How to cope when you have to say Goodbye

by Kris Phillips

Husky with hand heart symbolTwo years ago this week we said goodbye to our beloved Yukon. He was not our first boy to cross the rainbow bridge, and of course, he wont be our last.  Knowing that someday we’ll have to say goodbye to our fur-babies is perhaps the most brutally unfair part of being a pet parent. Chihuahua in the grass

And as a dog photographer it’s a burden I know I share with each and every client who comes my way. Over the years I’ve cried so many times for pets that weren’t even mine. So I’ve sat down over a dozen times in the last two years to share my experience in the hopes of helping others cope.

Saying goodbye chocolate lab

Dogs fill a place in our lives that’s different from anyone else. And losing them is different from losing a human family member or friend. Research shows that for many people it can be even harder. Some factors to consider:

Service dog walking with family in the park

Dogs fill a space in our lives that no one else does. They are our best friends, our fur-babies, our protectors, and our soft shoulder to cry on. Not spouses or family or friends fill the same role in quite the same way. Yorkie rainbow bridge session

Your dog is ALWAYS happy to see you. You are the first and most important thing in your dogs world. Our human family and friends have lives, interests, and obligations of their own. So when that unending source of love and adoration is taken away it leaves a gaping hole. Additionally, for the most part, human friends and family are part-time occupants in your space. While your dog is always there, until they aren’t. Red husky in snow

Often people don’t understand. When someone’s lost a pet, they don’t always feel like they have permission to grieve. The outside world doesn’t understand, “it’s just a dog”. So instead of feeling validated in grief, many people feel shamed by it. Which adds to the suffering they’re already going through. Many people even admitted feeling guilty because they were more upset over losing a pet than a human loved one, like a grandparent.Chocolate lab in legacy photo

We had Yukon for 12 years. He was one of those dogs with a vet folder two inches thick, perhaps the result of bad breeding, or just bad luck. We almost lost him the first time at 6 months old when a piece of a stick got lodged in his jaw and swelled so much he couldn’t breath. At age 6 he developed Valley Fever and had to be on meds for 2 years. Around that same time he also got discoid lupus. A condition that caused his nose to peel & bleed if it wasn’t constantly treated with skin conditioners. He also had shaking dog syndrome which progressed through his later years. No matter what challenge he faced he was still my sweet boy and we loved him dearly.Husky and dog-mom in hammock in mountains What really amazed me was that while everyone who met him in his shaking years felt sympathy, he never seemed to care about any of it. He inspired me to live life despite my limitations. He went hiking and dug in the yard, and ran my first 5k with me.

Rainbow bridge Husky photographed in mountains

And then he was gone. And though I still had Swota to care for, I felt like my heart went with him. I was so angry. More angry than I’d ever been in my life. It took some reflection to learn that the reason I was so angry was that I’d been house-hunting all Summer instead of spending as much time with him as usual. The regret gnawed at me. It took a long time to find joy again. And as I type this two years later I’m still sobbing. I was lucky enough to have people in my life who understood my pain and grieved with me. Though this is the first I’ve talked about it publicly. We did spend his last day together relaxing in the park eating pizza and ice cream and cookies. He crossed the rainbow bridge laying across my and my husband’s laps. And when he took his last breath Swota threw her head back and let out the most soul-stirring howl I’d ever heard. It was heart-breaking and comforting at the same time. Rainbow-bridge-husky-legacy-photo

I’m sharing my story because I want you to know you’re not alone.

So how do you cope with the loss of a fur-baby?

Start by avoiding regrets.

  • Spend time with them every day. Take the time to play fetch or lay in the grass. Or just be. You are really the only thing your dog wants more than anything else in the world.
  • Create a bucket list for your dog and start checking things off while they’re still young & healthy.
  • Go on grand adventures together even if it’s just down to the dog park.
  • Take lots of photos!

Husky-play-bowWhen time is running short.

  • Spend even more time together.
  • Sit in the grass on a lazy afternoon and watch the squirrels together.
  • Check off whatever’s left on your dog’s bucket list, if they have the energy for it.
  • Plan a Legacy Session.  More than any other time in a dog’s life, these sessions are so very important. But so easily postponed. It breaks my heart when I talk to pet parents who tell me they waited too long.
  • Talk to your vet about the details. This will be an easier conversation if you have it long before it’s a reality.

Mastiff Saying goodbyeWhen your fur-baby has crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

  • Give yourself permission to grieve.
    • Know that grieving can take many forms and go through many stages.
  • Give yourself permission to feel OK too.
    • One of the hardest parts of the grieving process for me was when I felt OK or even had a momentary glimmer of happy. I felt like if I wasn’t sad, then I was betraying Yukon’s memory. But then I realized he was the dog who always acted like a clown when I was sad. He wanted me to laugh.
  • Surround yourself with people who understand and support you in the grieving process.
  • Know that you’re not alone. There are even several hotlines you can call if your immediate circle doesn’t understand.
  • Some people find solace in having their pets photos displayed and their toys around. Some people find it a painful reminder. If you’re the latter, try putting everything in a box and tuck it away in a closet. While you may not want to look at them now, you probably will want some mementos later. If you take comfort in your pets reminders, consider dedicating some shelf space to a few really special keepsakes.
  • Know that it will hurt less in time.

If you know someone who’s grieving their pet.

  • Know that everyone grieves in their own way.
  • Just be there, and listen. You don’t necessarily have to understand what they’re going through.
  • Grieving takes time, for many people it can take a year or more.
  • There are people to talk to:

Black lab in the Fall

**Dedicated in Loving Memory of all the dogs who live furever in our hearts and wait just across the Rainbow Bridge**

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