We talk a lot about losing a pet through death, but not so much about the trauma associated with the loss of a service animal.
For animal lovers, we know what our pets mean to us and the enormous impact of losing them. But what if your companion animal was your ‘everything’. Your eyes, your nose, your ears, your housemate, your protector and your full-time companion.
Many people with a range of conditions rely so much on their service/assistance animals. Assistance/therapy dogs help those with PTSD, waking them as they begin to experience a nightmare; help the visually impaired navigate a world with no light; wake the parents of an epileptic child to alert them to an imminent seizure; and help autistic people regulate their emotions. In these and so many more instances, the service animal is the key to a better quality of life.
When your service dog is so much more than a beloved pet, what is it like to lose them? Is the grieving process different?
As a pet loss counsellor I have had several experiences in helping people with a disability who have lost their companion/service dog. Just as the partnership between human and pet in this situation is multifaceted, so is the grief that accompanies the loss.
One client, Ruth (not her real name) had her service dog Ruby for 15 years, and then was faced with the decision to euthanize her due to failing health. This was not Ruth’s decision alone, as Ruby was trained and matched through an organisation which was also involved in the decision. Sadly, Ruby never got to enjoy her well earned retirement.
When Ruth came to me it was apparent that she had not had time to grasp, let alone process and heal, from the loss of Ruby. Within a week of losing her, a new service dog arrived. Although Ruth needed the ongoing assistance of a new dog, no one really understood how much losing Ruby affected her. Ruth felt that if she opened up and expressed her feelings, the organisation that supported her would see her as ungrateful. All the loss and emptiness Ruth felt was pushed to the background, and she was left in her grief with a stranger.
These feelings would be similar for someone whose companion/service dog had retired and moved to another home. However, while the sadness and loss would be there, they would not be hit with the finality of death.
For many people in this situation, it can feel like the universe as they knew it, no longer exists. Theirs is a grief that is not validated, and not given the time and space needed to accept and acknowledge the loss. By having to move on so quickly with another service animal, Ruth felt she was betraying the memory of Ruby.
One of the tactics I suggested to Ruth was to keep Ruby in the present by integrating her into this new world and keeping her legacy alive. How? Simply by talking to Ruby in the present tense, telling the new dog stories about the wonderful times Ruth and Ruby shared, and telling Ruby what she brought to Ruth’s life.
Acknowledging that the new service dog was not going to be the same as Ruby left space in Ruth’s heart. This new union, especially from the beginning, would not be the same, but Ruth and the new dog could move forward and form a new bond.
Being mindful and keeping a place in each day for Ruth to reflect on the life she shared with Ruby gave her grief the space it needed, allowing her to eventually accept her loss and accept her new world with a new helper.
People who lose a service animal need to get to a resting place where they can realise that these little helpers, sent to people with challenges, are their angels in this life and their guardian angels in the next.