Some time ago, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life: to say a final goodbye to my beloved dog, Smokey, and help him mercifully to the other side.

His health had slowly declined, and his final two years were challenging to him and to myself. As certain as I was of how to best meet his needs, the grief and loss still shook me to my core. Here’s how I got through that painful journey and found healing.

More Than a Pet
Smokey and I enjoyed more than a decade of walks, cuddles, fetch, and fun before his health began to deteriorate. I adopted him from a local rescue when he was young, lively and whole. He wasn’t quite a pup, but he didn’t know much about life, so things like where to go potty and how to walk on a leash are skills we worked out together. We bonded quickly, and he became an important part of my life. In fact, I would describe him as family.

However, although Smokey was “just” a dog, the loss was a very real wound that needed healing. I came to realize firsthand how deep that loss can be, how complex the stages of grief can be, and that sometimes we need help in navigating that painful emotional journey.

The grief accompanying my loss devastated me far more than I ever expected. I needed a couple of days off work and struggled with crying sessions off and on for weeks. To complicate things, I didn’t feel like I could talk with non-pet owners about it – and even some pet owners – because my bereavement wasn’t for a human.

For 12 weeks, the program walked me through a process of coming to peace with my loss and finding comfort in weaker moments. It’s a program open to anyone, regardless of whether the loss is a pet, relative, or friend.

Sorting Through Smokey’s Things
It took me a while before I felt up to looking through Smokey’s personal items. When I did manage the task, sorting his belongings was painful. I set aside some things especially dear to me that held good feelings – his collar, tags, photos, and such – and I pulled some other things that still had life in them to donate to the local shelter.

I wasn’t ready for a new dog, but in time, I wanted another furry friend to come home to and share in my adventures. Until then, I figured it proud Smokey’s memory for other dogs in need to use those things.

Creating a Fitting Memorial
Smokey had a favorite spot in the backyard he would lounge under when we were outdoors. It was his bird-watching spot, and it was the usual place he would retire to between rounds of fetch or when he tired of entertaining friends during barbecues. With that in mind, I to put a memorial garden in that location. Having a place to visit and think about Smokey seemed perfect.

The veterinarian’s office created a paw print plaque I incorporated into the garden’s design. If your veterinarian doesn’t do this, it’s a project you can do youself, or there are versions you can have professionally made to your specifications. I added a small birdbath with his bird watching in mind.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Smokey, and he taught me many important lessons about love and loss. I recently visited the shelter again, because one of the things I learned is that life is short, and sharing it is a blessing. I brought home a new pup, whom I’m calling Dugger. Every day, Dugger and I spend time in the backyard watching the birds, enjoying the fresh air, and savoring the special companionship reserved for dogs and their people. I know Smokey would be very pleased.

SEE ALSO: Emotional stories from a pet cremator owner: A dog’s tears for their fallen friend and more