On my seventh birthday, I received the best gift of all time: a tiny, cuddly, 7-week-old Maltese poodle named Skanky. While Skanky was technically adopted by my older brother, my brother kindly offered to share ownership with me. He was my first pet, and he taught me about responsibility and compassion.
He was like a cat in many ways: fiercely independent, but very intuitive and affectionate. He loved scaling walls, sitting in sunbeams, and catching mice. He’d spend his time roaming around our neighbourhood, always returning home in the evenings. When he wanted company, he’d sit next to me or climb into my lap. His presence grounded and calmed me whenever I was upset. As the youngest sibling of four, I’d never felt responsible for another being before, so taking care of Skanky meant I learned to grow up.
At nine years old, he was knocked over by a car. His hip was badly injured, but he survived it – only to catch kennel cough at the vet. He struggled to recover from it. He suddenly became more dependent on me: he ate out of my hands until he regained strength, he constantly cuddled up to me, and he followed me more often. He suddenly became an even bigger part of my life.
After another injury, we took him to an animal hospital where he had to stay the night. The vet told us that he could operate on Skanky, but it was unlikely that the operation would be successful. My darling companion had to be euthanized.
We said goodbye the next day. He weakly wagged his tail at us. He thought he was coming home with us, but we knew he wasn’t. We decided it would be too hard for him to be euthanized while we watched, which is a decision I regret. When we waved goodbye to him, his ears drooped in confusion. I wonder if he knew we would never see him again.
My point is not that losing a pet is difficult. We already know that. My point is that this excruciating pain is minimized, and minimizing this pain makes it even more excruciating.
It was only when my father passed away last year that I realized what I was missing when I mourned my dog. My father’s death was met with an outpouring of support. My family received flowers, hugs, visits, and practical help. The tenderness and love from those around me made mourning so much easier. I was reminded that it was okay to feel whatever I needed to feel, and to be deeply affected by the loss.
My dog didn’t affect as many people as my father, understandably. But still, I was affected by the the lack of genuine sympathy. We had a funeral to mark the end of my father’s life, but no similar cultural rituals exist for the death of a pet. If we have funerals for our pets, it might seem a little funny or weird to others. While bright flowers flooded our house after my father’s death, I don’t think I know of a single person who’s received flowers or a sympathy card after losing a pet. These seemingly small gestures remind you you’re not alone when you’re in mourning.
After my dog died, I felt utterly alone.
It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but losing a pet is often just as hard as losing a human friend or relative. Comparing the loss of my father to the loss of a pet might seem strange or even disrespectful here, partly because we minimize the value of animal lives, partly because we don’t realize how much our pets mean to us.
Our pets usually live with us, while our relatives might live away from us. I had never lived with my father, and in the last few years of his life, I lived on the other side of the country. My dog, on the other hand, was a part of my everyday life for years. On a practical level, my life was more affected by the loss of a being I saw everyday than someone I saw a few times each year. Think about it: if your best friend moves overseas, you’ll miss them, but you’ll miss them even more if you lived with them, too. Mourning, I’ve found, is being jarred by someone’s absence – and I noticed my dog’s absence every day for years.
I got along well with my father, and I deeply miss talking to him about our shared interests and opinions on current affairs. I also miss the way my dog was consistently there for me; it was a source of support that humans are incapable of providing. I confided in my dog when I had nobody else to talk to, and while he didn’t know what I was saying, he seemed to read my emotions and act accordingly. Human support is essential, but it’s simply different from that of a pet. Losing that source of unconditional love is painful.
Something I know to be true is that allowing yourself to feel is healing. When it comes to losing a pet, this is certainly applicable. Let yourself be devastated if you need to be. Meet your own pain with the same compassion our pets offer us.