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People who lose a dog often experience what social workers have called disenfranchised grief, says veterinarian Karen Fine, a graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. By which she means that the grief one feels upon losing a pet often is not considered socially acceptable and is given short shrift by others. “‘You’re still upset?'” people will ask cavalierly, Dr. Fine says. “That was a couple of weeks ago.” They don’t realize that people often have a closer bond with their dog than they do with many of the other loved ones in their lives, caring for their pet every single day and developing a daily rhythm through walking with the animal, feeding her, and being greeted by her when coming home from work.
The devastating loss coupled with a lack of outlets to express the grief leaves people feeling even worse. That’s why Dr. Fine suggests that they write an obituary for their dog, even if some time has passed since the pet died. It can prove a very therapeutic exercise, and therefore a healing and cathartic one. After all, what is the tear jerker Marley & Me if not a loving obituary by John Grogan to a dog that first he, and then his wife and children, came to consider nothing less than a full-fledged family member?
How to get started
In her “Guide to Writing a Pet Obituary” (karenfineDVM.com), Dr. Fine offers a number of writing prompts to help people get started. For instance, “how and when did you first meet your pet? What mischief did your pet get into? How did they make you laugh? And what was your favorite part of your daily routine with your pet?” By answering these questions in writing, she says, remembering your pet becomes “something positive,” something that “helps you smile through your tears a little bit and say, ‘they were here; they had an impact on my life.'”
Also, Dr. Fine says, preparing an obituary gives you something to do to honor your pet other than just put away the food bowls and the dog bed and the toys — acts that will make you think of the death more than the joy your dog gave you.
For those who don’t like to write
“I kind of like the format you see in the newspaper,” Dr. Fine says.”So-and-so has died. This is who they’re survived by. These were their friends, both human and animal. This is what they liked to do.” But she acknowledges that not everybody is a comfortable writer and should not pressure themselves, and says there are other ways to create an obituary.
“It can be in any form,” the doctor points out. It can be a poem, for instance, or a slide show you create with photos and then sit down to watch with your family or others who understand. (In that instance, the process of creating becomes both an obituary and a kind of memorial service.)
Other options are for several people to put together an obituary as a group. “One of the things my husband, son, and I did when our Lab mix Remy died,” Dr. Fine says, was sit down as a family and pass around a piece of paper on which we each wrote our thoughts.” That way, she says, the remembrance had the stamp on it of all those who were closest to the dog and would feel the loss most keenly. It allowed them to grieve with each other as supportively as possible.
Even a little shrine to your dog — a photo of the pet with perhaps a favorite toy, other mementos, and maybe even a votive candle — can be a kind of obituary, a way of saying, this being changed my life for the better, and I want to honor my dog and remember why I loved her so much even while I feel sad.
There is no right or wrong way to go about it, Dr. Fine emphasizes. If you do an actual write-up, you can write it a little at a time or all at once. You can type it or put it down in longhand — whatever works. However you do it, by honoring your pet, you will be honoring the validity of the very strong emotions you may be feeling as well as your very real relationship with your beloved friend.