I Just Lost A Dog For The First Time. Here’s What I Learned About Surviving Pet Loss.

When my husband, Bryan, and I adopted our first dog over 13 years ago, it changed my life. I was in my 30s and felt like I’d been let in on a wonderful secret: Dogs are amazing.

Rio, a Labrador retriever mix, showed such a zest for life ― whether bounding up a hiking trail or wagging happily whenever we encountered other people or pets ― that it was impossible not to have my mood elevated just being with him.

I was so taken by him that I narrowed my focus as a journalist to pets, covering everything from dog-friendly travel and inspiring working dogs, to training tips and veterinary care. I wanted to learn as much as possible about this incredible species and share it with the world.

When Rio was 7, we adopted a second dog, Peach, a 9-pound poodle mix rescued as a stray. She had a cancerous tumor the size of a fist on her chest, matted hair, numerous teeth that needed to be removed, and a heart murmur. Her life expectancy was just between 2 1/2 and 16 months, and she needed a loving home to live out the rest of her short life.

But Peach proved plucky. Instead of acting sick, she delighted in long walks, pretending to eat my shoelaces whenever I’d lace up my hiking boots, and snuggling into a lap whenever possible. Her ears flopped back and looked like wings when she’d gaze up at us, wagging her tail, asking to be held.

The author adopted Peach, a 9-pound poodle mix rescued as a stray.
The author adopted Peach, a 9-pound poodle mix rescued as a stray.

Photo Courtesy of Jen Reeder

Our little girl beat the odds and lived for another 5 1/2 years. Bryan and I had almost fooled ourselves into thinking she’d live forever. But earlier this year, she stopped eating. We rushed her to the emergency room, but her body was shutting down. The doctor called the next morning to say she’d stopped breathing.

It hit me hard. I’d lost my first dog and had no idea how to survive the undertow of grief. Had I been irresponsible for extolling the joy of pets when their loss is so devastating?

As a pet journalist, I knew there must be resources and support available. So I threw myself into investigating ways to navigate the death of a beloved dog. Here are a few things I discovered that helped.

I tried to embrace gratitude. Years ago, I had interviewed a veterinarian who told me he wished more people would say, “Thank you,” when they say goodbye to a pet. Most people say, “Sorry.” So as we said our goodbyes, I thanked Peach for the cute way she’d get the zoomies after a bath, for the joy she’d brought to our lives, for making everyone she met fall in love with her.

I noticed how trim her nails were and told her how much Terren, her groomer, would miss her ― and felt a wave of gratitude for the care he’d given her over the years.

So the next day, I wrote him a thank you note and dropped it off. Then I wrote thank you notes to her veterinary teams for giving us so much extra time together.

I also wanted to give back.

Peach was a pampered pooch with an extensive wardrobe: winter coats, knit sweaters, rain jackets and even party dresses. I washed them and dropped off a bag of clothes for her veterinary team ― knowing some of them have little dogs ― and asked them to donate the rest.

One of my best friends works at an animal shelter, so I loaded her up with leftover medications, beds, blankets, leashes, bowls, harnesses, treats, food and toys. I made a donation in memory of Peach to the rescue organization that saved her, and walked on Team Peach Pals in a charity fundraiser for homeless pets.

Even though there are so many pets in shelters waiting for forever homes, I didn’t know if I’d ever be ready to adopt another one. So it felt comforting to think of Peach helping other strays.

A few days after Peach died, I posted about her life and death on social media, and concluded with, “This is the first dog I’ve ever lost, so I’d welcome any coping tips in the comments below. Please give your pets an extra snuggle in honor of Peach tonight. Snuggle photos also welcome in the comments below.”

I’ll never forget the compassionate response. So many people could relate to the pain of losing a pet. The prevailing wisdom was to feel free to cry, allow myself time to grieve, and that ultimately, nothing would help but the passage of time. Then gifts started arriving, like wildflower seeds to plant in Peach’s memory, donations made in her name to nonprofits, and a “Rainbow Bridge” pet loss deck.

Peach beat the odds and lived for another 5 1/2 years.
Peach beat the odds and lived for another 5 1/2 years.

Photo Courtesy of Jen Reeder

When grieving a pet, you’re not alone.

One of the best decisions I made was to attend online pet loss support groups offered by the veterinary network, Lap of Love, which offered free sessions (which happen every day) as well as a 6-week pet loss “journey” course for good measure.

The counselor offered concrete tips for my situation. For instance, putting a poster near my desk where Peach’s favorite bed used to be helped blunt the pain I’d felt whenever I glanced over and found the spot empty.

I’d found it challenging to focus on work, so she suggested I jot down anything “activating” about Peach ― say, an insensitive email ― and promise myself to deal with the emotions after I was done working.

She also had me write a letter to Peach to tell her what I would have done differently if I’d known it was her last week. I certainly wouldn’t have been dancing in a kidney costume at a charity fun run the morning of what turned out to be her last day, but there was a lot I’d do again: snuggles on the couch, rides in her stroller, sneaking her bits of apple or blueberries while I made breakfast each morning.

In “When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering, and Healing,” Alan Wolfelt, PhD, writes that “openness to accepting the joys of a new animal relationship will be affected by how intentionally you mourned the death of your special pet. I always encourage people to mourn well so they can go on to live and love well again.”

After six months of mourning intentionally, Bryan and I attended a shelter fundraiser with adoptable dogs ― and came home with a tiny black dog with a patch of white on his chest.

The author and her husband adopted another dog, Tux, after six months of mourning the loss of Peach.
The author and her husband adopted another dog, Tux, after six months of mourning the loss of Peach.

Tux makes us laugh every day with his antics, from the way he sticks out the tip of his tongue (I’ve learned that’s called a “blep”) to his habit of grabbing a toy and running in circles when he’s excited. He cuddles up to Rio, who seems invigorated having a canine sidekick again, and like Peach, Tux loves a good nap in a lap.

Of course, no dog could ever replace Peach. We shared a special relationship, just as Rio and I share a unique relationship.

I’m grateful, though, that adopting another dog has replaced sadness with joy ― that I’m able to live and love well again. As a friend remarked recently, “I’ll bet Peach would approve.”

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