A boy and his dog, grieving the loss of a beloved pet

There are some things in life we are just not prepared for.  Though I thought my family had been emotionally prepared for the death of our family dog, Jake, I was completely unprepared for the actual event itself.  You can rationalize making the ‘right’ decision to put your pet down, but until you actually have to do it you don’t know what ‘being prepared’ really is.

I will back up the story for a minute and give you a quick history on our dog, Jake or “Jakers” as we liked to call him.  Jakers was a springer spaniel that we had rescued from the local humane society.  When we were looking for a dog to join our family I had taken our two young daughers  (age 5 and 11) to the shelter to look for the right fit for us. It took several trips until one day we went to the shelter and saw Jake.  He immediately jumped up and asked to play with us.  We took him outside and he literally picked us to be his owners.  We just knew it was right.  At that time Jake was about 2 years old, had a beautiful coat and was full of energy.

From the start Jake was a good boy and a faithful companion.  We would always say “Jake loves his people” and we loved him too.  He never chewed anything or made messes in the house.  He would faithfully greet us whenever we walked in the door.  Soon after we adopted Jakers we had another addition to our family.  Our young son was born.  Jake was immediately attracted to this young infant and would respond whenever he cried, it was an immediate bond.  At night, Jake would make his rounds in and out of every one of the kid’s bedrooms to check on them and make sure all was well.  He did this faithfully night after night.  It’s just the kind of dog he was…he loved his people.

As the years went by Jake’s hearing began to fade.  He could no longer hear the door bell ring or his name being called.  But, he remained faithful as ever.  He watched the kids grow up (one even moved away) and would continue to search for our affection even when our lives were very busy.  Jake accompanied us on many camping trips and would never refuse a ride in the car.  He didn’t mind, he loved his people.

Over the past couple of years Jake began to show many signs of the aging process.  He developed allergies and despite trying many types of food, allergy medication and trips to the vet, the allergies were too strong for him.  He began losing his hair and would rely on his people to clean his eyes and nose several times a day.  His hips began to fail and we knew he was in pain as he rarely wagged his tail.  However, this didn’t stop his love for his people.  During the past year we noticed significant weight loss (despite eating and drinking).  Additionally he would become confused and literally get ‘lost’ while standing in the corner of the house or in the back yard.  We knew the time was coming to make a humane, loving decision for Jake.

Summer of 2012 was soon approaching and we knew that Jake just couldn’t endure the activity of the summer without significant pain and suffering.  We began talking seriously about end of life decisions.  At first the talk was matter of fact.  We discussed quality of life with the kids.  Our oldest daughter wanted validation from the vet, our middle daughter removed herself from the decision, our young son begged to not make the decision.  This was going to be a process.

In true clinician style I began to research on the grieving process of pets. I didn’t find what I was really looking for.  But I did find one article that basically said to allow the children to be a part of the decisions and really do things that they want done.  Essentially the message was to validate the child’s emotions and allow them to have a say.  Our oldest daughter was sad but understanding.  Our middle daughter continued to remove herself and our youngest son was begging for us not to do it.  As time progressed we continued to particularly talk with our youngest son and he actually began to notice Jake’s pain and would say, “Its hard but its the right thing to do”.  He asked what he could do for Jake and my response was just to love him.

My husband set the date to take Jake to the vet.  As the days progressed we began to talk about how to memorialize him and how the day would go.  I noticed the kids really loving on Jake and taking him for walks (very short ones as he could no longer tolerate long walks).  We asked each child about how they wanted the day to go.  Our oldest daughter  (age 21) decided to come home for a final visit, our middle daughter (age 16) did not want to go to the vet, and our young son (age 10) wanted to hold Jake during the procedure.  His request was the most difficult.  He took interest in learning about the procedure and began writing poetry about Jake during school.  He rallied together the kids in the neighborhood and over the next few days a flurry of cards and stuffed animals arrived in our yard.  The amount of support he received from his peer group was incredible.

The day of the procedure arrived and our oldest daughter came to visit.  I was surprised that Jake actually remembered her and for the first time in a long time moved his tail a bit in excitement.  After she left it was time to go.  Our middle daughter decided to go to work and our son went with us.  It was if Jake knew what was going on and was very calm.  He laid in the backseat with our son while he read him a good bye letter.  He trusted his people.

We went into the vet office and the employees immediately took us into the exam room.  They gave us immediate options and we allowed our son to choose.  We opted to remain with Jake so he was surrounded by the love of his people.  They placed Jake on a blanket and took a clay imprint of his paw for us.  As the procedure started my son lovingly wrapped his arms around Jake and put his own head on Jake’s body.  My husband and I stroked Jake’s fur and spoke to him. This was how we all remained until Jake passed on.  All of us cried deeply as a member of our family had just died. We remained in the room for as long as possible, none of us really wanted to leave our Jake behind.  Our son asked for a moment alone with Jake to which we allowed.  I could hear him crying and talking to Jake while I stood outside the doorway.  My heart was breaking for him.  This was a sadness that I truly was not prepared for.  The grieving process had begun.

Our first moments home were truly sad and empty.  Our middle daughter came home from work and began to sob.  She stated that she couldn’t ‘remove’ herself like she had thought and was regretting not going with us.  Her feelings were acknowledged, and it was agreed that you cannot hide from pain.  My son began a ritual of arranging and rearranging Jake’s toys in his dog bed.  He would hold the dog bed for hours and used Jake’s sweater to comfort himself. He would look at me and repeatedly say, “I just miss Jake” in a soft whisper.  At night he slept with the sweater because he wanted to “feel” Jake near him.  This continued for several days.  My husband asked, “when do we take the bed away”…my response, “he will put it away when he is ready”.  He readiness increased as the days went by.  His friends began to come to the house and ask him to play.  At first, he would decline to play in order to be with Jake’s things.  After about three days he ventured outside and began to play.  We would spend much time before bed reminiscing about Jake and telling stories about him.  Eventually my middle daughter would also join us. We set up a memorial garden in the back yard and bought memorial bears for each of the kids.  The grieving process was moving along.

It was amazing how many people reached out to us over the loss of a pet.  We received cards, photographs and books to help us through.  I never expected to be impacted so much by a pet and to feel so sad over the loss.  I really never anticipated learning first hand the grieving process of a child.  Children do know how to care of themselves.  My middle daughter learned her own limitations with pain.  My son learned about the process, reached out for help from his peers, comforted a dying loved one and comforted himself through this entire process.  It was truly amazing to be a part of this life lesson.

While writing this my son and I are on our first camping trip of the season.  I opened the cabinet upon arrival to notice Jake’s old dog dishes.  My son looked at me and said, “It’s quiet here without Jake isn’t it”.  I acknowledged the quiet and my son went out to ride his bike.

My quest in understanding how a child grieves the loss of a pet didn’t come from something I had read.  Understanding came from  observing my own children while grieving, supporting their decisions, listening to them and validating their emotions.  Instead of trying to control their grieving process in attempts to reduce the pain, I learned to let the process just happen…

Jakers……as much as you loved your people, your people loved you too.

Teralyn Sell, PhD, LPC