say goodbye. During the final injection, we sobbed. And we sobbed after she was gone. The house no longer had that furry presence, and it still has an unnatural stillness without her. She is sorely missed, and I can honestly say that I am getting teary writing this.
      Those who have not had the connection of this furry presence cannot possibly understand the impact the loss has on a household. It is grief, pure and simple when they go. She was and always will be a much loved member of the family.

      Commenter
      AK
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:24AM
      • Goddamn it. In tears at my desk.
        I have often wondered if the death of a pet can come under compassionate leave at work. It absolutely should. I was beyond devastated at the departure of my cat to the great bathmat in the sky after fourteen years of love and devotion. I absolutely feel Andrea's pain.

        Commenter
        Nik
        Date and time
        March 14, 2014, 9:25AM
        • I cried at my desk too and my work colleagues must think I am losing it.
          A pet is a part of your family and a part of your life. They live it with you, they are a constant companion bringing joy, humour, companionship and fun. I have had to make te final journey many time over the years and it never gets easier to say goodbye. :(

          Commenter
          Deb
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          March 14, 2014, 11:05AM
        • Oh Nik...I am dreading, truly dreading the day I lose my beautiful 11-year old ragdoll boys, Cochise and Geronimo. Sometimes I torture myself imagining life without them - because one day it will be so.

          Commenter
          reality bites
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 14, 2014, 11:28AM
        • I'm crying at my desk now too. Our family had two labradors during my childhood and their deaths were the hardest times of my childhood, more than the death of grandparents or distant relatives. Like the article says, your pets are an intrinsic part of your every day life and their absence is huge. I have my own labrador now, who just turned 1, and I can't imagine my life without her. I hope I don't have to face that possibility for many years to come.

          Commenter
          lh
          Date and time
          March 14, 2014, 1:34PM
      • Well that made me tear up at work. I've always been a dog person and when I was growing up we had 2 German shepherd's, at around 14 we no longer had any dogs but my sisters and I always asked my mum when we where getting another one. It wasn't until I was in stable work, got some extra money from selling my car that I knew I really wanted a dog again so at 21 my boss who bred Golden Retriever's came into work (he knew I wanted one but never asked him) and asked me if I wanted a puppy, they had a litter of 12 (10 survived) and out of all of those only 2 girls, one was taken and the other was available, I immediately said yes even though we still had to ask the real estate (the perils' of renting) and even though we got a dud (surgery at 9 months that cost us a fortune but not hereditary) I wouldn't have it any other way. Every time I get home in the afternoon she is there wobbling her bum to great me, she hops on my bed when I'm getting ready in the mornings and lies at my feet while I'm watching tv on or my computer, she lies next to me most of the time at night and does her crazy little zoomies every afternoon in the back yard because she's that excited. I know eventually when she does pass I will be a blubbering mess - I guess being an adult and having a stronger bond to her is my main downfall but they always bring love and happiness into your life which always makes it better

        Commenter
        Sarah
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        March 14, 2014, 9:35AM
        • I thought this was a lovely article that captures some of the grief of losing a truly beloved four-legged member of the family. We lost our gorgeous, clever, strong-willed, and gentle husky girl a few weeks ago. She was over 12 and had also been sick for a while so we knew the day would eventually arrive, nevertheless when it did it was still devastatingly sad. She's buried outside our bedroom window with a favourite old jumper of mine and the dried bouquet from our wedding. My 6yo daughter still goes around and brushes her teeth next to the grave most evenings and my eyes mist up at the most inopportune times. She and I spent untold thousands of hours together in all sorts of places. She brought us so much joy...she was a friend and companion, a role model for our other pups, she eased us into parenthood, she played an important part in the early lives of our kids...so my sympathies to you Andrea and Dewey was a very lucky pup to spend his life in such a loving home.

          Commenter
          Nick
          Date and time
          March 14, 2014, 10:20AM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed