One of the most devastating experiences we can have is the death of a beloved dog, whose loyalty we never questioned, who loved us all her life, protecting us, helping us, as close to us as any family member, sometimes closer. A dog lives about 15 years while a person may live 80 or 90 years and have this terrible experience multiple times. It gets no easier.
Some of us then get another dog. The new dog does not replace the dog who died. Nothing could do that. But as is true with friends and family, our circle of love expands without limit. The new dog is wonderful too. We’re charmed, and quickly we become devoted. This is normal. And then, after much too short a time, we lose that dog too.
As before, we struggle to move on, just as we would if the loved one was a person. But for a person, there’s an obituary in the paper, also visiting hours at the funeral home followed by the funeral or memorial service and the burial in sanctified ground. Our grief is understood and honored, gifts to charitable organizations are offered in our loved one’s name, letters of sympathy fill our mailbox, flowers arrive at our home, more flowers are placed on the grave, and sometimes a monument is erected or something important is named for the deceased.
But if the dog dies? Nothing. Our mourning isn’t acknowledged, we don’t get a few days off from work, no flowers are involved, and there is no funeral. The burial is performed by us personally, perhaps alone with only a shovel and our tears. Others will sympathize, of course, but it’s we who concern them. They don’t mourn the dog.
So a dog is like a body part, as important to us as our arms or legs. If we’re in the bathroom taking a shower and our dog comes in to be together, we are no more embarrassed by her presence than we are by the presence of our legs. But if a person comes in, we might grab a towel, the intruder would back out quickly, and a torrent of apologies would follow — the intruder should have knocked, the door should have been latched, on and on.
Thus losing a dog is like losing a leg. This would change our lives, and our family and friends would be deeply sympathetic, but we alone would miss the leg itself, and our supporters wouldn’t know or care what happened to it. We all know where people are buried or what happened to their ashes, but how many of us know what happened to the bodies of other people’s dogs?
After the loss we’re very much alone. Most of us don’t talk about it. Instead, we keep the dog in our hearts, thinking of her when passing the places where we walked together, missing her warmth when she slept beside us, looking at her bowl, now dry and empty on the kitchen floor. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem after the death of his dog, Wessex, which begins “Do you think of me at all, Wistful ones? Do you think of me at all, As if nigh?”
The poem doesn’t end well — the last lines are “Should you call as when I knew you, I shall not listen to you, Shall not come.” The dog won’t come because he can’t but the answer to his question is an emphatic YES. Do we think of you at all? We never stop. We say your name when we’re alone, as if you could hear us. We remember the first time we saw you and the last time too — that moment when we knew you were gone.
The afterlife becomes a question. Some people say that animals go to heaven while others say they don’t. If I arrived in an afterworld and saw no animals, I’d know for a fact it wasn’t heaven, but I’m not sure there is an afterlife as we imagine it. So I keep the ashes of my dogs with instructions to mix them with mine and put us in the woods. We will then be together forever, at least in molecular form. That isn’t much, but it’s something.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a naturalist and author of many books. Submit your questions about animals to firstname.lastname@example.org.