Our Dog Died….and Why You Shouldn’t Judge Grief
(but it’s hard not to)
On Wednesday, January 31, 2018, we euthanized our dog, Abe. The date lies exactly six days after the anniversary of my husband’s mother’s death (1/25), and six days before the anniversary of my father’s death (2/6). The winter metaphor is not figurative in our house.
This all happened fairly suddenly. A week after we learned that he had kidney issues, he was gone. He was just nine years old and still so puppyish that I pretended he’d live forever.
I’ve learned that I can use the deaths of people’s pets and grandparents as good markers for where I am with my own grief.
It took me until 2008 (four years after my dad’s death) to have sympathy for friends/family who experienced those types of loses. In the early years, I was consumed with comparing grief experiences. I was angry because I felt like I was the only one who was hurting. And if anyone in my circle did experience loss, I was quick to point out why mine was worse.
But nothing could make me quite as mad as a grieving pet owner. My motto was that one should be so lucky to be sad because of the death of a pet, and if people were sad beyond what I considered acceptable, I was insulted. My dad had died, how could this person be crying over a cat? No one lives forever.
Excusing myself from obsessing over a friend’s dead dog or grandfather was liberating.
After many years of pain and anger, I felt a huge release when I finally stopped judging people for their grief. It happened slowly over time and can’t be attributed to any particular change that I made for myself. I don’t think it was even conscious.
Excusing myself from obsessing over a friend’s dead dog or grandfather was liberating. It also allowed me to be more sympathetic and kind instead of reclusive and bitter.
I don’t know what enabled me to make the switch. It was likely a combination of myself feeling better over time, and also that people in my social circle began experiencing the type of loss that I had and I felt less alone.
I learned that people feel pain — for whatever reason — and we should honor and acknowledge their pain. Only once there was enough separation from my dad’s death could I come accept this. Grief and pain are relative. Each experience is different. It’s never the same for two people even if they’re experiencing the same type of loss. It never helps to try to compare.
I was on the receiving end of grief judgment and I didn’t like it.
Soon after my sister died in 2017, I joined a Facebook group for people who had lost siblings. Scanning through the posts I noticed that twinless twins seemed to be getting more compassion than the rest of us. Particularly identical twins. My heart feels for any sibling who has experienced the death of a sister or brother and I was really ticked that members assumed that a twin would hurt more than the rest of us. I was on the receiving end of grief judgment and I didn’t like it.
The safest frame of mind when it comes to grief is to not rank pain. There are no bonus points here if you lost a father over a stepfather or a niece over a sister. Acknowledge and accept another’s grief, regardless of whom the person is grieving.
But it is so hard to do. And if you find yourself judging grief, be patient with yourself.
Right now I’m failing at this. I’m just about to hit the six-month mark from my sister’s death, and I find myself back to the place I used to be — judging those around me and simultaneously feeling both apathetic towards those in pain and angry at almost everyone.
Terrible news stories on the radio barely make me raise my eyebrows. Sad stories are heard and understood, but I have no feelings on them either way. Intellectually I understand another’s grief and sadness, but I’m unable to make an emotional connection.
I know that I won’t be in this mind space forever, and I am trying to acknowledge it for what it is. My sister died not so long ago, and I’m going to feel angry about it for a while. I’m angry that this has happened to her. I’m angry that this has happened to us (again). Once I stop comparing someone else’s pain to my own, it will be the evidence that I am closer to accepting my sister’s death.
I was surprised at the sharpness of pain that I felt when Abe died. I consider his death to be small potatoes compared to the loss of my sister. Despite this, I couldn’t go to the vet when he was euthanized (my husband did that alone). The following day I started weeping in the street on my way to the library. I had to turn around and run home, my daughter gleefully bouncing along the cracked sidewalk in her stroller.
It was only a couple of months ago that I took it upon myself to write to a blogger after she posted an entry about her elderly dog that had died. My comment was something like, “You’re lucky — I wish this was my pain.” She replied with kindness and I felt ashamed for judging how her family felt about their dog’s death. She was hurting, and I am now hurting because of Abe.
Pain is relative. Sadness is relative. I cannot assume that I know how another person is feeling with their losses, even if they too have lost a father and/or a sister. Relationships are all unique and our love and grief for people is also unique.
When you turn to comfort a friend or family member, acknowledge their pain, ask questions and listen — don’t tell them what they’re feeling or what they can do to make it better (which can be really easy to do when you are trying to be helpful). The Grief Recovery Workbook goes over this in detail and how ingrained it is in our culture to offer advice instead of to listen.
If you know someone who has recently lost a pet — even if you think that this type of loss doesn’t warrant support — reach out — they will appreciate an acknowledgment of their pain.