Saturday, May 1, 2010

Loss and Balance


A friend and her friend's posts on FaceBook recently got me thinking about how we deal with loss, especially as it impacts us with regard to our pets and animals we love.  So, if some of this seems familiar, you may have read it on FaceBook.

My friend has a flock of chickens and loves them each individually.  More times than she would like recently she has found herself in the unenviable position of having to cull a sick hatchling. She has also had to have some very sick chickens put down. All of this is very painful and has her questioning her "toughness".  She has gotten some wonderful support from people who love her, but none of that makes it any easier when she finds herself in an untenable position. 

It got me to wondering about how we cope with the loss of beloved animals in our lives.  Do we toughen up?  Do we simply learn to accept the grieving process?  Do we actually become "better" at grieving?  Lacking a scientific study, although I'm sure there are some available, I decided to look inward to how I've survived the death of four dogs of my own, a cat of ours, and the loss of several dogs belonging to others with whom I bonded in some special way.

I have found it extremely difficult to achieve that balance of toughness and the total abandonment to love my critters and still survive their deaths. 

When my first dog, Blue died I was in shock for a month and then came the tears and pain. She had been the first dog Raymond and I had together and she traveled everywhere with us. She was 14 when she began to exhibit serious health issues and died not long after being diagnosed with both a liver tumor and renal failure. I worked in a Veterinary Clinic at the time and because of demands at work and the Christmas holiday season, I buried my feelings for the first month.  Then, I found myself at a Veterinary Convention at a seminar on "The Human-Animal Bond and Grief".  The speaker was excellent, but half way through her presentation, I had a total emotional collapse and found it difficult to stop sobbing. Though we also had two other dogs at the time, Jake and Baxter, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had somehow let Blue down.  Jake was more honest to his emotions. Blue had been 3 when we added Jake to our family.  She was less than impressed, but he idolized her.  She eventually learned to tolerate Jake, but for him, Blue was always the leader and his buddy. When she died, Jake was present and circled her body, sniffing her and licking. He then went into what I can only describe as a depressive period.  He lost interest in food and toys; spent many hours sleeping; spent less time with his dog friends in play activities. After three months we began visiting shelters because it was clear that Jake "needed" a black dog to help him get over Blue.  That was when we adopted Katie.

When Jake died, I was inconsolable and still cry because I miss him. He was my heart dog. He lived with us from puppyhood until leukemia took him from us in 1999. He was 14 when he died. He was "my dog", although he was lovely to everyone he ever met,  human, canine, feline and rodent. I learned many lessons from Jake, both in his life and in his death. I learned that I can be loved unconditionally by a creature with paws and fur and forgiven when I mess up. But, the pain of losing him caused me to harden my heart a little.  Just a few weeks after Jake's death, my husband was turning 50 and expressed the wish for " a black female Lab". As fate would have it clients at the Vet Hospital where I worked had a litter and there were several black females. Thus, Greyla came to live with us, as "my husband's dog", as I was quick to point out to EVERYONE! I just couldn't open myself up to love her with total abandon. It was too soon after Jake. It has taken me nearly 11 years to recognize the fact that she is, in fact, my dog. Not that she and Raymond don't have a special bond, but down deep, she's really Mommy's girl.   

Baxter was a rescue and lived with us for six years and though I was comforted by the fact that he was well loved in those six years, losing him was painful. He came to us as an answer to my desire for a third dog.  We had Blue and Jake who were thirteen and ten, respectively when Baxter arrived. He was six. He was so happy to have a home and yard and people who took him everywhere they went, that he was thrilled to be low man on the doggie totem pole. And though he finally got his weight up into a normal range for a Lab, he always thought he was a lap dog, which was fine with me. It was very hard to lose him when he was 12 due to a brain tumor. He had quirks which we were never able to correct or even understand, but he was a love. We were almost always a three dog household when Baxter was with us, so maybe that insulated me somewhat from some of the pain I felt at losing Blue and Jake. Or maybe I had already begun to close myself off. I do know that when Baxter died, and we were suddenly a two dog household, it didn't enter my heart or mind to add another. We had our two black girls, that was enough.

In January 2009, we sent Katie across the bridge to reunite with Jake, Baxter and her many doggie friends who had preceded her in death. With Katie, I found that I had walled away a portion of myself as protection, so that when she died, I realized how detached I had been from her, emotionally. I loved her, but I never fully let her into my heart, in spite of the fact that she lived with us for over 12 years and, as with our other dogs, she had traveled everywhere  with us. It was only in letting her go that I realized how much she and I both missed. Perhaps that's when I began to really let Greyla in more completely. 

We have also had a cat. When you work in a Vet Clinic, it seems inevitable that even if you are not a self professed "cat person", you will end up being charged with the welfare of a cat sooner or later. The cat that became ours was a three week old abandoned kitten. Since the placeI worked at was only open in the evening and on week ends, it was determined that I should take the kitten home with me, since we had no other cats and wouldn't have to worry about isolating her.  My plan was to wean her and find her a good home.  Then, I brought her home. My husband fell in love! My oldest dog, Blue, attempted to nurse the kitten! My other dog, Jake, guarded the entrance to the sunporch where we kept her litter box and basket!  Spike became part of the family for the next ten years. She died in an unfortunate accident while we were away on vacation.  And I shed no tears for Spike when she died, which is sad and embarrassing to admit. Am I that hard-hearted?

I have shed tears for cats, though, as well as for rats (the pet variety) and loads of dogs whom I have known in one capacity or another, and some that I have never met, but have only read about.  And I have shed tears for my friend who loves her chickens, gives them all names and finds herself dying a little when she must make hard decisions about the flock.

It has been suggested that perhaps we learn some balance in our loving-grieving cycle as we go through life. It has taken me a long time to really let Greyla into my heart, as I have previously mentioned. But, at least I finally have. Though I fear when her time comes I will again be inconsolable. 

Balance? I can't seem to find it.


  1. (sigh) me either. I don't think there is one correct way for everyone to deal. I think we all deal in different ways, we all have our own personalities, experiences and sensitivities. I, too, have a couple people with chickens on my FB page and two of them had recent deaths in their flock. I was deeply saddened by both, and I've never met their chickens.

  2. It's ok to be inconsolable, imo. And I really do believe we get better at grieving. Not that we learn not to grieve or lower the intensity, but become more productive and accepting in our grieving.

    When I lose my two, I'll be inconsolable too, but even though it'll hurt more than any swear words or tears can express, I still am glad to have had the opportunity to love somebody this intensely and wholly. You know?