How Dogs Help You Grieve with the Loss of a Loved One

Thanksgiving Day, October 2017, was the day I lost my dad. It started as a beautiful autumn day. The sun was brightly shining on every possible surface it could touch. It was unusually warm outside with a slight gentle crisp of a breeze. The fall leaves were nothing like I’ve seen before glistening in the sun. My dog Samson was enjoying the day outside as I was preparing a turkey for that afternoon before my spouse left town to go back to work. The colors of fall were terrific that day. The sunset that evening was calming, and I remember thinking to myself, that I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a beautiful thanksgiving day.

The Call

It was 7:36pm as I was winding down for the evening when I got the call from my mom. My dad had been out of the country, visiting relatives for about a week. He was supposed to stay there for a month at my brother’s and his wife’s home. But my dad did not wake up that morning. He passed away in his sleep. It was a shock because he didn’t have a serious health issue at that time that showed any symptoms. In 2007, he survived a ruptured aortic aneurysm in his abdomen. The medical staff was surprised that he survived several surgeries and complications. Still, he eventually recovered, though he had to wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of his life. After months in the hospital, the medical staff stood and clapped their hands as he walked out.

No Goodbye

The worst regret I have is I didn’t see him before he left the country to visit my brother and relatives. I didn’t go see him off and give him a hug. I didn’t spend enough time with him over the years. I didn’t thank him for everything he has done.

Memories

I remember when I was young, he would come home in the evening, and the first thing he would do is come to me to say hi with a big smile on his face. He was so happy. He would pat my hair gently. If it was the summertime, we would go to the backyard and play badminton for an hour. He played badminton with me often. We could keep that birdie in the air for quite a long time if I remember correctly. It is one of my favorite memories. As I was growing bit by bit older, he wasn’t around that much. I hardly saw him because he was working. We just drifted apart for a while. Every so often, when he was around, and we were alone with each other, we did have a few heart to heart talks. But only when no one else was there to listen.

Sacrifice

My dad had overcome so much in his prior years. I’ve NEVER known any man who works as hard as he used to without complaining. He worked to the end of his life. He didn’t retire. He never complained about anything. He sacrificed his dreams for us, to protect us, feed us, and give us a future. He wasn’t rich, but he kept trying very hard to make sure my mom was okay when he died. He just worked and worked till he was 75. He thought about my mom’s future and made sure she was going to be financially okay to take care of herself. I have so much respect for him and that kind of work ethic. He had a kind, gentle heart.

Intuition or Premonition

After the day of the call on thanksgiving, reflecting back on the previous week, I remembered feeling uneasy that whole week. Thoughts of my dad kept creeping up in my head each day. I had feelings of unsettled worry and guilt in the pit of my stomach. It was uncomfortable. Guilt that I didn’t go see my dad before he left. I wondered if he was happy. The thought of not ever seeing him again haunted me. I texted my brother and asked if my dad was happy and if he was having fun and my brother replied yes, he was, and he was fine. I think that was only a couple of days before. Samson must have felt my uneasiness as he kept close to me during that week and after that. Eventually, I was able to say goodbye to my dad, as you will see how, at the end of this story.

From Companion to Compassion – The Silent Comforter

Following the days of my dad’s death into the winter months. Samson stayed very close to my side. He wasn’t pushy or invasive. He just gave me enough space when I needed it but mostly he knew when to gently step in. He slept on my side of the floor of the bedroom for a while there at night. Something he hardly does. He usually likes sleeping in the living room or the front room. But for a while there, I woke up in the morning with him still in the bedroom. His head pops up and looks at me. Then, he would get up, back legs stretch, then creep slowly towards me and gently lick the tip of my left elbow sticking out of the blanket at the edge of the bed. Then a pause…his eyes watch me intently. His tail a slow wave once, one more and stops. Finally, I look at him with tired eyes and yawn out, “Good morning Samson.” His tail goes off! Wagging! His butt swinging side to side as I pet him! Sniffing and making a quiet grunting, breathing noise. And I couldn’t help myself but smile and be filled with joy each time! He’s done this morning wake up call ever since.

When I cried, he gently laid his head on my knee and watched me. If he was beside me on the couch, he rested his head on my lap and slept. Some days he tried to cheer me up by picking up his toy, bringing it to me, and dropping it into my lap. He leaned his body against me and let me cuddle him for as long as I wanted. He even stayed on the couch most of the time with me while I watched movies, another thing he doesn’t usually do. His gentle gestures were really comforting to me. For being an independent dog who does his own thing, he sure kept his eye on me. If I was in another room, he’d pop his head in every so often to check up on me.

One time I was watching a show in the bedroom, my spouse was watching a movie in the living room with the surround sound, and Samson was sleeping on the couch. There was a scene in the film where a girl starts crying quietly. Samson’s head popped up and looked at the bedroom door. I guess he thought it was me because the next thing I knew, I looked over, and Samson was staring at me intently with his chin resting on the bed with concerned eyes. He had gotten off the couch and walked into the bedroom to check up on me. He just stood there with his head resting on the edge of the bed, still staring at me. He was a little confused when I smiled at him, and he saw that I was not crying. It was charming.

Dogs know and can feel when you’re sad. Our emotions affect them too. With gestures from staying close to you, licking your tears, or following you to adjusting their behaviour is their way of showing you that they are there for you and want you to feel better. Their patience to let you grieve for as long as you need is impeccable. Their nature has an effect on you as well. Something happens to you when you pet a dog, you release ‘feel good’ chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, prolactin. It calms your heart rate and relaxes you. It gives you a break from stress so you can get through one more day.

Saying Goodbye

I was finally able to say goodbye to my dad. He appeared in my dreams. He was in an elevator, I was standing outside of it. He looked healthy and a bit younger. I told him not to go, but he said he had to. He said goodbye to me, and so I said goodbye to him. He was smiling at me. We waved goodbye to each other. The elevator doors closed on him, and he ascended up. Even though I feel bad that he didn’t get to retire and enjoy the rest of his life, I’m glad my dad went peacefully in his sleep. I know he’s in heaven and much, much happier there.

Samson helped me through this time in a way that no one else could. Just his presence alone changed the atmosphere in the room. He didn’t have to speak. In his silence, with his gentle energy, he calmed my mind and heart and gave me peace. Because of him, the following sunsets of that warm October sky with its vibrant colors were incredible!

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