From Dr. Jane's Notebook

A Rose is a Rose... Are you sure?

A very dear client of mine called me the other day with the sound of "something’s wrong" in her voice. In shock and disbelief, she bore the sad news that her 9-year old dog, and best friend, had died after a sudden illness. I asked her to come in later that day.

Here was one of those examples of "bad things happening to good people", the loss of "an only kid", and "looking down the road at suffering yet to come". When one person and one animal have bonded so closely, this kind of loss is especially painful. Without a "back-up" pet, there’s no one left to share the pain.

Needless to say, this was not an easy therapy session. The facts of life and death leave little to quibble about. Unlike the break-up of a love affair, there’s no hoping that the loved one will return. I knew that my friend was in for rough days ahead. After some time, we began discussing her thoughts about getting another dog.

My friend is very partial to Welch Corgis, so not surprisingly, she had already contacted the local foster pet program. While I certainly encourage people to adopt an other pet as soon as they can, I am also aware of how painful it can be to select another dog of the same breed. Even when dogs don’t look exactly alike, there is always the hidden hope that this dog will be exactly like the one who has died... a hope which is often met with disappointment.

I received a call a few days later, only to learn that my friend was faced with yet a second crisis. She had contacted the Welch Corgi foster program, and was babysitting a "new prospect" for the weekend. However, devastation filled her voice as she reckoned with the fact that this "look alike" was not only not her dog, but also, they were not "taking to one another". Full of guilt, she asked me what she should do.

I tried to assuage her guilt; the guilt that people feel when they have tried unsuccessfully to replace a loved one. I knew that she would feel terrible whether she kept this new dog or not. If she kept it, she would resent its many shortcomings. If she took it back, she would once again have to face her loneliness, now compounded by the guilt of returning an orphan to the orphanage.

I suggested that she keep the dog overnight, treat it like a welcomed guest for the evening, and then return the dog to the foster program the next day. As bad as this might make her feel, she was clearly not ready to bond with another dog. There was still much grieving to be done over the dog she had lost. With a sigh of relief in her voice, my friend thanked me for giving her "permission" to return the dog "without guilt". She was simply not ready for the new adoption, and not ready to face another Welch Corgi.

I didn’t hear from my friend for several days. I took this to be a good sign and assumed that she had probably returned the dog. When she came in later on in the week, she presented me with two show-and-tell items. First, a beautiful photograph of her beloved "Rocky"; and second, the urn containing his ashes. I had to search carefully for the right words and soon heard myself asking, "Is that thing sealed?" The vision of dog ashes spilling out on my rug was even more that I was ready to handle. She assured me that the "vault" was sealed, and I heard myself breathe a sigh of relief.

I finally found the courage to ask what had happened to the "orphan" dog. My friend described the sense of relief she had experienced when I told her it was not unusual for these adoptions to not work out. She was relieved by the prospect of being able to return the dog. The two of the them had spent the rest of the evening, one crying in bed, the other crying by the front door. Each was in misery; each felt alone.

Some time later, however, my friend looked across the room and noticed that her visitor had begun to cheer up a bit. Now the dog was rolling on her back, playing with the "welcome" toy my friend had bought for her. There is something very infectious about a playful puppy which is intensified when they chew on their toys, and not your shoes. This is "politically correct" dog behavior. My friend soon acknowledged that as long as both of them were miserable, they might as well be miserable together, at least for the evening.

Apparently, the dog soon made her way a little closer to my friend, made her way up on the bed, and by morning, the two had begun a new relationship. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my friend decided to make the adoption official. Instead of critically comparing the new dog, she was delighting in how cute this puppy was and it was wonderful to hear about the new affection between them. But grief should never be underestimated.

My friend’s feelings of love for the puppy now offered her a new source of joy, but underlying it all, she was still deeply saddened by her loss of an old friend. With tears in her eyes, she asked me how long it would take to get over the loss of her dog. I answered, "three years".

She looked at me in horror and more tears fell from her eyes. She just shook her head and asked, "if it takes this long to get over the loss of a dog, how long does it take to recover from the loss of a person"? I heard myself answer, "two years". We both fell into laughter. When facing these tougher issues of life and death, it helps to maintain a sense of humor.

ęCopyright, 1999, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.

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Last Updated June 5, 1999 by Gary M. Grandon, Ph.D.