I still can’t bring myself to look at Savi’s pictures on my phone. But I find myself expecting to find her in all her favorite spots — the overstuffed arm of our couch, her plush doggy bed in the kitchen corner, and on the warm planks of our backyard deck where she loved to sunbathe. Nights are the worst, since my precious pug slept beside me for nine years. I was so accustomed to her snorts and rhythmic snores that the little sounds lulled me to sleep.
Now I don’t sleep well. Instead, I run my hand over the cold spot where she once slept, and the tears come.
I’ve had my share of losses — both parents, my infant son, an older sister, friends and numerous pets. And each time, I wondered how I would cope, but somehow, I did. Savi has been gone for several months. Yet I still feel as if I’m drowning in a tsunami of grief on certain days.
People who don’t share a special connection to a pet have difficulty understanding the loss. I’ve heard plenty of well-meaning comments that were more hurtful than healing: “It was just a dog — you knew her time was limited when you got her,” and “You can always get another dog to replace her.”
Our society is quick to equate a pet’s death to losing a piece of property, but people who view their pets as family members know the truth. Pets are so much more. They’re constant companions that offer the purest form of trust and unconditional love — something that can be challenging in many human relationships.
According to a 2018 Scientific American article titled “Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously,” by Guy Winch, this loss is devastating and lasts a long time. As Winch writes: “Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. Yet as a society, we do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health. Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average).”
There were so many levels and odd parallels to past losses while I mourned for Savi. Her death was early and unexpected; one minute, she was in excellent health, and the next, she was ill and needed emergency surgery to remove her gall bladder and spleen. The prognosis was good, but the doctor warned that her recovery would be an arduous process. Those weeks she was in the veterinary ICU reminded me of my mother’s month in critical care for a ruptured aorta. Mom was expected to recover and did well for several weeks before quietly slipping away from us in her sleep.
When Savi was finally allowed home for recovery, she took a turn for the worse and had to be readmitted to the ICU. The veterinarian said there was nothing more they could do and suggested we take her home for palliative care. I stayed close to her for the two weeks we had together and listened to her every breath. Caring for Savi reminded me of watching over my father until he took his last breath with my head against his chest.
The merciful decision to euthanize my fur baby when she showed signs of distress triggered even darker memories of removing my infant son, Jason, from life support, 24 hours after his birth. His twin, our daughter Jennifer, is now the mother of two daughters of her own.
The only way I could cope with that decision was to convince myself that my son had no idea what was going on and that he would finally be pain-free. But Savi was cognizant and old enough to know something was wrong, which hurt the most.
I will never forget how she looked at me with confusion when we entered the clinic, and how her paw rested on my arm when those soulful brown eyes flashed an endearing look of trust and love one last time.
Losing Savi has opened that same Pandora’s box of grief for loved ones lost that I thought was shelved long ago, and I’ve learned several things from the experience:
- People go through the same stages of grief for a pet as they do for a human, but we don’t progress through those stages similarly. There is no linear timeline to grief, and no one has the right to put a timetable on yours.
- It’s normal to feel guilt after losing a pet, especially when euthanizing is involved. But it takes time to accept that the decision was an act of kindness and mercy.
- Each loss is unique, and no two people respond to the death of their pets the same way. Some will go to great lengths to memorialize their animals, while others will choose to block out the experience, and it’s their right to do so without experiencing judgment.
- Grieve out loud; yell, cry and talk to anyone willing to listen. Talking normalizes and validates your feelings.
- Surround yourself with people who support your feelings. The power of a hug goes a long way toward making you feel less vulnerable.
- The loss of a pet can easily trigger residual grief from previous losses. It’s important to acknowledge this pain to heal.
- Grief never wholly disappears; it grows smaller over time when we allow happier memories to fill the void that’s left by the absence of others.
I miss Savi every day, and I know my other pups miss her too. I keep a little wooden box of her ashes and a ceramic paw print nearby, but I haven’t found the courage yet to retrieve her favorite blanket, leash or food bowl from the closet where I stored them the night she died.
Adjusting to life without her has been harder than I expected, even though I’ve already been through the stages of denial, anger and depression. But I know from experience that acceptance will come. It’s just going to take a little bit longer this time, for my precious pug.