November 13, 2019
Grief…it is a pain that is really difficult to explain. By definition, it is a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. For me, it is overwhelming. It feels big, heavy and is dark in color. It creates a physical pain and makes it hard to breathe. It takes away the ability to comprehend and think clearly. It makes your small problems seem too enormous to handle on your own. As an empath, I feel this from people that are grieving around me and it created the ability to be a supportive nurse in my NICU days. I knew that the babies were happy, sad and scared. I knew when their parents needed my support and when they needed time to themselves. Grief also crushes me when I am already grieving, allowing me to feel my family’s grief at the same time.
This has been a really difficult week for me and my family. If you have ever lost a pet, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, you will probably just think I am dramatic or something. The truth of the matter is that I adopted my dog as a puppy shortly after I got my first job as a nurse. At the time, I was married, and my husband had been unemployed for close to two years. He had just returned to full time work at this same time. It was a celebration to go from no income and government assistance to keep our home to be a two-salary household. We were able to get the dog our children desperately wanted. We picked him up and loved him immediately, he was part of the family. For the past 10 years, we have had good times and bad times with him. He has always been the sweetest and most gentle dog I have ever known; he had the softest and most silky fur I have ever felt on a dog. He was not smart, and I used to say that he looked at me with a confused face most of the time. He was loyal and loving and lazy and I loved him. This guy loved his pillow that was on the kitchen floor. He would stay in that kitchen whether the gate was open or not. It was his safe place. I think he found comfort being in there. He was easily stressed and did not like leaving the house. Car rides overwhelmed him. He used to get car sick as a puppy. He had separation anxiety and would panic, have accidents and chew up things when he was left alone. He was claustrophobic so he would have all those panic symptoms if he was locked up in a room or crate alone. The day we got our second dog was life changing because it cured him from the loneliness. They were buddies and he never had issues being closed in the kitchen at night because he was with the puppy. Unfortunately, housetraining was a challenge. He was housetrained by day and fine at night as long as he was confined to one room. If we let him have the run of the house, he would choose a room to use as his overnight bathroom. It was frustrating and upsetting.
Even though he had his quirks, I loved him so much. He would always wait at the back door to greet me when I walked in the door after a long day. He would jump up, wagging his tail as I pet him and then jump down and curl back up on his pillow for another nap. It made me laugh because the whole family would be in the family room, watching tv and goofing around, the other dog would be in there with us, begging for attention, but he would only briefly come in, see what was going on, get a couple snuggles and then walk away; seemingly satisfied with what he saw and experienced. It was what he wanted. He was a happy dog and we loved him.
About three weeks ago, we noticed him coughing a little bit. It was nothing major, but a cough none the less. It didn’t seem to be affecting him very much so I didn’t think much of it. We were all coughing a little, sneezing. Change of weather sometimes does that. We had just done some cleaning so maybe the dust was bothering him? The coughing seemed to mostly go away after a few days and was replaced with him having a wet and kind of a runny nose that lasted a couple days and was replaced by a dry nose. He seemed a little thinner but not drastically so. I was paying more attention to the food being given, but it was hard to tell who was eating it. Were they sharing like they always did or was the other dog eating his share now? I decided to separate them when I put some dinner down and I had my answer. He begged for the food I was preparing but when I put a bowl down with some of the scraps in it, he licked it and then curled back up on his bed. We encouraged him to eat several nights in a row, but he seemed thinner and thinner. He rarely left his pillow. Then he started having breathing difficulty. He seemed to have some respiratory distress. He was resting but not sleeping and always breathing so fast. I was worried. Could it be pneumonia? Heart worm? Something I am not familiar with? I called to see if his vet could see him. Not until Monday. That’s fine…I’ll take what I can get. He had a good weekend. He didn’t greet me at the door anymore, and I had to bring his food to him, but he enjoyed some good meals of hamburger and his favorite wet dog foods. He definitely didn’t feel good, but he was happy. He would wag his tail and lean into me as I pet and hugged him. He was comforted and I was worried because now, when I rubbed under his chin, I could feel all his lymph nodes swollen down his jaw and neck. Oh shit. This is new.
Monday came quickly and I took the morning off work so I could make a quick visit to the vet where I figured I would get some antibiotics and maybe a steroid and then I would head up to the office for a busy day. He would bounce back and all would be well. This weird sickness would be a distant memory in a week and we would have our family pet back. We would hear his feet dancing on the tile floor when he was excited about something and he would jump up and say hello again when I walked into the room.
We walked into the waiting room and we weighed him. He had lost 8 pounds. Shit. I knew he lost weight but that was so much more than I thought. He just sat there waiting his turn to see the doctor. Normally he would act nervous from the car ride, pacing because he was someplace that wasn’t home. Not today. He just stood there next to me, looking at me with that far away look like he knew but he didn’t. I used to say that the far away look was him listening to the circus music in his head. He wasn’t a smart dog but that didn’t matter. Santa’s little helper was my dog, my buddy. He consoled me when I went through tough times. He curled up on the couch and let my 3-year-old use him as a soft warm pillow. He didn’t budge and just slept there next to her. He watched the kids grow up. He cuddled with me after my divorce. He overcame the stress of moving to a new house. He bonded with cats and actually enjoyed their company. He was a part of the family.
Then our lives changed. The doctor came in the room and asked a few questions. She palpated his neck and legs and agreed that those were his lymph nodes that were so terribly swollen. His cheeks were also swollen. Lymph nodes collect bacteria…antibiotics right? This means he has an infection. No. She said this isn’t a bacteria. This isn’t a virus. This isn’t something that we can cure. Lymphoma in dogs isn’t treatable with the goal of a cure. It is treatable to make their lives more comfortable until they pass away. Here standing in front of me was my family dog who was there with my kids as they went through elementary school and high school. He looked emaciated, had labored breathing and now I’m being told that he probably wasn’t eating because his mouth hurt. OMG…he was hungry but couldn’t eat. I had choices. We could run a bunch of tests and do xrays to confirm the diagnosis and then put him through a medicine regimen every day with regular visits to the vet for injections to make him more comfortable for his remaining months or we could let him go.
I went in to get an antibiotic and to be told my dog would be fine and now I am being forced to choose between extending a life that would be full of stress, anxiety and discomfort for my beloved dog or to consent to ending his life. I had to turn off the emotional mom part of my brain and look at what was best for him. I cannot allow him to suffer any more. This is not what is best for me or my kids. They would want more time to spend with him, time to say goodbye. His eyes pleaded with me to take the pain away. I tearfully told the vet that I had made my decision. I needed to let him go. Not because it would be work, or cost money or because he would undoubtedly start having accidents in the house due to medicine they would give. I didn’t care about any of it. I didn’t want his last days or weeks or months to be of him worrying about getting in trouble for something he couldn’t control. I didn’t want him to be in pain or to be struggling to get up, eat and breathe. No, I loved him too much to let that happen to him.
She gave him an injection that would not end his life, but it was a sedative that would relax him and allow him to fall into a deep sleep. He wouldn’t feel any pain and he would breathe easier. I sat on the floor with my puppy, laying on a blanket that the vet put beneath him so he would be comfortable. I pet him, and talked to him, and kept him relaxed and calm. I hugged him as I stroked his back and rubbed his ears and head the way he always liked. I felt him relax, he put his head down, and eventually closed his eyes. I knew it was almost over when his ears no longer perked up to the sound of other dogs barking. He was sound asleep. No longer responding to anything in the room. I continued to pet him and talk to him until the vet returned to the room. She said that he could no longer hear me. All that was left was to give him the injection that would stop his heart. He wouldn’t feel a thing. He was at peace.
This is what grief feels like. I told the vet that I felt like a horrible human. She assured me that I made the right decision and chose what was best for my dog. I cried. I hugged my daughter who was as stunned and as upset as I was and we left the animal hospital. We went in with a weak dog and we left with nothing but his collar and leash.
Now we work on healing. That night, I broke the news to family members on three separate occasions, causing me to relive the experience again and again. I didn’t think I had any more tears left but then I went to bed, and could just feel the overwhelming sadness in the air around me. Then I realized that my other dog, lying on my bed, was grieving too. I had given her lots of attention all day but she was hurting. I curled up in my bed and she immediately crawled closer to me, and slept all night up against me. She hasn’t left my side since that day. She needs her people and I feel her grief lessen with each passing day, just like the kids. We are healing. We will move on but we will never forget our buddy.