When There’s No Chance to Say Goodbye By William H. Grignon

Given our respective life expectancies, most of us assume that we will outlive our guide dogs, but most of us also assume that we will lose them after they retire and pass after a longish decline. This “natural” process is nonetheless heart-rending as we say goodbye to a good and faithful friend, but it is immeasurably and inexpressibly more traumatic when we do not have that chance to say goodbye and our guide dog passes suddenly from a catastrophic illness or, worse, from an accident, or, worst, from the negligence or criminality of others. Indeed, it is this sudden loss of a family member, for many a child, without time to work through the eventual loss, which tears big bloody chunks of our hearts out of our chests and leaves us gasping for sanity amidst an overwhelming tide of crippling despair.


While the loss of a pet is incredibly sad, the loss of a guide dog can be utterly devastating. A handler and their guide dog share a special bond, an empathetic closeness borne of years of training and shared experiences, a deep trust that allows the person with vision loss to walk confidently through life and gives the guide dog a deep sense of head-high purpose and tail-wagging accomplishment. They are indeed a team: a symbiotic working unit of human and canine that requires the deepest trust and rewards each with the deepest assurances. Not just pet and owner, but service animal and handler – a mutual love that feeds their spirits with an abiding devotion.


And to have this deep and abiding connection severed suddenly, violently, without warning can be the worst of losses – a true hell of separation, emptiness, and excruciating despair. No words can describe it. No platitudes can soothe it. No well-meaning practicalities can explain or expunge the raw sense of loss, loneliness, and abandonment.


So, if you are the friend or a loved one of someone who has lost their guide dog suddenly, the best you can do is let them know that you love them, that you are there for them, and that they can count on you to be there to listen, understand, and support them.


If you are the bereaved handler, please be gentle, kind, and patient with yourself. Eat sensibly, get plenty of rest, and take the time you need to “process” your loss.


Yes, “process” might sound like a cold and clinical word, but it encompasses all the emotional, spiritual, rational, and practical exigencies you may encounter after the loss of your guide dog. It also embraces the most human of activities: talk about your loss with people you love and who love you, stay active and avoid isolating yourself in brooding silence, and, if needed, seek professional help.


A trained therapist, while perhaps not specifically familiar with the handler-guide-dog relationship, will nevertheless be trained in coping with and working through loss and grief. Your guide dog school may have someone who can counsel you or, at least, point you in the direction of someone who has experience working with bereaved guide dog handlers. There are also non-profit organizations that provide community support for individual dog-owners, e.g., The Center for Pet Loss Grief, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, and the Pet Loss Grief Resource page on the Best Friends Animal Society website.


Imperatively, overcome the urge to curl up into a little ball and hide from the world. Surround yourself with loving people who wholeheartedly support you when you describe your loss as like losing a best friend, a family member, or a child. These are the people you can trust, and these are the people who will help you heal from your bleak despair. You must honor your grief, give yourself permission to feel the pain that you are feeling, and take the time you need to heal. You might find yourself somewhere on the spectrum of stages of death-and-dying, but know that there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of time or process that works for any one individual and that you might find yourself experiencing one or more of these stages simultaneously or at different moments throughout the day.


While you are taking time to heal, celebrate the life of your guide dog. Talk about them with your loved ones, write a poem, create a memorial to their life of dedication, love, and service. And remember, it’s not only okay but it’s good and healing to laugh, especially if you are recalling some particularly cute or funny thing your dog was wont to do. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Do the thing that means most to you and do not give into feelings of guilt, especially if it is time to get a new service animal: remember, you are not “replacing” your service dog, your service dog will always be special in their own loving way and, besides, you will one day realize that your service dog, who only wanted the best for you in life, is wanting the best for you after they have passed, just as you would have wanted for them if you were the one to pass first.


Eventually, you may welcome a new guide dog into your heart and home. Please know that this transition may be fraught with jagged and conflicting emotions. Be gentle with yourself and your new dog. Remember that your new dog knows nothing about your loss and sadness and may not understand some of the signals you are giving them. To minimize issues during such a transition, be as sure as you can be that you are ready for a new dog. If you still have doubts, it’s better that you wait and do what is needed to heal as fully as possible before transitioning to a new guide dog.


Even though you might feel like your heart is irreparably broken and that your life is irrevocably ruined, you will, over time and with the help of those who love you, heal this pain and find a peace that gives you the space and time to move forward and, hopefully, find a new furry companion who will feed your spirit, give you independence, and make you laugh.

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