It is very simple. When your soul mate dies, you have a choice. You can choose to look forward to life or you can choose to look forward to death.—Rose the Shaman (October 2012)
My chocolate Lab, Gunny, was my soul mate. It took many years for me to see who he really was and to understand our connection. Gunny was Gunny. He wasn’t anyone’s traditional idea of a “great dog.” He expected and demanded equality, or even better, preferential treatment as compared to people. Most of the time, he got it! He was, without a doubt, the wisest and most extraordinary soul I’ve ever had the privilege to know. He was mine. And I was his.
He, and we, fought very hard to overcome the seemingly endless number of illnesses that befell him over the years. Each time he survived, we clung tighter to each other until we seemed to share one heart. After almost 15 years, his body was failing him for the last time and he needed to be released. I held him while he drew his last breath, spooning him on the floor of the vet’s office and saying “I love you” over and over again until he was gone. I felt like I had fallen down a well, surrounded by blackness. That began the most difficult period of my life.
So far as I’m concerned, it’s normal to have debilitating grief over losing your dog, or any other beloved animal companion. The world may not tell you that, but I am. When I look back on it, I think the following things helped me finally find peace. Time alone certainly didn’t do the trick.
- I acknowledged the depth of my loss. Don’t minimize it to yourself or anyone else. If it’s the worst loss you have ever felt – worse than losing a parent or a human friend – own it. Say it. You have nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Love is love.
- I found self-compassion. I initially judged myself for not getting over it. Even after years, I still wasn’t “over it.” If you’re like me, you may never get over it. But you can find a way to live with it. Until I climbed in the boat with my grief and rowed, side by side, it didn’t dissipate. My grief parts wanted to be acknowledged and comforted. Going through the grief, not trying to suppress it or ignore it, may be the route for you, too.
- I was blessed with friends who didn’t question the depth of my grief. They acknowledged my tremendous loss and were willing to listen to me cry or reminisce. I also talked to Gunny about it all the time, telling him how much I missed him and asking for his help. Hopefully you have a friend who understands. If not, look for a grief counselor or other therapist. It’s more common now for vet clinics to host grief support groups. I don’t think I could’ve tackled it on my own.
- Given my spiritual beliefs, I knew that our relationship didn’t end. The only thing that ended was Gunny’s physical form. We didn’t lose our soul connection and I didn’t lose his love. Love never dies. I missed him so much, but I still felt connected to him.
- I tried to focus on gratitude for having had great love. Gunny saw exactly who I was, warts and all, and loved me to the depth of his soul. What a gift. Not everyone gets that in this life. Hopefully you had the same with your dog.
It took me a long time to feel better. It took even longer to find my footing in a life without him because I felt like I was missing a piece. But I did. As I wrote at the end of the book that I wrote with Gunny, The Endless Path, “I don’t know what the next phase of my life will look like, and I find the idea of moving on mildly terrifying. But I have promised Gunny that I will look forward to life. And I always keep my promises.” If I can do it, you can do it, too.