It was Rainbow Bridge Remembrance day a few days ago and unfortunately my godmother lost her dog a few days ago.I have lost many pets myself so I thought now would be a good time to discuss pet loss.
Some people have moments in their lives that they define as the loss of their innocence (Not that kind of loss of innocence. Get your minds out of the gutter.) I think I lost my innocence when I was 11 years old. One morning I heard a scream. I looked out the window and saw my fluffy white puppy that I had just gotten two months before lying in the middle of the road with a pool of blood widening beneath her as my brother stood crying on the sidewalk.By the time I rushed down the stairs and out the door my dog had been brought to the other side of the road where my babysitter and some construction workers were standing over her limp body. The person who hit my dog had not even bothered to stop the car after she was hit. I asked my babysitter if my dog was dead and she said yes. And with that my world came crashing down.
That was my first real experience with death. I often hear it said that small children are not able to understand that death is tragic and permanent. I cannot recall a time when I did not realize death was tragic and permanent. However, while I logically knew that one day I would experience the death of a pet that I loved and the death of a human that I loved, I engaged in a kind of magical thinking, that tragedies were things that happened to other people, not to me.
I went to school late that day. Many people expressed sympathy for me when I told them my dog died and many people just didn’t know what to say. I held it together until the end of the school day but when my mom came to pick me up and gave me the look that acknowledged that our dog had died I lost it. I put my head down on my desk and sobbed.
No one had ever told me that life was fair but this seemed particularly unfair. I had been begging my parents for a dog for years. I finally got one and then two months later she died in a tragic accident. There was also the issue that I’d only had her for two months. When I told people that my dog died they would often ask how long I’d had her for and some people flat out asked me if I’d had her for a long time. I felt uncomfortable telling them I’d only had her for two months because it made me feel as though I was not entitled to my grief, as though there was no reason for me to be so upset over the loss of a pet that I’d had for such a short period of time.
I felt that I understood death pretty well as a child but there were some things about grief I did not fully understand. Just like there is no time limit on how long you can grieve the loss of a loved one, there is no minimal amount of time that you’re required to spend with a loved one in order to grieve the loss of them. Losing a pet that you had for two months might sometimes hurt less than losing a pet you’ve had for ten years but sometimes it hurts just as much and sometimes it hurts more.
My lack of understanding of grief caused me to say something that really makes me cringe when I think about it. A friend of mine who was consoling me about the loss of my dog told me she needed to go console her other friend who had lost her hamster. I replied “Losing a hamster is not as bad as losing a dog.” Yikes.
I was a very uncoordinated kid and would have failed miserably at any sport I played but I would have been better off attempting soccer than attempting to compete in the grief Olympics because that is one shitty sport to play. I was only 11 years old when I tried to compete in the grief Olympics but unfortunately there are many adults who have done the same. I’ve seen online debates about whether a miscarriage is as bad as a stillbirth and I can not think of a more pointless waste of cyber space.
I think Emily Rapp said it best in The Still Point of the Turning World. It’s her memoir about losing her son Ronan. When Ronan was 9 months old he was diagnosed with Tay Sachs, a degenerative and fatal disease. She watched as Ronan experienced physical and cognitive decline, as he lost his ability to see, to eat on his own, to breathe on his own, to sit up, to move his arms and legs. He died shortly before his third birthday.
I knew it would be emotionally difficult to read a book about a small child dying from a horrible disease but I thought it might help me come to terms with my own losses, both animal and human. I thought that in watching Ronan die Emily had experienced the worst loss anyone could possibly experience. I thought that reading about her loss would put my own losses in perspective. This woman had lost a child. I had just lost some pets, grandparents and a stepbrother. My losses were insignificant compared to hers. This woman had managed to deal with the loss of a child so it should be easy for me to deal with the loss of a dog. Emily showed me how flawed my thinking was.
While Ronan was dying, Emily would read memoirs about grief and loss but she would often come away from those books feeling furious. Those books were about losing a spouse, a parent, a dog. She was losing a child. Her loss was so much worse. Then she realized that this idea that grief existed on some ladder of loss with the loss of a goldfish at the bottom rung of the ladder and the loss of a child at the top rung of the ladder was a ludicrous notion. What if the goldfish that died belonged to a five-year-old who was having his first experience with death and his parents had to explain the concept of death to him? Did that bump Goldie’s death up a few rungs on the ladder? What if the child, parent or spouse was suffering for a long time before they died? What if they weren’t suffering at all before they died? Did that bump the loss up or down on the ladder? Did the people who were on the top of the ladder experience authentic, earth shattering grief while the people at the bottom of the ladder were just super sad? She concluded that loss like any profound human experience is not quantifiable and if there did exist a competition for grief, who would want to win it?
I read that as someone who had never had a child but I was still a bit incredulous. There had to be a “grief ladder” and anyone who had lost a child had to automatically get placed on a higher rung than someone who had lost a pet. They just had to because losing a child was so much worse. And yet the more I thought about this concept of the “grief ladder” the more I realized just how right Emily Rapp was.
I realized that even if we did decide that someone who had lost a child automatically got a higher rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a pet how would we then divide up the rungs among the types of child loss? Why would a stillbirth be worse than a miscarriage? What if the woman who had a miscarriage desperately wanted children and felt strongly bonded with her baby from day one while the woman who had a stillbirth had never felt much of a bond with her baby and had never really wanted children? Would they then have to switch rungs on the grief ladder? Would Emily Rapp get the higher rung for losing her small child to a devastating disease that had been taking her son from her for years or would that rung go to the guy whose three-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident?
Why had I decided that losing a dog was worse than losing a hamster? A hamster was a tiny animal and a dog was a big animal but if that’s the case was losing a golden retriever worse than losing a chihuahua? In general dogs tended to be more responsive and affectionate than hamsters but what if we were talking about an exceptionally affectionate hamster and an exceptionally aloof dog? Dogs were canines and hamsters were rodents but then I would have to decide how I felt about people who lost their pet mouse, gerbil or guinea pig. Did they get a higher or lower rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a hamster? I felt like I was not entitled to my grief because I had only had my dog for two months but this girl had her hamster for longer than I’d had my dog.
While I was in the process of writing this blog and after I had written the section on the concept of the grief ladder my mother decided to express her belief in the existence of the grief ladder. She told me that someone who had experienced a stillbirth did not have it as bad as her friend who had lost a child to SIDS when he was five months old and losing a child in utero was even less bad. Was she fucking kidding me with that shit? After I expressed that sentiment to her in slightly nicer words she informed me that she knew what she was talking about because she thought she might lose me to ectopic pregnancy and she thought she was going to lose me again to premature labor. The thought of losing me to premature labor was so much worse. So because she knew how she felt about her own threatened losses she got to decide how someone else felt about their actual losses? She got to decide that one person’s loss wasn’t as bad as another person’s?
It doesn’t work like that. Emily Rapp nailed it. The concept of a grief ladder is nonsense. Complete and total nonsense.
As the days, weeks and months passed after the death of my first dog, I began to feel a bit better. There was still sadness but the sadness didn’t feel as crushing or all encompassing. Still, there were times when I was hit by waves of intense grief. One day a group of seeing eye dog trainers came in to my classroom with the seeing eye dog puppies they were training. I was reminded of my puppy and I started crying. I had to leave the classroom and see a school psychologist. That psychologist was a kind and funny person who made me feel better.
A few months after my first dog died I got a second dog. There are people who think you can just replace one pet with another, that once you get another pet you won’t miss the first pet because you won’t even notice the difference. I have never felt that way. Getting a new pet can help with the grief and you may love the new pet as much as you loved the first pet but the second pet is not a replacement for the first pet. You will notice the difference because every pet is different. Every pet has qualities and characteristics that cannot be entirely replicated by another pet. Not many people would say that you could replace a human friend with another human friend, a lover with another lover or a relative with another relative. I feel the same way about pets. Many years later when I was facing the prospect of a pet loss not from death, but because a relative of mine was threatening to keep the dog someone else told me to give up on fighting for the dog because I could just get another dog. I told that person that would happen over my dead body.
I did love my second dog but in addition to her not being a replacement for my first dog, I was terrified of losing her in the same way. There’s a memoir about grief called The Year of Magical Thinking*. I think that the year after my first dog died was a year of magical thinking. Before my dog died I engaged in the magical thinking that tragedies happened to other people, not to me. After my dog died I decided that she had died because I had never thought anything like that would happen to me. God or the universe or whatever force was out there had punished me for that type of magical thinking so I substituted it with another type of magical thinking: If I constantly worried about my dog being hit by a car that would protect her from being hit by a car just as much as the fence we put around our yard would. My year of magical thinking came to an end in the worst possible way.
One day we came home and couldn’t find my dog. We didn’t understand how she could have gotten out since we had a fence around the yard. Than we saw that construction workers had left a pile of rubble near the fence and realized she had used that pile of rubble to jump over the fence. My babysitter and I searched the neighborhood for her while my brother and my mother stayed home. When I got home my brother was sobbing. He screamed to me that our dog was dead. The nightmare was happening all over again.
An animal control worker had called to deliver the bad news. She had seen my dog running on the streets and had tried desperately to catch her but had been unable to do so before she was hit by a car. Once again the person who hit her didn’t bother to stop the car. The animal control worker approached my dog as she lay bleeding on the street and my dog, who had never bitten anyone before, bit her. She tried desperately to save my dog’s life but was unable to. She told us how sorry she was. She knew about the death of our last dog and when she saw that we were putting up a fence she thought this dog would be safe. My mother asked if she knew anyone else who had two dogs who were killed by cars and she said she did not.
There’s a quote that says something along the lines of “To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose both parents looks like carelessness.” The quote is meant ironically and it’s meant to poke fun of the kind of people who would actually say something like that but being the literal minded child that I was, I took it literally. I had lost two dogs in the exact same way within a short period of time. No one else had lost two dogs like that so it had to have been my fault that my dogs had died. It had to have happened because I was so careless and irresponsible.
When I lost my first dog I told everyone at school about it. When I lost my second dog I did not tell a soul. This time in addition to grief and sadness I felt shame and embarrassment. My family members and I were fools who were foolish enough to lose two dogs in the same manner. Some of the people at school knew about the death of my first dog. If I told them about the death of my second dog I could imagine them thinking “Seriously? You lost another dog in a car accident? Did you learn nothing the first time?’
Unfortunately this was not just a thought in my head, it wasn’t an instance of thinking people were more critical and judgmental than they actually were. When my mom sent an e-mail to an animal rescue inquiring about adopting another dog the woman in charge of the rescue replied by saying that she would not give a dog to someone who had lost two dogs in the manner that we had because we were obviously irresponsible pet owners. We obviously had a lot to think about before we adopted another pet.
Last year I was talking about my dogs who had been killed by cars and about my bad luck with pets. Someone told me that I would have trouble adopting another dog from a rescue. She said that she’d lost multiple dogs in a short period of time but her dogs had died of disease or old age. She said the rescues were okay with those kinds of deaths but they looked at repeated accidents very closely. Someone else told me I should stop thinking of the deaths of my pets as “bad luck” and start thinking of ways to prevent the deaths of future pets. At that point it had been about 20 years since my dogs had been killed by cars but those comment really raised my hackles.
You see that kind of thing all the time. When a little boy falls in to a gorilla enclosure at the zoo and is grabbed by a gorilla many people decide that it’s because his mother was negligent and was not watching him closely enough, was not taking the proper precautions to prevent something like that from happening. Things like that only happen to the children of bad parents, irresponsible parents, parents who are not careful. That kind of thing would never happen to the children of these people because they are good parents. They are careful parents, responsible parents, parents who take the proper precautions to ensure their child’s safety. Therefore something like that would never happen to their child and their child will always remain safe.
It’s another form of magical thinking. People engage in it because they don’t want to acknowledge the truth. The terrifying truth about living is that bad things don’t just happen to good people. They happen to careful people, responsible people, people who take all the proper precautions and do all the right things. You can do things that will reduce the probability of tragedy occurring but you can not prevent tragedy from happening. Despite all your careful plans and precautions, tragedy can strike at any moment and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The person or animal you love most in the world might suddenly die in a tragic accident. You might get no forewarning of their death and you might not get the chance to say goodbye. None of the thoughts you have or don’t have about the possibility of tragedy striking will cause tragedy to strike and none of them will prevent tragedy from striking.
Since the loss of my first two dogs I have lost many other pets. Some losses were more difficult than others but there was not a single loss that did not hurt me in some way. There was not a single loss that I did not grieve in some way. With some of the losses came some difficult, messy, complicated, feelings. Sometimes I questioned whether I was entitled to my grief. When I lost my parakeets I questioned whether I had a reason to be so upset over their deaths when they were just little birds, not dogs or cats. My therapist then told me about the hamster and the goldfish that were buried next to her son.
Sometimes when my pets died I didn’t blame myself for their deaths but I blamed other people. There was the time my babysittter poured my tadpoles down the drain because she thought we had insects swimming in a fish bowl in our bathroom. There was the babysitter who swore that she had just fed my fish fish food, not neutralizer but the color of my fish said otherwise (those babysitters had never been the sharpest tools in the shed.) There was the time my cleaning lady killed my parakeets by closing the door after she sprayed her cleaning lady fumes. There was the time my dad decided he had found the perfect solution to the squeaking noise my mice were making by running on their wheel and that solution was to coat the wheel with oil, oil that got all over the mice. I told my dad the oil was going to kill them and he said that for every mouse that died he would buy me three new mice. He did not keep that promise but twelve mice would have been a bit excessive.
At first I was angry at those people for killing my pets but I realized I needed to let go of that anger because holding on to that anger was not going to bring my pets back and it was just going to damage my relationships with those people. Those people had killed my pets by accident. If they had killed my pets on purpose it would have been an entirely different story. If you come home one day and find your friend, lover or relative boiling your pet bunny on the stove you have every right to be angry at that person for a long time and it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from that person.
Speaking of pet bunnies, my mother is a saint for expressing nothing but sadness and compassion when my rabbit died. She hated that damn rabbit and found her to be the biggest pain in the butt. She was dreading having to take care of that rabbit herself when I went away to college. My rabbit died shortly before I graduated high school. When we buried my rabbit I knew that my mother was thinking “Thank god that stupid rabbit died just in the nick of time!” but she put on a sad face and said that she loved my rabbit. If someone you love experiences the loss of a pet that you hate I suggest following my mother’s lead.
Today was the anniversary of my stepbrother’s death. My stepbrother died shortly after we got Dakota. Dakota was there for me when I was grieving my stepbrother’s death. Dakota was my best friend and my constant companion at a time when I did not have many human friends to interact with. Five years after my stepbrother died Dakota also died in a tragic accident.
Dakota slept with me on my bed every night and there was nothing I found more comforting than the feeling of her warm body snuggled up next to mine. I have a new dog named Lily that I like to snuggle in bed with but my stepfather takes her away from me and brings her in to his room. We have a deal that before I go to sleep Lily comes back in to my room. Sometimes my stepfather puts up a fight about sticking to that deal and I will usually fight with him tooth and nail to take Lily in to my room. Last night I let my stepfather keep Lily in his room because he was going through a difficult time.
I woke up this morning without a warm, fuzzy animal snuggled against me. I thought of my stepbrother and of his death. His absence was palpable and it filled me with sadness. I thought of Dakota and her death. Her absence was palpable and filled me with sadness. I felt a bit guilty because for me Dakota’s absence was just as palpable as my stepbrother’s was and filled me with just as much if not more sadness.
After Dakota died we searched Petfinder for another dog. We were drawn to a black dog who had been waiting for a home for over a year. Her description said “She LOVES to be snuggled! All of her. She isn’t satisfied just sitting by you, touching you, getting pet. She wants both hands, eye contact, and if she can, her whole entire body on your lap! She is both obsessive and tenacious!”
This sounded like our kind of dog. When we called about her her foster parents seemed thrilled that someone was expressing an interest in her. When we went to see the dog she was wary and cautious of us at first. She barked at us and she kept her distance. Her foster mother said that because of the way she barked and snarled at people when she first met them they had stopped bringing her to adoption events and had just hoped that someone would read her description on Petfinder and decide to give her a chance. Her foster mom acknowledged that she could be shy, guarded and aggressive at first. She acknowledged that sometimes when you did something she didn’t like or she wanted something from you she could be sassy and demanding.
However, once she got used to you and you gained your trust, she was very sweet, loving and affectionate. We began to gain her trust with dog treats. After a few minutes she began to warm up to us. As the minutes passed on she began to live up to her description in her adoption profile. She sprawled herself across all of our laps at once, she leaned her whole body in to ours, she pawed at our hands, she showered our cheeks with kisses and she gave us love bites on our chin. Perhaps this was part of the reason she had gone so long without being adopted. Perhaps other people were turned off by a dog that was so intensely affectionate and so demanding in her need for affection but she seemed like the perfect dog for us. We had an appointment to see another dog the next day but we canceled that appointment because we knew that this was the dog we wanted.
I wanted this dog not just because she was a great dog but because she was me in canine form. I tend to be shy, guarded and sometimes even aggressive at first. If someone does something I don’t like or I want something from them it’s not uncommon for me to give them a sassy and belligerent attitude. People sometimes perceive me as being cold and uncaring.
Yet if you gain my trust and if I decide that I love you, I might remind you all the time just how much I love you. I might shower you with a million hugs and kisses a day, I might want to touch you and cuddle up against you at all times. I don’t think I’m exactly the best friend anyone could ever have, the best relative anyone could ever have or the best pet owner anyone could ever have. However, I think I am capable of loving with the kind of love that is fierce and unconditional, the kind of love that is non-judgmental and emotionally honest, the kind of love that pets often give. There have been some animals in my life and there have been some people in my life who have been lucky enough to receive that kind of love. I do not think I would have been capable of giving that kind of love without my pets.
When Dakota died and I was talking to a psychologist about how devastated I was over her death, the psychologist pointed out that Dakota had taught me unconditional love. I inwardly rolled my eyes at that psychologist and pointed out that while Dakota may have taught me about unconditional love, she could have easily taught me about unconditional love by dying peacefully of old age. The only thing I had learned as a result of her suffocating on a chip bag when she was about 7 years old, a month after I had moved halfway across the country, a month after I had faced the prospect of my stepfather taking her away from me, was that life could be very cruel and unpredictable.
For a long time I thought that it was only the lives of my pets that had taught me about loving honestly ,unconditionally and demonstratively. I thought that the deaths of my pets, especially the deaths that were tragic and untimely, had caused me nothing but pain and suffering. Now I realize that I learned something about love not just from the lives of my pets but from their deaths as well.
When Dakota passed away I was very sad that she died in the manner that she did and I was very sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye but my mother pointed out that I did not have to regret not letting Dakota know how loved and appreciated she was, how grateful I was to have her in my life because I reminded her of that every day just like she made me feel loved and appreciated every day. I think that since Dakota’s death I’ve become capable of loving even more deeply and appreciatively.
I’ve realized that since life can be crazy, cruel and unpredictable, since at any moment an animal or human that you love and cherish can be snatched away from you by a car, a chip bag or whatever random tragedy the world throws at you, since you might not get a chance to say goodbye to your loved one, you should keep reminding them just how much you love them and just how grateful you are to have them in your life.
*To be perfectly blunt, a lot of people who have experienced loss write grief memoirs and a lot of people who read those memoirs pretend that they like them and that they’re good books because they don’t want to say anything mean to someone who has experienced a devastating loss. The truth is that while the pain of those peoples’ losses is very real and the lessons they learned from those losses are also real, the books they write about those losses are just not good books and they’re not well written. The Year of Magical Thinking and The Still Point of the Turning World are very good books that are very well written. I would consider both of those books to be essential reading for anyone who is interested in learning about grief and loss.