People who have never loved and lost a family pet may have little idea of the emotional distress that can erupt when a beloved pet dies. As my family and I have experienced the last few days, the emotional pain is very difficult to come to terms with.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my dog Chester who, in his old age, had found a new set of friends and admirers among the therapists and clients at our counselling centre (“Animal Magnetism: Pets as Therapy”). I am more sad than I ever thought possible to write that Chester died a few days ago; he was just a few weeks away from his 14th birthday.
I’ve had dogs before, but Chester was a very special boy. He was my constant companion through the ups and downs of 14 years — personal and professional triumphs and disasters, big challenges and periods of plain sailing. In his later years, after I met my husband, he settled into his new ‘pack’ and relaxed into retirement from his main duty of being my stout defender and guardian. After we opened the counselling centre, he enjoyed keeping an eye on comings and goings, and saying hello to all visitors — regardless even of whether or not they might have something tasty to eat. He was admired both for his friendliness and for his intelligence. To say nothing of being handsome too.
When loved ones die, and we’re distraught in our grief, people say to us: “It’s hard because you loved him or her so much”. But why put the verb ‘love’ in the past tense? The love hasn’t died; the object of that love has died. My love for Chester is still as strong as ever; the pain is from knowing that his living presence is gone from my life, even though he’ll always be alive in my heart and my memory.
I’m struggling with coming to terms with my loss; as a counsellor, I know that the death of a loved one has the potential to trigger all sorts of painful memories linked to other losses in one’s life. I’ve also written about endings and how important it is for therapists to offer ‘good endings’ to their clients’ therapy (“Beginnings and Endings in Therapy and in Life”), so that they can learn that endings need not be as difficult or destructive as they may have experienced in the past.
Chester and I had the best possible ending, given the circumstances. My husband and I were with him when he died, and we had the chance to say our goodbyes and for Chester to know that he was with his pack members, and safe to go to sleep. It was as peaceful as we could have wished for, but no less painful for us as his owners.
For those people who think “It’s only a dog!”, I agree — but this is what he meant to me. My emotional relationship with my dog was incredibly deep; he was always there for me, and I shall miss him terribly. One day, I’m sure there’ll be another dog in our lives, but there’ll never be another Chester.
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