We touch on nearly every aspect of grief following the loss of a loved one to suicide here, but I realized the connection we have with pets during this time is one we really haven’t addressed. As I played with our aging family dog during a recent visit to my hometown, I was reminded that he is one of the few connections we still have to my dad, who passed away over six years ago. It’s so hard to believe, but my dad picked out this puppy on a complete whim during a getaway “up north” about 15 years ago. He pulled over to the side of the road where a man in a van held a sign that said “Puppies 4 Sale.” We weren’t in the market for a dog, nor was it something we really discussed. In fact, we had asked for a dog as kids many times but always turned to hamsters or guinea pigs instead. This is why it was such an unexpected, wonderful surprise when my dad introduced us to this adorable little terrier he named Harley. And, another example of how spontaneous and silly my dad could be. He thought this was hilarious.
Suddenly, my dad became a full-fledged “dog person” and Harley shadowed him everywhere. They played tug-of-war, catch and later cuddled to watch TV. They even started to dress alike – see the accompanying photo of my dad wearing a terrier-emblazoned shirt. (A couple nights after my dad died, I made a memory scrapbook and devoted a whole page to his love for Harley.)
Whenever my dad would walk through the door, Harley ran and jumped up to him and their teasing and fun began. I often wonder if our dog would recognize him if my dad suddenly came back home…or, if he is still waiting for this to happen.
Though Harley is our family dog, he certainly came into our lives because of my dad and was such a big part of his life. It’s comforting that Harley is here, despite his old age and health issues. However, that has also started to weigh on me. I really can’t and don’t want to think about when the time comes that he isn’t. In addition to it being a significant change, it’s a deeper loss of another living connection to my dad. I recently wrote about how I was deeply affected by the passing of one of my dad’s former colleagues (read about it here), which slowly started to chip away at remaining ties to my father.
In a similar way, this is why many survivors of suicide cling to belongings, relationships and experiences with our loved one that bring us back to the time before our lives were forever changed. Survivors may find that a pet’s presence and love after a loved one’s death is what has enabled them to get through their trauma. Others may have even welcomed a new pet to help fill a void and add “life” back into their home.
Even six years later, I’m realizing that the halo effect of my father’s earthly life and death are still very tangible and real, forcing thoughts about how my own life and grief have to adapt over time.
Are you living with or caring for a pet or other significant items left behind by your loved one? How has this affected your grief journey?