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Lessons from Dogs on Being Present and Healing After Loss

Dog

“If you learn from a loss you have not lost.” ~Austin O’Malley

Every experience, including every loss, has something to teach us even when we are not up for a lesson.

Losing one of my pets has been a chance for me to reflect on the value of the present, and has strengthened my commitment to engaging in each moment and not letting my worries and anticipation erode the possibilities of the now.

In December, my fourteen-year-old golden retriever passed away. Ripley was an incredible companion who saw me through several jobs, moved with me five times, and outlasted my longest boyfriend by over ten years.

If I was sick, she would curl up on next to me and ask for nothing until I felt better. If I was sad, she would push her head into my hand and offer as many dog kisses as I could stand. If I was just being lazy, she would bark at me until I got off the couch for a walk or a fierce game of tug.

I was fortunate that she was a happy, vibrant dog up until the last few days of her life when she simply slowed down and passed away peacefully.

The decision to let her go wasn’t easy but it was uncomplicated, and I felt a sense of clarity throughout the process of saying goodbye.

What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of loss I have experienced since she passed. And I certainly didn’t know that my other dog, Keaton, would help me so much through the loss and guide me back onto my path.

Ripley died a couple weeks before the holidays, which meant the weeks following were hectic and spent with people closest to me who understood the significance of my loss.

After the holidays, Ripley’s absence started to sink in at the base level of loss that shows itself in the shift of your daily routines and spotlights the silly, simple ways that someone or something becomes ingrained in your life.

It’s then I realized that as much as letting her go hurt, it wasn’t her actual passing that was the most difficult. It was going to be the gap created by her absence that would hurt and challenge me the most.

The pain of saying goodbye was nothing compared to the poignant ache that was created once she was gone.

Keaton is a tall, goofy, five-year-old golden retriever, and from the day I brought him home as a puppy, he pledged his allegiance to Ripley with the dedication of a novice cult member.

When she passed, he spent the first week searching the house and whining in what I projected onto him as sadness; so there was some sort of transition happening that he could not have anticipated.

The week before she died was filled with lasts—the last time they ate together, the last time they wrestled playfully growling fake growls, and the last time they banished the squirrels from the yard like a superhero and her faithful sidekick.

And all the time he was sharing those experiences with her, Keaton wasn’t wondering when she would leave or what it would be like without her. Whatever he experienced was free, unmitigated by what might happen and unscathed by concerns if it was going to ever happen again.

He reminded me of one of my favorite poems, The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Barry. In particular, one line reads, “I come into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

Keaton and I are going through the loss in our own canine/human ways, but he never wasted time worrying about the possibilities, the future, the maybes and what-ifs that can rob us from a full experience.

Whether those experiences are good, bad, joyful, funny, challenging, exhilarating, or exhausting—they are the beautiful arenas in which we exist, triumphing and screwing up just the same. Keaton’s moments with Ripley weren’t perfect because the squirrel was caught (they never caught one); they were perfect because they happened.

How often do we step ahead of the moment and step toward concern, negativity, and anxiety? How easily are we drawn away by our thoughts of what might happen next? How hard is it, once we’ve taken that step away from the moment, to step back into the present?

We are all on a path toward greater mindfulness (we’re all reading Tiny Buddha, right?) and the universe is always offering simple reminders and lessons that might lead us to profound change.

I was crushed when Ripley passed, and was in no mood to look for lessons or even accept them. Perhaps thinking about Keaton’s experience with Ripley and then without her gave me the perspective from which I could accept the lesson being offered.

My dogs have been great teachers, reminding me that disarming the anxiety of what may be, and the pain of what has been lost, frees me up to more fully engage in the present and challenge myself to bask in the joy of each moment. And that each of those experiences is invaluable.

There will never be another moment just like that, no matter how good or bad, and that makes it precious.

Every time I would let the dogs out, Ripley would stand at the edge of the deck, bark confidently, and then wait to see which neighborhood dogs would respond. All the while, Keaton never barked. The day after she passed, I let Keaton out and as I turned to go back into the house, I heard a deep, unfamiliar bark.

I turned to see Keaton standing on the edge of the deck, looking across the yard with his ears up and tail wagging.

Ripley was gone and Keaton was stepping up and into the moment. In that simple bark, he reminded me the best way to honor what has passed is to step into the present fully with my ears up and tail wagging.

Photo by thezartorialist.com

About Carol Van Der Karr

Carol Van Der Karr and her critters live in central New York. She works at a fantastic college and enjoys nature, pretending she can do home improvements on her own, and working on her path to a higher level of mindfulness and joy.

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  • Nicky

    Lovely message passed. I too am lucky, to have a dog. He’s a boxer, my mentor, my best friend my everything. And yes, he has taught me a lot of things, helped me through my break up phase, pushed me through the darkest patches of my life. There is nothing more i would want.

  • Jeanine

    This was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes, and reminded me of all the lessons I’ve learned from my oldest and most faithful companion, my cat, Gandalf the Gray, who turns 11 this year. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Jim

    Thanks for this lovely post. There is much to be learned from our canine pals.

  • Beautifuly written and very poignant. I look after my friends dog often and so understand what you mean about being in the moment, Buddy lives only for his next walk or bit of excitement and when walking him I feel totally in the moment with him too! We can learn a good deal from dogs!

  • nah oh kah

    Thank you so much for this post. 🙂

  • carter

    Beautiful. Someone who seriously understands and appreciates the love of pets. Thank you for this post.

  • Anon

    Thank you so much for this. I am currently undergoing a bout of unemployment and a traumatic breakup, and I am blessed with two dogs who I’ve had for years. Mindfulness is helping me deal with much of my sadness and anxiety, as are my two dear companions.

  • Neeca

    Oh my goodness Carol, that was wonderful! I had a dog I loved like that and I certainly understand but you have made this into such a learning lesson. I am still in amazement over Keaton barking after Ripley was gone. Animals are amazing. Thank you so much!
    Neeca

  • Oh my gosh, Carol. I love this lesson so much. I just said goodbye to my beloved dog of 15+ years and he taught me so much during our time together. I was so lucky to have him…he truly made me a better person. Thank you for sharing your story – I found such comfort in your words.

  • Pam Picard – Reinventing 64

    Very nice piece. My sincere condolences for your loss. My beautiful companion animal also left this plane recently. Unlike Ripley, he had been sick and losing mobility for a long time. Still, through every stage of growing debility, he showed me acceptance, adaptability, a total lack of vanity or self-pity and grace. I got the same message as you from the experience – life is now, make the best of it. (I get it, but I still weep a lot.)

  • Your story made me cry. I have an alter where my beloved pets ashes (dogs and cats) are housed in tiny cedar boxes. Each one has been such a great teacher for me as well. You are so right, none of them sat around worrying about what might be or held a grudge over something in their past. They spent their days enjoying a good nap, taking a walk and just spending time with me. Namaste! Inge

  • I lost my darling golden retriever, Miles, last July and my heart still aches for him. You are so right with your words and I am learning every day. He taught me so much about living life to the full and being brave (he was a retired guide dog and then went blind himself two years ago but he just carried on, trusting us and living life). I miss him every day, but am also growing in wisdom every day because of what he taught me.

  • Rosayn Warwick

    I just lost my bullmastiff Emma. She was 10 years old and she controlled the house and the yard and her two canine sisters. She was always at my side. The faithful companion. She had health issues for the last 5 years of her life. My husband and I saved her every time something bad happened. We paid many, many vet bills. It was all worth it. We loved her to pieces. Well the diseases finally won and took her down. The other 2 dogs said their good byes to her. They knew. They sensed it. After Emma was gone, our french bulldog, who is 3 years old and never barks, kept going outside on our deck barking and barking. I thought it was the strangest thing. Then I realized that she knew the back yard was Emma’s domain. She protected it, patrolled the yard. Mimi understood she was gone for good. This behavior went on for 3 days. Mimi was on high alert and we finally had to close our doggy door, due to the fact, I am sure she was driving my neighbors nuts! She finally started to relax. We had to tell her “no bark.” The behavior stopped and she returned to her normal self, except, she is going outside so much more. Now, she just looks at everything. She has taken the job that her 100 pound sister had. Mimi is 20 pounds, but she does not know that. When you remarked about how your other dog behaved after loosing Ripley, it hit me that she was dealing with the loss in her way. Our house is really quiet after loosing such a big girl. We are all dealing with the loss in our own ways. Your article helped me a lot. And I did do a lot of worrying and grieving before the day ever came. Mimi did not! Thank you for your inside!

  • Kit Kat

    As I am sitting here balling my eyes out… Just wanted to let you know that your story touched my heart. After 3 years, I am still grieving the loss of my beloved dog and I know all too well what loss feels like. Thank you for your post.

  • Stephen

    a beautiful story with a profound message…thank you

  • susan gregg

    Thanks for your beautiful post. It is wonderful that Keaton took over for Ripley. I had my cat Xena put to sleep a few months ago. I always bring them home, put them in their bed and let the rest of the animals say goodbye. Usually it is a passing sniff.

    This time my little dog stood vigil while I prepared Xena’s grave. She insisted on coming out with me while I buried her and planted a rose bush on her grave. When I was done she went back in the house and life went on.

    Animals are such a gift, filled with love and support. As i write this Xena’s rose is in full bloom. I feel like her spirit had just changed form.

  • Thanks for reading the post. I like the idea of your boxer as a mentor and if we pay enough attention, there’s a lot to learn. Give him a hug for me!

  • Thanks so much Jeanine. I’m glad you have Gandalf (what a great name, by the way) and all he can teach.

  • Thanks for reading the post and your kind words!

  • Thanks Joan. It sounds like Buddy is a great role model for us all!

  • You’re very welcome–thank you for reading the post!

  • You’re so welcome. While I have always loved animals, going through this loss and reflecting on it, has made my appreciation much deeper.

  • I’m sorry that things are so challenging right now, but happy to hear that your pups are helping you. Take care and good luck.

  • You’re so welcome, Neeca. Thank you for reading it and taking the time to respond. I had the chills when I realized that it was Keaton barking that first time!

  • I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Heather. You’re so right about how a great pet can make us a better person–well said! Thank you!

  • Thanks for reading the post and sharing your experience. Ripley had cancer, but I was very lucky that she didn’t suffer much. I’m sure it took great patience and courage to help your companion through his struggles. I’m completely with you on the weeping–sometimes it just ambushes me! Take care and I’m sorry for your loss.

  • It is wonderful to hear how you honor your pets and what they’ve taught you, Inge. Thank you for reading and for your kind feedback.

  • What an amazing dog Miles must have been (of course he was a golden and I’m a bit bias)! It sounds like he continues to have a great impact on your life. Thank you for your post.

  • It is great to hear the story of your pack and how Mimi has stepped up after Emma’s passing. It is amazing, isn’t it? I am happy to hear that she’s settled into her new role without making the neighbors crazy! Thanks so much for sharing your story and your kind feedback.

  • Thank you so much! It’s a great comfort to know other people have gone through similar experiences and that it’s normal to feel such a profound loss.

  • You’re so welcome and thank you for taking the time to read it and comment.

  • I’m sorry to hear about Xena’s passing. The loyalty of your little dog is fascinating–it sounds like she needed some sort of closure the way we all do. I thought of your message while I was working in the yard today and I think I’ll plant something in Ripley’s honor this year. Thank you!

  • This story hits home, as I had to let the dog of my life go less than a month ago. She really was the dog of my life, she was like my child. I am making it through one day after another, but really, I have no idea how I’m going to get over this.

  • Luca Samson

    An excellent read again! A very moving post that had some great ideas in it.

    I believe that people need to learn the meaning of acceptance so they can move on from their tragedies in their life and continue on living a full life.

  • DaisyBisley

    What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing. It hits home as my family lost one of the most loving, affectionate dogs a few years ago and the grief we felt ran through even our extended family that knew her.

  • Thank you Carol.

    I was very touched by your sharing, including the final part. However, I read it not from the perspective of a pet “owner” (as if we own them… ), but from the perspective of someone who is very engaged in exploring and supporting widows.

    One of the things I often wonder about is how much of our human suffering is caused because of our mostly unresolved relationship with death. Here’s what I mean by that:

    With our beloved pets, we know that our time together is limited. It’s just common knowledge. It means that there is a willingness to accept that our precious time together is limited.

    With our beloved lovers, friends and family we live as if we are immortal. When death makes its entrance we are, in most cases, emotionally unprepared. Not because we didn’t want to prepare but because our culture in general neglects the existence of death as part of life and therefore denies us timely preparation and education in that respect. As a result, the suffering of the bereaved is multiplied. On top of the painful “gap created by his/her absence” they encounter a complexity of emotions that come from an unresolved relationship with death as such. It prolongs the grieving and makes it even harder than it would have been otherwise.

    It’s a pity. But then again, it’s never too late to learn and we can grow, through grief too.

    Kind greetings,

    Halina

  • Carol,

    As a lifelong pet owner, this brought tears to my eyes. I am touched by your story and deeply sorry for your loss. I understand the pain of losing a pet, but I also understand the joy they bring to us. They have an unparalleled ability to bring us back into the moment, and remind us that the simple things are what truly matters. My personal companions are felines, but they have also seen me at my best and my worst; when I have felt completely alone they have been by my side. Pets do not judge us, and however they love us, it is unconditional. I am grateful to you for sharing Ripley’s story and I hope that as time passes, you remember the joy he brought into your life more vividly than the pain of his loss. Thinking of you,

    Faith

  • Thank you, Carol. 🙂

  • Thank you so much for sharing your lessons, grieving, loss and pain. I have a lot of animals and have lost some over the years that just ripped my heart out at the unfairness of them having such short lives… I have 15 & 16 year old cats. Scooter is 15 and Merlin is 16. I know that one day they both will leave and take a piece of me with them. It is so gut wrenching to lose an animal/family member and I have found that the older I get the loss seems to hurt more and more each time. I have other cats and an adopted Basenji that are wonderful gifts from God. They have gotten me through the rough times when we have lost other family members…. Thank you again for sharing… it will also help me as well!

  • Rob K

    Thank you so much for your amazing in sight of learning to stay in the now.

    I too lost my beloved life companion 2 years ago, she died in my arms on a Sunny winters day on the front lawn. At that time I was going thru the first stages of a 12 year marriage break up.

    I call it the year of losing everything in my life that was me, I lost my business, my marriage and our house we had built together. Having my Labrador Simbar girl by my side was the only thing that was helping me get thru the loses, when she passed away my life as I knew it was gone.

    2 years later I’m still lost, but everyday with the help of meditation and following the teachings of Buddhism and I know I’m getting closer to finding the true me.

  • Ann Neris

    love it! almost made me cry 🙂

  • Selva Raj

    I truly felt very touched after reading yr comments.We too have a dog and is more like a child to us since there are only both us at home.There is so much joy recd from them as compared to what we do for them.They teach us love,compassion,loyalty.Man has much to learn from them.TQ

  • andrea

    I really loved your last lines. They were really touching. I found out to be really useful to compare a loss of this kind with what other people have been trough. Losing a child, a loved mother, a brother.
    Makes me understand that is quite irrational and immoral to suffer to much about what it is a natural and “inferior loss”.
    It almost made me feel guilty to suffer when I thought what pain must be loosing a loved one.

    We should always have in mind what disasters hit the world everyday, so many children starving and dying. It’s important to be truly present to have these sense of gratitude where pain cannot get in.
    It’s hard to change our thinking patterns, but when we are greateful for all we have instead of having our mind on what we miss or have lost truly peace of mind step in.

  • Michigander

    My dog just died. He was getting weak and having trouble breathing so we took him to the vet and did all the tests and they came back clean. Just old age I guess. A few days on heart medicine didn’t help so we put him down. I am so devastated. I know now that I relied on that dog for my own mental well being. Like a therapy dog. Its so hard.

  • eaglestare

    Thank you that great reminder in your closing paragraph. It will help me through my own grieving process since our black German shepherd Rook died 4/24/14. He helped me be a stronger pack leader, and taught me how to be in the moment, meditate, walked in mindfulness with me in the forest and by the lake everyday, and always there supporting my practice of walking meditation and just enjoying his presence and our surroundings. I am now finding it difficult to practice meditation and tai chi because my deep connection with him and how this seems to block my attempts to practice like I did before. Sometimes I think I can’t because he’s not here to help me like he did before. I should probably start a separate post on this later, but thought I ‘d mention it in case you or anyone else has insight about this predicament.

  • bubbles

    wow! great story! beautifully written and inspiring! thank you! touched my heart and made me cry, laugh, smile and think!