Guest Author: David Miller
Moving On Does Not Mean Letting Go, but It Can Mean Growth: How Personal Growth Can Accompany the Loss of your Dog
The loss of a dog can be as traumatic and as difficult as the loss of a close human relationship. Some people even rank the loss of a pet as equal to the loss of an intimate human companion, such as a spouse. It is easy to understand why dogs occupy such a large and important spot in people's lives: Their unconditional love makes them ideal companions and confidantes, and allows them to outperform many humans in gentleness and understanding.
Because losing a canine companion can be so difficult, it makes sense that the subsequent journey through grief would be, in many ways, the same as that which follows the loss of a human loved one. It is possible to grieve for an animal for months or years after their passing. Some people find it necessary to take time off from work or to use the services of a therapist to help them handle the loss of their dog. The process is unique to each person, because the relationship between each dog and its owner is also entirely unique.
What all healthy grieving has in common, however, is the gradual ability to move on with life after the loss.
Changes after a profound loss are inevitable. Your life is now missing one of its most important pieces, and your physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual landscapes have to change to accommodate that loss. Healthy grieving, in fact, is defined by the ability to work through the loss so that it no longer dominates your life. Being able to work through the emotions of grief and eventually move forward is essential.
In fact, those who experience intensifying symptoms of grief over a long period of time and who are unable to see the past or the future without their loved one in it are said to be experiencing a disorder known as complicated grief.
For example, a healthy grief might eventually allow the mourner to look at old photo albums periodically, remember the good times with a smile, and then put the album away to engage with their living friends and family. A complicated grief, on the other hand, might compel the individual to examine those photos every day, and refuse to consider the possibility that more good times can be found in the community they are part of right now.
Healthy grieving makes room for the change that is necessary to go on living without your canine friend. It might feel impossibly hard. It might paralyze you for awhile. And you might require the love and support of your friends, family, and/or therapist to get through it. But it eventually yields changes that are good and empowering.
The changes that take place over the course of healthy grieving often bring with them something that grieving pet owners might find surprising: Personal growth.
As discussed above, change is necessary if you are going to recover from the grief of losing your dog. Going back to the status quo is neither possible nor desirable. Nor is simply going out and adopting another dog going to replace the deep and piercing absence felt by the death of your beloved animal. Without your companion, you cannot continue to live life exactly the way you did before.
However, what may surprise you is the fact that these changes are not all bad. In fact, they often yield personal growth in one or more areas of the grieving person's life. That is, the process of grieving the loss of a beloved animal can produce changes that allow the mourner to embrace life more fully, more wisely, and more compassionately than was possible before their grief descended.
How is this possible? Take, as an example, the formation of a pearl. As an oyster goes about its business in the sea, sometimes it is exposed to a parasite, or other irritating substance, that works its way inside the protective shell. The sensitive tissues inside the shell cannot endure the discomfort posed by the irritant. So, in a protective measure, the oyster produces layers of a coating called nacre to cover the irritant and soothe the discomfort.
What is the result of the oyster's response? A beautiful pearl. So beautiful and treasured are pearls that some of them are valued at millions of dollars. But, what it took for these pearls to form was time and patience in the face of discomfort.
Obviously, losing a beloved dog brings far more pain than any oyster experiences when fighting a parasite. However, in the face of this overwhelming grief, time and patience are still the keys to bringing something good, and perhaps even beautiful, out of the shattering pain of the loss.
The exact nature of the personal growth caused by grief depends upon the individual and the work they are willing to put into navigating their grief.
How and what type of personal growth occurs depends very much upon the individual. Perhaps they become active in fundraising for a cure for the disease that killed their dog. Maybe they choose to foster other animals, or donate to a charity that held meaning for them and their dog. Perhaps their dog's death gives them the ability to be more fully present in the lives of their human and animal companions in the future, because they know how suddenly those relationships can end.
The key is for each person to be willing to put in the work of grieving after the death of their beloved canine friend. Doing so can be difficult in a culture that does not always acknowledge the depth of the bond between people and their dogs. You may need to speak up for yourself and your needs in a way that those mourning the death of a beloved human companion never have to do.
Regardless, taking the time to feel your grief, to find out who you are now and what you want your life to look like after your loss, forging meaningful memorials to your deceased pet, and finding ways to change your life in the face of your loss are essential steps in being able to move forward.
Personal growth does not mean forgetting about your dog. Instead, it can be one way to remember your beloved pet.
There are many rituals and actions from which you can choose to help you remember your canine friend as you embrace the change that their loss brings. They do not need to be left behind in the wake of your personal growth and continued life.
For example, some people turn their dog's ashes into a memorial diamond and wear it close to them. Some scatter their dog's ashes or build a photo album about their dog or create a video to help them remember. Some need professional support as they navigate the deep waters of grief.
Regardless of what you choose to do, if you are willing to put in the work of grieving, you will reap a beautiful harvest of growth as you find new ways to move on after your painful loss. And that type of personal growth, having been so hard won, can serve in its own way as a beautiful tribute to the life and love of the dog you lost.