Dog Rules for Grieving

Dog rules

I was on the phone with someone whose loved one died a few days ago. This person hurts physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But grieving, nowadays, has become worse. With its shelter-in-place and social-distancing demands, the Covid-19 pandemic widens and deepens grief.

And then my dog arrived.

How odd to work at home and not the office!

My five-year-old golden retriever shoved her head into my available hands after the conversation started. Can’t those hands (“free” because of iPhone ear buds) get busy? 99.5% of my concentration remained with the person whose loved one has died. But maybe 00.5% was devoted to the “pet me” demands of my furry friend! Elsewhere in the house, my wife Zooms with colleagues. One of our cats is lounging on a table, and the other feisty feline is probably outside keeping us safe from rambunctious squirrels.

We talked. I listened. I offered encouragement. I reminded the grieving “client” about my hospice’s resources. Currently, we are not doing in-person counseling sessions but our grief counselors will reach out by phone or online or both. Soon, we will start grief support groups for the summer, though they might have to rely on the now ubiquitous Zoom platform.

And I kept petting Kynzi.

Trying to be deeply present with a person sideswiped by grief seemed a bit better because of my puppy’s gentle insistence on being noticed. In this devastating pandemic, I don’t like being home. But I understand; Covid-19 is a new, real viral beast. We have no immunizations. Yet. Unlike most strains of influenza, we can’t predict its ebb and flow. Yet. Sadly, the limited responses available to slow Covid-19’s spread make our grief worse. And worse.

However, my dog is finding ways to teach me how to make it through this pandemic. Kynzi’s “lessons” for grief support are simplistic and even foolish. They may be too lighthearted or obvious . . . or perhaps they will be helpful?

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Do something with your hands

What did my grandmother warn? The devil finds work for idle hands! Well, my dog Kynzi may have never met my wonderful Grandma, but they would have agreed on this. From Kynzi’s perspective, there’s no point in hands being “idle” if they can be used to scratch her!

Even more, for someone grieving, accomplishing one item on the to-do list, and keeping your hands busy, is a worthwhile goal. During fresh, intense grief, your concentration is lousy. But doing and finishing one thing can feel good. Finish washing the dishes. (Just that.) Take out the garbage. (Just that.) Sort through some of the mail. (Just that.) Don’t get me wrong. There will be days you may not want to do anything. But tackling one or two simple things might be helpful. And if one of those handy tasks involves petting your dog? Win-win!

Living in the present

Dogs have this remarkable tendency to be “in the now.” Kynzi doesn’t seem to fret over the past, and (except near meal time), doesn’t ponder the future.

  • How can we have fun now?
  • Now is excellent for a nap.
  • What about that new smell I just smelled . . . now?

When grieving, it’s normal to dwell on the past. Grievers wonder if they should have gotten their loved one a third (or tenth) doctor’s opinion, or feel guilty about entering hospice care too soon (or too late). Grievers may have “future anxiety,” imagining their remaining years will be empty, without purpose. It’s hard not to survey yesterday or dread tomorrow during grief’s most intense times. But “right now” may be a good place to try to live. With a walk, in a conversation with a friend, eating a scoop of ice cream, taking a nap (thank you, Kynzi), risk a simple “right now” moment and try to appreciate it.

I didn’t say enjoy it. And I didn’t suggest anything complicated. Just a “right now” to gently divert you from the unchangeable past or unknown future.

Food, play, sleep

Don’t forget to hydrate…

Those three activities above dominate Kynzi’s world. They also represent a key part of a griever’s slow, steady, barely perceptible healing. In the worst of grief, you may have to literally force yourself to eat or to take a walk . . .  but the effort is worth it. For many grievers, sleep is like an enemy. You sleep too much, but you’re still exhausted. You wake up at 2am and can’t return to sleep, instead staring at the ceiling. You don’t want to get out of bed. Or you don’t want to go to your bed and therefore sleep (badly) on a couch or chair.

Kynzi seems to take a nap wherever and whenever. Sometimes, that’s what you have to do. Sleep when you can! And with food, try to keep available and healthy snacks in the refrigerator. And why not take a short walk around the block? Just one “playful” loop of the nearby neighborhood?

Curiosity – smell everything!

Kynzi drives me batty on walks since it appears she smells everything and then must analyze (or nibble on) her “discovery.” Must she forever stop to smell the roses!?

For an unpredictable period of time, grievers barely notice the world around them. You lose track of time. Any purpose seems without purpose. However, there will be hints and nudges to reclaim the world around you. A stranger greets you and you actually engage in nice, unexpected chat. A new store opens and you explore it. A friend invites you to lunch and you actually say “Yes.” You read a book or see a movie and stay with it from start to finish. Our curiosity about the world around us can vanish when a beloved dies. But curiosity can also start our healing.

After observing Kynzi’s nosey ways, I guarantee you there’s lots of interesting stuff out there!

Good listener

Stay alert to judgmental types . . .

When you are grieving, it may be important to be careful with your companions. Some love to give advice, and some of that advice can be good! But what works for one person when they were grieving their favorite uncle’s death may not work for someone grieving a spouse of fifty years. In our grief, we need people around us who will listen without rushing to the “solution.”

Hey, my dog puts up with a lot weird stuff that I say! She just keeps listening. Doesn’t interrupt. Doesn’t ignore me because she has something more “important” to say.

I hope every griever has a friend or family member willing to listen.


I throw a ball and it lands in front of or over Kynzi’s head. No problem! She acts like it was the best toss in the world! I stop and talk with a neighbor on our walk and Kynzi waits. When grieving, the majority of your friends and family won’t understand what you are experiencing. Pain. Loneliness. Anger. Despair. You don’t want a “new normal,” you want the “old normal.” As much as possible, I hope you can spend time with people that don’t judge you.

Every day, my puppy reminds me of the power of acceptance.

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The phone call ended.

By this time, Kynzi had decided to nap. After all, a girl should grab rest when she can! Given that our shelter-in-place will continue for who-knows-how-long, she’ll have more work to do tomorrow.

Not that she is worrying about that as she snoozes.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Grab some sleep anywhere and anytime you can . . .

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  1. Pets grieve hard when there is a loss of another pet in the household. Their grieving process is visible for around six weeks. It’s heart breaking to watch them search room by room for their friend who is no longer there. They may sigh deeply and appear lethargic. Their spontaneous joy in everyday activities. may be missing. Having witnessed this several times during my life, I am left even stronger in my belief of the souls of animals.

  2. Thankyou, beautifully written and totally in line with what I experienced after losing my beloved husband last year.

    I can look back now and see how everything you have said applies to what this grief ‘journey’ has been like. I hope that people who are just starting that journey will read your article and gain the wisdom included.

    I need to add that having my fur baby with me has been a most precious comfort. The thought of leaving her on her own is the sole reason I am still here today.

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