A little over a month ago, my dog died. We had to make the decision for him, and Jim and my parents had to do it: I had frittered off to England for some research on my novel-in-progress.
When Sprocket was near the end of his life (we didn’t know it with certainty until it became obvious he was in pain), I said to a close friend that I was watching myself very closely: that seminal events by definition chart who you will be, but they also show, to a degree, who you are. I have seen other people’s grief, but I wasn’t sure what I hoped would happen to me.
For many reasons watching a pet die is different from what happens to you when a close friend or relative dies. Pets are a reflection of you (yes, people are too, but just hang onto that thought for a moment), and they only ask that you love them and take care of them. People are so much more complex, and so, although I really hesitate to use the word “pure” in this context, maybe the relationship between a pet and a person is what we hope we can give to all the living beings in our lives, although things like clashing personalities and life events show us differently.
A pet’s world is tiny. It is you, your home, its pack. This small world allows for emotions that we might not otherwise exhibit.
But this post is not about that. This post is about the things that helped, that really helped, when things were really bad.
Getting on with it. Jim and I were far away from each other. But I was with my good friend Nic, who is one of those who just lets people get on with whatever it is they need to do. Grieving is one of those. It was 10AM or so California time when Jim asked if we could “talk,”–Nic and I looked at each other and said, “Uh oh”–and 6PM British time, and Nic and I were having a slow dinner, or drinks, in the little living room of the place we had rented. It was painfully teal, which is crazy, since I love teal. The chandelier had teal accents. I dripped slow tears the entire night and used a lot of toilet paper and paper towels. If I had been with someone who fussed, I may have felt mortified. But Nic just sat in the room with me, doing her thing while I was trying to do mine, and so I was perfectly fine snotting myself and just cleaning up the tears where they fell. Later, of course, I went into my room and cried horrible, wet-faced, drooling tears, and it probably helped that Nic and I were, believe it or not, in the middle of a task when Jim called to tell me what needed to be done, but still. Sometimes you just need a space to be sad.
Say everything you ever wanted to say before. We found out Sprocket had osteosarcoma in July. Between then and Sprocket’s final trip to the vet, there were two times when we thought we’d have to say goodbye. And there were the trips to the river, and trips to see friends, and weekly trips to Sprocket’s oncologist, where he got his radiation treatments. Every single time he went under anesthesia, I told him I loved him and I would see him soon, and that he was a good boy, and I thanked him for his many years of friendship. And each time we thought we’d have to say goodbye, my entire family did the same, especially the penultimate time, which happened the day before my brother and his family left us from their holiday visit. Everyone said goodbye; everyone said they loved him. My sister-in-law, who is a neat, tidy person, got down on her knees on Sprocket’s ratty old bed and hugged and kissed my dying dog on his head, and my niece sat close to him and patted him. My brother wrote to me the night Sprocket died. He wrote, “Everything that needed to be said was said.” My sister-in-law texted photos. And our vet sent a note that said we did the best we could, and that it was obvious how we cared for Sprocket. Those things together have me resolving to never leave things unsaid, even if they might be embarrassing to say. My mom, most taciturn of people when it comes to showing emotion, still says to me, “We gave him a good life, didn’t we?” For me, that means telling him at every opportunity how much he mattered, even if he didn’t speak the language, exactly.
Remember the good times. Oh, gosh. How people do like to say this. And yet, it is the truest of all things, that it really does help with the “terrible feelings of loss,” as our good friend Dan’s mother wrote to us. As I read Carol’s words, I had the same sense of skepticism I always have with what sound like well-worn platitudes, but then later that night, I could only fall asleep by remembering the feel of Sprocket’s perfect little cranium beneath my hand; his funny mustache and the whuffing he would do in our ears when he felt like we weren’t paying enough attention. Wet nose; cold tunnel-air from it; funny little toes gripping my palm when I told him to shake. And later, when we finally posted to facebook that we had said goodbye to Sprocket, we asked all of our friends to post their favorite stories or memories of him. We were not prepared for the hundreds of memories that came through, some with their own photographs. We laughed, and cried, and even though we were still apart from each other, this helped us individually, more than I can properly express.
Take joy in other people’s good fortune. I really worried that I would be one of those people who couldn’t stand to see other people with their dogs after Sprocket died. But I was in England at the time, and so there were dogs everywhere, happily going off on their own down trails and rolling in sand and also meandering around in bookstores. The evening after, Nic and I were messing around in a bookstore when a fat springer spaniel came in. It was smelling things, and I asked if I could pat it, and the thing sat on my foot and *barooooooed* randomly, and its owner said, “Flash! Flash! You must stop making that noise!” and I think I was so surprised, and so pleased, to hear myself laugh, even though I was sad, even though I couldn’t stop myself from telling her that my dog had just died. And when I finally got home and was jogging my usual hamster-wheel route around my neighborhood, I saw people with their dogs and spent all my time being grateful that these people had these creatures in their lives.
I don’t know if this grieving process will be the same as I get older. I’m sure I will learn more about it as time goes on. But these are the things I’ve learned, and maybe they will help you, too.