Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Every month, he answers readers’ questions about life, love, work and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
I’m typically not a very emotional person, but since my Labrador died almost two months ago, I still cry every day.
The pain of losing him so suddenly and traumatically — he was only 10 and a tumor we didn’t know about ruptured — has made me a weepy mess. I never got to say goodbye to him. Because of COVID, my boyfriend and I couldn’t go into the clinic with him and the next thing I knew, the surgeon was recommending we put him down.
I’ve definitely gone through most of the stages of grief, but I don’t think I’ve quite accepted his death yet. I’ve connected with friends who’ve also lost their pets, but they all have kids or another dog they still need to take care of.
In addition to this, I’ve lost my job so I haven’t had work to occupy my mind. I just can’t seem to be excited about a new career venture.
2020 has been a tough year for a lot of people — some friends have lost family members, which makes me feel guilty about being so upset over my dog. I don’t want children, and my boyfriend says I’m taking this loss so hard because my dog was my child.
It’s not like I thought he would live forever, but I thought we’d have more time together.
How do I move on from the loss of my dog and feel more positive about my future?
Thank you in advance,
Lots on My Mind
Dear Lots on My Mind,
I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved Labrador.
Many of us consider our pets to be family members, and losing one can be incredibly painful. In 2017, The New England Journal of Medicine reported a case of a woman so grief-stricken by the death of her dog, she exhibited symptoms of “broken heart syndrome” — a condition where extreme emotional distress causes symptoms that mimic those of an actual heart attack.
While the death of a person we loved evokes compassion and support from other people, the sympathy and recognition we get after a pet dies is often woefully inadequate to our devastation. This lack of support can make losing a pet even more painful and challenging. It can also make us question the appropriateness of our feelings, which is what I hear when you tell me, “Some friends have lost family members, which makes me feel guilty about being so upset over my dog.”
So let me be very clear about the validity of your feelings.
Losing a beloved pet is terrible. And losing a beloved pet when you’re also dealing with the stresses of a pandemic and losing your job is incredibly difficult.
Of course you feel depressed. Of course you can’t feel positive about your future. You’re still grieving a hugely significant, sudden and tragic loss.
Many of my patients have lost cherished pets, and I’ve lost a couple of my own over the years. I’m painfully aware of how devastating the loss can be but I also know that, as with any form of grief, there are steps you can take to help you process the loss and begin your recovery.
1. Make sure you have adequate social support
Receiving understanding and compassion and being able to voice despair and pain in difficult moments (and have them heard and validated by people who care) was hugely important for me at these times and it’s been crucial for my patients as well.
Your boyfriend sounds great, but he is just one person. Fortunately, there are many online resources available for people who’ve lost pets where you can connect with others and expand your circle of support.
2. Re-establish your routines
Pets force us to create and maintain daily routines around their care that give us structure in our own lives. Dogs need to be walked several times a day, so we end up getting exercise in the process. When they meet and play with other dogs, we have the chance to interact with fellow dog owners.
When we lose these routines we also lose the structure and social outlets they provided. This can be especially difficult if we’re unemployed and lacking the structure that work provides.
Finding ways to create structure in our days can be an important factor in our efforts to return to emotional normalcy. For example, some of my patients will take walks at the same times of day when they previously walked their dog and they’ll also call a friend then and chat so they don’t feel so alone.
3. Fill the voids they’ve left behind in your life
When our pet dies, we are left with empty spaces — in our homes where their crate or food and water bowls stood, in social media where we shared their antics, and in the meaning and purpose we felt by caring for them. These voids need to be filled over time, especially the emotional ones.
You need to find a new source of meaning and purpose. Perhaps that will be your next job, but I have a suspicion you’ll still need something beyond work to give you a sense of daily purpose. I say that because another factor you need to consider is your self-definition.
4. Readjust your sense of identity
Adopting a pet and taking on the responsibility for it changes our self-perception — we become our dog’s father or mother, our cat’s designated human, our horse’s caretaker, the person who provides and cares for this living being.
When they die, we lose that part of our identities. These are significant psychological losses and ones we need to account for as we reformulate our sense of selves.
This is perhaps my most difficult piece of advice.
5. Consider getting another dog.
Not to replace your beloved Labrador — because you cannot — but to offer you a new source of purpose and identity, of companionship and adoration, of structure and social interaction but mostly of love.
You clearly love animals, and I’m sure you have enough caring within you to love your Labrador and his memory as well as a new dog. There are so many dogs out there who would welcome the love of a devoted human like you. My patients have tried many things to heal from the loss of their pet and adopting a new one has been, hands down, the most curative.
Lots on My Mind, you’ve sustained a painful loss, one from which you will recover. Even though grief and longing will be with you for a while, you don’t need to wait until these feelings are gone completely in order to start moving on.
Please send your questions to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
Watch his talk on heartbreak here: