After Goodbye

Coping With The Loss of Your Briard

by Greg Kuehn

It’s only a moment. But that moment lingers in your heart the remainder of your life. The veterinarian kneels beside your terminally ill Briard, syringe in hand, silently looking up at you. You tell your Briard goodbye. You nod your head to the veterinarian, giving your tacit consent to euthenize a loyal, noble spirit who can’t possibly be characterized merely as your “pet.” Your Briard’s suffering ends. Your suffering, however, has just begun.

Suffering is a very personal experience. No two people grieve the same way, and every individual may vary considerably from circumstance to circumstance in how he or she deals with death. Just as your beloved Briard is different and special, so is your relationship with this extraordinary creature. So too will be your way of coping with the inevitable loss of your Briard. It may not be easy to regain your perspective. Perhaps your perspective will be changed forever.

On the day your Briard passes away, whatever the particular circumstances, one thing is certain-it will be difficult for you. Perhaps your Briard will pass away when he or she is very old. Losing a dog who has been your constant companion for many years is a major change in your life and will require quite an adjustment. However, knowing that you helped your Briard have a long, full life with many pleasant experiences is enormous consolation.

Perhaps your Briard will leave you while he or she is still young. Losing a young Briard can be particularly difficult because the sorrow of loss is compounded by the torment of searching and re-searching what could have been done to prevent that particular situation.

Our society readily acknowledges personal suffering when one loses a human relation or friend. But when one loses an animal friend, that acknowledgement isn’t always so forthcoming. Your family and friends might take the time to listen, but they may not be able to understand the significance your Briard held in your life–or the extent of your grief

The Briard community can and many times does help. Witness the outpouring of sympathy on the Briard-L when the death of a Briard is announced. One Briard owner, just recently having lost her long-time friend, told me, “the Briard people are fantastic in the support they show towards others going through this difficult time–sending cards, e-mails, phone calls, and expressing their kindness. I have never seen people in any other breed so supportive. Maybe it’s because the breed isn’t overly popular and we are all closer to one another in that sense. Whatever the reason, I’m proud of Briarders.”

Others may help, but as you well know, you will bear the brunt of the difficult adjustment. That may not be a straightforward process. You may have, as Dr. Kubler Ross and other researchers in the psychology of grief have discovered, a very natural tendency towards denial. In fact, the extent of your grief may vary well take you by surprise. When you do finally react to the situation, crankiness and sleeplessness may set in. Making your everyday decisions may become very difficult; concentrating on something for even five minutes may become, temporarily at least, almost impossible. Ironically, these symptoms of grief, which you could easily perceive in someone else, you may not recognize in yourself.

Resolving grief is an enormous step forward. Once you’ve taken that step, you will have much to offer those who have not yet had to deal with death. If you own a Briard, more than likely you have other pets as well. And you can be sure that they will feel the effects of your Briard’s passing, especially if one or more of the surviving animals is also a Briard. Surviving Briards face the double challenge of dealing with their grieving owners’ instability as well as their own perceptions of loss. The sooner you make your readjustment, the better for your remaining pets.

A way many people face their grief and simultaneously manage to re-establish equilibrium is to create some form of memorial to their lost Briard. Photographs, video and audio tape recordings, locks of fur, toys, mementos, and souvenirs can help you recall your precious memories. Scattering the ashes of your Briard at one of his or her favorite places is a fitting tribute. But your memorial may take many other forms.

You might make a donation in memory of your pet to a special cause. You may volunteer your time at a humane organization and/or help find homes for strays and unwanted pets. Certainly applying what you learned from your Briard to help another creature is a beautiful memorial.

You need to remember that grief is a process. It takes as long as it takes. Perhaps you may never completely “get over” the loss. But gradually, eventually, you’ll resume your regular habits. You’ll establish new relationships with pets. You may still feel sadness and cry, but you’ll also simultaneously experience happiness. Slowly, your emphasis will be on remembering the good times you enjoyed with your Briard. The loss of your “heart wrapped in fur” will be one of the saddest moments in your life. But surviving the experience and making something positive come from it can be a marvelous triumph.

With the hope you can profit from my experiences, I offer very briefly my story of loss. I lost my first Briard, Elsa, to an aggressive mast cell tumor. Elsa was only four years old, and her death categorically broke my heart. Two years later, I lost my second Briard, Penny, to another form of cancer. Losing Penny changed my life forever-for the better. Penny loved life over 12 years. As long as I knew her she did everything with enthusiasm. Even as the tumor in her mouth passed into her brain, she would still eagerly go with me to a nearby football field after I got off work, and trot around (and later stagger around) in the grass. As her life drew to a close, she developed a habit on these little trips that impressed me. At dusk Penny would lie down in the grass facing the warm sun, open her mouth and breath in deeply, contentedly. And that’s how we always ended our “field trips”–she would stare happily at the setting sun until I packed her into the car to take her home. She seemed determined to enjoy her time on
this earth, her circumstances notwithstanding.

Shortly before she died, I received an offer to join a band, a band that travels around the world. I always wanted to tour with a band, but I never liked flying. Strapping myself inside a guided missile filled with explosive seemed like a stupid, unnecessarily risky way to travel.

Nevertheless, five weeks after Penny died I flew with the band to Portland, Oregon, then a few days later to Las Vegas, Nevada (to play at Caesar’s!). I continue to this day to fly with the band wherever and whenever. I’m having the best time of my life. As a tribute to Penny, I’m determined to enjoy my time on this earth, circumstances (like occasional airplane crashes) notwithstanding.

Another Briard owner once told me that you learn about life from your pets. Apparently so. On my road trips, in my window seat on the plane, I look out at the clouds and the sun reflecting off the wing, take a deep, happy breath, and marvel at the wisdom of Penny.