I lost all my dogs this past winter.
Lily, Georgia and Archie all died within six months of each other, to the exact day.
Lily – 11/16
Georgia – 1/16
Archie – 5/16
Duke and Tyler both died in the year and a half before that.
Five beloved dogs, all gone within two years.
Two years of rolling waves of grief, crashing one after another as I tried to keep my head up and breathe.
It’s also been two years of immense joy, presence and unconditional love. Two years of incredible growth and a fuller understanding of the deep resilience and strength within both me and my dogs.
I’m not trying to say that I handled all this loss with love and light and peace and joy. I didn’t. I had moments where I shut down, wanted to scream my rage at God/the Universe, and wallowed in the grief and self-pity.
We all know people who have lost one dog and refuse to get another, guarding their hearts from ever going through that type of pain again.
We’ve heard the studies that show how the death of a pet can cause more intense pain than the death of a close friend or relative.
We all know the person who can still be brought to tears by the mention of a pet’s name, even when that pet died 10 or more years ago.
In fact, the idea of losing a pet is so traumatic that I bet most people won’t read this post. I’ve worked with animal lovers for more than a decade and I know that the thought of losing their pet is so painful that many people can’t even approach the subject.
So how did I go through pet loss five times over in such a short time, and still come out willing and able to do it all again?
My dogs showed me how.
How to Live and Die Like a Dog
I watched how my dogs approached life and death, and I modeled them. Because frankly, when it comes to life and death, dogs do it better.
The biggest difference is that dogs stay PRESENT.
I remember photographing a client’s dog named Lolo. Lolo had hemangiosarcoma, but she didn’t know she was about to die. All she knew is that she was getting extra treats and her parents were spending more time with her than normal and she was loving it.
But the humans? We were sad. Her parents, understandably, dreaded the moment that the hemangiosarcoma would rupture, taking her away from them suddenly. I was aware that I was taking what might be the last photos of Lolo and her family. We were all holding back tears.
Meanwhile, look at the smile on Lolo’s face.
Yes, dogs grieve.
I have watched every one of my dogs grieve as they lost one sibling after another in the last two years. As a testament to their complex emotional lives, each of my dogs grieved differently. They do feel, they do love, they do experience loss.
They just don’t get stuck in it like humans do.
And most importantly, they don’t “pre-grieve,” that uniquely human feature where we dread and cry about our dogs’ impending death, basically from the moment we first fall in love with them.
Here’s what I saw happening in my own life: I was spending a lot of my dogs’ remaining time grieving as if they were already gone.
My dogs were still here, still with me, but I was heartbroken from the idea of losing them in the unknown future. When Duke was first diagnosed with cancer, I spent a lot of time feeling sad about losing him and grieving what hadn’t even happened yet. But then I noticed that he wasn’t feeling the same way. He was just being Duke, rolling in the grass, sleeping in sunbeams, and eating up all the bananas he could get.
How Duke reacted to his cancer diagnosis:
I started this practice with Duke, and with each dog that I lost over the next two years, I continued to practice and get better at it.
I tried to be in joy for every earthly moment that I had with them. I committed to saving the grief for the moment after they took their last breath.
I wasn’t stuffing my grief down. I was acknowledging it, but I was letting it know that it wasn’t time yet. There would come a time in the future when my dogs would take their last breaths, and that was when I would fully allow the grief to have its time. Until then, I reminded myself that in this present moment, I had nothing to be sad about. My dogs were still here, still happy, and all they really wanted was for me to be happy, too.
Being sad about something that hasn’t happened yet is a choice, and we do have the power to choose other thoughts.
We have the power to choose happier thoughts, or even to choose no thoughts at all and just enjoy what is happening in that very moment.
Because our minds are so good at imagining, we have the ability to imagine every dreadful scenario that could possibly break our hearts. We can imagine them so vividly that we start to feel them. And when we feel them, our bodies react as if it is actually happening.
Whether you are actually grieving the loss of a pet or just imagining it, the pain in your body and heart is the same.
I chose not to spend the time that I had left with my dogs imagining how it would feel to lose them. I chose to spend every moment that I could in the present with them, grateful that they were still with me. I had moments where I slipped, moments when the tears of imagined loss came even as I was petting the living, breathing dog in front of me. But my dogs always guided me right back to the present—because with so many dogs, someone always needs to poop.
When you’re crying about your dog’s future death, and that dog walks up to you and asks you to go outside, it’s a good reminder to get back to the present moment and enjoy what is right in front of you.
I didn’t know that I would lose all my dogs in such a short time, but I believe this practice helped me get through it. Yes, I experienced a lot of grief over the last two years. But for the most part, that grief only came after each dog’s last breath. In between, I had incredible moments of joy and presence and gratitude that were like life rafts in a storm of rolling waves of loss.
If I hadn’t chosen joy and presence, the last two years would have been an unbearable, unbroken stretch of sadness, and I’m not sure my body or mind would have survived that.
There was an additional benefit to choosing joy and presence while my dogs were still alive. Dogs are incredible at sensing energy and smelling chemical/hormonal changes that are imperceptible to humans. When I feel sadness, the hormone cortisol gets pumped through my body. I can’t smell it, but my dogs can. Cortisol is a stress hormone, so what they know is that their person, their main caretaker, their food source, is feeling stressed. And as a creature who depends completely on their person for their food, comfort, and companionship, the fact that I’m stressed makes them stressed, too. Stress is no good for anyone’s health, especially a dog who is old or already has cancer. So an added incentive for me to stay present and stay in joy for every moment that my dogs were alive was to also help keep their stress levels low and their joy levels high.
Even though I ended up losing all my dogs, I truly believe that this practice reduced all our stress and added length of time to all their lives. It certainly added to their quality of life, as well as to mine.
Goodbye Isn’t Goodbye
What if you’ve already lost a pet and you didn’t choose joy and presence in the moment—then what? How can you stop the hurting and open your heart again for more?
What gave me comfort is learning that goodbye isn’t goodbye.
I’m going to make a bold statement here: there is no such thing as death.
All matter contains energy, and energy cannot be destroyed—it can only be changed. Whether you believe in some form of heaven, universal source energy, the rainbow bridge, reincarnation, spirit guides, or even ghosts, it’s all the same basic idea. From ancient times to now, there has been a prevailing understanding that life does not end when our bodies stop functioning. The idea of an afterlife has become uncomfortable for modern US sensibilities, yet in other cultures families regularly honor, prepare food for, and spend time with the spirits of their deceased loved ones.
I was certainly one who gave no credence to ideas of an afterlife spent in spirit.
But then Duke died, and some strange things started happening that I couldn’t explain, but also couldn’t ignore. Two years later, I could write an entire book based on the signs, dreams, sensations and synchronicities my kids and I have received from our dogs.
(Do you want to hear more? Let me know in the comments.)
What I know from all of this is that our dogs are with us all the time. They aren’t in the physical bodies that we want them to be in, but when we open our hearts and minds to “seeing” them in their new energetic form, their energy can be with us, keeping us company and giving us guidance, all the time.
One hour after Archie died, Layla laid down in his bed and this rainbow fell over her back. A sign from Archie?
Believing that we will see our beloved animals again—whether it’s in heaven, at the rainbow bridge, through reincarnation, in dreams, or as spirit guides—brings comfort to many people. And if it’s not hurting anyone else, I don’t understand why anyone would try to take that comfort away from another person by insisting that heaven, universal source energy or a spiritual afterlife in any form isn’t real. If the idea appeals to you, or if you’ve experienced strange phenomena that you can’t explain any other way, then fully claim and honor that belief. If it makes you feel better to think that you might see your dog again in heaven, at the rainbow bridge, in messages from beyond, or even in a reincarnated puppy, then don’t let what anyone else thinks take that belief from you.
The more you can open your mind to receiving signs from your beloveds in spirit, the more you will receive.
The idea that my dogs’ spirits are always walking next to me, and that I may see them again reincarnated in this life or reunited in the afterlife, gives me comfort. It helps me keep going. It has made all their deaths seem less final. And it gives me the strength to keep opening my heart for more.
Get to Know Your Grief
Which brings us to Layla. I “accidentally” adopted Layla as a companion for Archie, not knowing that Archie was going to die just three days later. So here I was, grieving Archie, with yet another senior dog entering my life who wouldn’t have long to live.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I don’t think anyone would have blamed me if I had returned Layla to her foster after three days and just taken a break from dogs for a while. I did consider it. But I had a strong feeling that Archie wanted me to have Layla, that maybe she was even a gift from Archie. So instead of shutting down my heart and refusing to go through more grief, I leaned back into the practices and beliefs that had given me comfort with the others.
The pain from losing each dog doesn’t get any “less.” But it does become knowable, almost predictable, which makes it less scary to go through. I’ve come to know my own unique pattern for grief, allowing me to take better care of myself. I know when I’ll feel strong and when I’ll feel pulled under. I know there will be days when I’m convinced the sadness will never end. I also know there will be that one day when I laugh again, usually at something inappropriate and immature, and for a little too long.
On the day that I get the giggles, I know I’m coming out the other side of grief.
Knowing grief is a gift.
Feeling grief means you also felt the beautiful love that came before it.
Grief and love are emotions on opposite sides of the same spectrum—you can’t have one without the other. If I chose not to keep Layla because I was afraid to lose another dog, I wouldn’t get to feel all the love she has brought me.
I chose to keep Layla and to pour into her. I’m not holding back any love from her out of fear that my heart will get broken again.
My heart WILL get broken again, AND I will be okay.
Because I know that right up until the moment of her last breath, we’re going to fill that time with as much presence, joy and love as we can. And then, with tears in my eyes and another boxer-shaped hole in my heart, I will ride the waves of grief. And all the while, I will watch for beautiful, magical signs from Layla as she shows me how to “see” her again.
In memory of Duke, Tyler, Lily, Georgia and Archie. Thank you for giving me the beautiful gifts of your lives and your deaths.