A Dog’s Death

This is a different kind of post from your Age Smart hosts. From time to time, we get sent questions from our readers that lead to a topic for the column. In this case, one of our readers, Michelle B, sent us a question about the powerful impact of losing a canine family member on “empty nester” baby boomers. The story she told as a lead to her question was moving and we guessed, many, many people could relate to it. So we did something different…….we’ve posted Michelle’s story as she wrote it. No question or commentary necessary. Any one who loses a pet has a story to tell, but for those who no longer (or never did) have children in the home, animal companions have a special place, playing an important role for both physical and emotional well- being. Here’s Michelle’s story:

Note to Age Smart:  Even after my third attempt to write this article, I still fight the tears as I write.  

This is not your regular love of a pet story.  It was a dark, dreary, foggy night with the heaviest of rainfall and visibility was poor if not nil at times.  Surely my dog, Micka would do his business and quickly come back in our cozy home.  Becoming worried after 7 or 8 minutes, I began my search in this awful night.  I came upon a number of civil and police cars across the street – surely a bad car accident.  Given that they were too busy, I didn’t want to ask if anyone had seen my white dog.  After 15 minutes of circling the neighborhood, I returned home to a dreaded phone call – a white dog was hit by a car across the street… He was paralyzed and in pain.  The drive to the emergency veterinarian emergency hospital seemed eternal and I was hoping for a broken leg.  I consoled him brushing away the tears not knowing whose pain was worst.  The X-ray and exam at the emergency veterinary center showed a dislocated thoracic spinal fracture with severe spinal cord damage. He would not be able to walk or have bladder control. We saw the spiraling decision-making process of having him euthanized as the only humane option for our energetic boy.  He was totally alert but clearly suffering, wanting so much to be close to us but unable to move.  This decision in itself was easy. The consequences not so easy:

DENIAL – GUILT – ANGER – SADNESS – DEPRESSION.  These are the experienced entangled emotions, each one wanting to claim a temporary predominant space.  The first week was the worst filled with so much tears, pain and sadness.  After one week, I began to wipe my tears a bit and attempted to research and gain a better understanding of this profound grief, having loss my companion, my running partner and our fun spirited, always happy family member.  Our home felt and still feels empty.

Denial:  We kept hearing him, a type of brief hallucination.  Surely, this didn’t happen, he can’t be gone! He will come back!  We kept expecting him to greet us when we entered our home.  For a few days, we even thought of selling our home but regained our senses after a few days.

Guilt:  Even though he didn’t venture out of the yard, the fence door was ajar unable to close it due to the frozen ground.  We should have fixed the fence door.  We truly believed that this was a preventable and senseless death. What were we thinking!

Anger:  Even though we were considered by all our friends and family to be the best pet parents, it was our fault and we were angry in moments of “why?”.  Dogs need our constant attention and devotion. If only we could turn back the clock.

Sadness:  Why can’t I stop crying?  For a few days, I believed that the year 2016 to date, had nothing good to offer. First my father’s cardiac surgical procedure, then Micka;  more tears…

Depression:  I didn’t want to go out, didn’t want to see any of our dear friends, didn’t want to eat much and felt like doing absolutely nothing.

All these grieving phases were scary and I wondered where are my coping skills? I a strong person, these feelings were beyond control and I knew that the healing would take time.  Both my partner and I are very resilient, rational, responsible, intelligent adults.  Perhaps creating a memorial wall for our beloved boy would help. At first, looking at the hundreds of pictures was very difficult and brought back tears and more hurt.  But, after a while, the process of reliving our wonderful three years made us realize that we were blessed to have had what we considered, « the very best dog ever»He brought us such joy and everyone who knew him, loved his free spirit, his smile, his zest for life, love, attention and constant affection.

Being researched minded, we needed to better understand this heavy grieving process that was never experienced before when we lost former pets.  This was much more invasive. In are readings, we found two major factors affecting this new overwhelming grieving experience.  First, in the past, we lost our dogs to old age but never to premature tragic death.  This unexpected shock is encompassing to say the least.  Second, in previous years, we had very different lifestyles.  Raising kids, juggling family-life, working more than full time jobs and looking for our at times runaway dog.  Life was full and we had less time to spend with our pets and smiled when our children would play in and outside with them while we as parents were busy catching up with chores and other such home duties.  Today, we are empty nesters and have more time to build a relationship with our pet, and with Micka we certainly did.  He was part of each waking moment, every outing, every adventure and we loved every minute of it. Whether to fill a void or just because we had more time, the strong attachment to our pets is undeniable and very much a new experience later in our lives.  Having pets « in the picture” is a comfort during a time of family changes.

After eight weeks, the healing is ongoing but the pain has lessened.  We have come to realize the wondrous benefits of having a dog in our life and are now planning the adoption of our next loving dog this coming fall.  We felt we needed some time to fully heal and be once again the very best pet parents we can be.  We didn’t want to compare our next dog to our lovely boy Micka.  We know that our new puppy will have his own personality and unique disposition and can’t wait to welcome him in our home. But our dearest boy Micka is irreplaceable and will always have a special place in our hearts.  From , Michelle

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Cliff Singer

About Cliff Singer

Dr. Cliff Singer is a geriatrician and psychiatrist who is Chief of Geriatric Mental Health and Neuropsychiatry at Acadia Hospital and Eastern Maine Medical Center and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maine in Orono.