Dogs and Grief

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We are a dog family.

I had dogs growing up as a kid. My wife and I got our first dog soon after buying our first house. His name was Wayne, but we changed it to Kane because his name was WAYNE.

Your first dog is the dog by which all other dogs are measured, and Kane set the bar high. We adopted him from the Robert Potter League for Animals in Middletown, RI, where Meg and I worked before starting dating.

Kane was a full-grown shepherd mix, about a year old when we adopted him. I remember approaching him in his cage – he cowered slightly and turned his head quickly towards my hand as I tried to clip the leash to his collar. Clearly, he could have bitten me if he wanted, but his intention was to inform, not injure – a way of stating we are not well-enough acquainted for you to approach so casually and clip a leash on me. His eyes seemed to say, “I’ve seen friends of mine leave on a leash and never come back.”

For some people, Kane’s reaction would have been a deal-breaker – an excuse to walk away or visit the friendly Beagle-mix two cages down. But I was not willing to give up on Kane. So I backed up slowly and sat down at the opposite corner of the cage, and Kane and I regarded one another like potential enemies who might one day become best friends – a future to be determined in the next few minutes.

I maintained an un-threatening posture, relaxed, head down, making eye contact only occasionally. Kane seemed a skeptic but open to negotiation. Finally, after several minutes of détente, I patted my hand gently on the cold concrete floor, gesturing for Kane to make the journey across the cell. He wagged his tail slightly – one of those “rattler” wags, where just the first few inches of the tail moves rapidly back and forth, while rest remains dormant and unsure. Then, Kane stood, lowered his head somewhat submissively, and approached slow and steady, the wag finding its way through the rest of his tail. 

He regarded me in a friendly manner when he sat, dissipated skepticism replaced with trust and hope.

This time when I went to put the leash on, Kane lowered his head and gently leaned in – and that was it. The deal was sealed. I knew that instant that Kane would be coming home with me.

Of all the dogs we have had, Kane was the most loyal. We would let him out the front door, and he would just sit or lie down on the steps – if he ever wanted to run off, he never let on. So for about 2 years, it was just Meg, Me, and Kane. We took him to Colt state park for long walks, to many-a high school baseball fields to play fetch – he bonded quickly and totally to us.

Even though he was our first, Kane knew (instinctively it seem to me) that when baby number one arrived, he would be relegated to a lower rung on the ladder, and he accepted his demotion with grace – if such a thing is possible for a dog.

He was a constant companion to Jake and Liam growing up. When our boys ventured across the street, Kane would always tag along, trotting slowly behind them, setting up watch on a corner of the neighbor’s lot – he would never intrude on the kickball or whiffle ball or basketball or football or Pokémon card trading activities. Instead, he would just stay close and observe – with an air of guardianship and responsibility.

At around 12 years of age, Kane began suffering from congestive heart failure. I remember driving him to Ocean State Veterinary Clinic several times that year, where a vet would work a needle into Kane’s chest to draw fluid from his lungs. It was miraculous how well he would respond – giving us several more months of friendship and companionship before falling ill again. We were told by the vet that this procedure would work only for so long that eventually scar tissue would form and prevent them from drawing fluid. Futility and the inevitable snuggled up to one another. We knew we were running out of time with Kane. We knew we would have to put him down. When that time came, I was 42, old enough to have experienced some loss in life – loved ones, a parent, relatives, friends, and colleagues.

The longer you stick around in life, the better acquainted you get with death. Each time death pays a visit to someone you know, you gain a little more perspective until eventually, begrudgingly, you accept that death is part of the equation. 

I’ve never felt more bereft with grief than when we had to put Kane down. I always described it as “Profound Grief” (capital P capital G) – grief that knocks you down, wrecks you, and just leaves you in a heap for some time.

We’ve had to part with two other dogs since Kane – and the grief was no less – not one scintilla. But, unfortunately, when it comes to death and dogs, the death equation does not hold up. The experience did not prepare me or soften the blow. It was still like being hit in the heart with a hammer.

So why does the family dog’s death hurt so much? What is it about our relationships with our dogs that makes their death so poignantly and consistently painful?

I think it has to do with the dynamics – the one-sidedness of the relationship. This is not to say that we don’t love our dogs – we do – but they love us more (or at least that is what registers in our brains), and they love us “regardless” – regardless of our faults, foibles, and frailties.

Over that 10 to 12 year span, we experience (over and over and over again) unconditional love and non-judgmental friendship, which (let’s face it) is so unlike the relationships we have with the people in our lives (even the ones we love the most – especially the ones we love the most).

Every one of our experiences (the good, bad, and indifferent) is processed and stored as memories. Our brain never sleeps – so all of this processing and storing is going on 24 7. This means that every single time you were greeted by your dog, tail wagging, eyes smiling, regardless of how shitty your day was, regardless of whether you ignore him or not, all those “I’m so happy to see you” moments are stored. And when it comes time to put our dogs down, the packaging containing every one of those experiences unravels, the memories spill out, and we are forced to face the loss of the one relationship in our lives that seemed pure to us.

How could this not wreck you?

3 Comments

  1. Nice essay. It explains one of the several reasons I do not have a dog. Another is the requirement that when you walk them, you pick up piles of warm dog crap and carry it home in a little bag. The last time I had a dog, that was not yet a requirement. Then there is the temperament question. Not all dogs are sweet and lovable. My last dog was a bit of a jerk–vicious to other dogs, and not fond of my infant granddaughter. That dog’s demise was Julia’s first experience with death, although she was too young to comprehend it. I’m glad she wasn’t five years old, like I was when my first dog ran out the front door and immediately got run over my a car. One minute I was playing with that dog, and the next minute he was dead in the street, and I was screaming with grief. That was a bad day.

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  2. Hi Geof! I just read this for the first time when Jim Granger posted it. What an amazing piece!! You really captured the feeling that I go through all the time with Barnsey (and he’s still here) I am overwhelmed by the depths of love and loyalty he shows me. I try my best to be worthy, to be his perfect world, but I know he just does it better. I rescued Barnsey (he had been shot twice by an Idaho rancher) over 11 years ago and it has just been the two of us. Mark and I have been dating for two years and thank goodness the two of them are as thick as thieves. I am trying to prepare for the inevitable as Barns is over 12 years old. I had a scare a while back and realized I hadn’t even considered the possibility of a day without Barn’s love. It will wreck me, but your article makes me feel like I’m not the crazy dog lady, rather a lady loved like crazy by a dog! Thanks and a big hello to your family. Jodi

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    1. Hi Jodi! Thanks for the kind words. I have seen many pictures of Barnsey — what a handsome guy he is! How great it is that you rescued him — and that he has provided you with so much love and companionship.

      We adopted a pit-bull mix from Second Chance Rescue NYC about a year and a half ago — her name is Pepsi and she is great – was quick to bond to the family — we all love her so much.

      Thanks again!

      Geof

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