By Sarah Bernardi, Veterinary Social Worker, RSW MSW
I will never forget the day my parents and I went to the local Humane Society to pick out our first family pet. As we walked through the facility, dogs barked excitedly, wagging their tails in anticipation. The one that caught my eye, however, sat nervously at the back of her cage—this is the dog we would end up bringing home.
The dog we chose was a year old mixed-breed and full of energy. Her full name was Sparkly-Diamond (I was five and was going through a big princess phase) who we affectionately called ‘Sparka.’ It did not take long for Sparka to become an integral part of our immediate and even extended family. Sparka had many memorable traits, some of which included zooming around the living room when she was excited; escaping the house to see her boyfriend next-door – a wiener dog named Mr. Bean; and sheepishly sitting close to and licking the face of anyone who was upset or crying. She loved to be the centre of attention. Many times, my family and I tried to play a board game on the floor, only for Sparka to knock over the pieces in protest as she was not being included.
Sparka was very spoiled, especially by our grandparents. When Sparka stayed with them, she ate boiled chicken and leftovers and took afternoon naps with my grandpa. At one point, I remember telling my mom that she didn’t even look like a dog anymore – she just looked like another family member. The stories about Sparka are endless, and we were very fortunate to enjoy 17 years with her.
Even though 17 years is a long life for any dog, it still didn’t feel long enough. Just as I well remember all the wonderful memories shared with her, I also remember the day we knew we had to say goodbye.
I remember it well because it was my 21st birthday. We noticed she wasn’t acting like herself; we had family over and normally, Sparka would be in the living room going from person to person waiting for a neck rub. Instead, she sat in the basement. She was lethargic and her breathing seemed laboured. That night, my parents slept on the living room floor next to her and in the morning, they made an appointment to see the veterinarian. I was at work when my mom called to tell me they decided on humane euthanasia for Sparka. I left work early and we spent the day doing everything she loved, like sitting on my parents’ bed and eating a small bowl of whipped cream.
The euthanasia experience was painful, to say the least. My immediate family, including myself, my mom, dad and brother were in the room with her when she died. To this day, I have never seen my family collectively cry so hard.
When we came home, we sat together, cried and looked at pictures. I had plans to go away that weekend, which I quickly cancelled—it didn’t feel right to do anything but remember Sparka. This was the first time I had ever lost a pet and I found that grief very difficult to navigate. How could something so consistent and loving in your life just be taken away like that? Why did it feel different than losing a person? It almost felt worse.
“To anyone who has or is currently journeying through the loss of your pet, my message is this: please know that your grief is valid.”
Sometimes life has a funny way of taking us full circle. Today, I am very fortunate to be a veterinary social worker at OVC. My work has opened my eyes greatly and has offered a new perspective on pet loss. Part of my role as a clinical counsellor includes providing support to clients at OVC whose pets are sick or who have died. I am incredibly thankful that so many pet owners have been courageous enough to share their pets’ stories with me and their intense grief.
To anyone who has or is currently journeying through the loss of your pet, my message is this: please know that your grief is valid. People don’t always understand why we mourn so deeply for our furry family members, but that is only because they don’t understand the special relationship we have with them. Remember to take your time, take care of yourself and acknowledge your feelings—and reach out to a mental health professional if you need extra support.
I often reflect on my family’s experience losing Sparka. Sparka had such a unique personality, and she spent so many transitional years by my family’s side—always there, always endlessly loving. I recognize that the loss of a pet is a different type of grief from the loss of a human. I still have a good cry for Sparka every so often, because I miss her dearly, but I can function with that grief now. I can share memories and laugh without intense sadness.
Now, more than ever, I know that a pet is never “just a pet.” They are members of the family who provide us with unconditional love and kindness. I have Sparkly-Diamond to thank for that!
Read more in Best Friends Magazine.