Coping and Grieving: Adults and Children Losing a Dog from Cancer

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*Excerpts from ‘The Behavioral Side to Canine Cancer” written by Amber L. Drake (Chapter 8)

Children are vulnerable enough already, and the whole idea of death is not something that they entirely understand. They are usually pretty close to our beloved dogs, as our children tend to spend a great deal of their time with their furry family. 

Giving your kids that space to try to wrap their head around what is going on without being overwhelmed is very important, too. Let them hold on tightly to your dog and tell her how much they love her before she succumbs to death.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow and grief when a beloved dog has died of cancer. These tips will help you deal with that.

All of us share a profound affection and bond with our animal companions. For us, a dog is not just a dog, but rather a cherished family member, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives.

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A dog will bring structure to your day, keep you busy and social, help you resolve setbacks and struggles in life, and even give you a sense of purpose. So, when a beloved dog dies, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed with sorrow and loss.

Grieving and Loss in Dog Cancer

The pain of loss can also be crippling, causing all kinds of painful and challenging emotions. Although, sometimes, other people do not understand the extent of your dog’s distress, you can never feel bad or ashamed of an animal friend’s grievance.

Although we all react differently to the death of our dog, the degree of grief you feel will also depend on factors such as your age and disposition, the age of your dog, and the circumstances of their death.

Generally, the more important your dog was to you, the more severe the emotional pain you would feel, particularly when your dog has suffered from cancer and has lost her fight against the disease.

The role your dog has played in your life may also have an influence. For example, whether your dog was a working dog, a service animal, or a therapy animal, you would mourn not only the loss of a friend, but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of freedom, or the loss of emotional support.

If you live alone and the dog was your only friend, it would be much harder to cope with their loss. And if you were unable to afford costly veterinary care to extend your dog’s life, you might also feel a deep sense of remorse.

Although experiencing the death is an inevitable part of owning a dog, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, get to grips with your grief, and when the time is right, maybe even open your heart to another beloved furry family member.

The Grieving Process of Losing a Dog to Cancer

Grieving is an individual experience.

Some people find grief after a dog’s death comes in phases where they experience different feelings, such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and finally, acceptance and resolution.

Others note that their grief is more cyclic, coming in waves, or a sequence of peaks and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning, and will eventually become shorter and less extreme as time passes. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary, memories can give rise to a strong sense of grief.

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The mourning process is going to happen gradually.

It can not be hurried or hasty — and there is no “standard” grievance schedule. Some people are beginning to feel better in weeks or months. For some, the mourning period is assessed over the years. Whatever your experience of grief, it is important to be gentle with yourself and to allow the process to unfold naturally.

Feeling sad, surprised, or lonely is a natural response to the loss of a beloved dog. Showing these feelings does not mean that you are vulnerable or that your emotions are somehow misguided. It just means that you mourn the loss of an animal that you loved, but you shouldn’t feel ashamed of yourself.

Trying to hide the discomfort or prevent it from surfacing would just make it worse in the long run. It is necessary to face your sadness and consciously work with it for true healing. By sharing your sorrow, you would actually need less time to heal than if you hold back or “bottle up” your emotions.

Write about your emotions and speak to others who are sympathetic to your suffering. Join a group of others who share in your experiences; there are many dog cancer groups on Facebook, for example.

The Five Stages of Grief

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial: This is the first stage of grief and often the most difficult to get through. It’s when you refuse to accept that the loss has occurred. You may say things like, “This isn’t happening,” or “It’s not real.”

Anger: Anger is one of the most common feelings associated with grief. You may feel angry at yourself or others for what happened. You may also be angry with God for allowing this loss to occur in your life.

Bargaining: In this stage of grieving, you try to bargain with God or anyone else who can bring back your loved one so that you don’t have to go through this pain.

Depression: Depression is a natural part of grieving because it helps you deal with all the sadness that comes with losing someone important in your life. However, if your sadness interferes with your daily routine or lasts longer than a few weeks, talk to someone about getting treatment.

Acceptance: Acceptance means coming to terms with what has happened in your life and accepting it as part of who you are today.

Dealing with the Grief of Dog Loss to Cancer

Sorrow and grief are common and natural reactions to death. Like sorrow for our friends and loved ones, sorrow for our animal companions may only be dealt with over time, but there are safe ways to cope with sorrow. Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t let someone tell you how to feel and not how to feel. Your sadness is real, and no one else will tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get better.” Let yourself feel how you feel without guilt or judgement. It’s all right to be mad, to cry or not to cry. It’s good, too, to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.

Reach out to those who have lost their dogs to cancer. Check out online message boards, dog loss hotlines, and dog loss support groups. If your own friends and family members don’t accept the loss of a dog, find someone who does. Another person who has also suffered the loss of a beloved dog may help understand and feel what you’re going through.

the five stages of grief when losing a dog to cancer
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Rituals can be effective in healing. A funeral will help you and your family members express your feelings freely. Ignore people who think it’s not appropriate to hold a dog’s funeral and do what you feel is right for them.

Build a legacy for them. Preparing a plaque, planting a tree in the memory of your dog, creating a photo album or scrapbook, or simply sharing the memories you enjoyed together will create a legacy to honor the life of your pet friend. Remembering the fun and love you had with your dog will help you move on.

Tips for Seniors Who are Mourning 

If you’re an older adult living alone, your dog might have been your only friend, and taking care of the animal gave you a sense of life and self-esteem.

Having lost your dog, it’s important that you don’t spend day after day alone. Try to spend time every day with at least one other person. Daily face-to-face contact will help prevent depression and remain optimistic.

Improve Strength with Your Workout

Dogs help a lot of older adults stay active and happy, which can improve your immune system and increase your energy. It’s necessary to keep up your activity levels after your dog’s death.

Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen and then find out what you’re doing. Exercise in a group — through playing a sport such as tennis or golf, or by taking an exercise or swimming class — can also help you interact with others.

Try to Find New Meaning and Joy in Your Life

Caring for a dog likely preoccupied your attention and improved your confidence and optimism. Try to fill the time by volunteering, taking up a long-neglected hobby, taking a class, supporting friends, rescue organizations, or homeless shelters to take care of their animals, or even getting another dog when the time is right.

Helping Children Grieve the Loss of their Dog

The loss of a dog to cancer may be your child’s first experience of death — and this could be the first chance to teach them how to deal with the sadness and pain that ultimately follows the excitement of loving another living being. Losing a dog may be a traumatic experience for any child. Many children love their dogs very much, and some can not even recall a time in their lives when the dog wasn’t around.

A child can feel angry and blame himself — or you — for the death of a dog. A child might feel frightened that other people or animals they love will abandon them, too. How you approach the grief process will decide if the experience has a positive or negative impact on your child’s personal growth.

It’s much easier to be honest with children and give them a chance to grieve in their own way.

Let your child see you show your own sorrow at the loss of your friend (dog).

If you do not experience the same sense of loss as your child, value their grief and let them express their feelings freely, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply for their animal companions.

Reassure your child that they were not responsible for the death of the dog.

A dog’s death can raise a lot of concerns and fears in a child. You will need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not going to die as well. It is important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.

Provide Your Child with a Permanent Memory

If necessary, allow the child the opportunity to make a dog’s memento. This may be, for example, a special illustration or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print.

Enable the child to participate in any memorial service if they so wish. Having a funeral or making a memory of a dog will help your child communicate their feelings freely and help them cope with the loss.

Don’t run out to find the kid a “replacement dog” before they have a chance to grieve the loss they’re experiencing. Your child may feel disloyal, or you can send a message that the sorrow and disappointment you experience when something dies may simply be resolved by buying a substitute.

Final Thoughts

Losing a member of your family is extremely difficult. In many homes, our dog is a member of our family. Personally, I have lost one dog to cancer (my very first dog). I lost my second dog to old age when she experienced uncontrollable seizures. And, I now have my third dog, and I assure you it will hit myself and my family extremely hard when the time comes.

You should remember, never feel ashamed for grieving your dog. He or she was a member of your family who will likely be remembered forever. I went into the field of canine cancer due to the heavy impact my first dog had on my life. Please reach out to other family members or friends who understand what you are going through. You may also reach out to social groups designed specifically for those who have lost a dog from cancer; there are many on social media platforms.

Best wishes and much love to all of you.

Published by Amber L. Drake

Dr. Amber L. Drake is a celebrated author and a distinguished cancer specialist, renowned for her comprehensive research in canine cancer prevention and nutrition. She is widely recognized for her commitment to helping dogs lead long and joyful lives, as well as for her contributions to veterinary medicine education. As the CEO of Canine Companions Co., the Founder of the Drake Dog Cancer Foundation and Academy, and the Co-Founder of Preferable Pups, she has become a respected and influential figure in the canine community, earning the admiration and respect of dog enthusiasts around the globe.

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