It Fucking Sucks When Your Dog Dies: Notes on Grief

My dog is on death row today. I’m sitting here waiting for the 2:30 PM euthanasia appointment I made for her. She has a tumor in her bladder. I didn’t know about it until a week ago when she went out to go to the bathroom late at night and came back in obvious pain. The next day was a nightmare. It was impossible to get her in to see a vet that has an ultrasound on short notice. I had to wait until the emergency vet opened at 5pm. They said they couldn’t determine if there was a blood clot in her bladder or a tumor that had ruptured the night before. They said to try antibiotics and hope it’s not a tumor, but if this doesn’t work then there’s little they can do for a dog her age. I held out hope, but I was pretty sure right away that it was a tumor. I knew from a urine test she had done earlier in the day by a different vet that she didn’t have the level of white blood cells in her urine to indicate a severe UTI. She did seem a little better the next day (thanks to the painkillers she was on, no doubt), but then she started to deteriorate. The pain in her abdomen is so severe that she is having trouble walking and I have to pick her up to get her on the couch or to help her get down stairs.

Making the decision to euthanize her was extraordinarily difficult. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. It’s still difficult. I keep having to check in with people to reassure me that it’s the right thing to do. She does still seem to enjoy a plate of chicken livers or some good cuddles, but I know very well that dogs hide their pain from their owners. If she’s in enough pain that she’s struggling to walk on her own, it’s better for her to go peacefully than to continue to deteriorate.

I underestimated how hard this decision was going to be. I believe in euthanasia. I teach Intro to Ethics every year and I think about it a lot. I am not conflicted in theory. But when it comes to making decisions about my own animal–who has been my near constant companion for more than a quarter of my life–wow, did my confidence crumble. She can’t tell me what she wants. She can’t tell me how bad the pain is. She can’t tell me if it’s worth it to her to spend a few more nights in pain in order to eat more chicken livers and get more cuddles. I have to decide, and I have to decide on the basis of inconclusive evidence. If I waited for the evidence to become conclusive, that would guarantee putting her through extreme pain.

I did not have a bad year last year when so many others did. I have always harbored the fantasy of really and truly settling in to watch as many movies as I want to, and last year that fantasy came true. This year, on the other hand, is hot fucking garbage. My dad died, our evil university administrators are preparing to rain hellfire on the humanities, and now I’m losing my dog. I am managing to hover above the abyss of self-pity, but it takes a lot of effort. I don’t ever hesitate to cry. I call all the time. But this year is a new record for tears shed, and it’s not close. When Cry Macho comes out in October, I’m gonna be there for the first showing with my tissues ready and I’m gonna cry some fucking more.

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I moved to Missoula in 2008 with nothing but a Subaru, some books and dvds, and six months of sobriety. It was an absolutely momentous time in my life. I had lived in Upstate NY for 21 years and Princeton NJ for 5 years and here I was, heading out west to make my own way in the world. I had one old friend in town and while it was nice to know SOMEONE, he and I didn’t really jive the way we used to when we were both drinking and it wasn’t enough of a friendship to fill up my whole social life, even for a little while. Before long I made a couple more friends on my own initiative, but there is no question that those first few years in Missoula were the loneliest time of my life. Adjusting to life without alcohol was not easy, and the combination of loneliness and no booze compounded the challenge, especially given how outrageously drunk Missoula’s social scene was back then (it’s still pretty drunk, but it’s gotten tamer as the town has been yuppified– you should have seen the Top Hat on a Wednesday before they made it all bougie). I made some efforts at online dating and that generally made things worse rather than better (though it was at least not boring!), and after about a year of that I was ready to become more emotionally self-contained and get a dog to keep me company. I went to the pound to scope out the scene and see if maybe there were some cool dogs. It was love at first sight.

Every dog in the place was barking wildly except Cleo, who was sitting politely, looking pretty and smiling. I took her for a short walk and she was so good right away! She didn’t pull on the leash or anything. When we got back to the shelter I let her off leash in the courtyard and sat down to see what she would do. She sniffed around a little then walked right over and started licking my face. I was like “okay, I’ll take you home, you win.” But I had a landlord at the time. I drove straight over and asked his permission. He was cool about it, and within an hour she was mine.

She was 1 year old and we had a solid 11 years together. The story is simple: we lived in Montana and she had a great time being a dog. Many of my friends got to know her well and everyone who’s not a monster completely loved her. She could be clingy and stubborn, but she was the most affectionate dog I’ve ever known. One time she cornered a bunny and I panicked. She licked the bunny gently. That’s how she was with cats as well. She absolutely loved little kids and was always so careful and gentle with them.

When my dad died, Cleo helped me more than I could possibly say. My wife Angela goes to bed a lot earlier than I do. While she goes to bed at like 8pm, I stay up till more like 1 or 2am. Those 5 or 6 hours alone in the night might have been unbearable if I didn’t have Cleo taking care of me– licking tears off my face and keeping me company.

I learned a lot about grief this year. I’ve lost plenty of people in my life, but no one anywhere near the level of my dad. I always imagined that the hardest part would be missing him and longing to see him and talk to him again. And it’s true that those things are huge. But they are not the main thing. The main thing is how incredibly easy it is to put out of my mind for a little while that he’s gone and how utterly crushing it is each and every time I am reminded. I get back into the flow of life– running with Cleo, getting some work done, cooking Thai food, rewatching Fast and Furious movies– and then suddenly I hear a Bob Dylan song on the radio and remember him playing his guitar and singing “Lay, Lady, Lay” and it just knocks me over. I become vividly aware yet again of this new reality where my dad is just gone. Every time I put the loss out of my mind, I am setting myself up to experience it anew.

I’m not looking forward to adding grief about Cleo to the mix. Grief fucking sucks. It is in the running for my least favorite emotion. There are moments when it’s beautiful and poignant and I feel the full weight of life in a way that puts everything that doesn’t really matter into perspective and reminds me to call my mom and tell her I love her. But it’s also just an extraordinarily brutal thing to mix into one’s daily life. I’ve gone for a run with Cleo nearly every morning for MANY YEARS. I will now be going for runs alone. I can tell you right now that I am going to have to avoid the busier sections of the trail because I’m just going to be sobbing and I won’t want to have to nod and smile at strangers. And what do you do with the spot on the floor where your dog’s bed has been sitting for the entire time you’ve owned the house? You don’t leave the dog’s bed there, that’s for sure. But do I put something else there? Do I leave it empty? Either way it is going to be a spot on the floor that causes me a huge amount of pain on a daily basis. If it’s empty, it will be palpably empty. If there’s something useful there, it will be a punch in the gut every time I use it. If there’s something not useful there…. I mean what’s not useful that I might have a reason to put there and that I wouldn’t worry about breaking? If I think of something, I’ll put it there.

I learned this year that grief is something you just have to take on the chin. The dilemma about what to do with the spot on the floor hits me so hard because I know in advance that I am going to have to go through a long series of emotionally difficult episodes relating to that spot on the floor. Distracting myself from it just sets me up for even more pain when it finally does intrude into my awareness, which it will. Many negative emotions involve a sense of hope that they will come to an end. When I’m afraid of something, for instance, I often have an impulse to “get it over with” so that I don’t have to be afraid anymore. Grief isn’t like that. Grief doesn’t promise shit except that it’s not going anywhere. It might slip into hiding for a little while, but for the rest of my life certain things will reliably remind me of my dad or sweet ol’ Cleo, and every time I will feel a renewed sense of loss. Fucking sucks. To my friends who loved Cleo: she loved you, too. Please don’t worry about me and please don’t take this post as a request for condolences. I’m all condolenced out, to be honest. I know y’all care, and it means a lot.

3 thoughts on “It Fucking Sucks When Your Dog Dies: Notes on Grief”

  1. This made me cry. I’ve been through it four times in the past twenty years, and you capture the essence of the experience.

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  2. I am so, so sorry for your loss. I honestly feel your pain. It’s so hard. In January 2020, I had to put my 16 y/o lab cross down. She was actually 15 yrs, 11 months. I was so hard. The guilt is unimaginable. You know what’s coming, but they don’t. I still haven’t gotten over her. Tearing up as I type. I loved her so much. I try to think about the good life I gave her. A home. A warm bed. Food. Water. Vet care. Most importantly, love. I know this might not be consolation, but if you’re writing this post, it’s because you were a good owner, and I’m sure she knew it.

    Liked by 1 person

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