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Our pandemic puppy died suddenly. Here's how we (and our kids) learned to grieve

When a young pet dies without warning, a lot of questions and emotions bubble to the surface.
Our dog's swift death sent shockwaves through our family.
Our dog's swift death sent shockwaves through our family.Drew Weisholtz
/ Source: TODAY

It’s appropriate I was on a baseball field when I got the call because it came out of left field.

“I think Wags just died,” my wife said.

I immediately left my younger son’s baseball practice and raced home where our dog Wags lay motionless on our couch after my wife had moved him there following a brief seizure in our yard.

Wags was a trooper after he had to wear a cone following each of his surgeries.Drew Weisholtz

Our 14-month-old Terrier mix, whom we had rescued only 11 months earlier, had died without any warning. One minute, Wags — so named because his tail oscillated back and forth with unadulterated joy and fervor — was on the front lawn with my wife, our older son and his friends. He was enjoying the spring sunshine and getting belly rubs from the kids when he had a seizure in front of our neighbors who were walking by our house. The next minute, he was inexplicably gone, quicker than a passing spring rainstorm.

Wags shown here in a a moment of relaxation that we can only guess may have been full of pain.Drew Weisholtz

Wags was our pandemic puppy. We joined the legion of people adopting pets during quarantine, a strategic move since we already have two other elderly dogs and thought a puppy would be good to soften the blow for our sons, then aged 7 and 10, when the older animals start showing their age.

“This will be the dog of their youth,” I once told my wife.

For a while, things went as planned: He was full of love and pep and our oldest dog lost weight by playing with him.

About three months after we got Wags, though, he stopped running around in our backyard and began howling in agony, even when no one was around him. Advised by specialists that his knees were the source of his troubles, we elected to have him undergo a pair of surgeries on each knee to help him walk without pain, but the howling continued and a neurologist suggested a costly MRI, which he cautioned might not pinpoint the problem. Money had become an issue and we worked with a veterinarian to mitigate his pain, using a cocktail of medications that seemed to have had a positive impact. We knew he was ill but had no idea just how sick he was.

As a young puppy, Wags had darker hair and had yet to display any symptoms that would later cause concern.Drew Weisholtz

“Those sudden losses are very traumatic,” Susan Anschuetz, a Denver-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in pet loss, told me. "And there's a common denominator of feeling helpless. And it makes the grieving initially very difficult because you just can't believe it happened.”

My wife and I hope Wags knows how much we loved him. We feel awful knowing he didn’t have the life he could’ve had. He was a good boy; his days revolved around lunchtime feedings — that tail starting its inevitable back-and-forth shortly before noon each day as we laid out his bowl of food since we were working from home. It’s part of the multistep process of coping with the death of a young pet.

Mourning

Wags was always a little nervous when he would go to the veterinarian.Drew Weisholtz

“I would definitely encourage your whole family to process together and maybe memorialize together, talk about the loss and what it was like for each of them, if they're willing or wanting to talk about it,” Anschuetz advised. “Because sharing that loss is probably the most important coping strategy there is.”

Anschuetz also recommends making a photo album or a board with pictures and creating a personal memorial site.

That’s worked for us. We have spoken with our children about Wags about how we will remember him. Our younger son drew a picture of him, and we keep Wags' ashes in our house.

A picture our younger son, then 7, made after Wags died.Drew Weisholtz

Kids

Anschuetz said it’s important to respect children’s boundaries.

Wags sported a scar after one of his surgeries.Drew Weisholtz

“Avoid prejudging what your kids are feeling because they may not feel anything like you do,” she said.

“And sometimes they surprise us. So try to be sure to elicit from them what they're feeling and what they need — and what's bothering them the most.”

Anschuetz says it’s vital to be on the lookout when the sorrow doesn’t end.

“I think the sign of grief that's problematic is when it stays intense and unchanging for months and months and years. And that that is a sign of someone's feeling being kind of stuck in the initial parts of loss,” she said.

Guilt

Wags’ death has weighed heavily on us in no small part because we tried to take care of him. But, to some degree, we feel like we failed. There’s a sense of guilt that Anschuetz says is normal.

“And because our animals are so dependent on us, we feel completely responsible for everything that happens,” she said.

Children can be vulnerable to feelings of guilt as well.

“You just want to make sure to not miss anything that they might be feeling,” Anschuetz said.

A new pet

As a family, we’ve already discussed getting another dog. But we want to make sure we do it right: This new dog shouldn’t be a replacement, an animal we constantly compare to Wags or lives in his shadow.

We want a dog we love simply for being ours and being part of our family. Is there a blueprint for getting another pet?

“There is not, but I'll tell you that, in general, I would say most times, people are going to want to have another pet after they've grieved for the one they lost,” Anschuetz said. “And that means you've come to a place where you accept the loss.”

Let it happen

You can’t force someone to get over the sudden loss of a pet. As a result, you can’t move on to getting a new one. Everything has to organically flow and people should embrace that.

“They let themselves grieve first and then they begin to think about another pet. It comes about quite naturally,” Anschuetz said.

“It’s very important that we respect the process and allow it and not fight it. We need to let ourselves grieve,” she added.

It’s been nearly two months since Wags died. Life has resumed its normal cadence for us, but we still think about him. We talk about him sometimes when we put our kids to bed. I sometimes smile in sadness when thinking about him while I brush my teeth; like his howling, there’s no pattern as to when he crosses my mind.

We all miss him. But we’re also anxious to get another pet. And, in some ways, I’d like to think that his horrible fate will have created the timing for us to get the puppy that will bring us years of many wonderful memories as the dog of our kids’ youth.