Do Dogs Grieve? | Mary's Farm
Even when Mayday came limping toward her end the fall before last, Harriet gave me a clue to her deep connection to her friend. As Mayday prepared to leave us, I found Harriet beside Mayday’s bed, day after day, as if sitting vigil. Could she know? At last, when we returned from that final visit to the vet’s, Harriet went directly to Mayday’s bed; she not only settled into it, she draped her whole body lengthwise across it. Though she looked uncomfortable, her head hanging over the edge of the bed, she didn’t move for days. I kept rejecting the idea that this could be anything but fatigue or coincidence. Surely in our dogs, we’ve all seen expressions of love, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, happiness, the whole range. Why not grief? That they don’t shed tears doesn’t mean that dogs don’t experience the same depth of emotion after loss that we do.
Mayday and Harriet didn’t start out best buddies. Mayday reacted to the new puppy like an angry python—lashing out, lunging, and snapping at tiny Harriet. In fact, Mayday was so upset that she rejected me as well, deciding to sleep on the couch rather than in her customary place beside me on the bed. If I walked into a room, she’d get up and walk out, ears back, nose ever so slightly raised. This discord continued for at least six months, but Harriet persisted. She wanted a friend. She needed a mother. Where Mayday went, little Harriet followed, whether room to room or field to field.
Gradually, Mayday softened. Once Harriet was grown, they were about the same size—Mayday gray with a cropped tail and ears tall like a donkey’s; Harriet black with brindle face and legs, soft ears folded down, black tail wagging. They walked the land together, nosing the grasses and exploring the edges of the pond. They rolled in play, pretending to fight, snarling fiercely but using blunt teeth. At rest, they shared the top of the couch, a double blind that allowed them to keep watch on the field yet survey activities inside the house as well. They ate peaceably side by side, never straying to the other’s dish. The backseat of the car became another refuge—Mayday vigilant, warding off approaching dogs; Harriet, resting against the back of her seat like a little Buddha, content to let Mayday protect us.
Gradually, Harriet returned to life as she’d never known it, a life without Mayday, who’d been her mother, her sister, her best friend, her teacher, her protector. At first, nothing I did seemed to console her. It’s not that the loss disappears; more that each day brings new experiences. Friend Debbie brought her dogs to play with Harriet, and the distraction seemed to work. Still …
One day, a couple of months after Mayday had passed away, I pulled into the post office. In the car parked next to us, a mini-schnauzer that looked very much like Mayday sat calmly in the passenger seat. Harriet saw the dog at the same time. She leaped up, cried out, and pawed the window. “It’s Mayday! It’s Mayday!” she seemed to be saying. But just as quickly, she realized that it wasn’t Mayday, and she turned from the window, slumped back against the seat, and dropped her head in what looked like true despair, stung by the allure of mistaken identity. She remembers Mayday just as we remember our lost friends. No substitute or lookalike will do. But, even now, when I talk about Mayday to others, Harriet hears that lost name and jumps up, eyes wide with hope, waiting.