A Vet Gives Wise Counsel About Grieving

(Or, how I mourned my own dog)
By Karen Fine DVM, CVA, June 2018
how I mourned my dog's death, Art by Robin Spowart

Art by Robin Spowart

It seemed like it happened so fast.

One day, our Lab mix, Remy, had the tiniest wobble in his back end. I gave him some anti-inflammatory medication, which helped for a few days; then he got worse, falling over backwards as he tried to defecate. Within two weeks, his back end was completely paralyzed. The neurologist at Tufts had “spinal tumor” at the top of her diagnostic list.

Remy was at least 12; we had adopted him as a young adult, so we didn’t know his true age. He had come from a midwestern shelter to our home in Massachusetts. My husband, Mike, pointed out that the dog hadn’t been sick a day in his life (that we knew of) until his paralysis.

And so, with what seemed like very little notice, my husband and I and our nine-year-old son, Nate, had to say good-bye to Remy. It was Nate’s first experience with grief.

We were all devastated— particularly Nate—and our other Lab mix, Velvet, was bereft. We had originally adopted Remy to be her companion (his name was short for “Velvet’s Remedy”). The two dogs were always lying next to each other, playing with one another, drinking water at the same time. Velvet’s sorrow was especially hard to watch, and seemed to compound our grief.

I had been in this situation before. As a small-animal veterinarian, I perform euthanasia as part of my job, and am often involved in the whole fraught-with-emotion decision-making process. And as a holistic veterinarian, I treat many geriatric and seriously ill dogs and cats with acupuncture, and get to know the animals and their people well, especially if I see them during a house call. I think a lot about pet loss, and the great, bone-deep kind of grief we feel when our pets die. Each animal, each loss, is unique and special.

So, I made some plans and, with Nate as my willing helper, went into action.

The first thing we did was to write Remy’s obituary. I have long advocated obituary-writing as a comforting ritual after the loss of a pet, and have had many people tell me how it helped them. It had helped me as well. In the past, I had done it alone; this time, each family member wrote something, passing a notebook around and putting our feelings into words, telling our favorite stories about our beloved “bear dog.” We then took turns reading aloud to one another.

Next, we went through old photos, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we remembered Remy when he was younger. Look, there he is in our old house. In that picture, I was pregnant. There’s our bear, his long coat covered in dirt after rolling in the grass. Here’s another one of the two dogs curled up together. These are before-andafter pictures of the Great Summer Shave.

Nate decided to make a slideshow; using PowerPoint, he spent several days working on a presentation about Remy’s life. Meanwhile, we set up a small remembrance area next to the kitchen table, near Remy’s favorite place to sleep. We placed his collar there, along with a special candle and some photos. Newly arrived sympathy cards from friends and family were displayed. Nate added some clover he’d picked from the patch Remy loved to roll in. (The clover was eventually eaten by our cat, then regurgitated on the floor by the display.)

My mother called from California and, as we listened over the speakerphone, recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning.

Remy had spent several of his last days at the clinic where I work part-time, and my co-workers had become quite attached to him. I wanted to do something to thank them for their care, so Nate and I decided to organize a celebration of Remy’s life that featured an icecream-sundae bar. Planning this event involved many discussions about which toppings to provide. Then, of course, we needed to shop for them. Choosing the ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and candy and fruit toppings was a fun activity that gave us reasons to smile despite the empty feeling we had inside.

We planned our party for a time when Mike would be able to attend. The doctors and staff at the clinic (my work family) assembled and I said a few words of thanks and spoke briefly about Remy. Nate shared his slideshow. Then, we feasted. It seemed appropriate to honor Remy with ice cream, as he had been a dog who loved to eat. Velvet was in attendance, and she licked some dog ice cream while we ate our sundaes.

Eventually, Remy’s ashes arrived. We decided to bury them outside, next to Remy’s Rhubarb. Shortly after we moved into our home, Mike had planted a rhubarb plant just outside our chain-link-fenced dog yard. After I saw Remy lift his leg and urinate through the fence directly onto the plant, it was dubbed Remy’s Rhubarb (although the plant flourished, I couldn’t bring myself to cook with it). Nate decided that the ashes should be buried at 5 pm, since dinnertime was Remy’s favorite time of the day. One day, we gathered next to the rhubarb, with Velvet in attendance too.

“We love you, Remy,” we sniffed as we planted him in the earth, like a seed. “You were such a really, really good boy.” Nate broke a heart-shaped dog cookie in half, placed half in the ground, and gave the other half to Velvet. We tamped down the earth and carefully placed a stone plaque over it; carved into the stone were the words “Dogs Leave Pawprints On Our Hearts.”

These rituals seemed to help all of us, except for Velvet. She slept more, choosing to lie in Remy’s favorite spots. We couldn’t imagine what it was like for her, effectively losing her soul mate.

We gave her plenty of attention, but still she moped.

I knew what would help: a puppy. It would not have been a good idea for every dog, but I knew my girl. She needed a friend.

“Velvet,” I told her, “I can’t bring Remy back, but I can get you another pack member.”

“It’s too soon,” said my husband. A week later, he emailed me a photo of an available rescue puppy. When I contacted the group, that pup had already been adopted, but they had other puppies. Two were being fostered in Rhode Island, and the following weekend, we drove down with Velvet to meet them.

Cheryl, the foster mother, had thoughtfully set up a blanket and chairs in her grassy back yard, and we made ourselves comfortable as she brought out the puppies one at a time. Velvet busied herself sniffing around the perimeter of the yard, pointedly ignoring the pups. Mike and I looked at one another, incredulous. We had never seen her react this way to another dog. Maybe a new puppy was a bad idea, I worried. On the other hand, perhaps she was even more depressed than I had realized.

The male was shy, but the female puppy had a wonderful temperament; she was friendly and inquisitive, and loved to snuggle. She seemed to be a great match for our family, and Cheryl assured us that we could bring her back if, somehow, it didn’t work out. We all agreed that Velvet needed a little time to adjust.

For the first week, Velvet’s reaction continued to be meh. The pup, whom we named Toffee, at first seemed to be afraid of our gentle, gray-muzzled dog. But dayby-day, she worked up courage, and Velvet showed more interest. They play-bowed to each other, just not at the same time. It was like watching a romantic comedy unfold. Finally, after about 10 days, they played together for the first time.

That night, Nate yelled for me.

“Mom! Come see! Toffee and Velvet are curled up together!”

Sure enough, the old dog and the puppy were asleep next to one another. We all smiled, and I snapped photos like a proud parent.

Toffee was not a replacement for Remy, but a new and wonderful being. We would always miss Remy, but going through the motions of mourning had helped. Perhaps I would not have grieved as deliberately if it hadn’t been for my son, yet nothing had felt forced or fake. Ultimately, it felt as though we had grieved with intention.

The rituals of grief, I realized, are not just for nine-year-olds. They are for all of us, if we choose.

Karen Fine is a holistic veterinarian who practices integrative medicine and operates her own house-call practice in Worcester, Mass. Her free “Guide to Writing a Pet Obituary” is available on her website.

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