When my husband and I married four years ago, we crafted our own vows and proclaimed them aloud to our guests. One of our vows was to always put our eldest dog, Kingston, first and foremost above each other. Our first Cavalier King Charles Spaniel served as a flower dog that day and walked down the aisle alongside our boisterous, belly-bearing niece, Helena.
People advised us over the years to get another dog. They saw that our love runs deep, and that the inevitable grief that awaits us when Kingston — now 12 (84 in human years!) — passes, would destroy us. Another dog would lessen the pain and help us heal.
So, right before Christmas in 2018, we brought home a second Cavalier, Kennedy. I know all pawrents say this, but she was the most beautiful puppy I have ever seen. She had perfect tricolour markings and dark, expressive eyes that pierced your heart when she misbehaved and seeked forgiveness, which happened often. Kennedy continued to misbehave into adolescence — she barked at the mail carrier, tore through her weekly Amazon toy deliveries and often left us surprises in the basement. Yet, one look at us with those expectant eyes, and all was forgiven. She would give us one of her signature hugs with her front paws wrapped around our necks like a human, and plop down on our lap or sit atop our shoulders like a dog.
We were completely unprepared to lose our sweet Kennedy before she reached her second birthday.
Uncharacteristic of most small dogs, Kennedy loved to swim. She took us by surprise one day when she passed her sister wading in the shoreline of the lake, and swam out to the end of my parents’ dock. I grew up in The Thousand Islands on Lake Ontario, where our family’s Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have enjoyed swimming over the years. Kennedy thought she was a Retriever too, and enthusiastically fetched sticks until we forced her to rest. You could tell that she enjoyed swimming more than anything in her world, and we let her. We always monitored her closely even though she never struggled. We didn’t realize that we needed to monitor her in the hours after swimming for signs of dry drowning or heart failure.
After her final and fateful swim this past summer, Kennedy was tired and panting. However, this was normal following heavy exertion, and we did not suspect anything wrong. We let her rest, and she appeared to fall asleep peacefully. Shortly after, while laying alongside me, I noticed the breathing movement of her chest stopped. The next 30 minutes were pure heart-wrenching torment while various family members tried to revive her. We were unsuccessful, and she died that day. As I write this months later, tears trickling down my face, those 30 minutes remain vivid and bring back painful memories.
We suspect Kennedy had an undetected heart condition, which, unfortunately, is common among Cavaliers. There is a small chance she could have died from dry drowning. We had never heard of dry drowning, and did not know that it could happen to dogs or kids alike. Kennedy could have inhaled too much water, with the excess fluid taking over her little lungs. She did not exhibit the common signs — coughing, vomiting or dazed movements — so it seems unlikely. Either way, she ultimately died from heart failure, and there was nothing we could have done differently to save her.
The realization and acceptance that we did everything in our power to save Kennedy took time, and reassurances from our Toronto vet and therapist. The "what ifs" and guilt weighed heavily on our minds, in an already difficult 2020.
When an elderly person dies, they are mourned, but celebrated for living a full life. When a young person dies, it is a tragedy, and they are mourned for leaving the earth too soon. When a parent loses a child, it is the worst kind of loss. But how do we mourn the loss of a pet?
Grief is grief. Ninety-five percent of Canadians consider pets part of the family, and over 50% of Millennials consider pets children. Kennedy was my child, Kingston’s sister and one half of the inspiration behind Pawzy.
In my view, dogs are superior to humans. They don’t judge you or disappoint you — they love you unconditionally until the day they die. The tricky thing is that we outlive our fur babies, and must learn to navigate this sad reality and again open our hearts and homes to new family members.
There are three things I am certain about grief: 1) it is a personal journey, 2) it is a non-linear journey and 3) it is a long journey.
According to Toronto-based Clinical Social Worker Jennie Ormson, “Everyone experiences grief differently.” Ormson started her career as a grief and bereavement counsellor. She encourages those grieving to trust their own process and ignore well-intentioned advice that doesn’t feel right. Furthermore, if you are mourning as part of a couple or extended family, let others handle things in their own way. One person may cry and immerse themselves in memories, while another may seek distractions from the pain. Those that do not face their grief are only delaying it, and it will show up later and often unexpectedly.
Ormson also cautions that you may be ok one day and not ok the next, and grief may not follow the logical progression of time. Memories of Kennedy are recorded on our devices, scattered throughout our home and in our hearts. Physical objects and intangible memories trigger pain, and grief can unleash other grief. The day Kennedy died my dad sat soberly on the dock overlooking the water, and I could see him mourning his own losses. Kennedy was buried next to the lake alongside his water-loving dog Gunner, who turned us all into “dog people.”
Making things harder, not everyone is a “dog person” or a “cat person,” and they may not honour your loss. Ormson likens this to an “invisible loss” like a miscarriage. Pet parents are permitted to grieve and should seek support. If you are not getting the support you need from friends and family, you can speak to a professional or join a bereavement support group. Such groups exist for pet parents and can be found online or in your community.
When is the right time to get another pet? Again, it’s a personal decision with no right or wrong answer. You may seek immediate companionship, or you may not be able to imagine going through another loss.
My husband and I could not endure the quiet of our home for too long, and recently welcomed another Cavalier, Kenzie, to our family. Like Kennedy, Kenzie keeps us busy and annoys her older sister. She does not replace or erase the grief of Kennedy, but she makes us feel happy and whole again.