The Emotions of Loss


Henry in the snow, November 2003
Henry in the Snow, 2003

By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne

At 11 this morning, I’ll watch my dear friend Henry close his eyes for the last time. He first came to live with me when he was an eight week-old puppy: sassy, energetic and desperately eager to please. He has been with me since I was in my late twenties, moving from one side of the world to the other, leaving the snow behind in favour of the beach, and then later trading the space of the outer suburbs for a more urban existence.

Henry has been by my side, or curled up by feet, through the happiest and the saddest times of the last 13 years. As is true of the relationship between many animal companions and their people, I spend more time with my dog than I do with anyone else in the world, even my nine-year-old son. Henry’s lying at the side of my desk as I write this blog post, no longer able to curl his elderly arthritic body into a neat loop to snuggle by my toes, but still eager to be as close as he possibly can be. He gets up with me in the mornings, he shepherds me to bed if he thinks I’m working too late, and, while his more recent days have been spent dozing, his younger self would try any trick to lure me away from my computer and out for a walk or a game.

But Henry is suddenly very old. His body is failing and so is his mind, and late last week I made the decision I have been dreading for the past few months and spoke to the vet who will gently put him to sleep, before flooding his system with drugs that will take his pain away forever. It’s an emotional time, for sure, and in addition to the anticipated grief we all experience in the face of great loss, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking about the empathy that must lie behind the difficult decision to end a life.

September 2010
Henry, September 2010

I’ve been feeling Henry’s pain for months now. I don’t just mean that I’ve been imagining it, although that’s certainly true, but rather there is a twinge in my back when I watch him negotiate steps. Perhaps I’m experiencing a diluted version of the mirror-touch synaesthesia – which can deluge the non-neuro typical with visceral physical responses to those around them with overwhelming effect – or perhaps this is just a more acute empathy than I’ve ever had to experience before. Whatever it is, I’m feeling it more and more, and I can no longer watch my dear friend’s suffering.

In the run-up to this day I’ve spent lots of time reading and thinking. Trying to make the right choices for Henry, balancing his once irrepressible zest for life with this new slow and stately dog, whose desire to please may well be keeping him alive for longer than he might otherwise choose. Friends who have shared their lives with dogs assured me, ‘you’ll know when it’s time’, while essays like Howard Jacobson’s beautiful account of an unknown dog’s last walk assured me that we weren’t there yet. Until suddenly, we were.

There have been ethical issues to consider. I do not regard Henry as my pet and, while more accurate, the austere term ‘animal companion’ doesn’t really capture the warmth and devotion of my four-legged family member. Henry is, of course, unable to speak for himself and while he has traditionally been very demonstrative about delayed meals or unreachable toys, he hasn’t given me any real clues to help in the decision-making process. Is he really unable to go on, or is it that I cannot bear to watch him do so? Are these two states interconnected, or should they be carefully separated from one another. I still don’t know the answers, but my instincts say that it is time for me to take charge.

Henry's puppy tag, c. August 2003
Henry’s first tag.

I’ve completed countless ‘Is it Time?’ internet surveys, knowing last week, when I found myself attempting to rework the results, that I had an answer, albeit not the one I was seeking. I’ve also had to pay great attention to his body and my responses to it, second-guessing at each stage whether I was processing his emotions or my own. When he was young, I had always imagined that a dog of his exuberant tenacity would die suddenly and of natural causes, but now as he ignores his food, and hobbles on the shortest of walks, I know that he is gradually losing his Henry-ness and that I should not stand by and watch that being stripped away from him any longer.

As Joe Yonan has discussed in an article for the Washington Post, the death of an animal companion is comparable to the loss of a family member. The fact that an animal’s life is shorter does not make it any the less valuable, yet as a society we are not always tolerant of the grief that surrounds animal deaths. Animals are considered to be more easily replaceable (they are, after all, bought and sold), even though their characters are so distinct and quirky. Furthermore, it is expected that those who have suffered a loss will ‘move on’ sooner than if they were mourning the loss of a human life.

Lord Byron encapsulated the honour and loyalty of the dog, and the grief of his owner upon his death, in a tribute to his Newfoundland, Boatswain, who died from rabies in 1808. Praising Boatswain’s ‘Courage without Ferocity’ and honouring his possession of ‘all the virtues of Man without his Vices’, Byron erected a monument to his beloved companion, which is inscribed with his emotional ‘Epitaph to a Dog’. So strong was his attachment that he later tried (and failed) to ensure his burial alongside Boatswain.

‘Boatswain’s Monument at Newstead Abbey’. Image courtesy of Trevor Rickland, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Byron wasn’t alone. Teresa Mangum, considering Victorian mourning practices in relation to pets, has written that nineteenth-century dogs were ‘woven into human domestic lives’. She points to a clear emotional role in commemorating deceased animals, noting that wealthy Victorians,

sought representational strategies to memorialize their animals—from portraits to tombstones to tourist artifacts to epitaphs, poems, and stories. Turning to aesthetic forms used to honor human dead and comfort the living, pet owners endeavored to give shape, significance, and legitimacy to the unfathomable loss they felt at the death of “mere animals”.[1]

Today, in Melbourne, memorialisation is challenging. The Victorian scholar in me has a strong emotional investment in the idea of interring mortal remains, so that the bereaved may return to the site of the deceased’s burial and take comfort in the proximity of their loved one. I’d assumed that this would happen to Henry, but it turns out that the city’s two pet graveyards are full to capacity, and while there are mechanisms for his burial, they involve pits and diggers and quicklime, and certainly no marker to which we can return.

In some ways this discovery is the most confronting of all. I can, after all, dictate the time and place of my dog’s death, working with a vet who specialises in euthanasia to allow Henry to end his life in familiar surroundings. I can’t, though, memorialise him in the way I’d like. There will be no Byronic place where, ‘To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise’.

There have been dark moments of hilarity, as my son and I have imagined creeping to Henry’s favourite places with shovels, under the cover of night, to bury his ashes. But the reality is that Henry must be remembered through stories, photographs and short films. There will be no site to which we can travel to be close to him, no pilgrimage to sit by his grave in an inversion of the Greyfriars Bobby story.

January 2013
Henry, January 2013

As I steel myself for the moment of his death and the many future homecomings to an empty house, I pre-emptively mourn for my beloved friend, for myself and for the many others who love him. I tell myself that his great big doggy heart transcends the emotions of place, but I think, too, about the gap he will leave behind. Finally, as I anticipate the aching sadness to follow, I do what all nineteenth-century scholars do, and channel Tennyson’s oft-quoted lines from In Memoriam, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all’. Those Victorians knew a thing or two about emotions.

Grace Moore is a senior research fellow at The University of Melbourne. 

[1] Teresa Mangum, ‘Animal Angst: Victorians Memorialize their Pets’, in Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), p. 18.

4 thoughts

  1. I know exactly how you feel. Our freind, Freya, a dingo German shepherd cross, died suddenly of poisoning after eating a coconut on the beach. In 24 hours she went from a healthy eight-year-old dog with lots of energy to death from total organ failure before our eyes. It was shocking and 17 weeks later we are still reeling from the shock of her loss. Like you, she spent more time with me/ us than anyone else and everything reminds us of her. I have written a lot of poems about her death, some day I will be ready to share them.

    Our dogs, your Henry, our Freya, are definitely family members. The loss of an animal friend is as big a loss, as you say sometimes a greater one, than many others. Thanks for writing your blog.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. That sounds like a terrible shock and, while it’s hard to watch a beloved canine family member grow old and lose his zest for life, it must be so much more difficult to lose one so suddenly. With condolences, and best wishes to you, Gongyla.

  2. Grace, I completely missed this post having been off Twitter for a while.

    Sad for you.

    Will write properly anon.

  3. Going through emails that I’d managed to miss, I just came across this Grace. It’s all too familiar! I’ve just marked the first anniversary of the loss of an elderly cat, and also had to wrestle with the question of how effective my empathy was as I weighed up my responsibilities and his “quality of life”, another enormous, confronting category. I think some would say that your physical response to the changes in Henry’s movements that were caused by pain was not at all a sensory anomaly but an inevitable response to embodied form of companionship that characterises close relationships with animals. Maybe we just don’t notice this connection as much when the animal’s movements are young, fluid and effortless? I hope you found a way to celebrate his life that you were satisfied with.

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