Pre-Grieving Our Dogs

lying look of loveThis is a difficult blog to write, and one I hesitated to write or share. I’m not one to post my every emotion on social media or share my private life publicly. But there is a topic relating to our dogs that I have never seen addressed, and it’s something I believe a lot of us experience.

As our dogs age, especially if they’re ill or infirm, it’s difficult not to think about their eventual passing. When my dog Mojo–a 120-pound malamute/shepherd/wolf mix I’ve always referred to as my “soul dog”—became a senior, I began to watch him as he slept. He’d lie there peacefully on his side, blissfully ignorant of his owner’s anxieties. I’d watch for that beautiful rising and falling of his furry chest that told me he was still alive. Once seen, only then would my own breath return. Although it might sound strange, it became almost an obsession to watch for those breaths, to make sure my precious boy was still with us.

When Mojo passed in 2008, it was the end of a very rough year. Not only had he been ill, but I had lost my two remaining wolves (yes, wolves—go read Hit by a Flying Wolf if you really want to know about the insanity of my life with wolves and dogs), lost a close friend to cancer, and lived through a fire and other assorted traumatic experiences, all in one year. And then Mojo died. Nothing, not even the death of my brother years ago, could prepare me for the crushing grief. I barely got up off the floor for the first few weeks. I literally spent a month and a half crying from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, to the point that I almost lost my voice. My hair began to fall out in clumps. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest times of my life. That it came on top of all the other tragedies didn’t help, but it really was due to how very much I loved Mojo, who was like a child to my husband and me.

Now, years later, we have Bodhi and Sierra. While I love Bodhi, of course, Sierra is my heart. As much as Mojo had been special and always will be, I have never been so close—so attached—to a dog in my life. It’s not just that I both love and like Sierra, or that’s she’s a wonderful, amazing dog, which she is. While I’ve always had an empathy and sort of sixth sense with animals, it’s incredibly strong with Sierra. We share some vibrational frequency; it’s a strange and beautiful connection. If I’m standing in my office, I know without a doubt when she’s standing by the bowl in the next room waiting for water. When I rub her tummy and give her cuddles, I can actually feel the love coming from her, and I know she can feel it from me, too. It’s our own little sacred circle of love. When we take our morning walks, I can feel her joy at running free and being out in nature. And she senses my moods as well. But it’s really more than just having an empathetic, psychic link with each other. To say we are connected would be an understatement.

In 2015 I had another tough year in which I lost both of my parents and a very close friend, along with experiencing other assorted tragedies and traumas. Weirdly, the same day my mother went into hospice, Sierra almost died. I came home to find Sierra standing there looking somehow not right. Although there was no vomiting or other outward signs of illness, I knew in my gut beyond a shadow of a doubt that something was very wrong. I rushed her to the emergency vet, where they ended up doing surgery to save her from a burst liver abscess. My mother and my dog had gone septic on the same day—what’s the chances? I’m pretty sure all of that loss and almost-loss has since heightened my fear and apprehension at the thought of even more loss.

We don’t know Sierra’s exact age, as she was a shelter rescue, but we estimate her to be around 10 or possibly even 11 years old. The day I did the math and realized that was a jarring one. I’m not yet quite at the point of watching for her chest to rise and fall, but I admit that I think way too much about what it will be like when she finally passes on, how the world could possibly exist without her in it. That’s a terrible thing to ponder, but I know I’m not alone. It’s very difficult, especially once your dog becomes a senior, not to think about that sort of thing. Some of us worry about it now and then, while others become obsessively worried about it. The only thing that really helps is, as with pretty much everything in life, to try to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is. After all, we all have limited time here. What’s the point of tainting the joy of these moments with worry and fear? I try to spend as much time with Sierra as I can, and to make the most of our time together. There are times when I’m working at my computer and she gives me that look that says, “Isn’t it time for a cuddle?” Although I sometimes simply need to finish what I’m doing, there are many more times I look at her and think she’s right, that I don’t want to miss this moment, and that work will wait.

In the meantime, I take lots of photos of both Sierra and Bodhi, as photos are often the only things we have to hold on to after our loved ones are gone. I try to stay positive. But each time Facebook brings up a “memory” from a year or two ago, I wonder about the dagger I’m going to feel once my dogs are gone and Facebook brings up those photos. Speaking of Facebook, maintaining a live-in-the-moment attitude isn’t made any easier by the fact that my news feed is constantly full of posts along the lines of, “It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to…” My heart goes out to every one of those posters who have lost their beloved dogs. It hurts my heart, not just for them, but for what was and what will inevitably be again with my own dogs. I see tributes written about the lives of these dogs, about how wonderful they were. And that’s a beautiful thing. But we all need to put that much focus and energy into appreciating and enjoying life with our dogs while they’re still with us. We must accept that, as the saying goes, grief is the price of love. So for now, let’s take the time, and make the time to spend with our dogs, to make sure they’re safe, healthy and happy, and most of all, to let them know how very much they are loved. Because in the end, that’s all any of us can really ask for.

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29 Responses to Pre-Grieving Our Dogs

  1. I know EXACTLY how you feel.
    Maggie will be 13 in January, and with recent events I have anxiously been watching her sleep. If she is too quiet, I’ve got up in the night to check she is OK.
    When we lost Barney, we weren’t ready, and Hubby is the first to admit that he was more devastated at losing our beloved pet than he was at losing his Dad the year before. The difference was probably that we knew his Dad was dying whereas Barney had been given a clean bill of health just weeks before that dreadful Saturday. Twelve years on, it still hurts to think about it. For me, the pain never goes away, though it may lessen only to return rampant and raw at a memory, passing comment, or a picture. We form a bond with our pets, and grieve when they pass. It’s part of loving them the way we do.

  2. Steph says:

    Just lost my 16 year old cat last night and thought we were about to lose my 10 year old dog – my heart and soul – this morning…emergency vet visit, thankfully seems to be ok just the perils of aging. Have a 13 year old dog as well, and I think about these things all the time. It was really helpful reading this post, Nicole. Thanks for addressing this…I feel slightly less nuts now.

  3. Kathy says:

    Oh Nicole, I hear you girl. They take our hearts and our souls with them when they pass don’t they. My Luna is in remission and I hope she stays there a very long time, but I can’t help feel that small pit in my stomach each time I “think” I see something. Thank you for sharing your heart with us…. Hugs

  4. sarahj44 says:

    Yes, this is the double edged sword that life and love with dogs brings into such sharp focus. The “love hurts” stuff is so real and I am glad it is. Everyday is a treasure as I watch them breathing and laugh at their antics. ❤ ❤

  5. Barbara says:

    So, I’m not alone. When my very active and agile 10 year old Luna was diagnosed with cancer in February, I was told that we had about half a year left. I decided there and then that as long as she is ok, we’ll continue our life as before, and so we did. We went to dog school, and to trips around the country, and to meet her friends whenever she was feeling well. But every night I cried with grief, until I reminded myself that she is still there. As it turned out, we only had three and a half month. And although it still hurts like hell, at least I have no regrets, I know that I did everything I could.

  6. mccollie says:

    Thank you Nicole, for sharing this intensely personal part of your life. Like thousands of others, I share much of what you speak of, and this is a timely reminder to count every single moment with joy, right now.

  7. Berni vipond says:

    This hits home for me in a big way. In August we lost our 10 1/2 yr old rotti (Benjamin). Ben developed perianal fistulas when he was 4 yrs old and almost died from a reaction to the treatment. He eventually recovered, but every day with him was a bonus, we didn’t think he would see 7 yrs, nevermind 10. But when that day came, and I said good bye to my heart, I was also grateful that we had all that bonus time together, hundreds of photos, and my two younger dogs at home, waiting to step in and provide me with the comfort and companionship that only our dogs can provide…and they have done just that. It’s only been a few months, and I’ve had a few of those facebook memories pop up, but I am gratefult that his time with us has been captured in a way that will keep those memories present.

  8. I do this every day with Shadow. He is a shelter boy, now a service and therapy dog, and hasn’t left my side in over four years. He just turned 8, and has some grey in his muzzle. I never turn down a single cuddle request. He is the smartest, most intuitive dog I’ve ever had, in 40 years of rescuing. I’ve had two other soul mate dogs, but never one like this. It’s kinda terrifying.

  9. Laura says:

    I needed this. Thank you ❤️

  10. Danna Cruzan says:

    Wow Nicole, this so touched me. I have an 11.5 yo wolf dog who is my heart dog. I love all 4 of my dogs but Mogli is just special. He has been handicapped due to a surgeons error in a simple knee surgery back when he was 3. They told me to put him down at 5 and I refused. I got him a wheel chair, he hates, took him to water therapy, didn’t work, got him a 4 month old dog and that helped a lot. His current vet, the one who hurt him moved to Virginia, thank goodness or I would be in jail, said he is a miracle dog, he said there is no possible physical reason he has walked as long as he has. He has had a good life, he doesn’t know he is handicapped and he is happy and beyond loving. He is getting worse and I will have to put him down way earlier than his general health would merit. He can still get up to go poo and pee, but barely. When he cannot get up to do his daily stuff I will not let him suffer thru not being able to, he is extremely emotional and I know that will kill him inside as he knows he is not supposed to dirty himself. I am still so angry at the vet for ruining his life and shortening it but there is nothing more I can do. I tried 5 surgeries and 15k to fix the damage but none of the surgeries took. I watch him breathe but I know he will not die, that I will have to do it and that kills me. We talk to communicators often so I can make sure he is okay and still wants to be here and his will is strong, his legs are weak. I have tried to start grieving ahead of time so it will not be as hard but I know I am just trying to make it easier and that NOTHING will. He is so healthy nothing has ever been wrong with him but this. Something someone caused. It makes me cry now to think of it, I cry often thinking of how I will find the strrength to do this at some point. He comes first always and I will find it, but it will be the hardest thing I will ever have to do, he is my best friend, my son, my mate, my love, my heart, my soul. I know he is tired, I can see it in his eyes. He does not play as much as he used to, he spends a lot of time alone outside and won’t come in as much. He can’t come up to the main floor anymore, I can’t sling him up the stairs, he is too heavy. I made my bedroom his room, comfy doggy beds all over the floor, door always open, even though it is freezing. I spend every evening there for when he wants to come in, I play with him whenever he wants to play. I sit with him outside with his head in my lap. I pray for strength when it is time, everyone tells me he WILL tell me. Thank you for your post and thank everyone else for sharing their stories of love and sorrow, they all touched me deeply.

    Danna

    • wildewmn says:

      I’m so sorry, Danna. It’s terrible that human error caused Mogul’s life expectancy to shorten. We had to sling Mojo for the last year of his life as well, he was incontinent, had degenerative myelopathy. We took him to water therapy, physical therapy, and more. He had an amazing lust for life, which is why we kept him alive as long as he wanted to be here. He let us know when it was time. I’ve never had a dog or wolfdog who went peacefully in their sleep, I’ve always had to make that terrible decision. In the meantime, I’m glad Mogli still has a quality of life with you and you can still spend precious moments together.

  11. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all so much for leaving your comments and sharing your stories. I’m teary reading about all of the love and pain that we all go through with our beloved dogs. It always helps to know that others understand, and my heart goes out to you all.

  12. Victoria says:

    Ginger turned 14 this year, 9 of those with Addison’s Disease. There have been a few other health issues in recent years and a couple of times we thought the end was near but she pulled through. For the last 2 years, we have treated every day with her as a bonus. She has given us so much love and companionship and we cannot imagine life without her. We try to live in the present and make sure that every day is the best for her. 15 years ago our 9 year old Maggie died in my daughter’s arms from an undiagnosed heart issue. We thought we were providing her with the best vet care but we were wrong. We also were not ready and the pain remains.
    Thank you for putting into words the emotions of living with a senior family member.

  13. Sarah Shepherd says:

    I had to wait till I stopped crying to write this. A piece of my heart died 2 yrs ago when my large, blue merle collie, Cheyenne died. He was so smart, beautiful, gentle, and my soul mate. I woke up every morning with him glued to my side-stretched out from my hip to my feet. He was very tall & long for a collie. When I rested during the day on the bed, he would lie next to me and rest his head & long neck over my thighs. Even my vet thought he was a special boy. Through the years I have had a pair of collies but decided I would not get another when Chey died, but my remaining dog, Jazz mourned deeply for him . He would not play, though he would pick up a toy & squeak it, then wait, look all around for Chey to come running. He did many things like that-I sent my vet so many video clips (she is a behaviorist & rec one of your books, Nicole). Finally Emily told me I had to get another dog for Jazz. When we got home with our new rescue, Baxter (aka Buddy Baxter), J was absolutely ok. He bonded immediately-took B a little longer but now they go running out the door together, squeak their toys at each other…J is about 10-1/2 and B is in the 5-7 age range (Rescue org & I think closer to 5, but vet thinks older because of his teethcondition). Baxter had a rough life-he was missing a canine tooth, and 2 were broken. One had to be removed a few months after I got him. I know from his behavior that he was kicked. He is the sweetest boy. I don’t understand how people can abuse dogs. Last Sat eve we went, as ourselves (or as Lassie & Timmy disguisd as a gray haired lady 😉) to our downtown mall for the Halloween dog costume parade. My boys love the attention-it took B a while to understand that when we see people he will get petted. “The boys” think everyone lives to pet them. Well, I feel better now, talking about my living boys. My dogs are my kids, my family, my 24/7 companions. I am disabled and home a lot. I try not to, but I think about aging and if/when I won’t be able to have a dog.

  14. Christine says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am so in this place, always thinking about my dear Roxy leaving me. She’s doing well at 14+, but had a couple of scary issues come up earlier this year. Friends always try to soothe me for the inevitable by saying that I can take solice in knowing i gave Roxy a wonderful life. To me that doesn’t offer consolation. Of course I gave her a wonderful life. It’s not about that. It’s selfish. It’s about how much I will miss her; about how hard it will be to survive without her; about how hard it will be to stop the crying and live. I try to be present and appreciate each moment, but that’s not always easy to do.

  15. Nancie Belser says:

    Your post was so wonderful and expresses the feelings we all have to face. I have lost three dogs over the years and many cats as I’m much older than you and I can honestly say there have been many that have more than touched my heart as I tend to spend so much time with them and enjoy each one to the fullest of their lives and mine. You made me reminisce today and tears stream down my face as I remenber some of the very special ones that helped me get through troubled times and happy times
    Thank you.

  16. Barb Brown, Heart's Desire Coach says:

    Thank you for your personal post. I lost my 16-year-old Aussie Mix 2 days ago. I related to the things you wrote about including watching her breathing as she slept so peacefully, many times wondering if she had died in her sleep. I had lots of pictures to share on FB as a tribute and to print out to frame to keep her memory close. I also wrote a letter last February when I knew our time together was coming to an end. Today, my heart aches with sadness and my home has an emptiness that surprises me because I’m still surrounded by 2 Border Collies and a kitty. Halle had such a large presence and beautiful spirit. I hurt this much because I loved this much and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • wildewmn says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Barb, especially being so fresh. And I loved what you said: “I hurt this much because I loved this much and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” That’s beautiful.

  17. Lucy Dilts says:

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  18. Jean Stack says:

    Thank you so much. I lost my “heart” girl, Zoe, this past March. It is so hard and painful, but I would not trade my time with her for anything.

  19. This may sound weird or morbid, but for all of my beloved Martha’s 14 year and 2 months of life, I thought almost every day about how wonderful she was and that I would have to say goodbye some day. She developed arthritis in her spine as she aged, and I had many moments with her and conversations with my vet about how to know when it was her time. In early July, she suddenly lost use of both her back legs, was in extreme pain, and wouldn’t eat. That was when I knew.

    I had always planned to get another dog, and after she passed I called the breeder of her sire, and asked if any litters were planned. To my surprise, she told me she had two males ready to go, one was “small,” and I drove the hour and a half away to go meet him.

    Marty came home with me only four days after Martha passed. He is her cousin, her sire was Marty’s great great great etc grandsire. I swear she sent him to me.

    And it’s been bittersweet, realizing how much pain she suffered for a very long time in her last years, months and days, yet having the joy of a loving puppy to help ease the tears.

  20. Carole says:

    Thank you for sharing. I do this with all my fur babies. I have loved all my cats and dog.. when my heart cat past. I cried non stop. I couldn’t go to work. I right I was crazy. Am so glad to know I am not… that we love them so much.

    • sarah says:

      You are not crazy. I cried for days and sat on the couch in numb shock when Cheyenne, my beautiful blue merle collie died 2 yrs ago. I tear up just writing about him now. A part of my heart died with him. I have missed work before a few timed when my pet has died. It is grief for a 24/7 companion, though most people do not seem to think so.

  21. Sarah Head says:

    You’re so wise. I, too, am pre-grieving as Pooh gets older, but need to live today. Our family vet, Uncle Chris, passed away unexpectedly and now I am even more concerned about caring for Pooh as she ages. Her anxiety seems to increase as her eyesight fades…it’s going to be a rough road, but I’ll try to focus on today.

  22. Steve Brooks says:

    I worry about loosing my healthy 4.5 year old, 7 pound toy poodle mix every day. Thanks Nichole, I’m glad I’m not alone.

  23. Mary callahan says:

    I do this exact thing with my 8year old germ. Shepherd Daisy, since my daughter is grown now my Daisy is my whole world and I worry every day about the time I might lose her. I know i need to just enjoy each day with her and not think about the worst, but I know how devistated I am going to be without her, and it haunts me daily!

  24. Victoria Pearser says:

    I posted on Nov 1st and yesterday the unthinkable happened. For two days Ginger had stopped eating, vomited and had other symptons that worried us. Monday I phoned to see if our vet was working. She would be back on Wed. When I described the symptoms, I was advised to bring her in that day, Monday, and made an appointment for 5:30 PM. I soon received a call that the vet on duty wanted her in asap to see if she was in Addison crisis which could be treated. Unfortunately it was her kidneys and she was in failure. We were advised there was no treatment as she was in dialysis or transplant territory. We were faced with the inevitable. We spent time with her. She had a few treats. She was resting on a heating pad and we were in a special room especially for this purpose. Music was playing softly, lights were dimmed and we told her how much we loved her and what an amazing dog she was. She was calm and peaceful. The vet came in and did what he had to do and Ginger took one large breath and then he said that there was no heartbeat. He gave us more time with her and said that he had heard that we had done everything possible for her during the years. We stroked her until the warmth left her body. She went calmly and peacefully – just as she deserved. Observing her passing has helped us to deal with her no longer being with us. We miss her terribly and always will. She had come back from the brink of death a few times before and we had hoped that she really had nine lives but yesterday was different and we knew it was time. We had to let our dear Ginger go.

    • wildewmn says:

      Oh, Victoria, I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes reading your post. I’m so very sorry. I love that the vet made that comment about you doing everything possible for her through the years and obviously it’s true. And what a blessing that she could transition with you holding her and her knowing how much she was loved. When we had to let our “child” of a dog Mojo go, I was looking into his eyes as the vet administered the injection. I told him I loved him and that I’d see him on the other side, and I believe that. And I believe you will and Ginger are still connected. Love never dies.

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