Losing a friend

Sully - Aug 4, 2014We lost our beautiful Golden Retriever, Sully, recently. We had gotten the diagnosis that he had cancer six weeks earlier and that he didn’t have very long left with us. In spite of that news, Sully acted as he always had pretty much right up until the end, which was, as it turned out, a mixed blessing. It was a blessing in that he was having good quality of life – he played and acted as he always had, if a little slower, which could have easily been attributed to his being almost twelve. The downside was we could not gauge when it was time to let him go humanely. The vet had given us pain meds for him, but he never seemed in pain. Sadly, his decline was so sudden and traumatic that the vet didn’t have time to get to our house to end his life peacefully and painlessly like we obviously wanted. Some things you cannot unsee or forget and I suspect that the way he passed will haunt us for a long time.

In the aftermath of his passing it is hard being in the same surroundings that we shared with him. The things that anyone would expect to be upsetting like his various toys, his dog dishes and his bed were, of course, there. But the mind can play cruel tricks in these situations as well because it is in the habit of seeing him in his usual places. So, when I saw my gym bag on the floor by the door out of the corner of my eye, my unconscious mind thought it was him. We go through the now meaningless routines and habits we had when he was here that leave us in a perpetual state of loss that is making it difficult to move past this. It is for this reason that I sought to escape our house. Any excuse to leave was seized upon. We even stayed at a friend’s house for a night after a party, which temporarily helped, but didn’t address the issue. No matter how long you stay away, it is all still waiting for you when you get back. I had to go home eventually and deal with the fact that he was gone – and, since we had gotten him at almost the same time as we moved into this house, I had to get comfortable with the unfamiliar emptiness that was making our home a somewhat alien place.

Not everyone understands how much a dog (or any other pet) can mean so much. Some people belittle the grief over losing a pet, as if losing a human loved one is the only situation deserving of such powerful emotions. But, grief is individual and personal; there are no rules. You cannot help how much of yourself you emotionally invest in a loved one, be it a human or an animal. That need to bond is just part of the human condition. I have lost loved ones, and I am here to tell you, that, for me, the loss of Sully dwarfed any loss of a person I have had to endure in my life. I’ve since contemplated why his loss affected me so much. I mean, I loved the people I have lost greatly too. So, why is there such a disparity in my grief? I think there are many factors. A human lives life autonomously, on their own terms, and with varying amounts of selfishness. We do, for all intents and purposes, what we want, when we want, however we want. But, a dog depends on us completely; his whole life is predicated upon us and, by his nature, is completely dedicated to his family. Such loyalty, innocence and seemingly unconditional love make him very endearing and the instinct to care for anything with those qualities is strong in most people. Also, it may be because the love for my dog is profoundly uncomplicated. It involves only my own set of often dynamic needs and wants, instead of the two, often contradictory, sets that exists between even the most successful of human relationships. A dog’s needs are immutable and simple, making him a constant that we can cling to for comfort in the uncertainty of our lives because we never have to risk rejection from a dog. I cannot count how often I have simply sat on the front step with Sully petting him and talking to him, just letting the stress or turmoil of the day drain away. There is a very good reason that hospitals and hospices use dogs for therapy and comfort for the sick and dying.

I always thought I was a little abnormal because of how much I got attached to my dogs over the years. I don’t need a psychologist to figure out it is largely due to the fact that I was a shy kid who grew up in a rural area where it wasn’t always easy to visit my friends. It only makes sense that my dogs would become more important to me than would normally be expected. But, as it turns out, I am not nearly as rare a creature as I had surmised. There is an interesting article in the Washington Post regarding the grief of losing a beloved pet:

Researchers have long known that the animal-human bond is strong: A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked a group of dog owners to place symbols for their family members and pets in a circle representing each dog owner’s life. (The distance between the subject and the other symbols corresponds to the relative, real-life closeness of those relationships.) The subjects tended to put the dog closer than the average family member, and about as close as the closest family member; in 38 percent of the cases, the dog was closest of all.

I wondered at the reason for this, aside from the ones mentioned earlier, and it came to me that we also spend more time with our dogs than we do with our human loved ones. Our dogs are always at home waiting for us, unlike everyone else in our lives, even our spouses. I work from home twice a week. That’s sixteen additional hours per week I spent with Sully than I did with my wife. Then take into account when one of us wasn’t home for any of the innumerable reasons life dictates and you start to realize how much time is spent with our pets.

I have been lucky in that all my friends and family members have been genuinely sympathetic, and in some cases almost as upset as we are.  Comments like “They get into your heart”, or “They’re family” shows a level of understanding and empathy that I find liberating. It’s comforting to me to find out that such feelings are exceedingly common because dogs really deserve all the love we can give them