Here’s the routine: you wake around one a.m. She’s restless. You’re not sure what she needs – a trip to the bathroom, relief from some unknown discomfort she can’t explain, some water, or maybe just a soothing touch and a soft whisper in her ear to calm her down. You give her the 1:30 a.m. pill and go back to bed. It happens again around three a.m.
At five a.m., when you hear the sounds again, it’s close enough to the time you normally wake up so you throw off the covers, put on your slippers. You help her down the steps. Her vision isn’t so good, nor her hearing. It’s easier to carry her down the steps, so you do – hoping the rubber soles on your slippers will grip the carpet and keep you both upright in your sleep-deprived state. You hold her steady as she goes to the bathroom, help her back to the kitchen where her breakfast and another dose of medication awaits.
Medication will need to be administered two more times during daylight hours. You and your husband have been taking turns coming home from work to tend to her. You dial in for conference calls and rearrange meetings as needed; mostly you ask for forgiveness. Each morning when you leave for work, you give her some encouraging words that hopefully hide the worried tone in your voice. Your heart breaks a little, wishing you could be there for her all the time.
By now, I could be talking about an elderly parent or a child who needs special care but I’m actually talking about Macy, our dog of 15 years who needed constant supervision and care for the final year of her life. No—all her life, actually. Dogs require everyday care; senior dogs with a history of seizures require even more.
Today would have been Macy’s sixteenth birthday. I’ve been thinking about her a lot—grieving for her—and my thoughts have turned to the very taboo topic of comparing dogs to children.
The horror, the horror, I know. Believe me, I get it.
Dogs are not children. Dogs do not require the same level of physical, mental or emotional care. We could spend several nights, pints in hand, listing the infinite differences between dogs and children. Dogs can stay home alone; children cannot. Dogs do not require the cognitive development or education that children do. Raising a dog costs less than raising a child. Dogs will not be the future of our planet (though sometimes I think that’s not such a bad idea when I see what some of today’s humans are doing in our world).
I’m not one of those people who thinks raising a child is exactly like raising a dog but I do believe there are some similarities, especially from the emotional and psychological standpoint of being a caregiver.
I also believe that, unlike children, dogs never become adults. They never grow out of needing your care and thus, caring for a dog throughout its life can be similar to caring for an infant or toddler—similar being the key word here.
Domesticated dogs are dependent creatures. They always need a human to feed them and provide water. They never grow up and get the keys to your car. They can never communicate exactly what’s giving them pain or what they’re thinking; it’s up to you to figure it out. Like caring for a child, caring for a dog—especially a senior dog with medical needs—is a huge responsibility that requires your love, energy, time, and a portion of your paycheck.
So it stands to reason that when a creature is dependent on you from day one until its final breath, you grieve as much as if you’ve lost a member of the family. Because, emotionally and mentally, that’s what it feels like. Add in the additional layer of guilt and sorrow that comes with making the decision to euthanize a dog and you’ve got quite the grief cocktail to nurse as the months go by.
Past a certain point on the grief timeline—let’s call it a few months—few dog owners are willing to admit publicly that the grief they’re still feeling is as acute as the grief they felt over losing a friend or family member. Fellow dog owners may talk about it amongst each other, might whisper that they cried more over losing their Golden Retriever than they did when Aunt Gertrude died. Some might even admit that they think of their dogs as their children but know that many a parent will balk at the notion so that’s mostly kept secret.
I’m pretty much done being silent on the subject. There are plenty of studies that indicate people grieve hard for their dogs, yet society often brushes off this grief. As noted in a Popular Science article a few months ago: “… depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publicly grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.”
Dog parents are supposed to “get over it” because “it’s just a dog.”
Just a dog?
There’s little in the way of cultural support for grieving dog parents. The sympathy cards and messages from friends help immensely but there’s no three-day bereavement leave from work even though you’ve lost an incredibly important family member. There’s no funeral service unless you count the Facebook post where you tell everyone what’s happened. There’s also the perception that, a few weeks after you’ve put your dog down, you should get back to business as usual. In reality, you’re flat-out devastated. You’re still waking up at odd hours expecting to hear the restless sounds that you’ve heard for the past year. You still reach for the medicine bottle or the leash and remember, oh yeah, that’s not the routine anymore. Many of us get another dog to fill the void, knowing full well that, years down the road, the decision to put the next dog down will happen again. But your love is too great; your feeling of emptiness is, too.
Let’s not get all caught up in the battle over what’s harder or more important, children or dogs. That’s not the point.
Let’s instead give folks who have lost a pet the time they need to grieve along with the space to grieve out loud, to talk freely about their grief – no matter how long it’s been – and about the immense guilt that comes with the decision to euthanize a pet. Let’s not judge whether it’s the right way to feel or not. And let’s be okay with people saying that their pets are like children to them because what they’re really saying here is that their love for the pet runs that deep.
And I’m here to tell anyone who feels uncomfortable saying in public that their dog (or cat or gerbil) is similar to their child and that they will mourn the loss as if that creature is a human: it’s okay. You’re totally okay by me.