Dogs and Loss - The Healing Power of Pets

  • In our earlier posts, we've talked about dealing with the loss of a dog and how an existing dog senses the loss and how they react. But what about when a family member passes away, does the dog sense this loss as well? If so, how do they handle it? Moreover, is our dog able to sense our grief? Can a dog help their human owner through the process of grief and bereavement?

    Today in our ongoing series on Dogs and Loss, we will talk with someone who lost their spouse, and how their dog has played a role in their grieving and recovery process.

    Our guest today is Venus and her dog Belle.

    Thank you so much for talking with us today Venus, and thank-you for your willingness to speak so freely. In my own experience I find that talking is the biggest part of healing and yet while people freely discuss the loss of a pet emergency, there is some hesitancy to discuss the loss of a human family member once the funeral has concluded and day to day life has resumed.

    Now, please tell us about your husband:

    Well, here goes...My husband Robert "Pup" and I were married for 36 wonderful years. We always had pets, either a dog or two dogs. Every single day we took a beautiful sunset walk with our four-legged companion(s). We had a happy, full incredible life!

    On Saturday Jan. 8, 2011, we took our dog Belle to the river and dog park for a great sunset walk. The air was very very cold, wind blowing, the kind of sunset you dream about. We got home, Pup watched the football playoffs with Belle and I worked in my office until 10:30 pm. At 12:20 a. m on Jan. 9, 2011 Pup tucked Belle and I in to bed, we all said our I love you's hugged, and Pup went back in the living room to eat his Blue Bell ice cream, cookies and watch TV.

    I got up to close the bedroom door and saw my happy happy Pup howling with laughter, the huge carton of ice cream on his tv tray. At 4:30am I got up to use the bathroom and I noticed Pup was halfway off the sofa. I tried frantically to wake him up, but couldn't. I called 911, put Belle in the bedroom, unlocked the gate and the entire street was filled with EMS, firefighters. They came in 5 minutes. They worked on Pup hooked up the machine, but couldn't restart his heart. They rushed him to the ER to try more complicated procedures. I sped over there, and within a few minutes of my arrival two doctors came out, and held my hands. In that instant I knew he was with God. At that moment, one heart stopped and another one, mine broke into a million pieces. I sat with him, told him how much I loved him, and walked home in the driving freezing rain.

    When I got home I leashed up Belle and we walked at dawn for hours in the freezing rain. No coat, no umbrella we just walked.

    I can imagine that the first days/weeks were a bit of a blur. Do you recall how Belle was during this time? Was she eating/sleeping/acting differently? Were you concerned for her?

    Yes, you're right, the next few days were a blur of activity, funeral arrangements etc. During this time, Belle sat in her Daddy Pup's chair and wouldn't walk. She kept looking for him to come through the kitchen door. And then on Thursday that week I got home late and realized to my shock Belle couldn't walk. I rushed her to ER, where they diagnosed a severely lacerated paw, and she had to have immediate surgery. The vet said she had probably been trying to dig out from underneath the chain link fence in our backyard. I think she saw the ambulance take her daddy away and she was going to look for him. She recovered after a few weeks and her paw was fine.

    Compounding your situation is the fact that you are a small family, just you, Pup and Belle, correct?

    Yes, our situation is more complicated since the family was just me, Pup and Belle. We lived in a world that revolved around our family unit of three, and death had never been considered or discussed. Pup was only 63 years old and had just passed a physical. He had a sudden heart attack and died in less than one minute, so no suffering for which I am grateful. However, in this life there is no greater shock than "life interrupted". Every single aspect, of your life changes in an instant. My darling canine daughter Belle is the constant in my life. My one and only constant.

    Do you think Belle 'knows' what has happened?

    Yes, I can say with confidence that Belle to this day knows something is different. When Belle was injured that first week and I didn't even notice it, I was so much in shock, it jarred me back into reality, she is my rock and she is my responsibility.

    Every night when we go to bed, I pet Belle and tell her, "Your daddy is still here, you can't see him, but he is here and he loves you very much and is taking very good care of you."

    Do you feel that the basic responsibilities of dog ownership compelled you to keep up with certain routines, i.e. getting up, taking her out, buying her food etc? What I'm trying to say is that if you didn't have to do these things, if you didn't have a dog, would you have reacted differently.

    Candidly, if I didn't have Belle, I don't think I could have gotten through the last year. I would just be a person who lay in bed day and night staring at the ceiling. Belle gives me love and she gives me hope. I look into her ever smiling face and in it I see a reflection of that last sunset walk with my husband Pup.

    Having lost your husband, do you worry more about the fragility of your now smaller family unit?

    I find that I have real hyper vigilance since I lost Pup. I worry that something might happen to Belle. I have to constantly remind myself that she is okay. She has recently been diagnosed with epilepsy, but she has the best care possible, and she is a healthy happy little girl.

    Have you thought about getting another dog?

    I had every intention of getting another dog, so the family would be three again. A shoulder and back injury last fall that are slow healing have put that plan on hold for awhile.

    Any other thoughts or things you'd like to share that may help others?

    Never ever underestimate the healing power of pets. No matter how much else in your life is falling apart and believe me after the sudden death of a spouse, you go into a nearly year-long freefall, your pet will always be there. Their unconditional love will get you through anything. That is why god gives us pets. That is why he gave us Belle. I sincerely believe that God knew he would need Pup in heaven to help him, so he made sure I had Belle to take care of me here on earth.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us Venus, as you know our focus has been on Dogs and Loss and your story will certainly strike a chord with many of our readers. I'm wondering though if you could offer us any general advice/thoughts on how we as 'outsiders' in this story could be of help to someone in your situation. My experience has been that people are uneasy talking about someone who has passed away and mostly want to talk about something else.

    For any of us brave enough to face the topic, please take this moment and this space to give us some advice. Do you want us to ask about Pup? Do you want us to offer to walk Belle?

    The best thing a well intentioned friend can do is call the person who has suffered the loss. Call, e-mail, stay in touch and let them talk about the departed loved one. Just knowing you are not alone, when your world has been shattered is what counts. It is invaluable in time of need. I was lucky, I had that. In fact, I had so many people stopping by at all hours with food I could have opened a restaurant.

    A week or so later when you can finally face eating again, it so appreciated. I personally started sharing my memories of Pup on Facebook and I was fortunate enough to have people in my daily life who listened and, in fact, still listen to all my memories about him.

    Just letting the person know you are there for them, is the most important thing. Letting them know you care. The sudden death of a spouse or loved one is the hardest thing any human will ever have to face and when you know that you won't have to face it alone, means everything to the one left behind.

    Thank you for that, I know it will be a help to many people in years to come.

    If you would like to read more about Belle, check out an earlier post that she was featured in "A Day in the Life of - Belle an 'every' dog in New Orleans"