Moms Talk: Dealing With the Loss of the Family Pet

Hear from a mom whose family is struggling with the loss of their dog, Emma.

Today I came home and she didn’t have her nose pressed against the window.  There was no clickity-clack of nails on the hardwood when I dropped a piece of food while cooking and when I sat down at the end of yet another hectic day there was no soft muzzle nudging my hand. 

This last week my family lost our energetic and loyal dog, Emma, very suddenly.  On Monday she was prancing by the door for a walk and by Thursday night she was gone.  

Emma considered herself another human in the house.  She “talked” in long rawr-rawr sentences, sat all 80 pounds in your lap for attention and understood so many words that we had to spell like we were living with a toddler.  Emma wasn’t just a dog, she was family.

So how do you cope with the loss of a pet?  Honestly it is different for everyone, but with still very raw emotions here are some of the ways our family has taken it one step at a time:

1)    Talk and write down some of your favorite family memories with your pet.

It surprised me how much my kids wanted to share silly stories and favorite Emma moments.  I thought the emotions might be too strong, but to laugh and remember the lighter moments was a way to bond and even re-live some things we had forgotten.  Suddenly even her naughty moments seemed comical and we each had different stories that stood out in our minds.  Now that my children are teens, I’ve learned that all their childhood little phrases and funny episodes are easily forgotten if you don’t write them down. So spend some time journaling moments you never want to forget.

2)    Pick out special items to save or create a memorial and store the rest.

Save a collar, a sentimental toy or dish and place them with a favorite photo somewhere in your home that will serve as a memorial to help your family honor their memory.  Many vets and animal hospitals will provide a paw casting that can either be placed on a mantle or set into a homemade memorial stepping stone.  Take the remaining items and store them in boxes or donate to another family with a pet to help lessen the constant reminders that may be all over the house.

3) Use social media to let others know and get support.

If you use social media such as Facebook, work with the family to create a picture album of some of your favorite pet photos and post along with a message sharing that you have lost your pet.  This not only helps your friends and loved ones know what you are going through, but it also results in many thoughtful messages that you can read as a family to remember that others care and understand how hard this is.  We also found that our kids were invited out with friends because other parents understood that they needed some distractions in the first few days and sitting at home was tough.

4)    Let your emotions out.

Explain to older children and teens that having a variety of emotions is not only o.k., it’s to be expected.   One of our children broke down and cried immediately while another was angry and kept trying to ask questions about how this could happen so fast.  Another family member just sat in stunned silence.  Even a few days later we still get chocked up when a dog walks by on the street or we have to roller dog hair off our clothes.  The kids might have trouble sleeping and need some distractions.  All of this in part of the grieving process and understand that not everyone will “get it.”  Make home a safe place to talk and remember that crying is a healthy way to let out stress no matter your age.

5) Get some laughter and legwork. 

Rent a comedy, break out a board game or watch a comedian online.  Get out for a walk, go to the movies or clean out the garage. My children wanted to stay home from school, but honestly getting out of the house and having to concentrate on something else was the best thing for them.  Don’t spend too much time alone.  It may feel mechanical or forced, but keep busy.  In moments of great pain it feels like the world should stop and people should notice, sadly it won’t and many people may not understand.  Keep talking as a family, and find some reasons to get out of the house since that will be where the strongest memory triggers are.  Exercise is a natural mood lifter and don’t feel guilty if you find a reason to laugh.  You need it!

6) Be careful of replacing your pet too soon.

The urge may seem overwhelming to fill the tremendous void left by your pet.  Trust me, our house seems way too quiet and I feel so lonely walking the neighborhood without my four-legged confidant.  However, after doing some reading online I learned that if you replace your pet too soon it is usually disappointing.  You are looking to have your previous pet back, and no animal can live up to that.  Your new pet will be different; they will present different personalities, challenges and habits.  Likewise, the family is grieving and your pet will likely pick up on this emotion and may feel the need to become dominant which leads to many obedience issues.  When your family has dealt fully with your loss and is prepared to take on a whole new family member with a totally new set of quirks and qualities, only then consider pet ownership. 

7)    Check out grief resources.

The Golden Valley Animal Humane Society offers a pet loss support group that is always open to new faces.  My family was given a copy of the children’s book Dog Heaven and it really touched us.  Consider the needs of each of your family members and don’t be afraid to reach out for support.  Many vets and animal hospitals offer grief services and can also suggest memorial options.

8)    What would Emma do?

It sounds cheesy, but remember that your pet would want you to be happy.  That’s the best thing about pets.  They love you unconditionally.  In our case, Emma was in tremendous pain from a very fast moving cancer.  She was not the energetic and precocious young dog in her final days that she had always been.  The most loving thing we could do for her, was end her insufferable pain.  I know if she was here, she would want to end ours.  Think of their soft eyes, purring tummies or wagging tails and the answer is clear, they love seeing their loved ones happy.  In our house, we are still struggling day-by-day and sometimes hour by hour, but we recognize that our lives are better off because of the time we spent with our furry family member.  Life is precious and in the end every paw printed moment counts.


Here's what other local moms had to say about dealing with the loss of the family pet.

Michael Hlavac, Edina

"I wanted to share what we've done in the past. We have found furry friends in the backyard that have died of one thing or another and my 6-year-old son feels very deeply for these wayward critters.  I have read him The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst and we decorate paving stones together for the garden. Our family dog is growing older and, in doing these things together, he and I have been able to discuss what life is going to be like without his trusted friend and what we'll eventually do to honor his memory."

Katelynn Metz, Minnetonka Patch Editor

"The death of a family pet is a terrible thing. We lost our beloved 14-year-old Australian Shepherd, Jack, the same weekend my son was born. I was so happy to welcome my son into the world, but only hours later I had to say goodbye (over the phone from my hospital bed) to my "first son." I adopted Jack just a week out of college. He had seen me through so many changes in my life, I felt terrible that I could not be there for him at the end of his life. 

But even now, four years later, we still talk about Jack.  As parents, we have used Jack as our children's first introduction to the topic of death. I have showed the kids pictures of him and talked to them about the cycle of life and death. I'm not sure they understand yet, but Jack has been a good way to put a face on the idea of death—something very abstract to a child. 

I do wonder what will happen when our cats, 8-years-old and extremely attached to my daughter, pass on. I can imagine it will be a very difficult time for her. I know that because when I was 9-years-old my family's Border Collie, Dulcie, died.  It truly was the loss of my best friend. But my mother was very smart in the way she handled it—encouraging my sister and me to talk about our grief, not bury it. For months, years even,we looked at pictures and we shared favorite memories. In the days after her death, we buried a box in the back yard that contained her ashes, her leash, a picture of her and her favorite toy. I'm sure that box is still buried under the tree in our backyard, 25 years later. That thought still comforts me today. So when the time comes to say goodbye to our wonderful cats, Mikey & Mittens Metz, I will do the same thing with my daughter."

 Kay Gordon, Golden Valley

"When our 15-year-old cat died two years ago, my youngest had a hard time understanding what that meant because he was only five years old at the time.  So we had to tackle not only the death of our sweet Rascal, we also had to deal with the concept of death as a whole.  It seemed the more we tried to explain, the less Jack understood.  We finally realized that we really needed to listen to what Jack was asking.  He really just needed to know that Rascal was OK and wasn't going to be with us anymore.  My 10-year-old needed a much different explanation, so the two of us went for a walk and talked.  But again, I made sure I was answering questions, not coming up with all kinds of explanations for things they didn't ask about.  Listen to your child and address his/her immediate questions.  That's what worked for us."

Lisa Buck, Orono

"Our 3-year-old chocolate lab, Ike, died last summer unexpectedly when he got locked in a car on a very hot day. We were shocked and heartbroken. It was my son's birthday. Instead of a birthday party, we had a family funeral for Ike.  After a week of crying, we decided that some good had to come from this, so we adopted a homeless dog from a rescue group. Abe is a great pet and family member, but we still think about Ike often."

Becky Glander, Deephaven

"The loss of a pet can be especially devastating to your young children who can't quite wrap their little heads around the concept of "death." My 4-year-old daughter has questions for me about death quite often, and it spooks me because I want her to be a happy-go-lucky kid who thinks she is immortal for as long as possible. However, if a pet would die in our household, I would explain that it's all part of God's plan. Obviously, what you say to your child has to reflect your religious beliefs. A great movie to watch is Disney's "The Lion King" because it helps to explain the circle of life."

Virginia Dietz April 13, 2011 at 09:22 PM
On 3/1/11, I had my Justin, an Afenpinscher, almost 12, who had bone cancer which was discovered by an Xray early n Sept 2010 and another Xray on 12/30/10. This showed the bone was gone to the knuckle and the bone next to was eaten vertically. Justin was in a lot of pain but I wanted a few days to have him with me but I knew what I had to do so back to the vet office to have him sent (OVER THE RAINBOW). I have had dogs since 1946 and had many GSDs, Briards and Affens in that time. But still I have missed each one. I sItill have two Affens - one abut 15 and the other one 10 and will enjoy the time I have with them. Their ashes are wuth me in wood boxes and cardboard boxes in my cabinet. Virginia Dietz affens@aol.com
Susan Chambers April 14, 2011 at 02:55 PM
I had a terrible fire in my home in January. the exhaust fan in the bathroom was the source. I lost my little pomeranian. She was like a human to me also. She always knew what I was saying to her and responded to it like she was speaking to me. The firemen had to hold me back. I think the whole neighborhood heard my crys. It tore me apart that I worked late that night and all the maybe's and what ifs haunted me for a while. Bottom line...I know exactly how you feel. So sorry for your loss
Ellen Frigo April 15, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Gail, what a lovely column. And many condolences on the loss of Emma. As a vet, I've seen this from both sides - having been the one to help pet owners through this tough time and having to make to decision for my own pets. Your suggestions are all spot on - especially about not rushing to get another pet. It's important to wait until you want another dog, not the one you've just said good-bye to.
m.tatiana p. April 16, 2011 at 01:38 PM
Tito Lynch was his name ,my beautiful litle dog,my baby. He pas in 2005,Tito I love you so much.
julie renner April 16, 2011 at 03:20 PM
His name was Corky , but I called him Ralph and he answered to both names. He cost $15.00 and was the best investment this family ever made. He was quirky, afraid of storms, very friendly with girls in mini skirts, loyal, and the best ear when you needed to talk or cry on his shoulder. He spent 10 years with us and died in 1978 when he could no longer get in the car and go to the Dairy Queen for his own cone. He is in heaven with all of the rest of the family and still being the best "family dog". My sympathy to you, Gail, in your loss and thank you for the wonderful article of compassion Julie Renner, major dog lover


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