Embracing Grief When a Pet Dies

In the midst of grieving, have you ever been surprised by a sign that you are on the right path or at the right place at the right time?

Recently, I had to bid farewell to a beloved canine companion. The grief I am experiencing has been both heart-wrenching and strangely comforting, enriched by unexpected synchronicities that allowed me to embrace the purity of sadness and the joy of having loved a pet. I share this journey in the hope that it not only affirms something you may have experienced but also serves as a source of solace. Even if signs and symbols elude you, may you find the strength to keep your heart open to what unfolds as you make space for the inevitable grief we encounter as humans who have great capacity to care for another living being.

Pet Owners are Caregivers

For any pet caregiver, the promise is to extend grace, compassion, and boundless love during their companion’s dying process. Six years ago, we welcomed Luna, a calm and somewhat aloof small dog, into our lives. She didn’t respond to the name “Elsa” given by the shelter, but when we suggested “Luna,” inspired by the full moon on the December evening we brought her home, her ears perked up.

Her origin story was a mystery, except that she possibly survived the Napa fires, journeying through shelters before finding her way to Oakland. Luna, the ideal companion for my partner who had never cared for a pet before, brought tranquility to our lives.  She was content to rest on our laps and, aside from a love for crunchy apples, seldom exerted herself. 

Rather than having much of a bark (she did dream bark while sleeping), she would sneeze if she wanted our attention. Shy around others, she seemed to have a knack for sitting with anxious clients or napping nearby during my yoga therapy and psychotherapy sessions. Luna’s introverted curiosity was expressed while on car rides and longer walks, where she greeted neighbors—cats, dogs, and humans alike. Luna seamlessly integrated into our lives, finding a special place in our hearts.

Luna is Sick

As Luna entered her sixth year with us, her health took an unexpected turn. Her earlier medical history surfaced in ways that left us and our vet puzzled. Choosing not to subject her to invasive medical interventions, we opted for a palliative care approach, providing comfort and companionship through the inevitable dying process. On a final rainy night, we stayed by Luna’s side, stroking her ears and rubbing her belly.  We requested the vet’s assistance to ease her into a peaceful place as she took her last breaths.

I have always honored my intuition, and synchronicity has always held significance in my life. During that poignant night with our dying dog, I curated a playlist of songs my deceased mother, an animal lover and my guide in pet care, adored. Among them, I had chosen my mom’s favorite Bread ballad “Everything I Own” and as Spotify sometimes does, the playlist built upon the genre of songs. 

While I was lying next to Luna, tearfully encouraging her to let go and thanking her for all she was to us, Don McLean’s “Vincent” began to play.  To the best of my knowledge, this was not a song my mom played when I was younger nor a song I had heard before. Unexpectedly, this random song, linked me to Luna in surreal ways, harmonized with elements of our shared experiences.

Downloading ‘Dog Wisdom’

Above Luna’s day bed, a mug featuring her against van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting, gifted by a friend, added another layer of connection. This friend, with a witty sense of humor, believed Luna’s presence in our landscape enhanced the original artwork. He had once visited our home and saw Luna lounging out by the Juniper trees in our backyard and pieced together this mash up art as a housewarming gift to us. 

As Don McLean sang, “Now I understand what you tried to say to me…,” I looked into Luna’s tired eyes, receiving a profound download of dog wisdom. In that moment, as Luna bid her final farewells, I realized the lesson—less thinking, more living, and appreciating how opposites can sync up and manifest harmony when embraced.

The day after Luna’s intimate memorial service, seeking solace and perspective, I consulted my trusty tarot deck. The cards revealed the “Adventure” card when I inquired about keeping Luna’s memories alive in our hearts. A week later, during my partner’s birthday trip to New Mexico, an impulse led us to an art gallery in Old Town Albuquerque.

Turning a corner, we discovered a store adorned with rainbow art and a lone speaker playing the final chorus of a cover of “Vincent.” Mesmerized by the lyrics, “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” tears of grief seamlessly merged with a smile. I acknowledged the sign that our journey indeed honored Luna’s life with a transcendent adventure to another state.

Appreciating Synchronicity

I have learned not to expect synchronicity, but when it happens, I strive to slow down and appreciate it. This practice extends to the waves of sadness, missing Luna on walks, in my lap, or during simple activities like slicing an apple. The limbic system takes its time adjusting to the void, and my intuitive system savors the meaningful signs that Luna’s spirit persists in a different form. As I vow to keep living, keep loving, and eventually welcome another dog into our lives, Luna’s life and her passing offer a profound lesson. It is a lesson in celebrating, not resisting, the enigmatic duality of being human and choosing to love a pet.

In sharing this story, my intention is not only to recount a personal experience but to also extend a hand to those navigating loss of any kind.

Grief, in its myriad forms, is a universal experience, and within it, we can find shared threads of understanding and empathy. If you find yourself in the throes of loss, may these words serve as a reminder that you are not alone. Just as Luna’s memory lives on, so too can the memories of your loved ones.

Embrace the signs, savor the synchronicities, and allow the beauty of the paradoxes to unfold. In doing so, you may discover a path to healing that is uniquely yours—a journey marked by love, resilience, and the enduring spirit of those you hold dear.  

Learn more about Ken Breniman, LCSW – Bay Area Therapy and Healing Services

Read more from Ken: Finding Hope While Grieving the Planet – Open to Hope

Ken Breniman

I was born in rural Pennsylvania and spent 7 years living in Japan where he was a social justice advocate for the LGBTQ+ community Currently, I am an Oakland, CA-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Yoga Therapist with a passion for nudging the Western mental health paradigm in regards to safe, legal and ethical integration of sacred plant medicines or psychedelics. With a thanatological (study of mortality) approach to holding space for others, I hold deep reverence for Spirit while acknowledging each of us must find our own way of making sense of the experience of being human. Combining the essence of Kierkegaard's "Live life forward, understand it backwards" with Ram Dass' "We are all walking each other home" provides a hint at how I am attempting to understand my own being human. I strive to continually hone my skills as a culturally responsive space holder and continue to engage in ongoing learning opportunities around issues of culture, race, equality, equity, and social justice. In working relationally with my clients, I hope to be transparent and authentic in how I show up in my work and wish to keep the channels of communication open as to how social and cultural identities impact the healing process. As part of my evolution in the world of Thanatology, I will be teaching the first course on "Thanatology and Psychedelics" at Marian University beginning in the summer of 2023. I am dedicated to supporting clients during very challenging life situations. By incorporating the ancient healing practices of yoga, and the supportive counseling tools of Western psychology, clients heal, grow and are better able to cope with many of the stressors life can bring. I truly believe we all have innate healing powers and I am here to help others uncover their own amazing potential. The world is more interconnected than ever before, allowing important cultural and scientific dialogues to take place. There are many wonderful opportunities for those of us in the West to experience the life-transforming power of ancient wisdom traditions from around the world, including the practices of yoga and meditation, which are now broadly respected by the scientific and academic communities.

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