Grieving for a pet

My family role is a proud wife, mum to two teenagers and two Cairn terriers. Working for a hospice I understand life and these times are so precious. In October 2018 our family changed forever when our naughty and loving Cairn Maggie died. It has hurt so much. This character who was a huge part of our daily lives, who raced to be first, enthusiastically greeted you every time you saw her, who sat under you while you cooked or ate; a habit which caused her to be put on a diet (that and she could high-five for a treat!) She was so used to being on diets when we dragged her into the vets she would simply go and stand and shake on the scales. We loved her to bits.

Maggie came into our family when our children were five and three. Maggie tolerated being dressed in school uniform to be the ‘furry new girl’ at school, Toto to my daughter’s Dorothy at World Book Day … to having her bottom and a moustache painted red and yellow when I was distracted for a minute! We were sad with her when her only puppy (prematurely born) died. For 11 years, Maggie always stayed close, swiped you for more fuss, sat on the newspaper or I-Pad for attention, and became special to each one of us. Cookie (our older calmer Cairn!) would reprimand her for barking and her cheek, both dogs bringing so much happiness to our home. I naively assumed that despite always taunting much bigger dogs on walks she would live to her life expectancy. Maggie was made of hardy stuff but sadly her kidneys weren’t. To avoid stressing her further our understanding vet came to our home where, held by my husband and I, she slipped gently away. Maggie had a good death. She smelt of my neighbour’s perfume who had been sitting with her the day before. Maggie was and is so loved.

Maggie’s loss was so painful that we could only cope with thinking that it was real for a few seconds at a time. I remember 48 hours of not seeing her felt like an eternity, and desperately didn’t want time moving away from when we had last seen her. My husband – a huge fan of Facebook – shared photos of Maggie every dog walk and on Cairn Terrier addicts. At first I was horrified I didn’t like inviting strangers so publicly into our pain, and would we be judged? Would we sound mad? Working for a hospice, did my and our loss seem out of proportion? I didn’t have the energy to rationalise or justify my pain. I sobbed, at home and in the office. But actually the kind words and genuine empathy of family, friends and colleagues helped. I distanced myself from people who didn’t get it. Suprisingly Facebook helped: people shared the concept of the Rainbow Bridge which I take great comfort in; the idea that for a dog to leave you is the ultimate act of disloyalty so you have to take the decision for them; and advice better a day early than a day too late. Friends and strangers shared so many photos of their beloved dogs and cats that Maggie could play or cause havoc with (I now worry the Rainbow Bridge is no longer a peaceful waiting place!) But in all of this because Maggie is a dog would this make my and our grief less important or valid? I asked my daughter who said it probably should but it doesn’t. I know how I feel about Maggie, the hole, the loss, and still tear up when I think of her. I am slowly working towards being grateful for the 11 years of memories. I was greedy I wanted more.

Whatever your views, loss needs understanding and support. I hope you agree that opportunities to share, celebrate and remember any life that is at the very core of your happiness should be pounced on (Maggie style!).

To me, it’s beautiful that hospices make space for this relationship: pets are very welcome on our Inpatient Unit; it meant the world to our wonderful patient and friend Nicola that her dog Ruben could visit. Offering our Hospice at Home service enables patients to stay at home surrounded by whatever they cherish too.


Our annual Light Up a Life services have been extended to include furry family! And as part of marketing the event, I bravely shared a photo of Maggie on St Mary’s social media: her best grin, sitting at the top of the hill above the hospice, to help show we genuinely meant it. At these services you can dedicate a star to loved ones, so why not our pets too? Encouraging sharing what our pets means is key to empathy and acknowledging the role we were lucky that they played in our lives.