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Here’s to the Heartache

Managing the grief when it's time for a Molosser to say goodbye
My eyes opened softly as I glared at the clock. It was 1:27 a.m.
The sound of Ben’s breathing was different than usual. I knew every familiar sound of dogs at the sanctuary, and this sounded like he was in distress. I got up from bed and walked over to him.
Something was not right. Ben was struggling to lift his massive Dogue body, and his back legs were not collaborating. His gums were white as snow, telling me there was no more blood circulating and that this was an emergency. I had just woken up to my worst nightmare.
Ben was dying.
We were 50 minutes from the nearest animal hospital, and even if I tried, I could never get him in the truck and there in time. I knew what was soon to come, as his condition was worsening by the minute.
Moments later, my 187-pound Molosser collapsed to the floor. At 1:57 a.m., Ben took his last breath in my arms as I kissed him gently. The last thing he heard was the sound of my voice, whispering over and over, “Mama loves you so much.”
It was a perfect moment: Peacefully at home in my arms, I felt Ben leave me. He had allowed me to be there with him so I could say goodbye. That was his gift to me.
As I glanced over at his lifeless massive body, I thought to myself: He just looks like he is having a nap. I covered his body gently with a blanket, leaving his head exposed as to selfishly enjoy the last moments I could look at his beautiful face. I kissed him gently over and over and talked about the other dogs he needed to go find in doggie heaven, carefully naming them all one by one. I wanted the moment to never end, but I knew it had to.
The author with her precious "Ben."
I always refer to myself as “Mama” when speaking to Ben and to many of my dogs. This may sound ridiculous, but it validates verbally how much dogs are like children to me and to so many other dog owners out there. Molossers are sensitive beings, and the connection with we humans is palpable. In every sense, a Molosser is connected to you and you to him. The loss of such a devoted loyal companion may leave you completely lost and heartbroken.
Hours later, it begins: the sensation that your heart is encased in a cement block, that your throat is in a vice, that your stomach has been tied in the most intricate nautical knot and that your lungs are being crushed by an elephant. For days, it seems you can’t take a full breath, and hunger has left your body as an essential need to survive. Sleep has become the enemy by fear of waking up to the thoughts your brain replays over and over of those last minutes. Images creep in your mind as you wonder if they will ever leave you. Your whole body feels like you are dragging the Titanic’s anchor behind you.
The loss of Ben brought with it an immediate breach of my stability, the loss of a true friendship and even a loss of security in some sense. The process of grieving had now begun.
Pets are considered extended family members. We consider them children, partners and best friends.  The way life is today, with changing family structures, there are increasing numbers of people who live alone and choose to remain childless. As a result, companion animals have taken a larger role in our everyday lives. Losing a beloved companion, one that shared your life, can be devastating. Grief is a natural response to loss.
The dictionary defines grief as “the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone the individual loves is taken away.” So love is at fault here. Does the pain of loss stem from love? And do dogs feel love as we do?
Mounting evidence from many different animals clearly indicates that we humans are not the only ones to grieve the loss of loved ones. Scientists observing animals in their natural habitat have been privileged to witness such clear evidence of mourning. Dolphin mothers off the coast of Greece and California have been seen carrying their dead calves’ lifeless bodies on their dorsal fins for days.
Of course, many animal behaviorists have shied away from attributing human emotions, like grieving, to animals. But growing evidence indicates that species from dogs to dolphins, from elephants to apes, mourn the passing of relatives and living companions.
Detailed observations of Molossers at our sanctuary after a resident dog dies point to them knowing about death, but is quite different for every dog. Post-death responses are present, and I cannot find any other words to describe it but grief and mourning. The dogs lie in unfamiliar places in the home, go on hunger strikes, seem to pout for days on end, don’t want to go on walks. For days on end, Bruno, another Dogue de Bordeaux, faced the wall where his companion Stella used to sleep.
This reminds me of one of my favorite dog stories. Hachiko was an Akita that lived in Tokyo with his master Ueno. Hachiko would wait daily for his human friend to step off the train that took him to work and back, and they would walk home together. One day, Ueno died suddenly at work. Hachi – the dog’s nickname – maintained a hopeful vigil at the train station for more than nine years, until his own death. Profound loyalty is certainly the legend that was Hachiko, but so may be his grief.
Dogs, in my opinion, feel love as well as grief. Having seen so many dogs react to loss, I can never deny the existence of the feeling of mourning and loss for them as much as for we humans. We have shared human-dog relationships for thousands of years, and many stories have spawned a basket full of fascinating stories, like that of Hachi. There are many stories of dogs crossing busy highways, walking for miles, only to be found at their master’s old house or resting on their grave. Dogs can’t speak a single word, but such behaviors speak more than any conversation you could ever have.
Having a dog sanctuary for sick Molossers for more than a decade now, my days are filled with joys and tears. Many dogs come to make the sanctuary their last place of solace before they die. Death is often a part of my journey at the sanctuary, and I must grieve every dog once they pass. I associate this feeling with the sense of detachment that comes with death.
Duchess the Bullmastiff came to us with stomach cancer. She had been abandoned at the local humane society by her owner, who could not handle her deteriorating condition. This is when we fulfill our role as a true sanctuary, a place she would call her last forever home. Duchess lived 14 days. In that short time, I fell in love, I cared for her, and I watched her die all at the same time, as any owner would with a beloved pet.
Grieving is not measured by how long you had your dog, but only how much the relationship was meaningful to both parties. I grieved Duchess as if I had had her for 14 years instead of 14 days. Some dogs desire your presence when it’s time to go, and others prefer to wait your departure. I always wondered if they know what’s best for us – their way of giving us only as much as we are capable of dealing with.
I admire the bond and connection we share with our dogs. But when they die, we become very emotional, and these emotions can make us very sensitive. We may cry at a simple thought or memory of our dog. A picture may send you into a rush of emotions that resurface painfully while you mask your grief with an innocent smile as to gracefully hide the pain. Some dog owners experience such pain and hurt after their dog dies that they block everything out, including family and friends.
From discussing the subject with fellow dog owners, it seems that having another pet may help the grieving process, as the companionship is unconditional. We may feel some type of interconnection as to associate the sharing of grief with a dog and to find comfort in their presence. You can feel alone and lost for days, even months. It seems almost comforting to live through grief alone sometimes, as if nobody can understand your pain anyway. I must admit, I myself have often felt like no human in this world can even share the amount of empathy required to begin the healing process. There are a hundred arms to hold you, but you just don’t feel like reaching for any hands. A dog paw always felt like a better alternative. It always seemed to me that hugging another dog and telling him how sad I feel, snuggling my face into him as tears leave my eyes, healed my heart more efficiently than any human ever could.
Until we meet again ...
A mistake would be to make important life decision during this time. Some people rush to find a new dog, as if to replace the pain with love. But a state of mind filled with sorrow can’t be much of a productive one. You may be pushed by an impulse to fill the void. Losing a pet leaves quite a hole in your home as much as in your heart. Think about waiting before making any major life decisions. You may feel differently as your feelings of grief lose their intensity, and the changes may add to the stress you’re already experiencing.
There is no textbook recipe to follow when grieving. There is no right way or wrong way.  Feel the emotions, talk about them, cry the tears, scream the anger, but most important, surround yourself with support and with people who care and share your compassion about animals and the special role pets play in our lives. Grief is an authentic, true, almost palpable feeling. Your remarkable true story of you and your pet has just ended, and you may be consumed with emotions or feeling a little lost and alone – especially those who lived alone with their pet.
Over the years, I often wondered if dogs know they are going to die. Although the true nature of that question is a spiritual one, my younger, logical brain once convinced me there was no way an animal or human could know. Then, over the course of many years, dogs sometimes passed away at the sanctuary in a natural way, without the assistance of euthanasia. Every time, they exhibited an unusual behavior that struck me, and I started questioning the connection. At first I thought it was nonsense that I was even considering this, but unmistakably, over and over, it happened: The day before a dog would die, there was always a “moment” in which the dog would do something out of the ordinary. A short-lived moment of pure bliss and perfect happiness, a sudden eruption of energy would take over their body, and in an outburst of excessive joy, the dogs would start running or playing as if they were puppies or goofy teenagers again.
I grew to believe after seeing this happen every time, even if for only seconds, that it was no coincidence. My only conclusion is that maybe death is not the end.  Now, it’s easy for me to recognize these “moments,” and every time I do, my heart fills with a feeling of contentment, love and peace.
Ben on the run.
The evening before Ben passed away in my arms, we went for our last walk before bedtime. His massive body riddled with arthritis, Ben had not run in more than two years. Pain management could only do so much. Our walks consisted of a slow-paced 10-minute stroll on our wooded trail. It was always the same routine, like snails walking in a parade.
Then, suddenly, Ben glanced over at me, made eye contact and became the young, energetic, playful Dogue de Bordeaux I had known years ago. He pranced and hopped like a young buck, and ran down the small hill heading to our house like he was winning the 200-meter race at the Olympics. He was smiling when I got to the house. Bruno, my other longtime resident Dogue de Bordeaux, followed suit with a confused look.
I shouted at this unexpected event: “Ben! You are running, mon amour!” My heart was content, because I knew this behavior well: My baby boy was saying goodbye. I smiled back and hugged him, trying to wrap my arms around my big boy. As I kissed his head, I made peace with what was about to come. It was the only thing I could do.
The path you choose to take in your process of grieving is yours alone. Walking those footsteps and realizing that your life will never be the same is a bittersweet victory. Make a new beginning once your heart has healed just enough to consider squeezing enough room for the love of another best friend. And if it’s a Molosser, better be ready for the adventure.

About the Author

France Turcotte founded Valley Mastiff Rescue in 2008. Surrounded by dogs from early childhood, her first job was in a boarding kennel, which is where she saw her first Mastiffs, and fell in love with the breed. Her Quebec-based sanctuary welcomes Dogues de Bordeaux, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Bullmastiffs, Mastiffs and Bulldogs, and will also help related Mastiff breeds in need. Certified in canine nutrition, Turcotte’s other interests include natural and alternatives medicines, herbalism, the healing power of food and canine behavior.
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