We’ve been a lucky family when it comes to grief and dealing with death in the family. My children have both sets of grandparents to provide all the best things that grandparents can, and have yet to experience tremendous grief or loss.
Our only real experience of grieving relates to the deaths of our dear old Labrador Dexter and a Guide Dog we fostered called Kohi. That may sound a bit glib, relating grief to the death of a dog, but as many people will be able to attest, the death of a pet can also be a major loss and owners can go through a very sad and real time of grief.
Unlike the grief associated with human death, when Dexter died it was, to a degree, ‘managed’. It was a case of having to make that terrible decision to euthanize. His health was failing dramatically and he’d lived a long and full life being just a few months shy of 15 years of age. But even though we knew the decision to let him go was the right one, it certainly did not make it any easier.
Our dear friend, English Dog Listener, Jan Fennell, says that when it comes to making the dreaded decision about whether to put a pet down, it’s all about putting their pain before your pain. Often it’s an extremely hard decision to make.
Almost every pet becomes an integral part of any family, but in Dexter’s case he played an important role in our business as well. He was really the central character in 10 years of the Wonder Dogs shows and was forever at my side through countless appearances, photo shoots and events. He was not only my co-host and TV side kick, but he was my real mate, my special friend and along with my family and thousands of viewers around the country, I loved him to bits.
Ironically, on the day he died the family photographs we have of us all together show a handsome chap who still looked reasonably content, but the reality was that he couldn’t stand up or walk for any distance and he was in pain as soon as he started to try and move.
His death affected us deeply and in fact still does. There are many occasions when my mind will take me back to a wonderful time in our lives, or I will think of that evening he passed away in the corner of our warm kitchen in the candle light with the soft rain falling outside and his devoted family stroking his face.
It was an intriguing time for us because, as a family, we really only had a few short hours where the grieving time for our family pet was just ours. It wasn’t long before word got out, people started phoning, the cards and flowers poured in and the news that old Dexter had died was 3rd item in on the 6 o’clock news.
Close to 1,000 people came to his funeral planned by the NZ Guide Dog Services who wanted to celebrate his life (and all the money raised for the Guide Dogs) by putting on ‘Dexter’s Day’. It was a fantastic day with demonstrations by Wonder Dogs teams, Police Dogs and Guide Dogs, food and entertainment and the unveiling of Dex’s special plaque where his ashes were buried that read ….
Dexter 1986 – 2000
New Zealand’s Number One Wonder Dog
Your wonderful memory
And handsome image
Will live with us forever
Thank you for all the fun and for allowing us to share
Your warm nature and great spirit
With thousands of New Zealanders
Dexy Boy, we will always miss
Your loyalty and friendship
Good Boy – All our love
Some years before Dexter’s death we discovered a very special book called Dog Heaven by American author Cynthia Rylant. We bought it without showing the children, tucked it away knowing one day it might be useful in their grieving process when the inevitable day came.
This beautifully illustrated children’s book sets up a scenario where all dogs go to heaven and spend their days running and jumping and sniffing and chasing in a happy, wonderful, pain-free place.
“Dog Heaven has clear, wide lakes filled with geese who honk and flap and tease. The dogs love this. When Dogs go to heaven they don’t have wings because God knows dogs love running best.”
“When they are tired from running and barking and eating ham sandwich biscuits, the dogs find a cloud bed for sleeping. The turn around and around in the cloud …. Until it feels just rights and they curl up and they sleep…. And they have no bad dreams”.
And just to reassure any enquiring little mind it goes on to say ..…
”The dogs in Dog Heaven who had no real homes on Earth are given one in Heaven” and “They will be there when old friends show up. They will be there at the door”.
We were very relieved when the book really seemed to work its magic with our son who was about 7yrs when Dexter died. I think somehow the imagery really comforted him and he was allowed to imagine the old boy in a happy place. He took Dog Heaven to school and, perhaps because of the interest in Dexter’s passing, his teacher very kindly sat him on her knee up the front and read the story to the class.
These days I remember Dexter, not so much as the TV star, but more that he was my mate and witnessed innumerable changes in my life. We went from being single and unattached to married with children and living in another city. He went from number one in the pecking order to about number 4 once the children started arriving. Yet he was for many years the main consistent thread in my life.
I am well aware that while the loss of an animal can be traumatic, the loss of a human is most often much worse.
As parents we’d like to protect our children from any pain or hurt, but when someone dies we really can’t do that. The important thing is how we help our children deal with their grief, often at the same time as we are trying hard to cope with the loss as well.
I have a very clear childhood memory of when my beloved grandfather, Jim, died and I was about 12 years old. I am the youngest in our family and I was not allowed to go to the cemetery for the burial. Sadly, I remember feeling quite lost when everyone else went off, and I had to sit with a sandwich and a lamington in a room with people I didn’t really know or didn’t want to be with at that time.
I wondered why I wasn’t considered old enough to go. There was no real reason other than the fact that I was the youngest. It’s funny that all these years later I still feel as though I was denied something.
Seasons is a peer support group run through Anglican Care. It’s been in New Zealand for a number of years and is well established in the Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty areas, but has set up programmes around the country in response to interest. Seasons can be contacted on 0800 329 227.
Small groups with an age range difference of only 2-3 years work together and are overseen by an adult who takes the role of facilitator. The criteria is that the kids are missing someone important from their daily life.
Approx 60% of kids come along with grief relating to separation and divorce and 40% due to death. Seasons is for young people up to 18 but mainly suits 5-12 year-olds.
Another organization is Skylight, a non-profit trust based in Wellington which provides resources and information, training counselling and support. Skylight has telephone and children’s support groups and can be contacted on 0800 299 100 or www.skylight.org.nz .
Editor’s Note: I read Mark’s column and had a wee cry – just last night my parents’ special dog Horton, died aged 11. She has always been there as far as my children are concerned – and so they cried too! They’ve all known her since they were babies. We seem to be having a run of deaths at the moment – you might like to read some of the following: Death of a Mum, Children and Grief and our section on support services for grieving, which includes Skylight, as mentioned by Mark.