The Stigma That Came With Grieving the Loss of My Dog

Grieving loss of dog

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Solomon died on January 15, 2017. It wasn't sudden, but it still felt that way to me. At 16, Solomon was old for a dog, and he'd been living with a heart condition for several years already. With the help of a veterinarian who specialized in cardiology, my husband, Mike, and I staved off the worst effects of his ailment. So when he collapsed in late December, we assumed it was a sign we'd just have to tweak his medication.

The x-rays revealed a different problem: Solomon had cancer all over his lungs. While this was bad news, the doctor didn't indicate what this meant for his longevity, seemingly almost unconcerned about his diagnosis.

In hindsight, it was naïve of me, but her attitude gave me a false sense of security, leading to my belief that we would still have a few more good months with Solomon.

So I was surprised and distressed when he stopped eating, and his breathing became disturbingly fast five days later. A feeling that continued as the vet at the animal ER told us he was deteriorating rapidly. Over the next few days, Solomon's breathing got quicker, and he grew increasingly weak. Given all his body was going through, Mike and I worried he would have a heart attack. We didn't want him to suffer or be scared, so we made an appointment for in-home euthanasia.

The three of us spent Solomon's final day together. He was relaxed and calm when the vet arrived. He was lying next to me when she gave him the first shot, a sedative to ease his passing. He looked up briefly and then put his head back down and fell asleep. When Mike and I were ready, the vet gave Solomon the second shot, and I felt his heart slow down and eventually stop.

When they took Solomon's body away, I felt like I was in a trance. I had spent the last few days worrying about making Solomon comfortable and trying not to display too much emotion to ensure he wouldn't be frightened. Now, as I continued to sit in the same spot where Solomon left us, I couldn't wrap my head around what had happened.

My husband's emotions came tumbling out, but I couldn't cry yet. Solomon had been part of our lives for only five years.

Even though intellectually, I knew we were lucky to have had him for as long as we did, given his age at adoption, emotionally, I couldn't fathom life without him.

As the days passed, the tears came. Psychologists have noted that pet loss can be just as devastating, and the process of grieving can be just as lengthy as the loss of a friend or relative. My experience is evidence of that. I had lost several people in my life, but those deaths didn't impact me as Solomon's did.

Part of this was because I became attached to Solomon in a way I hadn't anticipated in the years we had him. I had grown up with dogs but hadn't gotten one while living on my own as a young adult. So by the time my husband and I got together, I ached for a dog the way other women my age ached for a baby.

I missed the companionship and love of the human-dog bond, but Mike, who had minimal experience with dogs, didn't feel quite the same way. His hesitation about the prospect of bringing an unknown animal into our home made me determined to find a dog that would meet both of our needs. So when I found Solomon at a local dog rescue about two years into our marriage, it felt like it was meant to be.

Solomon was a cairn terrier, the breed of my family's dogs, he already had substantial obedience training, and outside of the past six months at the rescue, he'd spent his first 10 years in a home with people. He seemed like a perfect starter dog for Mike, and I loved the idea of adopting a so-called "senior" dog who often had difficulty finding homes. (Solomon's previous family had loved him but had to give him up due to extenuating circumstances—a sad situation for everyone involved.)

I pushed hard for Solomon, and despite Mike's misgivings, he agreed to the adoption. I was elated. Once we brought him home, Solomon proved to be everything I'd hoped for as he slowly revealed the layers of his curious, funny, and charismatic personality. Soon, Mike was just as dedicated and attached to Solomon as I was.

My feelings for Solomon were different from those for the dogs I'd grown up with. While I loved those dogs, they felt a lot like my siblings because I wasn't the one who made the big decisions about caring for them. Taking on that responsibility for Solomon made him feel more like my child, and I became deeply invested.

While the comparison may seem strange to some, recent research has shown that people who have chosen not to have children, as Mike and I have, invest in their pets in much the same way parents invest in their children, albeit in ways designed to meet their pets' species-specific needs. So pet parenting really is a form of parenting, and nonparents with pets show the generalized attachment, emotional responsiveness, and dedication to general care that goes with that level of nurturing.

Raising children is very different than taking care of a dog, of course, but for me, losing Solomon was the closest thing to losing a child I'll ever experience. However, there are no societal mechanisms for acknowledging the loss of a dog. Even though the absence of his reassuring presence made Mike's and my world feel emptier, Solomon wouldn't have a funeral.

The closest thing we could do was announce his passing over social media. And although a smattering of friends and family expressed sympathy in response, it didn't serve as a real outlet for our grief. I asked people to share a favorite memory of Solomon in an effort to have something like a digital wake, but only two people replied. So mostly, we were left with the unwanted changes to our daily routine that served as private, regular reminders that Solomon no longer needed to be walked or fed.

Meanwhile, my doctoral graduation was a week away, and Mike and I planned to bring Solomon with us for the event. I had been happily anticipating introducing him to my classmates and advisors, but I couldn't imagine attending the celebration now that he was gone. All I could think about was the way he would quietly snore in his bed as I wrote my dissertation, and I knew I wouldn't make it through the ceremony without breaking down. Yet none of my classmates, whom I thought I'd grown close to, reached out to express their condolences about Solomon. The silence felt deafening.

As the weeks went on and my grief didn't dissipate, I started to feel embarrassed about my inability to move on. I was contracted to write a book and had always been a stickler for deadlines, but I couldn't focus enough to complete my chapters despite regular meetings with my co-author and increasing feelings of guilt. Instead, I poured my energy into collecting all the photos Mike and I had ever taken of Solomon and writing down every memory of him that I could think of.

When I finished that project, I felt at loose ends again. By then, friends and family seemed to think I should be past it. They didn't bring up Solomon, and when I did, they seemed uninterested. One or two even told me I just needed to get over his death as if it should be an easy thing to do.

The judgment made the experience even more challenging. I found little support or sympathy outside of my husband, who was going through the same thing. Plus, the message that I should have an easier time recovering from the loss made me feel ashamed for not being made of stronger stuff.

It took a year to feel like I was back to normal. And ultimately, what helped me the most was getting another dog, Jitsu. Jitsu is nothing like Solomon. A former stray, he's shy and nervous and finds most humans baffling and often terrifying. Yet, he and I bonded almost immediately, and even now, I feel like I need him as much as he needs me. Even though Jitsu didn't necessarily understand the deep grief I felt over Solomon's loss, he offered the unconditional support, comfort, and acceptance I couldn't find from people.

I don't write this to point fingers, and I believe my experience is pretty common among people who lose beloved pets. The lives of companion animals are woefully short compared to ours, making loss and bereavement part of the bargain we make for all the good stuff that comes with having them in our lives. But given pet loss is something so many of us go through, it seems that our culture needs to find a way to normalize and become more accepting of the grief that comes with it.

While it's on those of us who have lost pets to work through our grief, others who recognize the loss and offer support can help make this a less lonely experience. Furthermore, since grief doesn't work on a set timetable, having friends and family acknowledge what we're going through after the first week or two can make the process of mourning a pet feel less stigmatized. And lessening the stigma around grief over a pet's passing can also alleviate the shame and embarrassment that makes the loss even more challenging.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a loss, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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2 Sources
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  1. Winch G. Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously. Scientific American. 2018.

  2. Volsche S. Pet Parenting in the United States: Investigating an Evolutionary PuzzleEvolutionary Psychology. 2021;19(3):1-9. doi:10.1177/14747049211038297