Today we had to put down Toby.
He was a 15-year-old Australian Shepherd and probably one of the best dogs we ever had. And we've had plenty.
It seems trite to say that losing a pet is like losing a member of the family. The fact is, though, it's actually a gross understatement. Pets are unique and hold a special place in our hearts.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that dogs are more important or more valuable than other people in our lives. But they do trump humans in many ways.
For one thing, they love us unconditionally. And that's more than I can say about many human companions.
It doesn't take much to make them happy. Even the smallest gesture evokes unequivocal joy -- throwing a toy, asking if they want to go for a ride in the car, handing them a treat. How many of us show such appreciation and adoration for such simple pleasures?
Their loyalty is only matched by the way they care for us -- perhaps even more so than we could ever care for them. Dogs can sense how we're feeling. It doesn't matter whether we're happy, angry, or sad, they just inherently know what to do. So many times I've come home exhausted, frustrated, upset, but no words or explanations were ever necessary to convey my emotions. Toby got it.
Today I accompanied my 99-year-old mother to a checkup with her internist. When I mentioned to her the loss of our dog, she wisely noted, "In some ways, it's harder than with people. At least with humans we can talk with each other, say goodbye. With animals, there's no way to have that kind of interaction. And somehow, maybe that's what makes us feel it more."
Dogs are immediately emotionally accessible. No barriers. That's more than I can say about most people. Maybe we can say goodbye, but far too often we cloak our feelings with words.
So, we humans are stuck nursing our feelings when it comes to our relationships with pets. Dogs are pretty straightforward. And, for the most part, they don't complain.
Toby skirted death a number of times in recent years. He survived surgery for liver cancer. When his vocal cord was later tied back and he lost his ability to bark, he tried all his might regardless -- even though the sound coming out sounded more like an old frog with laryngitis. Still, he went along without complaint.
Progressively he became deaf with a syndrome that also weakened his hind legs. We could only call him by clapping our hands. That became his call to "come." And, so he came when we clapped. Every time he skirted out the side door there was applause. Toby seemed just fine with the new way of communicating.
His sidekick, Bear, a cockapoo, also learned to come from clapping. The pals adjusted well.
More recently, Toby developed a urinary tract infection along with pain in his hind legs. When he lost his appetite and could hardly stand at his food bowl, I thought we were facing the end. But I brought him to the vet, and thanks to a combination of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications, he did pretty well. I started using doggy diapers that must have been terribly uncomfortable. Still, there was never a whimper, and he soon learned when he came in from relieving himself outdoors to wait patiently while we affixed his diaper.
He also developed a mass on his head, probably some kind of tumor. No complaints.
I certainly complain. I can't imagine not complaining through such ordeals.
What made all of this more unbearable was that through it all, Toby continued to stare you right in the eye and smile. If his legs were weak, if he couldn't walk down the stairs, if he tried to bark and nothing came out, he just received a pat on the head and panted happily. It might have been easier for me if he could just whine or moan in some way.
This morning he had a seizure. That was the final blow. The immediate family texted, and we decided there was nothing more we could do. We didn't want his latest condition to progress and cause further suffering as a result. And, the vet was not optimistic about treating seizures. The decision was made.
On the way to the vet, my wife took him to a very nice hamburger joint. She took videos of him happily scarfing down a couple of burgers. His last supper.
You might think seeing him smile all the way to his grave would bring me some kind of relief.
But it was nearly impossible for me to watch the clips without feeling a deep sadness and emptiness. I should have been happy to see him so pleased just before his death. I have no idea how my wife was able to tolerate it. Toby, like many herders, had one master -- my wife. She took on the responsibility of letting him go. It was her dog.
Maybe I'm just weak.
Why did I react this way?
I think it's because dogs and some folks, like my wife, are generally accepting -- accepting of life, hardship, even death. That's resilience.
I wonder if my being trained as a doctor reinforced the Faustian wish to know all, love all, and heal all. Or maybe I'm just too attached to these loving, playful, and forgiving creatures.
It's hard at times like this to have real perspective. But one thing is clear: We humans have a lot to learn from our canine friends.
For guidance on helping your child through the death of a pet, we invite you to check out our related blog here.
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In August, my younger sister Lucy died. She was only 32 years old and the light of our lives. We knew it was coming, not quite as quickly as it did, but she had advanced cancer, so her days were numbered. As soon as the cancer reached her brain, it was game over.
There is nothing that could ever have prepared me for the past weeks since she died, and while this isn’t the first time someone has written about grief, and it certainly won’t be the last, it is my experience first-hand, and it’s very different to what I had expected.
Jenni Russell: Shorn of the rituals of old, death maroons us in grief
Grief, as we all have heard, comes in waves. That’s a lie. These aren’t waves; these are gargantuan freight trains that ram into your very soul, from nowhere. They come as you stand in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, looking around you, wondering how the hell anyone can manage to get on with life when this terrible thing has happened and suddenly, from out of nowhere that train comes hurtling at you. It feels as if someone has sucked out everything you have – your guts, your heart, your oxygen, your whole being. Of course the Brit in you remains still and stoic as the train does its thing before pulling away, and you continue filling your trolley with Granny Smiths. But it’s there, and you never know when it will run into you next. You live in fear of that.
For a little while I didn’t speak to any friends on the phone, for fear of breaking down. I only spoke to my parents, my husband and to my three-year-old. Job number one was to explain to her that her beloved aunt was dead. No easy feat. I can barely remember it. I came up with a nonsensical story of her now being an angel, and a star in the sky and that whenever the sky was pink in the morning, it meant she was saying hello. Now, whenever the sky is pink, my daughter shrieks up to the sky excitedly. My husband feels uncomfortable with it; I don’t ever know what to feel. But it was all I had at the time. It’s probably confused her more than I’d like to admit.
After Lucy was told she had cancer, it was the last time she and I ever looked at each other in the eye. We avoided that. I know she felt the same. We knew that if we ever locked our gaze, that the tears would never stop. So it was better that way. Now I regret that, I regret not grabbing her and looking at her, deep into her soul, and telling her how much I admired her bravery. How she was a warrior, a trouper, an inspiration, and a truly beautiful human being and of course, how much love I had for her, but I didn’t, and I hate myself for that. I know she knew, but did she actually know?
My sister’s two greatest fears when she was ill were 1) being forgotten; 2) leaving behind any sadness. The first is just silly. The second not so silly. I was never one who feared death, really. I mean, I knew it would come, I just assumed it would be when I was an old lady, and I was fine with that. Now, I have a fear, in fact utter terror, not so much of death, but for what happens after death to the people who remain. The life change that happens to those people the minute they find out that their loved one is going to die. This experience for her was, I think, the worst of all of it. Her worry for her beloved fiancé, bereft at losing the only girl he ever loved, the heartbreak of our lovely parents, the confusion of her niece who thought she had “pancer”, and her seeing the sheer devastation of her friends of 25 years who just couldn’t believe that their best mate would no longer be around. She never wanted us to be sad. But we are – so, so utterly filled with sadness.
Actually, I can get through the days. My biggest amazement and awe in all of this is the wonder of the human brain. The kindness of it, that it allows you a few hours, sometimes three or four hours in a day or night, where you are all right. Where you laugh, smile, make a meal, play with your kid … you just are allowed to be OK sometimes and I thank the brain for that. Allowing us a little slice of time-out from the horror that surrounds us.
Good grief: the psychology of mourning | Dean Burnett
What haunts me, more than anything, more even, than her not being here any more, is the thought of the fear she faced alone. From 3 March 2015 until the day she died, she faced the worst thing any person could ever face. She looked death in the eye and it never let up. It was relentlessly wheedling its way into her life and she dealt with that with absolute poise and composure. How she managed to control that fear is truly beyond me. My guilt that my sister, who I was supposed to protect my whole life, would be lying there at night, while the world slept, knowing her drugs weren’t working and this cancer was killing her. That destroys me. And when I see my mother sobbing like a wounded animal at her grave every Tuesday lunchtime, I know it destroys her too.
The secret stories that only we shared just evaporate, because they are too old or too weird to try to explain to anyone else. Every year we wrote the exact same thing in each other’s birthday cards, and howled with laughter each time we opened them, knowing full well what it would say, but there isn’t any card to write now, so that joke just disappears forever.
Sometimes I feel anger towards my loving and sensitive three-year-old, when she carelessly throws something that was a gift from my sister on the floor. I shout and she gets frightened and doesn’t understand. When she does that, I find myself preferring my sister to my own child, and then I hate myself. I have a paralysing fear of losing things such as the screw top of a cheap plastic bottle that she bought my daughter at Disneyland in July, in case the bottle is no longer whole. The guarding of every solitary thing she ever gave us as gifts over the years, like a lioness with her cubs, and the blind panic and rage when one of those things is temporarily lost among the chaos of living with a three-year-old.
So it’s hard. No doubt it is life-changing. And what next? Well, we’ve been dreading December, of course. The month we share for our birthdays, Christmas, the time of happiness and love and family and light. And yet for us there is none of that without her. We will pretend, though. We have become good at that. But we all have an underlying anxiety that while we slowly move toward 2016, desperate to see the back of the year that brought us so much sadness, we also fear entering a year not touched by her, moving further and further away from the last time we were a family, all present and correct.
We will survive, though. Unlike her, we will survive. But we will for ever live with a shade of darkness over us. A grey filter over our world for ever.