Monday, October 30, 2017

Pet Loss: When Nothing Eases The Pain

[Reviewed and updated July 19, 2022]

There is sorrow enough in the natural way / From men and women to fill our day / But when we are certain of sorrow in store / Why do we always arrange for more? / Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware / Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.  ~ Rudyard Kipling

A reader writes: It has been 17 months since my husband and I lost our deeply loved dog Buddy. Yes he was old - unsure of his age as he was a stray who showed up at our house at an estimated 2-3 years old and we had him for 13 years. But other than arthritis, due to obvious abuse, injuries and neglect before he was either thrown away or (we hope) he escaped, he was lively, healthy and so so happy. We have no children, so you can imagine how he became the center of our then very newly married life, and remained so for 13 years. We preferred his company to anyone else's by far and created a life of "the three amigos".

We altered our activities, which as newlyweds had been pretty active with friends, vacations, social evenings out -- and became immersed in a new life of not only "healing" this sweet creature of physical and emotional wounds, but finding better, more fun activities that included Buddy and enjoying him to the hilt. That ended up being such a more satisfying life, and we cherished every day of it. He healed us emotionally from abuses we had endured in our own lives and became the FAMILY we never had -- provided us unconditional love we'd never had. We lavished all good things on him. We took him to every dog-friendly restaurant in our state over and over, such that he was an elder statesman at each. During football season we all three got dressed in our team's gear and took our places to watch and snack all day. "Birthdays" -- celebrated on that great day he first showed up at our house -- were big jubilees. I used to tell my husband I felt such intense love for Buddy just looking at his face I often felt my heart would burst. Luckily my husband and I were retired and had endless time to spend with Buddy his last years. We were sooo close and sooo blessed. The best part was we knew how blessed we were to have our life with Buddy EACH DAY. It never got old or routine. I'd say I wouldn't trade our life together for billions, fame, jet-set life...nothing. 

And then in one 12-hour period Buddy became agitated, then increasingly anxious and distressed, then in obvious discomfort. We rushed him to the ER. The vet felt an abdominal mass, did an ultrasound, found an advanced, very progressed mass on his spleen. Buddy had just been to his regular vet appointment. All normal exam and bloodwork. Shock isn't the right word. All I asked was if he would continue to be in this severe pain, if he could ever get better barring risky, low-success surgery. The vet honestly said the cancer was very advanced and spread. 

My good boy needed me more than he ever did that day. To put my feeling and fears and denials aside and help him stop his pain. And I did that, holding and kissing him and repeating the words he always recognized that comforted him all our years together. 

BUT, after putting Buddy’s needs first, the aftermath began. And it hasn't stopped after 17 months and counting. Being so close and involved in everything together makes it impossible to go anywhere or look at anything in my home, neighborhood, city, state, neighboring states....EVERYTHING reminds us of Buddy and the pain each time a bittersweet memory arises -- numerous times each day -- the aching, weeping, sense of loss is still so very raw. I can't stop the "missing" him and our life with him in it. I feel like the color has drained out of my life and that my pilot light is barely flickering anymore. I've been to a pet loss support group, counseling, been on medications. I bought EVERY BOOK in pet loss Amazon had as well as those at bookstores. I've developed severe head and face nerve pain so chronic I see a pain specialist. Yet NOTHING HELPS.

I don't remember when I last laughed. My husband is in nearly the same condition. Many advise rescuing another dog or dogs. In theory, I'd LOVE to rescue as many dogs as my city's laws allow a resident to have. BUT IN REALITY my suffering is still ongoing and I know my anxiety about going through another loss or losses in the future would debilitate me. Just thinking about that eventuality gives me panic. I don't think my body or mind could withstand going through this ordeal multiple times without BREAKING DOWN COMPLETELY. We've tried being "big brother/sister" to a couple of shelter dogs but I couldn't handle it. Seeing all those dogs at the shelters overburdened my heart so much I felt worse rather than better. I'm a Christian and I believe the Bible supports the fact that animals go to Heaven so I know I'll be reunited one day with Buddy. But sometimes I don't want to wait. I'm not suicidal -- my faith won't allow me to entertain that thought. And I'd NEVER jeopardize my eternal life with Christ and with Buddy that way. But I'm so weighed down by sadness every day. I'm sorry this is so long a message -- it didn't start out as my intention. I guess I needed to unload a bit to someone who might be able to understand and maybe help or guide me to something that might ease my suffering. Can you offer any recommendations? I thank you for your time in reading this. Also in advance for any help you can give me.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your beloved Buddy, and I can only imagine the depth of your pain. Clearly you and your husband gave your all to your relationship with this precious soul. You say you've read every book available on pet loss, you've attended a pet loss support group, you've sought counseling and you've tried medication, yet nothing has helped. I'm sure you already know that I have no magic answer for you. Still, I will share some of my thoughts with you.

You said "I know my anxiety about going through another loss or losses in the future would debilitate me," and it reminds me of the quotation I placed at the top of the post that appears on one of my blog posts:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. ~ C.S. Lewis
I encourage you to read the entire article, Replacing a Pet Who Has Died: When Is It Time? 

You say you can't stop "missing" Buddy and your life without him. All I can tell you is why would you want to stop missing someone you love so much? Doing the work of grief does not require that we stop missing the one we've lost. The depth of our grief is a measure of how much we've loved that which we've lost. It seems to me that you're expecting the wrong thing here. You're expecting that one of these days you'll stop missing Buddy and the pain of losing him will be gone. I can assure you that will never happen. Maybe you could start thinking of that as a good thing instead of labeling it as bad. Find ways to memorialize Buddy and keep his memory alive! Celebrate his existence to the hilt! Do good things in his honor! Find ways to live a good life, as a way to make his time with you (and all you learned of love from him) count for something!

If I've learned anything from the life I've lived (and I am not young) it is this: The only effective way to ease one's own suffering is to reach out to others who are suffering. Life is filled with suffering ~ but it is also full of the overcoming of it. I encourage you to give up the notion that one day you'll stop hurting over your loss of Buddy. Instead, focus on how you can learn to live with that pain. Accept it as the price you paid for loving him so much. And then find a way to celebrate all that love and make it count. Make his life with you matter. Make it be as important for others as it was for you and your husband.

I hope what I've said does not offend you in any way, as that certainly was not my intention ~ and I do wish you all the best in your quest for peace and healing.

Afterword: Hello Marty. Thank you so much for your quick reply to me. I so appreciate your time and compassion and understanding. The suggestions you gave do make sense to me. I read the articles you suggested, including Replacing a Pet Who Has Died: When Is It Time? . . . Your sharing that it took you 10 years to be ready to take a new dog to love into your life was so, so comforting to me! I don't feel so abnormal now because you are an "expert" in bereavement and not immune to the devastation I now feel. I feel guilt when people suggest getting another dog will ease my pain/ help another needy dog/ honor mine, etc.-- and my inner response is panic and knowledge that I can't do that anytime soon. I often feel deficient and weaker than others who can easily do that -- the majority of people, in fact, who lose a pet do almost immediately get another. I'm made up differently emotionally. You are right -- it's a direct result of the depth of my love for Buddy and my life with him that my devastation is also so deep. 

My husband and I know that our future will include a commitment to honor Buddy by helping unwanted animals. We just don't know what form it will take. We dream about selling our house and buying a farm-type property to run a sanctuary so we can take as many as possible. In my physically and emotionally poor state though, we can't make any big life decisions or moves. In the meantime, we have a beautiful "Buddy candle" that we light on holidays, birthdays, football we can feel his presence with us. We have always had a multitude of framed candid photos and professional portraits everywhere in our home and now have even more. . . They bring me such comfort. 

But YOUR admission that it took 10 years to be ready to take another dog into your life and face the inevitable future excruciating pain of loss again, that really comforted me the most. Your credentials along with your similar feelings so validated that I'm not so abnormal as I thought! And I agree, I do not EVER want to get to a point where I don't miss Buddy so much. I WANT to miss him always. My plea to you was for help with the debilitating nature of the pain and the feeling that I am "broken" somehow. You helped me see that you didn't see yourself as "broken" for going 10 years before being ok with facing loss again, and it sort of gave me permission to also feel it might take 10 years for me and that's ok. Thanks so much for that!

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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