elderly boston terriers snuggling on a dog bed

Lessons in Love and Loss: Unexpected Gifts Received When Saying Goodbye to a Pet

Our pets aren't just furry companions; they're whirlwinds of joy who leap into our lives with wagging tails, rumbling purrs, snort-nosed snores, and an infectious zest for life's smallest pleasures. They become our confidantes, therapists with fur and wet noses, offering a calming presence that anchors us during life's joys and losses. But like all cherished journeys, our time with them eventually slows, grays, and grows more precious, leading us to the tender yet challenging act of saying goodbye.

Losing a beloved pet is a deeply personal experience, woven with threads of grief, gratitude, and unexpected lessons learned. While the pain of loss can feel overwhelming, I have found the journey of saying goodbye can also be a catalyst for growth within our other relationships in life and provides profound personal growth. Here are a few of the unexpected gifts I received from the heartbreak of losing Lilly and Shamu.  I found myself in, while caring for one very sick Boston Terrier, another on a slow decline alongside him, and the loss and unexpected rewards that come from tunneling your way through and out of the grieving process.


1. The power of presence

2 years of constant, ‘round the clock care, for my sweet Shamu provide the profound value of being present in the moment. I slowed down, savored the simple act of gentling petting their fur, holding his little head close to my chest to hear his tiny happy sighs, savoring the quiet moments of companionship, knowing they would have to end. Just not knowing when.

This heightened sense of being mindful of every moment I spent Shamu during his last days extended beyond the morning when Mr. Mu passed away. I found myself being more thoughtful about my interactions with Lilly, and toward people I care most about – even toward myself! Caring for Mu showed me I could appreciate the subtle details, the warmth of the sun on our skin, the laughter shared with loved ones - little things I previously thought of as just errands or average daily tasks and took for granted.


2. Facing my mortality

The idea of death can feel abstract, a distant reality that we mentally push away until it touches someone we love. When I finally had to accept that Shamu was reaching the end of his life, I was forced to confront not only his mortality, but my own.  Honestly, it was unsettling. I also had the harsh reality before me that Lilly, my other fur baby, was also nearing the end of her time with me. But it was also one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received – suddenly I realized I only had a limited time to live as fully as possible, and limited time with those I love (pet and human). I looked to the end of my life and, counting back, realized that if I wanted to leave a legacy, or finish things I dreamed of but hadn’t even started, I needed to get a move on. I re-evaluated what truly matters to me (quality time with those I love, creating new and lasting memories, and simply just finding joy and happiness in even the most mundane of daily activities) and really began to cherish the limited time I have with both humans and animals I love – and to meet and make even more cherished friends!


3. The ground shaking experience of empathy

 Witnessing Mu’s vulnerability, and helping him with the smallest things we both once took for granted (carrying him for potty breaks, creating new ways to play that fit with his limited capabilities, buying a wagon to continue taking him on his favorite walk path) created a connection that was far more than sympathy – feeling sorry for him– but empathy, truly connecting with what he might be feeling. I learned to read his subtle cues, to anticipate what he would need, and learn to offer comfort based on what he appeared to want and enjoy, instead of what I liked. While I’ve always easily attuned myself to the emotions and needs of others (pet and human), this empathetic glimpse into Shamu’s life has stretched me even further into my abilities to empathize and support. The bigger lesson, the one I really needed, was to let others be there for me. I always had difficulty opening up to others and would rather be an ear and a shoulder for someone else. Still true. I adore being that person for those I love. But losing Shamu…and my baby Lilly, soon afterward, highlighted my need to let go of the belief that MY emotional needs were secondary. That’s a tough one to tackle. But so incredibly freeing, once that floodgate is opened.


4. Letting go with grace

The decision to let go of Shamu was heart-rending. I knew that no matter how I felt, or how things were shaking out, I had to put Shamu’s feelings and needs over my own. Learning to let go with grace.. so that when I am finally sitting there alone, I can at least balance my sadness with this understanding: I know I did the very best I could to ease him, and that helps me now practice a little more acceptance, accept the inevitable changes in life, and to move on by cherishing love-filled memories.

5. Finding meaning in loss

This is a tough one. It’s been 2 years, and I’m still crying as I type this. Losing a pet is simply awful – it leaves a hole in your heart and your daily life, from making breakfast to going to bed, which can leave you feeling empty and sometimes even angry or lost. Learning to walk MYSELF daily, now that I don’t have little furry ones shuffling along with me, felt off and wrong. What’s the point, right? But within the depths of grief, there is something that changes permanently. I know it’s up to me to make it a positive change. Shamu and Lilly had an incredible impact on my life, and I needed to process exactly what that was, to find meaning the experience of sharing our life left me. That’s something you often can only really do when the little beings you loved so much have been lost.


Celebrating the journey – both shared and alone

The joy and fun I shared with them enriched my life in so many ways. While the pain of losing them is still sometimes sharp, I also look back on a lot of real beauty in the journey we had together – even in those final days. Saying goodbye, as difficult as it was, made me realize I owe it to their memories to accept and make something truly positive out of the gift they gave me…all those wonderful years of their lives. These gifts -- to appreciate the present moment, cultivate empathy, and let go with grace were given to me through Shamu and Lilly’s deaths. And they transcend my loss... helping me appreciate the love that’s all around me, as I journey through life without pets now. I’m now deepening the connections with those I know and love, and inviting new and wonderful people into my world. So in something that still feels heartbreaking and sad, I’ve also found incredible personal growth. I’m a better friend, I’m more present, I’m more outgoing and confident, and I share more of myself with others. And I owe so much of that to my sweet Boston babies.

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