For Grief Counseling, Look No Further Than Your Dog

Updated: January 20, 2021
Published: November 26, 2015
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Earlier this week I was asked, “What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned from your dogs?” I said the first thing that came to mind, but the real answer came to me much later, long after the conversation had ended.

With Thanksgiving upon us, I have to admit there was a big part of me that wanted to just skip the week entirely. There has not been a single Thanksgiving in my life that I haven’t spent with my mother, and for this first one I just kind of wanted to stick my head in the sand and try to get past it.

It’s a perfectly valid response, according to the grief counselors out there. No need to force yourself into merriment when you are working through some big time sadness. In my family, we each have one big holiday that we host, and Thanksgiving has been mine since I got married 14 years ago. However, we had lots of invitations from other people and I could easily take this year off.

I went into my guest room to ponder what I wanted to do, the room where my mother died in June, a room still filled with things of hers I couldn’t quite go through yet. I picked up a photo of her, suddenly struck once more by her beauty, a flood of emotions surging up once more.

I was about to stuff the picture back into a drawer and run away, but before I could do that Brody came into the room. He plopped next to me on the floor—the very same spot where he slept by my mother’s side for two months—and put his head on my lap, essentially holding me in place. So I stayed and remained with the picture, letting the emotions continue their course, while he nudged my hand onto his head for pats every few seconds.

Thus pinned to the ground and forced to work my way through my thoughts, I decided that skipping this holiday was actually a bad idea for me. I would essentially be taking this longstanding family holiday tradition and making the entire focus on loss, which is of course the last thing my mom would have wanted. Although it would be sad to confront the day head on, I decided, as Brody gave me encouragement, that this was what I needed to do.

I emerged from the guest room ready to go. Not only did we move forward as planned, we invited an extra five people. Moving through, over, and past bumps, but not around them. Never around.

So I guess what I would have said, had I thought about it more beforehand, was this very important lesson that I never learned in veterinary school: Dogs truly teach us to be in the moment; not to run away from sad things but to run toward them. Because every moment is precious, even the crummy ones that make us better appreciate the lovely ones, and they deserve to be lived.

It’s a heck of a lesson. And I am so, so thankful this year to have learned it.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang