Stumbling Through Pet Loss

Grief. Anyone who has lost a loved one, whether animal or human, is familiar with the emotion. And yet grief is not predictable. In my life I have lost five dogs, three guinea pigs, and one cat. Sometimes my grief led to guilt, other times to intense loneliness, and sometimes it even led to inspiration.

My earliest experience with pet loss came in primary school. My dad and I lived in a basement apartment with Puff, our aging Samoyed. Puff struggled often with urinary issues. And stairs. As such, life was not good for Puff. The heartbreaking decision was made to end her suffering. Even into my teen years, I remembered looking into her happy face at the vet’s office and feeling as if we had betrayed her. I was certain that she fully expected to climb off that table and come home with us. Although the memory of that moment has since faded, the guilt over it has not. Wrong or right, since that time I have never made the decision to euthanize a pet unless death was imminent.

My second experience with guilt occurred much later, after my college years. Our dog at that time was Cocoa, a senior Lhasa Apso who struggled with health issues that included a recent bout of pneumonia. On one autumn Friday, my dad left early to attend teacher training out of town. I had to work, and was kept late at the end of the day. And then I just had to stop for groceries. When I got home, our dog lay unmoving by the window, having passed away while awaiting my return. For years afterwards I regretted that I hadn’t been home during Cocoa’s final hours. I would tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that he had been sick for months, and that I couldn’t have known that day would be his last. Nevertheless, one of my biggest fears is that a pet of mine will die alone.

IMG_3988Fortunately (if you want to see it that way), my last two pets have died in my arms. And so obviously I had nothing to feel guilty about. Right? Well, no. I felt guilty that our last guinea pig, Bumblebee, had to spend her last few years alone after my husband and I decided not to “replace” her companion Fruity. Then there’s the way she died. One morning, I dropped lettuce in her cage as normal, but found that Bumblebee struggled to reach it. For whatever reason her back legs were suddenly paralyzed. I still remember the questioning look she gave me. How I wish I could have explained to her the reason for her dilemma, but that was never even clear to the vets. Bumblebee never adjusted to the paralysis, even though some guinea pigs do. Complications developed. And we lost her in this cruel way. Obviously I didn’t cause her ailment. And my husband and I did everything we could to improve and preserve her life. But nothing worked, and I was faced with the (sometimes) powerlessness of medicine and my own determination. Perhaps guilt isn’t quite the right word, but it comes closest to describing the feeling that I failed those creatures who most trusted me.

img062My earliest experience with loneliness over the loss of a pet involved another Samoyed. In my second year in college, I came home for Christmas to enjoy the holiday with my dad and our dog. Although Polar had been diagnosed with cancer, he seemed fine. Then it was back to school and dorm life in Alabama. Then one Saturday in January, during my dad’s weekly calls, I learned we had lost Polar. Dad had just walked a few blocks up to the mailboxes to get the mail. In that short time, Polar had died. We consoled ourselves with the belief that dogs can know when death is drawing near, and seek solitude. So, in this case, I didn’t feel any guilt. But I did feel intense loneliness. For the next few months, I walked around in a cocoon of pain. I watched television in the dorm rec room, sometimes until the sun rose the next day. As to what else I did that winter, I don’t remember, except that somehow my grades actually stayed stable. Come spring, I also allowed my friends to set me up on a blind date. Then I proceeded to write letters to my new “boyfriend” about my life. When summer came, I headed home with plans to return. Instead I transferred my credits to the provincial university.

On the flip side of guilt and loneliness is acceptance. It might seem like an odd thing to accept death, but I have done so for two pets. After we lost Cocoa, my loneliness was so intense that I spent every available waking minute with my dad. When we started browsing dog magazines, however, I found a new lease on life. From the moment we decided to get a new dog, I dedicated every second to picking out the perfect one. Previously, all of our dogs came to us full-grown. This time my dad and I decided to take on the experience of raising a pup. Make that two pups. Not long after we agreed to buy a six-week-old Lhasa Apso, we also fell in love with the description of a Papillon from across the country. To make a long story short, the Lhasa became my dad’s and the Papillon became mine.

img068Chuckles slept on my bed. I took him for walks. He curled up on the chesterfield with me. I nursed him through ailments and through two back injuries. He was my life. Then Chuckles reached fifteen. His teeth were in need of a cleaning, but his heart would have made it a risk. Yes, it’s a risk I could have taken. Maybe he would have been okay. But what if he hadn’t been? It was a choice between the possibility of losing him now, and the certainty of losing him to kidney failure in a few years — dental disease results in bacteria that spread to and damage a dog’s organs. Because he was fifteen and likely had only a few years left in him anyway, I decided to forgo the dental cleaning. And to make the most of his remaining years — to the best of my ability, given that he had stayed with my family in Newfoundland after I moved to Nebraska. And so, a couple of years later when my family visited relatives in another province, I remained at my family’s home with Chuckles. We visited all of our favorite places. I treated him to the best foods. Because he couldn’t jump onto beds any longer, I slept with him on the floor. The next summer, Chuckles’ appetite declined. My dad took him into the vet and we got the news that Chuckles had only hours to live: his kidneys were giving out. Although I still cry now when I write about this moment, I have always felt happy about making the most of every moment with Chuckles.

IMG_0114The same is true of my first guinea pig, Fruity. My first years with her, I lugged her around the house with me. She learned to enjoy watching television, sitting on my lap while I typed at the computer, and hearing books being read aloud. When I left for work in the morning, she’d come to the edge of her cage to see me off. When I returned from work in the evening, she’d wheek for food. Eventually my boyfriend (now husband) and I set up play areas around my duplex for her to explore. We in turn learned to check for her before we sat down or got up from the chesterfield. Fruity followed me through three moves. I even wrote an entire storybook about her. Who knew a guinea pig could become such a large part of one’s life? Then she got old. She started losing weight and became less active. I adopted a friend for her, a young chocolate-colored guinea pig I named Pudding. They had a few good years together until Pudding died from a tumor. I bought yet another guinea pig friend — Bumblebee, who you’ve already met. Then one morning when I got up to give Fruity her breakfast, I discovered that she had died in the night. I cried and mourned for her. Yet somehow I felt right about her death too. Fruity had lived to be almost nine. Our lives together had been good. And she’d died surrounded by her family.

img069I have never forgotten any of my pets. All of them filled my life with love and sorrow. A few also impacted me in other ways. Sometime after we lost Polar, a neighbor asked us to take in a Lhasa Apso, whose owner had died. We took in Cocoa, who was already ten. That old dog changed my life in many ways. Because of him I found a soft spot in my heart for seniors, and for castoffs that end up in shelters. And so if not for the influence of Cocoa, I might never have found two of my guinea pigs. I also might never have taken in my cat. And today we might not have a foster dog. That’s quite the legacy for one little dog! But there’s more. Cocoa taught me about the impermanence of life. Years later when my husband and I discussed whether I should delay my writing dreams so that I focus on being a full-time teacher, I said that I didn’t want to wait until retirement. Cocoa had taught me that retirement might never come. In other words, if not for Cocoa, my blog writing might not exist. True, there were other factors, but he was one of the biggest.

Indeed, if there’s one legacy that my pets all hold in common is that they gave me reason to make the welfare of companion animals a huge part of my life. This is why my husband and I sporadically visit our local no-kill shelter. It’s why we took on fostering, also through a no-kill organization. I’ve written educational plays about pet adoption and reviewed books about animals for a local dog club. One day, I hope to even write a novel about animal rescue. These are my stumbling ways of moving past grief and giving tribute to all the pets who have blessed me with their love and companionship.

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