When we take a Labrador into our lives, we know at the back of our minds that they won’t be with us forever. When they are young and full of energy, it’s easy to ignore this feeling. But if they fall ill, or just get older, the reality becomes more prominent in our minds. Whilst pet bereavement is sadly an inevitable part of life with any animal, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t devastating to lose someone. And it doesn’t matter if that someone has two legs or four legs, because a loss is still a loss.
Pet burial or cremation
When you have lost your dog, the aching truth is that one of the first things you will need to do is make a decision. Do you leave him with the vet, do you bury him in the garden or do you take him to a pet cemetery? There is absolutely no right or wrong decision here. You need to choose the option which you think will make it easiest for you and your family to cope. If you want to keep him near to you, then burying him in your garden could be the best choice. If that is your chosen path, think about whether you want to do this yourself, or have a friend with less emotional attachment do it for you.
Would you prefer to be alone, or to invite others to give you support. If you want to say a few words, then that’s okay too. How you manage your grief is your business alone, and a lot of people feel better for voicing their feelings out loud.
Pet Cemeteries also take dogs for burial or cremation. It is also not possible for many people to bury their dog at home, due to a lack of space, garden, or simply being in rented accommodation. Using a cemetery can also add a formality to the affair, which some people find comforting.
Wherever you choose for your Labrador to lay to rest, you can mark their memory in a physical way. From memoriums at gravesides to trinkets at home, often having a marker to visit or look at can help you to express your feelings and display your love for your dog after they have gone.
Coping with pet bereavement
Losing someone we love is terribly upsetting. And yet for some reason we often beat ourselves up for ‘over-reacting’ to this upset. You tell yourself you are being silly, because ‘it’s only a dog’, but you know as well as I do that no dog is ‘only a dog’.
A dog is a huge commitment and an enormous investment of your love, dedication, time, money and hopes for the future. Your dog is tied to your lifestyle, as well as your heart. Any member of the family, no matter how small and furry, is a part of your mental image of your life. How it is now, and how you want it to be in the future. It is completely understandable to grieve the loss of this image. An aspect of these feelings of grief that is common to most pet owners is guilt.
Pet bereavement and guilt
Whilst a dog is a friend to you, they are also a pet, and as such they are your responsibility. This means that when they get old or ill, we are burdened with being the one to make decisions about their welfare. For some people this will be increased because they have had to make a decision regarding euthanising.
Knowing when to let go of an adored pet is not something that comes easily to anyone. I have spoken to numerous people who have felt guilty for a long time after putting down their dog. Not because they put him down, but because they let him suffer whilst they took time to make up their minds. Whilst this is a very upsetting situation to have been in, it is now one that is in the past. All you can do is learn from the experience and resolve to let this influence how you behave in future.
Reassure yourself that while you may have waited too long in hindsight, perhaps this was what you needed to do to be sure you were doing the right thing. Even if your dog died naturally of old age, this can still be tinged with guilt for you as an owner. Questions of whether you should have seen signs, or visited the vets, or even searched for other opinions are perfectly natural. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. There are no psychics in real life, and there is no way for you to know how things could have gone differently if you had behaved in another way.
‘What if…’ is a very tempting thing to ask yourself, but not a very useful one. All these feelings of guilt and doubt can tell us for certain, is that you are the kind of person who cares. Having these feelings is a reassuring sign that you did do the best that you could have done in your situation. Talking about these feelings and listening to the reassurances and condolences of others is an important part of the healing process.
It’s good to talk
After your Labrador is gone, it will take a while for the sadness to start to fade. It’s really important not to keep your emotions to yourself, but to communicate them to others. When you lose a pet, your friends and family can be a great support. Some of us are very lucky in the friend department. With people who will drop everything and rush to your support in a time of need. But what do you do when you feel that you have talked the ears off your friends, but the pain is still with you?
We all feel at times that there is an unwritten expiry date on the sympathy of others, even if in reality there is not. And not everyone has friends close by, or caring family who really understands how important a pet was to us. So what do you do then? Or if you are simply not the type of person who finds it easy to share your feelings with those who know you.
Finding people who understand your feelings can be a real boost during a tough time. The rise of internet Forums, like The Labrador Forum, has made a big difference to people in difficulty. There is even a section on The Labrador Forum dedicated to memories of dogs who have passed away. Other posters in this section genuinely empathise with your feelings, and can offer condolences and honest support.
But what if this just isn’t enough? Luckily there are some support services available that can really help. The Blue Cross offers a very well received pet bereavement support service. You can anonymously call their helpline and speak to someone who can offer a sympathetic ear. It is staffed by trained volunteers, who are there just to give you emotional support and any information that you feel you need in the event of your pet dying. So you know where to go for support, but what about the people who rely on you?
Supporting your children through pet bereavement
If there is one thing guaranteed to add another dimension to any of life’s trying situations, it’s your kids. Depending on your child’s age, they will probably react in very different ways. Older children may feel very similarly to you, grieving over the loss of their pet. They may even be able to provide mutual support as you get through this tough time. But younger children can have very mixed reactions, and sometimes these can be quite upsetting for a parent to deal with as well.
If your child is very upset, then you know best how to comfort them. Lots of extra hugs and fun distracting activities can make a huge difference. However, little children can sometimes however have what appears at first to be a worrying reaction. They may just be curious, asking to see what your beloved dog looks like now they have passed away! I have known an otherwise entirely normal child happily ask if he could dig up a pet a few months later to see the bones!
Sometimes despite having loved your dog very much, a child may not appear be fussed at all that they have departed. Or else will at random inappropriate moments when you had managed to distract yourself from your upset, happily start talking about your lost Labrador. However they express themselves, try and keep calm and kind. It sounds obvious, but in times of high stress and upset this can be tricky to do. If you feel very upset by something they have said, give a quick kind answer and find an excuse to leave the room for a few moments whilst you compose yourself.
But what if it’s your child’s first experience of death?
First experiences of bereavement
Some children may not have come across death as a concept yet. There are very strong and widely varying opinions on how you should deal with addressing this. Some people believe that it’s best to tell the children that the dog has ‘gone away’ to live with someone else, usually in some kind of lovely farmyard setting.
Whilst this may provide a short term solution, your child will still ask about your dog. They will ask to see photos, and want to know whether they can visit and when they are going to see them again. Not to mention the minefield of potential trust issues when they find out you were lying. Personally, I feel that if a child is old enough to understand that something is gone and isn’t coming back, that they are old enough to be told the truth.
Death is not an avoidable part of life, and gradually being introduced to the concept on an animal rather than human level is likely to be easier to get their heads around. If your Labrador was old or very unwell, perhaps tell your child that they were uncomfortable and are much happier to be resting now. Make a big deal of how lucky you were to have your Labrador in their life, and reassure them that everyone lives on in the happy memories we carry around with us. Let them know that you will always be happy to talk about your Labrador and to spend time looking at photos and reliving fun memories, to keep them with you in your heads and hearts.
Once you have spoken with your family about the loss of your dog, it is inevitable that the question of a new companion will be raised.
Should you get a new dog after suffering pet bereavement?
After the loss of a dog, a lot of families have to address the idea of whether they should get a new pet straight away. It is widely agreed that jumping straight in the car and heading out to get a new dog is not the best course of action. When the wounds are still fresh, your temptation might be to try and replace the Labrador you have lost. But dogs, just like people, are not replaceable.
When you have come to terms with the loss of your old dog, take time to consider whether you want to invite a brand new one into your life. Don’t just go out looking for a dog who looks like your old one, or who displays the same characteristics. Make sure that you are ready to pick a dog who fits with your family on their own merits.
Raise the same questions you did the first time you decided if you wanted to live with a Labrador. The answers might not be the same this time around. Do you want a rescue dog, or would a puppy be more appropriate for you? What are the most important characteristics of a Labrador to you, is it temperament or trainability? It’s also important to remember that although your old dog was probably so comfortable in your home that he was like a part of the furniture, a new dog will certainly need an increased amount of time to be spent on training.
Whatever you decide, just remember that you are not replacing your old dog. You are finding a new one to share your life and join you as you move on to the next exciting chapter.
Moving on from pet bereavement
If you have lost the Labrador in your life, my heart goes out to you. I hope that the above is of some help in coping at this difficult time. If you would like to share your experiences with us, or give reassurance to other Labrador owners experiencing loss, then why not let us know in the comments box below:
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website