What My Dog Taught Me about Grief and Loss

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Waffle 8/8/2001-11/04/2018

I remember my Mum taking our family cat, Tiger to the vet to be put to sleep. He was old and sick. I don’t remember my grief, but I do remember my Mum crying a lot, and my Dad getting angry because Mum had taken Tiger to the vet. Here were two very different responses to loss, but ultimately, both of them were hurting a lot.

Last Wednesday, I took my beautiful rescue dog, Waffle to the vet. She came into our family’s life in 2001, so she was old. Up until January, she had been going along okay, and then a nasty and savage attack by another dog, sped up the aging process for her. I had recently moved into a new unit and had just brought Waffle back to live with me after a recuperation at a friend’s place. I noticed how her little spirit was a bit lost, and that she wasn’t doing “doggy” things anymore.

I decided to take her to the vet for a “quality of life” assessment. She ticked all of the boxes for lack of quality of life. She snuggled into me with her head on my chest, and it was like she was letting me know it was okay to go. What went through my mind then? Should I take her home and let the children and my friend say goodbye to her before having her euthanized? I looked at Waffle and she was telling me it was time today. I had to do what was best for her. It wasn’t about me or anyone else.

It was one of the most intimate experiences I have ever had. I got to thank her for being in our lives and for being by my side through so many traumas. I got to thank her for touching so many other hearts, and I got to say goodbye with her in my arms.

Being in the Mental Health and counseling field, I thought I knew about grief and loss. I have experienced plenty of loss already. I have trained in grief and loss counseling. I thought it would be the same each time. It’s not; it’s different. The initial days, it’s been about crying myself to sleep, and reaching out for Waffle on the bed in the night as I lay there awake. It’s about waking up in the morning and reaching out for her. It’s about trying to find her smells on things so I can still feel her with me. It’s about the massive feelings of guilt that I did the right thing. Logically I know I did what was best for Waffle, but it doesn’t stop the thoughts from creeping in because if I had kept her alive a bit longer, then I wouldn’t be experiencing this incredible pain.

I could choose to become consumed in this grief, and some of the time, it’s okay to sit with a photo or toy of Waffle’s and have a big cry. I also choose that there is a reality that she is gone, and that in spite of my pain right now, I can still take actions based on my values. I love my work, and I can hold a space for my pain, and also be fully present and do work with my clients.

It’s been five days now, and the pain isn’t any less, but it’s settling into my heart softly as I give myself compassion and kindness. I place my hands on my heart, and tell myself “right now, this is a moment of suffering”. At this point my mind is really good at telling me this is not a MOMENT, but years of suffering! As my mind does this, I continue with the self compassion exercise. “I can be kind to myself right now. Suffering is a part of life, and I am not alone in this.” Does this make the pain go away? No, it doesn’t. But would I want the pain to go away? No, I wouldn’t because the pain is telling me that I loved; I loved for that gorgeous little fluffy Waffleywoo.

The grief will continue for how long, I don’t know. It will settle even more softly into my heart. No, I won’t get over it, but I will do what I’m doing right now, and that is to live with it, accept it, and to let it be.

Some people are well meaning and ask if I’ll get another dog, or say get another dog now. “It’ll stop you thinking about Waffle.” I don’t want to not think about Waffle. She was part of my family. I spent a long time learning acceptance of pain, thoughts and feelings. So what will I do from here onwards?

  • I’ll accept the pain, sadness, loss and loneliness of not having Waffle around.
  • I will choose to feel all of the feelings whether they are messy or not.
  • I will give myself the space and room to feel what I need to feel.
  • I will open up an even bigger space to hold the emotions I’m feeling right now.
  • I will practice the self-compassion break (I have included the Self-Compassion break exercise below).
  • I will connect with people I care about.
  • I will connect with my values and take actions that match my values.
  • I will soften my body to allow the physical sensations and pain to just “be”.

Self-Compassion break exercise (adapted from the work of Kristen Neff)

  • I find it helps to make the physical move of actually putting your hands on your heart/chest area and saying to yourself, “this is a moment of suffering”
  • Tell myself that suffering is a part of life; if we choose to love, we will inevitably have loss which then causes pain. I am not alone and this is a normal part of humanity.
  • Just feel the warmth of your hands on your chest and notice your chest rising and falling as you breathe.
  • Say the words, “May I be kind to myself right now, and may I accept myself as I am right now.” What does it look like when I’m being kind to myself? Can I slow down a bit and just notice my breathing for a while?
  • Some final phrases for grief and loss are, “May I safely endure this pain.” “May I accept the circumstances of my life”, and “May I find peace in my heart.”

I started writing this ten days ago now. As I thought, the grief and loss is settling softly into my heart, and I thank my beautiful, warm and loving furry friend for teaching me more parts about grief and loss.

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