Category Archives: Pet Loss

Welcoming Love: One Small Part of Moving On

Last month I wrote about moving on after my dog died

Moving on, photoI’d like to share how it’s been working out. It might be just me, but I do find that once I open up to an experience, I seem to be granted the opportunity pretty quickly! Having decided that it was time to at least start thinking about welcoming the love of another dog into our lives, my husband and I (well, okay, mostly I!) allowed ourselves to surf the various local dog rescue websites. We knew a few things about our limits – no dogs with so much emotional baggage this time that they couldn’t be trusted with other dogs or people. We wanted an adult, or even a senior dog that was already known to be safe with cats. Oh yes – we also both wanted at least a medium sized dog. Famous last words!

Picture after picture, story after story

The number of dogs that need a home is staggering, and heartbreaking. But not every one of them would be happy with us, nor would we be happy with all of them. Boundaries can be tough to hold on to when you’re confronted with suffering. I had to remind myself many times that, even if I’d feel really good about rescuing a dog from Iran or Thailand, I wouldn’t know until they were with us if they would be a good match for our household, and that handling some of their issues would create a level of stress for us that would therefore create stress for them too.

Being self-compassionate is not selfish.

 A regret I still hold about our life with Audrey is that her emotional issues probably would have been better served in a family with no cats, or by an owner more savvy with fear-based aggression. We did our best, and she knew she was loved, and I also know that our best wasn’t always THE best. It was good enough. With a new dog, I wanted to be better prepared and less impulsive, while still following my heart. It’s been an interesting balancing act.

Fast forward (really, really fast…)Big love

So somehow we found ourselves looking at an organization that rescues Greyhounds when they can no longer race … and there’s this lovely fellow with a missing toe and eyes like a deer … Welcome home, Aodhán! (Which we’re pronouncing Aidan, possibly incorrectly, but we don’t think he cares much.)

“The 40-mile-an-hour Couch Potato”

 I am learning a great deal about Greyhounds at this point. Aodhán is definitely “at least” a medium sized dog – not quite Great Dane sized, but awfully tall nonetheless. In between bursts of manic playfulness he spends hours and hours asleep. I would like to move towards inviting him to join me in the office, to keep me (and those clients who are willing to have him) company. He needs a bit more work on polite manners, and I think he’ll be great when we get there. He’s not taking up the space in my heart that Audrey left; he is creating his own space there, and I find that there’s room for them both. It wouldn’t be true to say she would have liked him – she didn’t like any dogs – but somewhere in her Wolfhound soul I’m pretty sure she is glad that at least we got another long-legged sighthound!

I’ll let you know when he’s ready to join the Open Hearth Studio staff. Until then, keep your tail wagging!

Moving on: Good-bye Audrey New love, moving on

 

Am I Ready For a New Dog? Moving On After Loss

How long should this take? Am I supposed to be moving on already?

 

red heart, broken with threaded stitches

These questions come up for my clients all the time, regardless of whether they’re grieving the end of a relationship, a big change in their circumstances, or the death of someone deeply important to them. “How long am I supposed to feel this way?” “Someone told me I had to wait a year – when am I allowed to make some big decisions?” “How do I know I’m ready to have a new relationship?” “People are telling me I need to be moving on already.” And for me, for a couple of months now, “Am I ready to welcome a new dog into my heart?” “Can I handle having to go through falling in love again, knowing I’ll just have to watch another friend die?”

Moving on doesn’t mean the end of the feelings.

A few months after our dog Audrey’s death, I had to acknowledge that sticking with my intention to keep going for a healthy walk by myself every Should I be moving on?morning wasn’t happening. I didn’t like being out there without company, I hated bumping into my feelings every time I passed landmarks like where we were when I first saw the symptoms of her cancer, and the ice-cream joint where we shared her last treat, and I was also frankly enjoying the freedom NOT to get up ridiculously early because an elderly doggy bladder needed me to. Yet as time went on, I began to identify another feeling upon waking up, sometimes even at 6 am – a tiny hint of an urge to get out there anyway, the desire to move. I mostly just watched that feeling, and didn’t act on it. I would go to considerable lengths to convince myself not to get up. “It’s too cold; it’s too dark; I need sleep/rest more than exercise; it’s probably dangerous out there without a dog.” I noticed the same messages would play even at a really good time for a walk on a warm sunny evening. “I should stay home and work this evening instead.”

After all, it’s always far easier to stay stuck…

…in a warm bed, or in patterns that feel safe, but really aren’t. By refusing to walk or have a more balanced life, I wasn’t even avoiding the feelings of sadness. Instead I was actually doubling my pain. No exercise, increasing stress, and a life tilting more towards “all work and no play” – all things I thought I’d already handled! Time for using the tools I had been ignoring, right? I have to thank my husband for a small off-hand comment on one walk that I did go on with him. He said something about how I was walking made him imagine that I was holding Audrey on a leash next to us. It was sweet and funny. It made tears come to my eyes, and suddenly it also made everything feel lighter.

I love how imagination let me see a new way through.

Silhouette of dog and master - what if she'd like me to start moving on?I thought: What if I did let myself play with the idea that she was here, and that she’d like me to get going? What if I said to myself, “I’m taking ‘Audrey’ for a walk because it’s good for both of us,” and then followed through? Would that feel different? Would I maybe get out there more? Lo and behold, what looked like a silly mental game has allowed me to listen better to my own inner desire to get moving at least once, and sometimes twice a day! Of course I haven’t completely silenced the sabotaging voices that tell me to stay in bed or cocooned at home! What has happened is that I’m gradually moving on out of that stuck place, and I’m less afraid to feel what I really feel, and know what I want. And one of those things is to have doggy company again when I walk. Even if it comes at the expense of sleeping-in time, and even if it means we have to walk past the ice-cream stand, and even if I have to experience strong and painful memories. I can also make some new memories with a new friend. I’m feeling excited, and more peaceful with the awkward combination of my sad and happy memories. I can imagine myself joyfully accepting a slobbery face-wash and seeing if the laser pointer is still as good a game as I remember.

 You can assume you’ll see some news about my search for a new dog in the near future!

 

Pet Loss: Grieving For My Dog

Audrey - by Marion Evamy
Audrey’s memorial portrait by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery

I’ve been preparing to write this post for about 8 months…

thinking that it would be helpful for those who have felt left out of the discussion around grief because they are “only” grieving the death of a pet. For those who have been told that pet loss is “not the same” as mourning a person. In a sense, that much is true. There is no such thing as “the same” grief.  Every death is a terrible loss. Every grief is a complex experience of memory, pain, and myriad other emotions. No one wins in the competition of “who hurts worse?”

My dog, Audrey, died four weeks ago, and the preparation made no difference at all.

I have been conscious of watching myself grieve pretty constantly since then. It’s an odd experience, being fully immersed in the feelings and direct experience, and then unexpectedly finding myself popping back up into my head to think “I’ll have to remember this, so I can write about it later.” I don’t really recommend it, but it’s what is happening, so I guess I’ve just got to go with it. My hope is that both you (and later I, too) will find it useful.

Having to hit the “reset” button every other moment …

For me, anyway, that’s what it felt like for the first few days. That scuffle I’m hearing: no, that’s not Audrey following me, it’s just wind outside. Her collar jingling? No, that was a cellphone in the next room. Thinking that I should wait a few more minutes before getting up to go to the kitchen to make sure Audrey’s soundly asleep so I don’t disturb her? Oh, she’s not here; I can get up and do anything I want without bothering anyone. Except what I want is to have her here, to have to (to be privileged to) consider her, to be irritated by her constant needs. While I am surprised less frequently by her absence now, after a month (which feels like about two weeks), it still happens more than I expected, and I imagine that it won’t go away entirely any time soon.

Self-Care, whether you think you need it or not

I  thought it might be a hard decision to cancel appointments in my Art Therapy practice when Audrey died. I knew I’d “probably” need to give myself the same time and permission I advise to others to deal with her inevitable death. Good old ego, thinking only in terms of “probably,” and thinking that all the other pet losses I’ve “had experience” with would have anything whatsoever to do with this loss. I thought I’d feel responsible and a little guilty, so I might let myself waffle a bit on self-care. In the end, there was no question. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted so badly not to see anyone that I gratefully accepted my clients’ graceful responses to my last-minute emails telling them I had family circumstances that required my attention for two days. Thank goodness I did. And thank goodness there was a weekend and a “business and paperwork day” as a buffer zone in there too. I would have been good for absolutely no one if I had stuck it out and kept my appointments. I’m still catching up on paperwork.

So what would be useful for me to say here?

It surprised my “witnessing self,” how many of my assumptions about my own reactions were inaccurate. I thought my previous experiences were going to make more difference for me than they did. I thought I was completely committed to one particular course of action, and in the end I went with something else. What my heart wanted in the moment was stronger than any of my rationally considered plans. Perhaps what I want most to get across here, and what I know is still just outside the reach of my language, is the sensation of grief, beyond the whirling thoughts that want to explain explain explain – not really able to mask the true experience. No matter how often I slide upwards into heady observations, turning clever words and ideas over and over in my mind, that I would write a great little essay with, the solidity of the feeling remains, and grows oddly comforting. Stay with that, I remind myself. That is the truth; that is the medicine that will heal me.

Since my own art and poetry haven’t quite come through yet, I leave you with the image of Audrey painted by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery (above) and the words of David Whyte, a master of finding words for grief:

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

from River Flow
New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press © David Whyte

Acceptance and the Unexpected

audreynov2016I’m pretty sure I owe you all some news. I’ve been asked off and on for the past few months, often tentatively and apologetically, whether my dog Audrey was still alive. I wrote some months ago about the expectation that she would die soon because of an inoperable cancerous tumour. It’s a funny thing, expectation. When a vet (or a doctor in human medicine) tells you that illness has taken hold and that death will come immanently, you tend to make plans based on the numbers given. “You have about six more good months; you should do what you can to wind up your affairs and make every day count.” “She’s close to the end, you should come and visit now while she’s still lucid.” Or in my case, back in March, “July’s a really long time from now, for her, I don’t think you will be needing a pet-sitter for that trip you have to take.”

July was four months ago, and while I still think in terms of “will she be here for (whatever the next holiday or visit is)?” I have become pretty used to Audrey still being here. We joke that she is “the dog that never ends, yes she goes on and on my friends…” like the children’s song that goes around and around (and never ends). Under the joke though, is the sure knowledge that one of these days we’re going to have to go through whatever her death will look like. I am reminded of a line in an obituary (and I’m not sure if this is a real memory, apocryphal, or from my own imagination) that says someone died “suddenly, after a long illness.” That’s what it feels like. We can expect the inevitable, but no matter what, somehow it still manages to sneak up and grab us by surprise. And so we waver, caught in that gap between expectation and acceptance.

So I’m writing this little piece to simply let you know, Audrey is still here. She’s even slower, has the same temper, and the same sweetness that lies just under her skin if you take the time to let her show it. I have to help her up and down the stairs, but she still seems to be happy to be a dog, despite her limitations and occasional limp. For whatever reason, she perfectly happily munches up her various pills without needing the bribe of a treat. We suspect she’s trying to make up for her old habit of snapping before thinking. Good dog, Audrey.

Living in Dying

2013-09-02 19.50.03I know my dog is dying.

Audrey has been with us for almost three years, and, honestly, she rescued me, not the other way around. She is 15, of uncertain heritage with something of a wolfhound, and something of a border collie in there somewhere. Her temperament has always been uncertain as well. Not too trusting, not always polite, but quick to feel terribly ashamed of her bursts of temper.

We have a lot in common. I have always been a person who experienced what an old teacher of mine called “creeping enlightenment” rather than those sudden cataclysms of joyful change. As I watch Audrey move towards what is inevitable for us all, in her own doggy way, I find myself experiencing those new and painful cracks within that tell me I’m growing again. The creeping vines of changing awareness are once again at work inside me and I’d better be prepared to make some room for them. Open a window, let more light in, drink more water … and find the courage to let people in to support me, to be my trellis.

I watch her for cues and clues to what she needs, and find I need those things too as I prepare to wade into grief again. We walk much more slowly now. We save our energy for when the foolish squirrel  wanders into our vision and THEN we put on a burst of speed, and enjoy the hell out of the 10 second run, goofy grin on both our faces. She needs to watch what she’s eating, so as not to disturb the very inconveniently placed tumour that won’t stop growing. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I paid more attention to my diet too… We stop and smell every … single … thing …. I stop multi-tasking with my phone while I’m walking her and let myself notice that there’s a certain flower bed in our nearby park that has been planted with hundreds of hyacinths that bring me memories of a t-shirt in grade 5 that had (yes, really) a scratch-and-sniff decal of a hyacinth on it. She is clear when she’s done and wants to go home. I have a harder time with that one.

Each new grief brings back memories of every dying we have ever experienced.

I remember my friend who died on the last day of high-school. I remember the boy who took his own life in middle school, who I so regret not making my friend. I remember my grandparents, each of whom died in their own way, consistent with who they were. I remember other pets, from Tippy to Sean to Nanna to Zeke and on and on. I remember and revisit the traumatic experiences when death has come too close to my beloveds. Through the surgeries I’ve had to wait through, breathlessly, when the mortality of my parents, my nephew, my child, my friend reaches up and slaps me in the face. And then not just theirs but mine, and yours, and every living thing. If I’m not careful, I step back into the fear. I step back into the closed room where the sun doesn’t shine and the vine cannot grow.

Instead, I’m going to choose to walk with Audrey. She’s smart, this dog of mine. When she hurts and needs our help, she does let us know -thanks to that wonderful temper! When she’s happy she does not hide it behind dignity. I’m going to honour my memories, the painful and the good, with gratitude. I’m definitely going to be making a lot of art to help me see and hear what my soul needs more clearly! I’m going to keep facing forwards, into the sun. And if I should happen to fracture a bit, in this wonderful tension between past and future that is our current life, then that’s where the vine will creep through, blossom, and bear fruit.