I didn’t expect the soft smack of a potato chip hitting the floor to crack whatever emotional stability I had left. But three days after my beloved dog, Garth, died, a fallen kettle-cooked ketchup chip broke my spirit. It was the first of many fallen foods that, after each spill, would turn me into an inconsolable puddle. He was no longer there to excitedly lick up whatever mess I’d left behind, and I was forced to bend down and pick it up myself, cementing the reality that Garth was really gone for good.
It was in these small, silly little moments that I felt the most insurmountable grief. The distinct crinkle of a cheese brick wrapper (Garth’s most prized treat), passing by my bedroom and noticing an unoccupied mattress, rolling the car window down, walking outdoors alone and, worst of all, opening the door to my home were a further twist of the misery knife. I’ve faced the dreadful misfortune of many human losses over my lifetime. But with each of these terribly grief-stricken human deaths, I’ve never had to confront so many constant reminders that the being you love so dearly is gone for good.
On the morning of December 27, 2022, following a string of bizarre behaviour, Garth uncharacteristically laid down in the cold, wet snow and refused to move. My husband scooped all 70 pounds of him up, and we drove to our vet, starting an exhausting, expensive journey that would end with our loyal, cheeky four-year-old sweetheart dying three days later. He was diagnosed with a dastardly cancer called hemangiosarcoma, an illness that showed no symptoms until it did—and when it did, it was too late.
My daily routine had been instantly destroyed and I had nothing but time to sink into the excruciating loneliness. I was overwhelmed with a flood of memories, each rolled into what felt like a dog size lump sat permanently in my throat. “Sad” didn’t cut it when trying to verbalize my grief. “Crushed” and “heartbroken” felt like words of betrayal—they seemed too soft for the pain I was experiencing. But I felt shy articulating this to anyone. There is a unique shame and embarrassment that comes with expressing so much sorrow over a pet.
The shame and guilt of feeling more sorrow for your pet dying than an uncle, cousin or even parent, is an annoying little itch behind every single tear. Societally, we still fail to recognize the loss of a pet as the loss of an immediate family member (and for so many, the loss of their only family member). Sufferers are not granted the same customs as they are for human deaths—no obituaries, funerals or time off work. This leaves grievers with that aforementioned embarrassment. And yet, a 2002 study for the journal Society & Animals found that mourning a pet can be just as crippling, if not more, than losing a relative or significant other.
The most unpleasant exchanges were with those who had never owned an animal—quickly shuffling around the subject as if I had said I was splashed by a car on my way to work and had only been slightly inconvenienced. Those who had pets expressed their sympathies but mostly avoided any further discussion on the topic to avoid their own fears of losing their cherished companion. Many pet owners’ expressions of sympathy included conflicting advice: “Get a new dog right away so you can move on,” or “Don’t get another dog too soon or you’ll resent it.” Every interaction felt cumbersome and clumsy, so I limited mentioning the subject to only a few trusted friends.
I started to isolate and adopt some questionable coping mechanisms. Every night, I tortured myself by sleeping with the pillow Garth’s head rested on when he took his final breath. Simply holding the pillow often led to a heavy, distressing sob. When I would look at photos or videos of him, I would press the phone into my chest with as much pressure as I could—an automatic, irrational response that believed if I hugged it tight enough, I’d be hugging him. My strongest laments were saved for when I was alone. I wanted to present a stable exterior to prevent anyone knowing how much I was truly suffering. I feared many might think I was dramatic.
Hope for relief sprung in the form of an email I received on a gloomy Thursday morning one week after Garth passed. A clinical counsellor from the University of Guelph OVC Companion Animal Hospital, the team that diagnosed Garth, was reaching out to offer me pet grief counselling. The sympathy from others had started to wane, but I was still swallowed by grief. I had nothing to lose but insufferable emptiness, so I gladly accepted.
This was not my first encounter with pet loss, but it was the first time I had been offered pet loss counselling. The short-term services included two sessions, free of charge for clients of the Ontario Veterinary College. Sessions were 60 minutes in length and available virtually, in-person or by phone. I opted for virtual. Two sessions didn’t seem like much at the time while in the thick of the pain, but a disclaimer at the end of the email soothed any concern: “If after our session(s) you feel you require more support I can help connect you to resources in the community.” I accepted this offer after our final session.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The concept of counselling specifically for pet loss was new to me. I was introduced to the clinical counsellor who thoroughly guided me through the process and explained what our sessions would look like. She noted that if I had experience with any psychotherapy or counselling before (I had), it would be similar. And it was, but with all topics of discussion eventually leading back to the grief.
The first session started off with an ice breaker: describe what Garth was like. I was asked to talk about his personality, what and who he loved, what I loved about him and what happened in the end. As we continued, I touched on certain aspects of my life that weren’t necessarily connected to Garth’s death but could ultimately be brought back to the grief, like how he helped me overcome some unresolved traumas—one of his gifts I’m most grateful for. She would ask me to expand on a thought or how I felt, and provide words of encouragement if needed. In moments where I felt frustrated and resentful losing my dog so young, she acknowledged the unfairness and could explain in detail why I might be feeling the way I was. She frequently noted the emotions I was experiencing were incredibly common, a welcome relief.
In counselling, I immediately felt I had a safe space to let my guard down without fear of judgment. My counsellor was gentle and compassionate. I could say exactly what I was thinking and feeling without censoring myself to save others from feeling awkward, and I could protect myself from conflicting, unsolicited advice I’d often encounter when vocalizing my grief to neighbours, colleagues, friends and family.
We often want to talk to our pet—explain what is happening and tell them how much we love them and will miss them. But not being able to communicate with Garth in this way was precisely what made our bond so special. Part of what makes this particular grief so intense, as I learned from my counsellor, is that we are proud of the unique bond we’ve been able to form with another being that isn’t human. We had to work hard to form this unspoken trust and unconditional love with an animal; we had to feel each other’s moods, emotions and energy. It’s a relationship like no other, and one that is devastatingly hard to let go of when you can’t explicitly say goodbye. My sentimental rituals started to make sense.
Leaving me with perhaps the most tenderhearted statement at the end of our sessions together, my counsellor said there was nothing she or anyone could say to take away the heartache, but she guaranteed that the intensity of this pain won’t last forever. One day, I will be able to think about Garth and smile instead of crumble. I had something to look forward to.
There are countless supports and resources across Canada for those facing the difficult grief of companion animal loss, many completely free. In-person and virtual support groups, community-based grief walks, specialized counsellors and psychotherapists, online chat forums, telephone hotlines, and innumerable books, handouts and pamphlets. Canada Pet Loss can provide an excellent starting point for individuals looking for support.
When the weather gets warmer, we will be heading to Garth’s favourite place—the Cherry Beach dog park in Toronto—to spread some of his ashes. It’s a tribute I would have never considered if it weren’t for my counselling. I learned that end-of-life ceremonies are important in grief, no matter who you are grieving.
Our animals give us their everything—their whole lives, their whole selves. They too deserve a proper goodbye, and us as their owners deserve to properly heal from their loss.