The Dog-Shaped Hole:

God’s Healing for Hurting Hearts After the Loss of a Dog (or other pet)

By

Janet L. DeCaster

Remembering Penny:
September 22, 2018 – October 18, 2020

Isaiah 61:1 – “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,..

Let’s be honest, grief after the death of a dog (or other pet) is real, it’s hard and it hurts. Whether your pet was furry, finny or feathery; losing them to death is just plain sad. In short, pet grief stinks! Particularly now, in 2020, a year of weirdness that just keeps getting weirder. From the Coronavirus pandemic isolation, to social unrest, to contested political elections for those of us in America; our dogs (and other pets) have become even more important to us than usual. Their furry faces and wagging tails have become a little piece of happy in an otherwise wacky world. Losing them seems just a little bit harder this year. It can feel sorta like you have a dog-shaped hole in your soul.

As the author of “Dog Tales & Pup Parables: 31 Devotions for a Dog Lover’s Heart“* ( © 2016, BroadStreet Publishing), I thought that addressing this issue may help someone out there in social-media-land have a little bit more healing in their hurting heart (or help them heal the heart of their child). Having had the unfortunate experience of revisiting the grief involved with the loss of one of my dogs recently, the topic has been on my mind. As always, I write from a Christian perspective with the Bible as my guide.

Stay tuned at the end of the post for practical tips on healing from this type of grief

Penny’s story:

After my dog, Joy, died in 2019**, I adopted a darling, purebred Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy from a local rescue group which specialized in rescuing “underdogs.” My daughters and I named her Penny, because of her beautiful, copper-colored coat. Like the rest of us, Penny had some ‘issues’; and I adopted her knowing full-well that she was imperfect. (not unlike God adopting me into the family of faith, in spite of my issues; but that’s another story for another day)  Penny had been rescued from a commercial breeder because she had a dysfunctional gait in her hind legs, one of her eyes had a problem with the cornea, and  she was unusually small.  I adopted her because I wanted to give her the best life she could have.

Sadie (L) & Penny (R) during my morning devotions

This tiny, copper-colored, silky ball of six-pound love soon stole our hearts. Penny’s wobbly gait, meant that she could only walk for short distances. Hence, I found a used dog stroller on-line and pushed her around the local park on daily walks with Sadie. She would bark with glee every time she heard the computer-generated voice on my smart-phone’s exercise App, knowing it meant a ride in her stroller to the park! What Penny lacked in mobility and stature, she made up for with a huge heart of love.

Penny’s daily “walk”

Suddenly, earlier this fall, Penny became totally unable to stand. After a thorough exam by her regular Vet and an Orthopedic Veterinary specialist, the doctors refused to do surgery, suspecting that she had a major neurological issue. I prayed for her healing, and also for wisdom in her care. A further exam by a Veterinary Neurologist confirmed that Penny had a congenital spinal and skull malformation (probably due to inbreeding). She faced a life without mobility on painkillers and steroids. Finally, I made the excruciatingly difficult decision to have Penny euthanized by our Vet.

After she died, I felt awful and like I had somehow let her down, even though she had put all her trust in me. Those first few days and week following her death were really sad! I also felt terribly sorry for our other dog Sadie (and still do), because I couldn’t explain where Penny went and now she is alone.

Penny & Sadie in their natural habitat

Penny’s Special Role:

I could regret having adopted Penny, due to the extra challenges her care posed or her short lifespan. Upon reflection, however, I realized that I fulfilled my goal of giving her the best life she could have had. I have also sensed the Holy Spirit’s special revelation about Penny’s unique role in my life, during a very challenging time. In the course of her lifetime, I experienced two major losses of (human) loved ones. One of my older brothers, Paul,  died  very unexpectedly in the summer of 2019. My mother died earlier this year. I still miss them both! As I looked at photographs recently, while grieving Penny, I saw several photos with she, my mother and my brother. They made me smile. We three had a mutual love of animals. I suddenly recognized that my tiny dog had brought happiness to both my brother and to my mother in their last months of life. My imperfect Penny was like a perfect,  heaven-sent gift to me and my family at the right moment in time. I am thankful for those memories and the photos that helped capture them. They have brought me a lot of peace. She was a wonderful dog, and I’m so glad for our time together.

My brother, Paul DeCaster, and Penny – 2019.
My Mom, Doris DeCaster, & Penny – 2020.

John 14: 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid

My Mother and Brother, along with Penny & Sadie, Spring 2019.

Why grief after the death of a dog (or other pet) can be so hard:

  1. Rationalizing / Minimizing: We think we are being “foolish” to feel badly because it’s “only a pet” and compare it to the “really big” problems in the world. (or worse, we tell that to our child or another family member who really loved the pet!) Remember that grief is always relative to how close the person was to the pet (or person) who died. When we admit the pain of the loss to ourselves, a safe loved-one and to God, it helps the healing process begin. Acknowledging the grief, helps us to release it and move through it.
  2. They love us unconditionally: As I wrote on the back cover of my book, “Dogs demonstrate God’s unconditional love. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, your dog welcomes you with a wagging tail and happy eyes. These faithful pets remind us that we are loved.” They accept and love us without judgement.
  3. Our dogs are totally dependent upon us: Our dogs are innocent bystanders as we travel through life in a fallen world. They depend upon us for their care, food and shelter. When they die we wonder if we could have done something else to help them. If they died due to an accident, or we are faced with the painful decision to euthanize them, we can feel that we have let them down and can struggle with false guilt.  
  4. As we grieve our dogs, we are sometimes also grieving other losses in life:  Our dogs ‘do life’ with us. The good, the bad and the ugly. When we lose them, it can trigger memories of other painful losses and it hurts. NOTE: Professional Christian therapists can be a very helpful tool God uses to heal past, unhealed grief issues in our lives. I recommend it.
  5. Our dogs are companions in hard seasons of life: Whether it’s a relocation,  starting a new job, a new school or the stay-at-home orders due to a worldwide pandemic; our dogs are with us through thick and thin. When we lose them, it feels a little bit like our emotional compass is out of whack.

Suggestions for healing hurting hearts after the loss of a dog:

( or helping you help your child’s heart)

  1. Avoid denial or self-medication: Denial, avoidance or self-medication never heals grief, it only prolongs and perpetuates it. Avoid self-medication through habitual use of alcohol, other substances or other emotion-numbing behaviors. Cry if you need to! (or give children or other loved ones that safe, emotional space to do so). God made tears as a release of many stress-related chemicals, like cortisol. Tears heal and Jesus understands. Luke 1:37 says it best when Jesus faced the loss of his dear friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept!”
  2. Rituals: Participate in a ritual that helps you to remember your pet and find closure. Whether it’s a small service to bury your pet’s remains, or sharing a time of remembrance with family members, rituals help us to move through grief. ***
  3. Turn to the Bible and prayer: Begin or renew a daily quiet time of personal devotional Bible reading and prayer to seek the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. Find Bible verses on comfort in loss and write them out, declaring them frequently. God’s Word has supernatural power, and it heals us from the inside out. (Suggested verses below)
  4. Remember, write or ‘process the loss’ in another way: Print out a special photo of your pet to help you (or your kids) to remember. Writing in a journal can be a helpful way for some to process loss. If you have young children, having them share what they miss about their pet and draw pictures of them may help them to process their loss and learn to share their feelings in healthy ways. 
  5. Talk: Talk to God and talk to each other. (or let your child talk — don’t change the subject!) If you feel a sudden pain of your loss, don’t bottle it up, let it out. It helps and it’s okay!

Isaiah 53:4(a)…He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows

God’s Word:

God’s word contains healing balm for the human soul. The following passages contain wonderful promises from the Bible that you may find comforting for personal study. Isaiah 53: 1-5, Isaiah 61: 1-3, Luke 4: 17-21, John 14: 25-27, Psalm 23, Psalm 147:3, Psalm 30:2

God Knows, He Cares & He’s Listening:

God is not too busy to care about the smallest things that concern us, including the death of our dog (or other pet). His Word says in Matthew 10: 29, “What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.“. God knows and cares when our pets die and he loves us. It was the Holy Spirit who brought me peace after Penny died. He is also willing to heal your hurting heart from what feels like that dog-shaped hole left in your soul after your dog dies. If you ask him, he will be happy to begin or deepen that process of “inner healing” in your life in that mysterious way that only he can do. Why don’t you start or renew a conversation with God today? That’s what prayer is: a simple coversation with your heavenly father. He is listening, he cares and he is sure to answer.

Psalm 30:5(b)…weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning

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Please share this with others who may need comfort after the loss of a furry friend. Thanks!

Penny and I checking out
Dog Tales & Pup Parables:
31 Devotions for a Dog Lover’s Heart” ©

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*I’ve recently learned that the hard-copy book is out of print, but e-copies and used copies are still available on-line https://amazon.com/author/janetdecaster  I am prayerfully seeking the Lord’s wisdom on republication soon and in the publication of other animal-themed devotional manuscripts that I have written.

** At the time of Joy’s loss,  I wrote on the topic of whether pets go to heaven. It is a Bible-based study that may also be a helpful resource.  You can find the link here: https://janetdecaster.com/do-pets-go-to-heaven/  

*** I actually cried and held a pet funeral as an adult for our family goldfish when my daughters were young. I was in a Chaplaincy class in Bible school at the time and learning about the importance of acknowledging grief and didn’t want my daughters to grow up in a household with denial issues. I lined a little check-book box with flowers and buried the fish in our flowerbed and held a service. I was so sad! My kids could have cared less, honestly, but they ‘attended’ the fish funeral at which I ‘officiated.’ Not kidding! (we still talk about that with a little chuckle now that they are young adults :0) I loved the fish and felt really sad when it died after 5 years in a bowl on my kitchen counter! I also felt much better after I cried for poor little Goldy the goldfish! Now you know why God picked me to write the animal-themed devotional books, right? I’m a SOFTY who loves all animals!! And there are more devotional books in the works.

Janet DeCaster
Janet DeCaster
Christian Author & Speaker, Janet DeCaster, holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a J.D. from Emory University School of Law, and a Certificate of Biblical Studies from ACTS International Bible College. She has served as a Pastor to women in a local Church, a Deacon, a global missions team member and committed volunteer in many capacities in the Church. She is licensed and ordained for Christian ministry with Resurrection Apostolic International Network, R.A.I.N. Ministries and is a member of the International Association of Healing Ministries, I.A.H.M. She has authored two books, available through her website, janetdecaster.com

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