Sunday, January 13, 2013

Unexpected Loss of a Pet

"If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness." This quote, by Marjorie Garber, is so true. 

I have once again had to feel this profound sadness with the unexpected death of our almost five-year old German Shepherd/Coon Dog mix, Gretel. She was born on January 23, 2008; and died from - most likely - a heart attack on January 12, 2013. 

Gretel Resting with Bone
Gretel on her Adoption Day - March 28, 2008.
She's resting after a fun and busy day from the transition 
from the humane society to her new home.

An autopsy was done on Gretel. She was a very healthy dog. The veterinarian thinks it might have been a dilated/ruptured vessel in the brain or a misfiring of her heart - most likely the latter. Yet, even he was uncertain as to what was the cause of her death.

Either way, her death was sudden and unexpected. She died under the pine trees where she loved to play and explore with her buddy, Montague (the golden retriever).

" knows not its own depth until the hour of separation."
(Kabil Gibran)

In reading different sites on the internet, it seems that Gretel isn't the first German Shepherd to unexpectedly die at a young age. After reading the descriptions of other experiences that people had with their German Shepherds, it seems like the heart issue - the misfiring of it or a "heart attack" - is likely. Apparently they are genetically predisposed to this condition.

These healthy, athletic, young dogs can be out playing and enjoying themselves, then they become slightly unstable on their feet, lie down, and die. This all happens in a period of less than a few minutes. One person said it was literally 30 seconds at the most.

This leaves the owners stunned...and in a state of shock.

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."
(Jack Lemmon)

Pictures from Gretel's Life - 2008-2013.

As I was reading the Pet Loss website this morning, there was some helpful information about helping children cope with the death of a pet. This is even more critical when the loss is unexpected since there is no time for the child to mentally prepare and say "goodbye" to the beloved family pet. (This was the case with Gretel; and Sophia and Olivia not having a chance to say "goodbye" to her before she died.)

According to the website, "Many people do not realize how traumatic and confusing death can be on a child. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults.

Sophia Jumping in the Dog Tracks
Sophia jumping in tracks the dogs made in the snow.
Gretel is following behind her running and having a great time.

"Children also tend to come back to the subject repeatedly; so extreme patience is required when dealing with the grieving child. Some helpful tips for helping the grieving child include:

1. Giving the child permission to work through their grief.
- tell their teacher about the pet's death.
- encourage the child to talk freely about the pet.
- give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.
- discuss death, dying and grief honestly.

2. Never say things like "God took your pet," or the pet was "put to sleep."
- The child will learn to fear that God will take them, their parents, or their siblings.
- The child will become afraid of going to sleep.

3. Include the child in everything that is going on.

4. Explain the permanency of death.

Pictures from the first year of Gretel's life (2008-2009).

Because Montague (the golden retriever)'s constant companion was Gretel, I wanted to read a bit more to help him through the process. He already dealt with the loss of another dog companion (Casey) in February 2008. His level of grief was almost unbearable to watch. He was distraught, wouldn't eat much, didn't want to go outside to go to the bathroom, and would sit on the edge of the deck looking for her. 

Sophia with 6 out of 7 Pets
The pets often would be resting on the bed while we read or did homeschooling.
They would listen to stories we read aloud, and 
watch the birds out the window at the feeder.
Here, Sophia had six out of seven pets on the bed with her. 

I read Cesar's Way - Dealing with Grief that said: "A dog that has lost a companion may show signs of emotional distress with a lack of appetite, aloof behavior, or even be demanding of attention and affection. 

"We have to remember that when a living animal relates to another for a long period of time, they do develop relationships; they do create habits, routines, boundaries and even rules around each other. 

"When suddenly one of the ‘partners’ is no longer there, the dynamic changes. Good, safe, habits and routines create confidence, trust, certainty and familiarity with the world. Now with the death of a companion, it is like having to overcome an addiction of sorts, an ingrained habit that they find difficulty in losing. 

"With some dogs, it can be extreme because they may have built a strong bond with the deceased partner. They have followed them, been guided by them, exercised with and been entertained by them. The world has revolved around the partner. Even dogs that are leaders can find themselves left with a feeling of loneliness, with no one to lead and no one to share with – they have lost the feeling of being wanted and part of a pack.

"So what can we do to minimize and overcome the grieving? ....We should always be the pack leader, but even more so now. Engage your dog in activities s/he enjoys -- walks, retrieving, swimming, games -- and do these by yourselves."

Pictures from Gretel's 2nd-(almost)5th years of life - 2009-2013.

For adults affected by the loss of a pet, it's yet a different sense of grieving than that of children and companion animals. Because a pet was an everyday part of one's life, even the most mundane tasks can be heartbreaking.

As the Pet Loss website said, "You might catch yourself getting ready to feed your dog or let him out, only to remember he is gone. Chances are, you will come home sometimes expecting your dog to greet you. Little things like scratch marks on the floor from doggie nails can trigger an an emotional response.

"Items like dog beds, toys, bowls, leashes, collars, etc. are obvious reminders. However, getting rid of all the things that remind you of your dog is not the answer. If you wish to remove your dog's belongings from sight, simply store them away somewhere. You might want to go back and look at them in the future."

Given time, healing does occur for the bereaved owner. However, there are several things that the grief-stricken owner can do to help speed up the healing process, according to the Pet Loss website:

1. Give yourself permission to grieve.
- only you know what your pet meant to you.

2. Memorialize your pet.
- makes the loss real and helps with closure.
- allows the bereaved to express their feelings, pay tribute and reflect.
- draws in social support.

3. Get lots of rest, good nutrition and exercise.

4. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss.
- let others care for you.
- take advantage of support groups for bereaved pet owners.

5. Learn all you can about the grief process. - helps owners realize that what they are experiencing is normal.

6. Accept the feelings that come with grief.
- talk, write, sing, or draw.

7. Indulge yourself in small pleasures.

8. Be patient with yourself.
-don't let society dictate how long mourning should last.

9. Give yourself permission to backslide.
- it will end and your life will be normal again.
- grief is like waves in the ocean: at first the waves come in fast and hard, but as time goes on, the waves become less intense and further apart.
- don't be surprised if holidays, smells, sounds, or words trigger a relapse.

10. Don't be afraid to get help.
- pet loss support groups
- grief counselors.

Gretel and Me
I'm holding Gretel three days after she was adopted.
She liked to be held when she was a puppy; 
and needed to be carried up the stairs until we taught her how to climb them.
(Photo taken on March 31, 2008.)

Grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that a person can experience. It is even more so for pet owners. Society in general does not give bereaved pet owners "permission" to grieve openly.

Consequently, pet owners often feel isolated and alone. Luckily, more and more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are not alone and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.

Montague and Gretel
Montague and Gretel relaxing under the willow tree in the back pasture.
We had enjoyed a picnic under the tree; and 
decided to sit and enjoy the shade.

Having the support of friends - especially those who have experienced pet loss - also is critical to the healing process. My friend, Mark, wrote such a nice message to me earlier this morning that was very comforting:

"So sorry to hear about the passing of Gretel. I often think that as humans we aren't worthy of dogs, they're too good for us. But if we do our best for them and make all of their days happy then perhaps we have earned our keep in our journey along their side. Surely, you have done just that with Gretel."

Other friends and family members, likewise, have sent supportive messages and condolences on the loss of Gretel. It helps ease the pain.

As pet owners, we know that we will most likely outlive our pets, so we are grateful for the short time we can share or lives with them. I need to remind myself that for almost five years Gretel's beautiful soul touched me and was mine - I truly was blessed.

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. "
(Anatole France)

Gretel Hopping with Frisbee
Gretel bringing back a frisbee for me to throw to her again.
Notice her back legs: she is hopping. 
She loved to hop and propel herself through the air. 
Her level of enthusiasm for life will never be forgotten.


glaucia said...

I'm really sorry for your unexpected loss. I'v been there a few times already and the last one was last year with our 14y.o lab. It's never easy, but reading your post I could see that we think very much alike, as I do believe that it's always a gift to have them with us, even knowing that it's for a limited time. They are amazing and with each of them I had plenty to learn from and blessed with their amazing way of love. And everytime I think about that I feel deeply grateful.
A big warm hug from a friend overseas. (feel free to send me an email anytime you feel like talking)

What Remains Now said...

My heart is broken for you and the girls and for all who loved Gretel. The pictures of Gretel are so precious. What a joyful girl! I know you will guide the girls through it with the grace that you do all things, but it is just plain horrible and the suddenness, especially cruel. You all are in my thought and prayers.

Silver Rose said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. I'm glad to hear that you are so prepared to help your girls through the process. Hugs to you.

peggy aplSEEDS said...

i am so very sorry to hear of your loss. yes, it is so much harder, i think, when it is so sudden and unexpected. may time heal your grief and leave you with feelings of more gratefulness of the time you had than sadness at how short the time was.

Jane S. said...

What a wonderful tribute to a loving (and loved) companion! Your family and Gretel are so lucky to have had each other. Hugs to you.

Tammy_Skipper said...

I am so sorry for your loss. We lost one of our dogs when he was about 17 months old after an accidental ingestion of medication. I've never considered myself a 'pet lover' but oh my, the grief we all had for so long after losing him. We still have such a tender place for that dog and he's been gone five years. I took this Willow Tree plaque and mounted it to a small leather box. We kept his collar, etc in it as a keepsake.
Hugs to you all~!