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Layers of Grief

Coming to terms with the loss of a dog

By Morgan Baker

For four years, 2010-2014, my family had three Portuguese Water Dogs – Splash, Spray and Ezzie. They are all dead now. Splash and Ezzie died within six weeks of each other – very differently, but each in a profound way. Splash was 15 ½ and Ezzie was four. Spray died in 2018 at 11.

Splash was a cranky dog from the get go, but he was determined to hang around as long as possible, just to drive us crazy with his hoarse bark, his unsteady gait and his tendency to pee wherever he felt like it. He was, however, a good friend to us when we needed one, keeping me company daily when my mother was sick and dying, and being a friend to my older daughter when human friends were scarce. We watched him age and knew his death was imminent.

Most people know they’ll say good-bye to their dog when they get him or her, but that death is still a shocker, whether you know it’s coming or not.

On his last day, he simply collapsed as he came up the back steps in the back door. There was no moving him, so we got him a dog bed and he lay on that in as comfortable position as possible until our vet and her technician were able to come over to assess the situation. Within minutes, she knew it was time for us to say good-bye.

Most people know they’ll say good-bye to their dog when they get him or her, but that death is still a shocker, whether you know it’s coming or not. And, where you are in your life can also determine how devastating the loss of your dog is.

“You can prepare for adopting a dog, but you can’t necessarily prepare for euthanizing your dog,” says Betsy Johnson, veterinarian at Home Euthanasia for Pets in Lincoln Mass. “Beyond finding a veterinarian you trust to help you understand your dog’s medical conditions and realistic expectations on quality of life, it’s deciding how you would like your pet to die and where. Nobody gets a free pass when it comes to death but we can decide for these animals we love when to call it quits. I believe we humans should have the same luxury.”

Making that decision is never easy, but experts say watching your dog closely as they decline can help.

“Every dog is really different. Even within the same breed and in the same household,” says Dawn Binder, veterinarian and owner of Cushing Square Veterinary Clinic in Belmont Mass. “There comes a time they stop doing something – enjoying the dog park, eating, It becomes a percentage thing – how much of the day is the dog happy versus how much is dog unhappy or uncomfortable,” she says.

American Kennel Club Chief Veterinary Officer, Jerry Klein agrees. He writes in an email, “As difficult as it is, one has to think selflessly rather than selfishly. The decision must be made for the animal which you have been a caregiver to and relies solely on you.”

“Reluctance to eat or drink or urinate and defecate normally as well as breathing comfortably on their own indicates loss of interest in life and suspected suffering, whatever the cause,” Klein says. “A dog that is unable to raise itself to urinate is also showing signs of loss of their natural nobility.”

Sally Leist of Concord, Mass., says her second dog, Graham, a mini poodle, developed doggie dementia and was blind at 14. He found his way into corners of the room he then couldn’t get out of. When the vet came to the house, she said the dog was clearly suffering. A week later, the vet returned to euthanize Graham. Sally, her husband David, and their children, who came home to help, were together.

“It’s always hard, but it’s harder to lose a dog at certain points in your life. Hands down, when it’s just you and the dog, I believe, that dog takes up a larger percentage of your life than when you share it with other human and furry family members.”

Making the decision can be the hardest part. “Not only are you ending your good friend’s life but you are changing yours as well,” says Johnson. 

Binder, who says she loves everything about being a vet – but especially knowing her client’s family and pets says, if she can’t make a dog better, she likes being there at the end, helping a dog ease away and be out of pain.

Ezzie’s death was more traumatic than Splash’s. She was the funniest of the bunch and a great swimmer. She got sick on a Thursday and died the following Tuesday. Even on that day, she was still running around, trying to engage with us as she was bleeding out. We finally got her on a blanket in the fall sun surrounded by her family, and her mother Spray. She lay with her head in my lap and quickly and quietly left us.

“It’s always hard, but it’s harder to lose a dog at certain points in your life. Hands down, when it’s just you and the dog, I believe, that dogs takes up a larger percentage of your life than when you share it with other human and furry family members,” says Johnson.

Binder agrees. If the dog is the primary thing in your life – your kids are gone, and you work knowing at the end of the day you’re going home to your dog, and it’s not there anymore, that is a profound loss.

When Splash died, I was much sadder about what it meant to me and my family than the actual dog dying. It was the passing of an era – the time I was a full-time mother with a part-time job with kids and dogs who needed my care.

Although Leist’s first dog had died five years earlier, she says Graham’s death almost two years ago, rocked her more. “It still is hard. It represented 27 years of caring for beings. All the years of dogs and kids – 27 straight years I had to be somewhere. Even though it was freedom, every tether I had of caring for some being in my house was gone.”

“When we put Graham down it punched me a little. It made me miss or revisit a sense of loss of that time in my life – of being young, having kids and dogs, says Leist.

“It’s such a personal love that you have with your dog – nobody gets it – every relationship with a dog fits the nooks and crannies of your soul,” Leist says. “Nothing would get me to feel better. Grieving it and feeling it. I can still cry about that dog.”

Despite her grief, Leist is enjoying her freedom. “I won’t say never, but I can’t imagine being tethered again. It’s bittersweet,” she says.

Ezzie died shortly before my oldest daughter moved across the country. The two losses on top of each other, sent me in search of a puppy to give me something to nurture, and as a friend for our remaining dog, Spray. Ezzie had represented my future at home without kids and without her, I was lost. I was surprised by how much I needed a new puppy.

“It’s the people that do not understand grieving a pet that are missing out on something,” says Johnson. “Our dogs add another dimension to our lives. They are worth every tear. I cannot imagine life without one, after another. Each one is unique.”

Spray and Mayzie, the new puppy, were great friends. Sweet Spray was the alpha dog and let Mayzie know it, but also played tag with her in our back yard. She died suddenly of a ruptured tumor over Thanksgiving while we were away. My kids, husband and I were driving down Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, when our dog walker called to say it didn’t look good. What? We asked. They’re doing heart compressions, he said. And then a new voice came on to tell us her breathing and heart had stopped. He asked if we wanted them to continue compressions. Sitting together across the country with the speakerphone on in the car, we said no. One daughter sprang from the car howling, another sat staring ahead, while tears rolled down my husband’s cheeks. I sat silently in the back seat stunned.

The author’s Portuguese Water Dog, Mayzie.

Even knowing how painful saying good-bye to my dogs can be, I still wanted and now have happy 4-year-old Mayzie and love being with her on the beach in Hawaii every day. I know in time, I will help her leave too, but for now, the two of us are having fun while she chases balls on the sand and in the ocean, and she gives me something to focus on in this stage of my life. If I’m lucky I’ll have her ten more years. By then I’ll be 70. I anticipate grieving her wildly as she has become my replacement child. But will I want another dog in my life at that point? Doubtful.

“It’s the people that do not understand grieving a pet that are missing out on something,” says Johnson. “Our dogs add another dimension to our lives. They are worth every tear. I cannot imagine life without one, after another. Each one is unique.”

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About the Writer

Morgan Baker, Bucket Age 29, just returned from nearly a year in Hawaii where she walked her dog daily on the beaches there. She is the Managing Editor of the Bucket, and dreads the day she will have to say good-bye to Mayzie.


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