Dogs Grieve Too

It’s been a month since my old dog Willow died, and I miss her healing presence. The house feels empty without her calm energy, but my young dog Disco grieves, too. She searches for the one who’s missing and I can’t explain the loss to her. Even though Willow was old and dying, she joined us for slow walks until a few days before her death.

At first, Disco wouldn’t leave the house without her friend. When I leashed her for a walk, she constantly looked back. Disco’s mournful eyes and body said, “Where’s Willow?”

Willow & Baby Disco

Willow has been Disco’s Mama-surrogate since I adopted Disco over three years ago. Disco was an SPCA puppy and didn’t spend long with her mother, so she’s always been high strung and needy along with sweet and gentle. I broke my lifelong rule of no dogs on the bed because she needed to be close to my body when she was a baby. Maybe I needed her, too.

In the past, I didn’t leash Disco for walks and she stayed with Willow and me. Now, she sneaks away to search. “Where’s Willow?”

Jak & Disco

I thought visits from dogs she knows would help, but my friend brought her dog Jak for a walk and Disco ran ahead and disappeared as we neared my house. We found her in the road with two cars stopped to avoid hitting her. She knew I wanted her to come to me, but she wanted to keep searching. When the driver of one car yelled at her to go home, she followed me back into the driveway and didn’t resist when I leashed her. She hasn’t gone in the road again and doesn’t seem to be searching as much, but we walk on leash just in case.

Stuart & Disco

Disco’s brother Stuart reassures her. They had the same mother who was turned into a shelter in Florida with a litter of 12. Disco wasn’t with her mother long, but she knew Stuart from birth and they were in the same crate when they were brought to the SPCA in Corning, NY. They were fostered together with a few other siblings. After Disco moved in with Willow and me at eight weeks old, we had frequent play dates and later forest walks with Stuart and his owner Joni.

created by Tim Dunlap

Until Disco stops searching and trust her to come to me and stay away from the road, she’s on leash. Eventually, she’ll get it that Willow isn’t coming home. Like me and most humans, our pets long for the ones they love.


Where’s Willow?

It’s not good timing for me to get another dog, so I plan more leash walking, visits with dog friends, and more training. I hope time will work this out. Have you dealt with a grieving pet? How did you handle it?

For other posts about my life with dogs see He’s Only a Dog. For a post about the Greek Goddess Artemis who lived in the wild with dogs, see Lessons from Artemis, Goddess of the Wild.

  1. Dear Elaine,

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful, heartfelt post and more lovely photos, especially the one of Willow and baby Disco. Oh, how could anyone kick that gorgeous snuggle bunny out of their bed! I just read on a pet website that dogs tend to mourn canine companions for between two and six months. But never having had two dogs at the same time, only one, I can’t vouch for this time frame myself. I guess what they’re saying is, it all depends on the remaining dog attachment to their missing friend and their own temperament.

    As you both still mourn and search for sweet gentle Willow, in different ways, to me it sounds like the most natural thing in the world to do at this time. On a practical note keeping Disco on a leash for the next month or two sounds wise. What a beautiful memorial stone and quote to Willow by Tim, this poet’s heart leapt and did a little dance! I also reread your other two posts and can see that despite your losses beginning so early in your life, your heart is, and remains, wild and open. What an inspiration you are to so many of us my dear friend.

    Sending much love and light across the oceans and oaks between us, Deborah.

    • Deborah, I miss you and I’m glad you’re doing what you need to do for your inner and outer work. I need to become more focused to complete my book, but life demanded a grief detour.

      Disco is doing better, but my vet suggests it might take three months for her to adjust. When on leash, she likes walking near me–similar to the way she liked walking close to Willow. Just thinking of Willow makes me weep. I let myself feel sorrow, but also see the Bluebird babies pecking out of their shells and a Tree Swallow building her nest in another nesting box. Willow’s death brings up so much Vic grief which isn’t surprising considering her healing role in my life after Vic. Disco has big paws to fill and we’re both fine. Sending you sweet love as the oaks in the forest develop baby leaves and the Lupines prepare to bloom extravagantly by the end of May.

      • Missing you too dear Elaine! Still, it’s great you have such a treasure trove of a blog to visit! Despite the sorrow that May brings, yesterday being the second anniversary of my mother’s death, it remains my favourite month of the year. Ah, your mention of Lupines brings my poem, “The Goddess and Her Green Man” comes to mind. x

        • How could I forget that poem? There’s no way. The lupine leaves are up in the fields and there are thousands of them. They aren’t blooming yet, but my fields will soon be filled with purple-blue. (I saw Bluebells in my friend Lourdes’ garden, so I’ll try growing them here next season. I loved Lin’s photo of seas of Bluebells.)

  2. Yes, I know pets grieve. My daughter Crista is a cat lover. When a long-time pet died recently, she took on some kitties from our son’s litter. While they don’t replace the one she lost, they provide a distraction, and eventually become grafted into the happy family of humans and animals.

    The inscription on Willow’s stone is poignant and powerful. RIP, Willow. . . !

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Marian, both with cats and with your book. Disco is doing better and so am I. Willow had a peaceful passage. Her ashes are still in my house, but they’ll go in the forest she loved.

  3. Oh Elane what a beautiful story and can so relate when I left my Oscar ( Brown Chocolate lab) in December 2019… he was 11 years old and had a cancerous tumour and we knew our time was finished. My DIL who is a Vet and she came to the house to put Oscar down. I didn’t have a younger dog but I did have a rescue cat who I had taken in a year prior, and she had bonded with Oscar. She missed him for several months, as she would look for him as she would join us on our walks, so it was a loss for her.

    “Miss Lady” has moved on and in the meantime but it was a big loss not only for myself but for her…

    I wish you well as you continue to mourn for your Willow ( who was also a lab was she not) and sending you love and great big hugs

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Jean. Disco seems to be doing better and I’m doing better, too. Willow (chocolate Lab) was an exhausted girl in pain and needed to leave her suffering body. She filled a big hole in my life after my husband Vic died in 2008, so the lid came off that hole and old grief erupted. Despite years of hospice volunteering, I didn’t expect it to be so intense, but it brought me back to my feelings as a 14 year old when my dad’s death was followed by the death of my first Dog Amigo. We continuously repeat these experiences and slowly learn to let go. Thanks for your kind words.

  4. This is very touching, especially that photo of baby Disco and Mama Willow. Wow. I’m so glad you are patient with Disco, and yourself, as you both grieve Willow. And I love the Willow stone–how lovely.

    • I’m super patient with Disco, Harriet, but not as patient with myself. We’re both getting used to the new reality. The dog sitter took Disco for many car rides while I was away for a few days, and Disco liked that. She does less searching than she did a few weeks ago, but she still looks in favorite spots in the woods where the two of them prowled and sniffed and I still keep her leashed which isn’t my usual. I imagine Disco smells Willow everywhere. Our pets teach us about letting go.

  5. My dear Elaine, our loss is always present, as we both know and for Disco, it is the same. The main thing is the memories which remain forever. Take care and blessing.

    • Yes, loss is always present, and I know that for sure. Willow will always be remembered as my healing dog because her calm presence helped me through Vic’s death. I have many photos of her near Vic’s burial cairn in the woods. I’m thinking of the many who loved their soul animals and had to leave them behind in war. Life is harsh for so many, but I know how kind destiny has been to me.

  6. I had an Occupational Therapist professor who taught many of the psychology and sociology classes in the OT program I was enrolled in. One day during a death and dying discussion the conversation turned to the death of pets and our grief in loosing them. She said something that I’ve never forgotten. She said that the loss of a pet can be in the moment equally as intense and painful as a beloved person and we should always acknowledge our mourning of them. Pets she said not only represent a warm unconditional loving presence in our lives but they also represent, stand as symbol for everything that we experienced during the years that they accompanied us in. I would say like treasured bookmarks, marking off the time much like the seasons, the moon phases, the ebb and flow of our lives, the before and after. They saw it and lived it all, right beside us.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Jan. What an important thing to learn and remember. I’ve experienced healing help and unconditional love from many dogs. Two stand out: my dog Amigo was with me when I was 14 and my dad died and Willow who was my heart friend and companion for 14 years after my husband’s death. Willow’s death brought an upsurge of grief about my husband’s death almost 15 years ago. My younger dog Disco helps me now by being a cuddler and companion. I love thinking of my dogs as bookmarks in my life story, accompanying me as I age and we navigate the cycles of nature.

  7. Oh, Elaine. This is so beautiful and wise. Just reading it made me weep for my beloved animal friends. My horse Shadow died when he was only 8 years old and I cried daily for weeks. That was almost 20 years ago. I still tear up when I think of him. Likewise with Matt’s golden retriever who spent every summer with us in the mountains. His grave is marked by a large metal dog sculpture beside the pond he loved to swim in. Now Izzy, Matt’s second golden is having age-related problems and the thought of losing her soon brings more tears. I loved Jan’s comments about why we grieve so much for our pets. It’s true. Shadow and Bear both remind me of some wonderful years that are gone forever. Kierkegaard said that when we grieve for others, we’re grieving for ourselves too. So true.

    He also said, “My grief is my castle, which like an eagle’s nest is built high up on the mountain peaks among the clouds; nothing can storm it. From it I fly down into reality to seize my prey; but i do not remain down there, I bring it home with me, and this prey is a picture I weave into the tapestries of my palace. There I live as one dead. I immerse everything I have experienced in a baptism of forgetfulness unto an eternal remembrance. Everything finite and accidental is forgotten and erased. Then I sit like an old man, grey-haired and thoughtful, and explain the pictures in a voice as soft as a whisper; and at my side a child sits and listens, although he remembers everything before I tell it.”

    Love and sympathy, Jeanie

    • Jeanie, eight is so young for a horse. I remember how you loved Shadow. Willow lived a long life for a Labrador Retriever and was a healing presence for me for 14 years after Vic’s death. Knowing that doesn’t make grief disappear, but Sweet Willow was in extreme pain and could no longer eat. She needed to be released from her body. She had a peaceful death lying in the sun on my front lawn, and it was the right thing to end her suffering even though I hated making the decision. She didn’t resist and wagged her tail at the vet she’d known and trusted all her life. Age-related problems surround me with many struggling friends and also my own hearing loss. Vic’s absence left a permanent hole in our family and that happens to so many families, so I don’t feel resentful. Just sad. I’m grateful Disco and I can comfort each other. Thanks for sharing Kierkegaard’s wisdom. As we age, the Grief Castle grows and grows.

  8. Willow is in her forever home and when Disco realizes this she will always visit and know her guardian is there for her and you. So sorry to hear about Willow. Don’t be afraid to talk to Willow with Disco near by the grave as that will reinforce the message, as this is Willow’s resting place. Her spirit is always by your side.

    • Thank you for your concern. Disco was involved with Willow’s dying process throughout, and I talked about death with both Willow and Disco. I was a hospice volunteer for many years, so I believe in being open with humans and pets. Willow was ready for her peaceful departure. Disco was anxious about the loss of her Mama-friend and spent a month searching. She does fine when she’s close to me or someone who loves her and she rarely searches now. This is Disco’s first experience with death of someone close to her whereas I’ve been dealing with human and pet death for 70 years. We haven’t buried Willow’s ashes but will do that when the family gathers–and Disco will be there. Blessings.

  9. Dear Elaine,
    Yes, without a doubt, dogs grieve too. And I resonate with the words of your wonderful poet friend Deborah,”As you both still mourn and search for sweet gentle Willow, in different ways, to me it sounds like the most natural thing in the world to do at this time.”

    Our neighbors just had their dog killed last week by a bear, and aside from their own shock and grief, they are suffering as they witness the grief of their other dog. The dog is now 16 years old and this loss just may be too much for her, as she has given up eating. It still is so recent that, as you wrote, “time may work this out.”

    Sending love and comfort to you and Willow, Anne

    • I agree, Anne. Dogs clearly grieve. Disco is still on leash unless we walk with other dogs. She still looks back at the house as we head toward the forest to see if Willow is coming with us. Today, we walked with Disco’s brother which eases her concern about Willow. I’m grateful for Stuart and a few other dog friends to help us through this transition. I’m so sorry about your neighbor’s dog. What a gruesome and difficult experience. I imagine the whole family feels the shock, especially the elder dog. Blessings to you as we ride the wheel of life and death with our animal teachers.

  10. It is heart breaking to lose a fur baby and even more so when your remaining baby doesn’t understand the loss. I first friend requested you because of Willow. My Cecil was a chocolate lab and the love of my life. I had him for 9 years before cancer took him. There will never be another Cecil for me.

    • Thank you, Lori. I’ve had dogs since I was 4 years old and I’ve seen many dogs grieve. Disco is the most persistent, but she came to live with me at 8 weeks old and Willow was a tolerant sweetie. Willow disciplined by averting her eyes and not giving attention. It’s the best way. I never heard her growl. Willow was close to me since I bought her a year after Vic died when my grief was thick–and she had 2 ACL surgeries, so we spent a lot of time doing therapy and entertaining her in constructive ways. She went to hospice with me every week and also entertained Vic’s hard to please mother who lived in an apartment in town. I miss Willow every day.

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