November 24, 2023
A few months ago now, I said goodbye to my dog of 10 years, Boss the Bulldog.
Many of you will know how big a part of my life he was.
It was my first dog, so I’d never experienced that kind of long term bond with an animal before.
As you might imagine, that’s left a decent sized hole in the space he occupied (in many ways).
Despite that, I’m doing okay. Much better than expected actually. And because I tend to process things by thinking and writing, I ended up jotting down a whole lot of thoughts over the month or so since his passing.
By the way, I don’t want you to think of this as a sad post. Because that’s definitely not how I feel writing it. In this article, I’ll share some of that with you, along with a collection of things I learned and found helpful along the way.
(If you’re not interested in this, all good, I’ll catch you in my next article 🙂 For those who are, I hope you get something from this little detour for a moment)
Everyone experiences these things differently. But at some point in our lives, we all experience painful loss, so I decided to share this experience in the hopes that it may be useful to others.
So I hope you find it relatable and maybe even see it as a future resource. And if you have anything to add which might benefit other readers, please share it in the comments below.
Okay, let’s begin with the first thing I noticed.
This one seems odd, because many of us think of loss as just ‘sadness’. But it’s not necessarily that simple.
When losing a loved one, whether person or animal, we’re conflicted. Part of us wants to keep thinking of them as much as possible, to keep them alive in our minds. I did this a lot in the beginning, without even realising.
But that can be too painful, making it hard to function. The other approach is to (try and) not think about them at all, which some people find is the only way they can function.
This can give us some relief, but then we can feel guilty and even disrespectful for not thinking of them as much. At times when I wasn’t thinking of Boss, I experienced this, and still do to some degree. So even though I love and miss my boy every day, I feel like an arsehole for still functioning fine.
Your brain also tries to remind you all the ways you coulda, shoulda, woulda, done things better. Even though you know, logically, that there’s no use thinking about that and regrets are inevitable.
During the first week, we were deliberately distracting ourselves with other things like going to the shop, or finding other ways to avoid being too idle. If we didn’t, the whole day would be spent just moping around in a ruminating depressive state. This strategy broke up the days a bit and definitely helped.
Another conflict: you don’t want to move on with life, but you have to. You don’t want to get rid of certain items, but keeping them could bring more pain and frustration than they’re worth. The amount of internal conflict and confusion in the early stages is really quite staggering.
But there’s something really important I learned…
Whatever weird feelings come up during the grieving process are just a natural way our body and brain deals with loss.
The pain and confusion we feel is because our brain is wanting and expecting things to occur which simply can’t anymore. To see our loved one. To touch them. To communicate with them.
Our brain has to slowly adjust to a new normal. It has to learn to not expect that anymore. It has to literally remap the connections so that you can recalibrate to the new reality of life without this person or animal.
Some people try to run away from this. They use alcohol, drugs, and other questionable coping mechanisms. And that doesn’t tend to work very well.
Avoiding this process simply keeps us in a state of mental and emotional limbo, with our brain unable to properly remap to the new reality. At least that’s my simpleton interpretation from listening to the Huberman podcast on grief which, although very sciencey, provides an excellent understanding of the topic (as with his other content).
The more time we’ve spent with a person or animal, the more you’ll be reminded of them at various times by all sorts of little things.
So because there were so many instances during the day related to my dog, there’s more recalibrating my brain has to do.
Here’s just a couple of personal examples of places, events, and things where my brain had to slowly realise things had changed :
Shopping delivery. Boss would get excited when the shopping came because I’d give him the Coles paper bags to tear into shreds lol. Or he’d chase me round the house as I waved one around like a matador teasing a bull 😂
Morning and night. First thing I’d do in the morning is go say hello to him, and last thing would be a goodnight cuddle and kisses (yeah, I’m a big sook for animals). Same if we left the house and went out, he’s the first and last thing we attend to.
Places around the house. All the different spots inside and outside that he might sit in the sun or take a nap, or rub against the wall. Where we’d sit together, or the last spot we all sat in the sun before taking him to the vet that last time.
Lawnmower and motorbikes. He’d often chase and bark at the lawnmower as we did the lawns, trying to bite the wheels as we went. He’d also run along the fenceline barking when a noisy motorbike went past.
Food that he liked. Being a dog, and a bulldog at that, he liked his food. So anytime we were eating, or even preparing food, he’d be nearby with some drool and a bubble forming in the corner of his floppy mouth.
Afternoons. I usually do some writing in the morning and do other stuff later on. There’s now a sizeable chunk of time in the arvo where I’d usually spend playing with him and just hanging out. That time now feels extremely empty and I often feel a bit lost.
There’s literally an endless list of random everyday things that can trigger your brain into flashbacks. It can take a while for this rewiring to happen.
It’s also useful to do things which help you process your thoughts and emotions.
Loss can create a strong emotional state. And emotion is like a form of energy. So we need to find a way to process that energy. How you do that is up to you.
Maybe it’s journaling. Maybe it’s talking it through with someone you trust, someone who understands, or a professional. But maybe it’s something completely different, like exercise or hobbies. Something you can do where your brain can slowly process things in the background in micro doses, rather than focusing on it completely.
You could also talk to the one you’ve lost. In your mind. Out loud. Or on paper. This can feel weird to some people, but completely natural for others. If you feel like it, do it.
Either way, it’ll take time to process. How long depends on the individual. So, don’t give yourself a time limit. Just let everything happen naturally. If one activity doesn’t help, try something else.
How you frame the person or animal not physically being here anymore is also up to you. But the aim of the game is acceptance of the new reality.
Acceptance isn’t something I struggled with. Possibly because I kept telling myself for the last couple of years that it was going to happen. I would actually think to myself “he’s going to die” every now and then, and as horrible as that sounds, I think it helped.
The reason I did this was because I didn’t expect to cope very well with his passing. So doing that was kind of like subconsciously preparing my brain for a different future. I’m not sure if that’s a common approach or not, but I guess it’s a form of pre-acceptance which surely impacts the mind in some way.
Experiencing loss can seem like a mighty strange time for gratitude.
It certainly wasn’t the first thing that came to mind for me either. But my research suggested that gratitude was a useful mental frame to shoot for.
Trying your best to find positive things to focus on, and things to be grateful for can be very helpful during a time of grief. And for good reason.
A mind and heart filled with love and focused on gratitude cannot be sad at the same time.
I found this helpful to balance out some of the ‘down’ times. Finding things to smile about and be thankful for was a healthy and welcome pivot away from dwelling on loss. I came up with the following personal reminders:
Strangely enough, I’ve actually found myself writing down fond memories in a note on my phone. Little things he would do, and the stuff we’d do together. Some of which I mentioned earlier.
This typically brightens my mood quite a bit, as I remember all the funny times and the joyful moments. I definitely wouldn’t have expected that to be the case.
I’m also going to make a photo collection in my phone… but haven’t managed to do that one yet. Pictures are a little harder than memories for now.
But I want to be able to look at these notes and the pictures in the future and relive some of those happy times.
We can look back at memories and photos with great fondness. We can be sad that it’s over, but incredibly happy that it happened.
Maybe that’s how we should look at many parts of life. Not depressed that one chapter has passed, but pleased and grateful that we got to do it at all.
One way to do this would be creating a little memorial or shrine (or my own approach of notes and photos in my phone), to help you feel connected to them.
Maybe it takes the shape of pictures around the house, or a special place with their ashes and a big card full of memories. Or simply a journal you write in as a way of communicating how you feel and talking to them.
It could also be something simple like carving out a couple of minutes each day to think about them, look at some old photos, or just appreciate the time you had with them.
Some things, or some particular days, may be a bit too painful. But still, you can find ways to remember them, and feel the love from the experiences and positive things you did together.
All the fun. The happy times. What you did for them, and what they did for you. How much better your life was for having them in it, and still is, despite them no longer being here.
In many ways, loss is like a rollercoaster we don’t want to go on, yet we know we have to.
On a personal level, I never imagined it was possible to be so up and down in a single day. If you know my personality, you’ll know I’m a very emotionally stable person.
That’s why grief is such a strange experience. It hijacks your normal state. One moment you’re laughing about memories. Two minutes later, you’re overwhelmed with sadness and aching to see them again.
Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I think it might be helpful. Here’s an example of how your emotional brain hijacks your rational default state and starts delivering you crazy messages…
At times I would actually think “holy fuck, we killed our dog, we deliberately ended his life.”
And it would feel absolutely horrible. Like there must have been some other magical solution. But this was totally irrational. We were saving him from suffering and letting him go in peace after trying so hard to beat the disease attacking his body.
That’s the logical side, and it was the obvious correct decision at the time. But god damn, it’s hard to square that decision in your mind after the fact. Especially since your brain is already in a state of conflict and confusion about what’s going on.
So give yourself time to get back to normal. The pain won’t just disappear, but it should slowly ease in little increments as the days pass, with some times being better than others.
I’m not gonna lie, it’s still pretty shit to have lost my best buddy.
The world feels different now. It does feel emptier. But that doesn’t mean it has to be worse. We can experience something painful and grow from it while cherishing everything else about it.
Whenever you are going through the pain of loss, I hope this post can provide some comfort that if you feel lost, confused and broken hearted, it’s all a common and normal part of the process.
Writing all this down also helped me flesh out my thoughts on the experience as I was going through it, and maybe you’ve had similar thoughts at a time of loss.
It seems like a sad fact of life that the more we love, the more loss we can feel. Thankfully, we can still hold on to some of that love even when the one we love is no longer here.
These days, I’m better able to focus on the positive memories than the loss. Something which I’m really thankful for in itself.
I’ll just leave you with a lovely quote which seems surprisingly accurate…
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, the hollows of your chest. Grief is just love, with no place to go.” – Jamie Anderson