Book 44 of 52: The Pet Loss Companion by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez

When Emily, my first dog, died in 2017, I wrote about her death for The New York Times. In the process of putting it together, someone recommended that I read The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies by Wallace Sife. The book started out okay, reassuring me that the profound grief I was under was normal. Then he veered into misogyny, particularly when writing about to child free women and grief about the death of their pets. I was so mad I almost threw it across the room.

When I went to put Annie down, I was lead into a room the animal hospital has set up for that purpose. And there it was, on the shelf: The Loss of a Pet.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” I yelled through my tears.

I’m not happy to report that The Pet Loss Companion by Ken Dolan-Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez is a much better book,  because that means I needed it. Losing one dog did not prepare me for going through it again, especially because it happened far sooner than I ever imagined. Emily was 15 years old when she died. Annie was only nine. I spent days crying “What am I going to do?” I’m still not exactly sure, except take it one day, sometimes one hour, at a time.

The book, written by pet grief group leaders, is concise, clear, and written in easily digestible chunks. They also don’t label a child free women as “hysterical” when it comes to pet loss — a big improvement.

Since my brain still isn’t functioning correctly, here are some bullet points of highlights.

  • I’ve felt as if gravity is pulling down harder on me. They write: “Your own body may be heavy. You may feel strangely disconnected from the thoughts, motions, and sounds in the moment.” Bingo.
  • Sometimes I can act like a normal person (usually when working) but then dissolve into gulping sobs, as I did this afternoon. They write: “…it can help to remember that people move through grief in a one-step-forward, two-steps back, three-steps-forward, one-step back fashion.”
  • In that New York Times piece, I wrote that it does get better. I am trying to hold onto that now, especially when I still do things like close the door behind me so she won’t get out, or catch a glimpse of her blanket and think she’s on it, and then catch myself. They write, “As you grieve, please embrace time as a friend. Time proves essential to healing the pain of grief…” I am still deep in mourning, but I am no longer keening “What am I going to do?”  I have taken those first shaky steps forward into a life where I had planned for my dog to still be here, and learning how to figure out a reality without her.
  • They explain why losing a pet may hurt more than losing a person, and why this is a unique kind of grief. They write: “We often develop extraordinarily intimate relationship with our companion animals. They live in our homes, they follow us from room to room, and they sometimes even snuggle up next to us for their night’s sleep. While we do not speak each other’s languages, most of us talk to our pets as freely as we talk to our human family members.” Annie was with me through all of the COVID lockdowns. I don’t know what I’d have done without her, and now she’s just…gone.

They also refer to pet owners as “guardians,” which I like, as “pet parent” has never sat well with me.

The most helpful part of the book is a long discussion of guilt, and how it’s normal, no matter how a pet dies. I still have pangs of guilt about putting Emily down, even though it was the right choice. I’m feeling worse about Annie because she was only nine, and she went from fine to dying so fast. Despite two veterinarians telling me there was nothing I could have done, no signs I missed, no test I could have ordered, she was going to die. I still apologize to her that I couldn’t protect her, but I know, rationally, I did everything I could to give her the best life possible. A friend recently told me that if I hadn’t rescued her, she’d have never seen the ocean. I am keeping that close to my heart.

So yes I recommend this one to anyone who is suffering the loss of a companion animal. It’s been incredibly helpful during this really awful time.

Nail polish: Check Your Baggage by Essie.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

1 Comments

  1. Ken Dolan-DelVecchio on December 17, 2023 at 8:00 am

    Hi Jen,
    Thanks gor your kind words about our book. It’s always so gratifying to learn that it has been helpful.
    Warm regards,
    Ken Dolan-DelVecchio

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