One of the worst days of my life happened just a few weeks after graduating high school. It was June 26th, 2006. I came home from my job at Starbucks with a slice of pound cake I purchased for my dog, Franklin, as a special treat. He never got to taste it.
Unbeknownst to me, my mom made the difficult decision to put Franklin down while I was away. She reasoned that I wouldn’t want my last memory of him to be… like that. Which, years down the road, I finally understand why she did it.
Franklin was 10 years old and his health was failing.
He suffered from hip dysplasia, which slowly took away his ability walk. It was heartbreaking to watch him struggle just to stand up and for him not knowing why he had such difficulty.
As it continued to grow worse, it also meant our time together grew much shorter. But, despite having that thought creeping around the back of my mind, I had no idea that day was the day we said goodbye.
Before leaving for work, I let out the chickens as always. 16 very noisy and dumb-as-posts Guinea hens that only my mother liked because they ate ticks.
As I closed the gate behind me and moseyed up to my car, I saw Franklin stumbling over to me, his tail gently wagging behind him. “Oh, you’re feeling better today!” I remember saying to him as I happily ruffled the fur on his head, using the proof of him standing and walking to fuel my denial that he wasn’t really sick.
And then, just like that, I jumped in my car and drove off to work. Not knowing that would be the last time I’d ever see him.
Franklin was a beautiful blue merle collie. His right eye was blue, his left brown, and he could smile on command. He was also my best friend. Simply put, that dog kept me going when I wanted to give up.
High school sucks for everyone, right?
Franklin was an extremely sensitive dog and picked up on everything, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. He knew when he needed to lay his head against my lap and when I needed to be left alone. Sure, he wasn’t the brightest (heck, he always ran through the screen door,) but he was the sweetest. And, to me, he was perfect.
The fact that Franklin was able to stand and walk a little that day was nothing short of a miracle. He did it for me. Maybe he knew his time was up. Or, maybe, he just tried to do what he always did back when he was healthy. I’ll never know for sure, but one scenario hurts less than the other.
It still hurts to this day knowing that I’ll never see him again except in photos. Even writing this, a 12 full years later, I had to stop to compose myself and wipe away some tears.
So why do I still mourn for him even though he was just a dog? Out of all the losses I endured over my 30-years on this earth, losing Franklin tears me up the most. Why?
According to Quartz Media, this is extremely common among pet owners.
As it turns out, many humans feel the loss of a pet just as powerfully, if not more, than the loss of a human friend or family member.
Evolution & Human Behavior confirms that humans form extremely strong bonds with their pets. We treat them as a source of comfort and security. Psychologists even goes as far as theorizing that humans come to view their pets as their own children.
So, when our dog, cat, bird, etc. eventually leaves us, we experience their loss as if we lost a human friend or child.
But, unlike the death of a human, we don’t hold memorial services or write obituaries in the newspaper. Maybe a post on social media, but we never make a grand gesture about it. Instead, we contain our grieving within the four walls of our homes.
It’s because we feel shame or guilt for feeling so strongly about the loss of a pet. Because “it’s just a dog/cat/horse.” Right?
Maybe we should stop thinking that way and allow us to publicly grieve instead of holding it in. Here’s why.
Everyone knows the phrase: “dog is man’s best friend.” Humans physically relax when looking at cute pictures of puppies or dog videos. Same goes for cats, birds, rodents, etc.
But, since I’m using this article to speak as a person who lost her dog, I want to switch the conversation over to solely canines.
I mean, I could also speak as a cat owner, but, honestly… cats are jerks. Phoebe, who’s still alive and kicking (my butt,) basically converted me from a cat lover to a dog lover. Yet I still love her anyway.
Stockholm syndrome much?
Anyways… it’ll be easier for me to generalize about one type of animal. But, please, don’t let that stop you from relating what I say to your dearly departed fish/lizard/cow since that special kind of pet instills that same emotional response no matter what its species and size was.
So, to understand how dogs managed to become such important family figures, let’s go back to how they operate.
Dogs develop an unconditional love for their family, which they view as their “pack.” Why do you think dogs, descended from WOLVES, allow us to train them?
It’s because they want to please us. MRI scans of dogs proved that their brains react the same way to praise as they do to delicious food!
Dogs will even go as far as adopting the same grudges their owner has against certain people.
A dog’s desire to make its owner happy also makes it the perfect animal to undergo therapy training. That’s why we see seeing-eye and emotional support dogs everywhere.
But, how does the human view their canine friend? Well, it’s no secret a dog will eventually worm his or her way into their owner’s heart. As years filled with playing fetch and long runs go by, the human owner may stop seeing their dog simply as a dog.
I will never forget one time when my mom needed something from me and called me “Preston.” Yes, Preston was the collie who eventually replaced Franklin in 2008. Preston was an abnormally large sable collie and dumb as a deflated monster truck wheel. But, we loved him anyway.
So, imagine my surprise when researchers came up with a precise name for that phenomenon of addressing me as the family dog. So, if you ever accidentally did that, congrats, it means you really love and adore your pet.
Scientists call this phenomenon “misnaming.” It means you elevated the position of your pet to that of a human family member in your brain.
Imagine that, in your brain, all the people you love and care about share a public swimming pool. You fill the pool with the memories, feelings, and attachments that you have with each person who obtained a special pass to that pool. So, when you wish to speak to a certain person, you pull from all those experiences.
Then, you adopt Fido. Before you know it, Fido rushes into that public pool room in your brain and takes a diving leap.
Your brain basically says, “Wow, you love Fido a lot. I think you love him as much as you love these people! I’m gonna give him an access pass, too!”
Duke psychology and neuroscience professor David Rubin explains:
“It’s a cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group. It’s not just random.”
So, when my mom called me “Preston,” did that mean she loved me as much as our hulking dumb-as-rocks collie?
In some ways, yes.
To her, he was her baby. Heck, my parents would even shovel a path for him in the 5 feet of wet and heavy snow just so he could easily go outside to do his business.
That’s love right there.
For 10 wonderful years, Preston entertained my parents. He’d “warn” them when a suspicious branch would tremble in the wind or try to crawl on their laps because he thought he was as small as a chihuahua. But, he always greeted them whenever they came home as though he was the sole welcoming party for the royal family.
So, when Preston eventually passed away at the ripe old age of 13, the house became eerily empty. It was as though it lost its pallor and became just a bit more grey and gloomy.
Which brings us to the stages of grief.
So, when my grandmother died in 2004, we kept seeing “signs” from her. Like quarters randomly appearing in hallways and beds or hearing her voice on the screened porch. (True story, I came home from school and distinctly heard her say “How are you?” Twice. So, imagine my surprise when I came up the stairs so I could see into the screen porch and found it completely empty. Even stranger, only my dad was home and his voice isn’t exactly what you’d call effeminate.)
So, along with Franklin, we had another collie named Teddy. Teddy was a gorgeous mahogany sable collie, sharp as at tack, could open Tupperware, and also took it upon himself to be the sole protector of our family. Out of all the collies we had, Teddy was the one who’d make Albert Payson Terhune give two thumbs up in approval.
He also formed a tight bond with my older sister and was, by all means, her dog.
He passed away about three months after Franklin; at the impressive age of 15. About a year later, my parents received a frantic call from my sister while she was studying for her first Law School finals.
When she pulled away from her desk after studying her brains out, she swore she saw Teddy curled up by her feet. It’s the place where he always liked to hang out with her.
Through her crying, she reasoned that he paid her a special visit to comfort her and wish her luck during her new exciting chapter in life. We all believed it, too.
So, why do we interpret signs from the deceased: both human and animal? PsychCentral says it’s our brain searching out for their unconditional assurance and love. Simply put, we become extremely lonely after the death of a pet.
Same as how we search out for the human family member that we miss so much. We want to believe they’re still here and looking after us.
So, that’s why when you lose a pet, allow yourself to grieve and grieve fully. No one will judge you, really, because everyone will be able to empathize.
Sure, you may know what you lost was an animal, but your brain very much saw it as a human family member. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself the patience to completely heal.