Artful Aging

Losing Oshi

Australian Shepard, Oshi

The death of a beloved pet can be devastating.

It was a canine parade: A matched pair of glowing pumpkin-colored Vizslas, a gay Golden, a Pointer puppy (all legs), and bookend Spitzes—one black, one white—prancing merrily along. Each accompanied by their doting and devoted humans. I watch from my sidewalk café table with a mixture of delight, envy, sadness, and compassion. It has been just five days since I lost my beloved Australian Shepard, Oshi. My heart is broken. I am shattered.

Oshi lent a rhythm to life. For over a decade we began each day with joyful good morning belly rubs and ended each day with our evening “night-night” routine, not to mention all the scheduled walks, meals, playtime, and conversations (she knew more than 160 words and commands), and kisses in between. Losing that rhythm is disorienting. Months later, I’m still adjusting to my new normal. Grief catches me unaware and washes over me in waves so intense I’m not sure, sometimes, how to move through my days without her.

That grief can be so deep, painful, and lasting over the loss of a pet will surprise only those who’ve never loved (and been loved by) a companion animal. Tell another dog owner you’ve recently lost yours and they look immediately stricken. It’s sympathy for your loss, of course, but it’s also recognition that their turn awaits. It’s just a matter of time—of too-little time—before they’ll be grieving their pet, too. The death of a pet is the death of a loved one, a cherished family member who loved unconditionally and never judged, criticized, or complained, and who has been a constant companion. I once heard this human-animal bond described as love in its most innocent and purest form.

No wonder the loss is so profound. I choke up just thinking about life without Oshi. How can it be? I’d give anything to take our afternoon walk again, to smell her, pet her, and give her kisses. But the truth is I can see her gay sashay as she trots in my mind before me. I can close my eyes and see her big, silly smile and watch her make joyful doggy-angels in the snow. I can feel the tickle of her soft fur on my face, smell her musky dog smell, and feel her strong paw in my hand as I rub the pads of her feet. None of this completely lost to me.

Everyone grieves differently. I could barely function the first two months after Oshi’s death, and I certainly couldn’t concentrate on anything. Yet, unlike after the death of a human loved one, when we lose a beloved pet, we are often expected to get right back to work and back to normal within a few days. There are no celebrations of life, no gathering of mourners, and few outlets and opportunities to adequately express our grief.

In search of solace, I sought out books and websites on pet loss. Most are reassuring that, yes, experiencing extreme grief after losing an animal companion is normal. And after assuring you that you will meet your pet once again on the “rainbow bridge,” they offer advice on creating your own memorial service, ways to memorialize your pet, and suggest attending pet loss grief groups. At Mypetsies.com you can even order a miniature replica of your pet, be it dog, cat, bird, horse, or other for about $250. They look remarkable, but I have not been able to bring myself to do this. Yet.

In the absence of a pet grief group in our area I joined the AKC (American Kennel Club) Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook. People of every creed, color, and walk of life post pictures of their deceased animal companions, equally diverse, and their stories—some lost just days or hours ago, others gone months and even years. All these beautiful doggy faces. All loved and missed fiercely. We bond over our shared grief; there is no red/blue divide here. After posting pictures of Oshi and my story of grief over her sudden loss to an aggressive cancer, I receive an avalanche of empathy, understanding, and kindness from hundreds of others navigating their own loss.

From that site I also learn of another Facebook group for families who’d lost their dogs to the same cancer, hemangiosarcoma, which can cause almost instant death without any prior deterioration of health or warning. “Yes,” wrote one poster, “we lost our sweet Princess America to the same cancer—from good to gone in under a month.” Moved by all the support I received, when new images and stories of loss pop up on my Facebook feed, I make sure to give back by posting words of comfort and solace when I can: “You are not alone in your grief, we are in this together.”

Anyone who has ever loved a companion animal has felt the strength of the human-animal bond, and science confirms it. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has done extensive scientific research demonstrating the link between human-animal interaction and healthy aging in several areas. According to HABRI, having a companion animal improves mental health in older adults by reducing anxiety, stress, and depression, and can be calming to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Older adults with companion animals, especially dogs, tend to be more physically active, have lower obesity, lower blood pressure, and better cardiovascular health. The human-animal bond is an incredibly dynamic relationship between people and animals in that each influences the psychological and physiological state of the other.

That’s the upside.

The downside is most of the time we are going to outlive our pets and it’s going to hurt. A lot.

Is there another dog in our future? You bet. But not right away. Most days I still can’t believe she is really gone. And the only dog I want right now is the one I cannot have—I want my Oshi girl back.

Grieving the loss of a pet? Here are some resources to help you through:

Grief Support Center at RainbowsBridge.com: This site offers numerous resources including chat rooms, hotlines, suggestions for memorializing your pet, advice on how to help children cope, and even guidelines for knowing if it’s time to euthanize your pet and when it’s time to adopt a new one.

Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement at aplb.org: Chat rooms, pet loss support, and pet memorial pages.

Facebook: There are several pet loss grief support groups on Facebook, some specific to dogs, like the AKC group mentioned in this story, some specific to cats, and others for all pets.

Book—Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski: One of the better books on grieving the loss of a pet. Available on Amazon.com

Victoria Starr Marshall is the publisher and editor of 3rdAct Magazine. She and her husband, David Marshall (Oshi’s dad who misses her just as much), formed Oshi Publishing in 2015.

Rainbow Bridge

Author unknown

There is a bridge connecting Heaven and Earth.
It is called the Rainbow Bridge because of all its beautiful colors.
Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows,
hills and valleys with lush green grass.
When a beloved pet dies, the pet goes to this place,
there is always food and water and warm spring weather.
The old and frail animals are young again.
Those who were sick, hurt or in pain are made whole again.
There is only one thing missing.
They are not with their special person who loved them so much on earth.
So each day they run and play until the day comes
when one suddenly stops playing and looks up!
The nose twitches! The ears are up!
The eyes are staring and this one runs from the group!
You have been seen and when you and your special friend meet,
you take him in your arms and hug him.
He licks and kisses your face again and again,
and you look once more into the eyes of your best friend and trusting pet.
Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together, never again to be apart.

 

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