A woman who was signed off work for two weeks due to her crippling grief after her beloved Labrador passed away has likened losing her dog to losing a child – and is asking people to be more thoughtful to bereaved pet owners.
Wendy O’Grady, 47, a retail store supervisor from Egham in Surrey instantly fell in love with puppy Zac when her husband Mike, 51, a council worker, brought home the nine-month-old chocolate Labrador for her in 2009, after she had suffered 10 miscarriages.
A surrogate child to the couple who were unable to have children and a source of comfort to both, the pair were grief-stricken when their precious pooch was diagnosed with cancer at nearly 12 years old in July 2021, forcing them to make the heart-breaking decision of putting their beloved pet down.
Wendy, said: “Losing Zac was just like losing a child.
“I can’t even explain the grief. We were inconsolable. After 12 years, to not see him come to the door when I came home was heart-breaking.”
The couple have suffered their fair share of heartache and, after Wendy suffered 10 miscarriages during 15 years of trying to conceive, Mike bought Zac home in December 2009 from a farm in Wales.
Realising they needed someone to love, Mike’s aim was to lighten up their lives, which they the precious pooch did in abundance.
“It was a really hard time,” said Wendy. “I just couldn’t conceive and we were having a rough time.
“So, when Mike bought Zac home, he completely lit up our lives. It was instant connection.”
She added: “The first moment I saw him, as we sat in the back seat of the car, I fell in love with his sweet nature.”
Soon Zac was the centre of the couple’s lives and Wendy said: “He just became our baby.
“Mike supports Egham Town Football Club and Zac went to every match and was a known regular at the games.”
She added: “I loved picking Zac up from football as he was so excited. I loved walking him home – he would be prancing around as he was so happy.
“He was full of love and made us into a family.”
In 2012, the couple adopted their second fur baby, Purdy, now 10, who is a black Labrador and pointer cross.
- Accept that not everyone may understand the loss you are going through.
- See your loss as being valid and important to mourn.
- Don’t rush into getting a new pet. Wait until you are ready.
- Consider having a ceremony or remembrance for your pet as a positive way of marking their gift to you in life.
- If your loss has coincided with another loss or major life change, consider getting further help, such as talking therapy or counselling.
“Zac and Purdy got along so well, they became instant friends,” she said.
But tragedy stuck in July 2021, when Zac became unable to walk properly and the vet discovered he was seriously ill.
“He had cancer in the spine,” Wendy remembered.
She added: “We took him to the vets as soon as he became poorly and he was put on medication for seven days.
“But his spine was literally crumbling away, there was nothing anyone could do.
“The medication didn’t work, and we slept downstairs with him for five nights as he was in a bad way. He was so unwell and in a lot of pain.”
She added: “On the last night, nine days after he became unwell, he wasn’t himself. He was sick and wetting himself and we just looked at each other and said we can’t let him continue.”
Making the tough decision to put Zac down on July 12, the couple say they were faced with indescribable grief.
“It was such a hard decision. We were with him at the vet’s surgery as he passed and it was just awful. I just couldn’t cope with losing him,” Wendy said.
She added: “I can’t describe what it felt like. Purdy was devastated. She even came to the vets with us to say goodbye and gave Zac a kiss.
“The grief was so bad that I was signed off work for two weeks.
“Zac was like my child, he was the glue that held our family together.”
But when Wendy tried to open up to people about how she was feeling, they often seemed uncomfortable or didn’t want to discuss it.
“I think it would have been helpful if they had addressed what Mike and I were going through,” she said.
Alongside processing her grief, Wendy was devastated when a relative also became ill and was hospitalised in that same week.
The strain caused Wendy’s autoimmune condition, Sjogren’s syndrome – a long-term condition that affects parts of the body that produce fluids, like tears and saliva, and can lead to dry eyes and a dry mouth – to flare up.
Wendy said: “The stress of everything caused my autoimmune condition to worsen.
“If we had a bad day or I was feeling unwell before, Zac would be there. It was devastating going through it without him.”
Now the couple have created a memorial for Zac in their garden, planting a rose bush surrounded by a love heart fence, and keep his ashes inside an oak box engraved with his name in the living room.
“We’ve done a lot in Zac’s memory,” said Wendy.
“We keep his ashes in the living room so he’s always with us. Friends had cushions and plates made with his face on so he really is all around us.”
But despite such sadness the couple found a moment of happiness when on August 21 this year they received a surprise gift from a family member, a puppy, Zebedee.
“We have a new addition, Zebedee,” said Wendy.
“He’s only nine weeks old, my mother-in-law got him for us as an anniversary gift and we picked him up a few days ago.”
She added: “He’s really amazing, he boings and bounces everywhere.”
But Wendy stresses that though Zebedee is a much loved new addition to the O’Grady family, no dog could take Zac’s place.
“Zebedee is not a replacement,” stresses Wendy.
She added: “He’s a new addition to our family, but we are still grieving for Zac. I get home from work and still expect him to run out and greet me.”
According to a study by pet wellness company, Itch who are campaigning for all UK companies to provide compassionate leave for pet owners, over half of UK pet owners liken losing their pet to the loss of a family member.
Realising she is not alone, Wendy hopes explaining the loss of her beloved Zac will help others understand how devastating it can be.
She reflected: “More people have spoken to me about Zebedee than about Zac. I think they think our puppy is some kind of replacement, but that could never be the case.”
And she added: “I think people should be more open and just talk about it. We lost a member of our family and I think it should be addressed.”
MUST PAR: Visit https://blog.itchpet.com/pet-bereavement-working-pet-parents to read Itch’s pet bereavement guidance for working pet parents and employers.