Grief

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Some stages of grief are predictable and fairly universal.

But our styles and methods of grieving are as unique as we ourselves. Expecting someone else to grieve the same way that you do is a recipe for additional pain.

Many of us rail at the gods and try to bargain for signs or something, anything, that will bring our lost loved one closer/back to us/whatever.

Many (most?) of us wonder what we could have or should have done differently that might have changed the outcome. A moot point, since the outcome has already been, but we still do it. I don’t know whether it’s a guilt complex, shouldering of blame, or just a need to better understand what happened and can we prevent another similar event.

Since my loss of my Pyr, Faith, last week, at least a half dozen people I know have also lost dogs or cats. I can tell them I sympathize with their pain, I can remind them there was little, if anything, they could have done differently or better or faster. I can validate their loss, their grief, let them know that what they are feeling is normal and doesn’t follow a schedule or a highlighted map.

Some of us feel the strong presence of those animals we have lost. Knowing how tightly woven they are into our hearts and souls, we carry them with us and take comfort in not just the memories, but the strong bonds that will never be broken. But those who are new to this kind of grief may struggle with that concept.

Their grief is theirs and they need to find the path that is right for them. Sometimes all that another person can do is tell them “I am here for you if you need me, and I am so sorry that you have to walk this path.”

Particularly when the grief is raw, no one can do what the grieving person wants more than anything in the world – give them back the physical presence of their beloved companion.

A Fare-Thee-Well

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Yesterday evening I had to say good-bye to my 11 1/2 year-old Pyr, Faith.

faithfulShe helped more than a few dogs in her day, whether in transport or foster. Though she was the least likely to play of any of my dogs, it was to her that one special Berner boy made his first play bow, when we didn’t know at first whether we would ever be able to draw him out of his shell of fear.

Faith came to me from the local shelter, intended as a companion for my BARC Beauty Sophia. They quickly became fast friends, and they made sure that all other dogs coming to their house knew the rules. She was true to her breed, keeping me and our property safe from all manner of trucks, buses, birds and planes. We NEVER had a plane land in our driveway!

Age and years of property management caught up with her, she spent the past few years on monthly Adaquon shots and Salmon oil seemed to ease some of her cognitive issues, but a recent infection recurred and may have had an impact on her liver and gall bladder. X-rays indicated that her hips and knees were failing, making the option for gall bladder surgery more problematic.

She refused to tell me that it was time for her to go. To the end, she was trying to protect me at her own expense. But I told her that I would do what was right for her, and I know that was what I did.

Three of my dogs are fine, but my ASD/Pyr mix, who was her closest companion after we lost Sophia, is taking it hard. But I know he will help me keep my promise to Faith tonight that I would be fine. He’s sneakiy that way, making sure that I don’t have time to wallow. He will keep me grounded, Berner Hagar will keep me laughing and Duffy and Domino will make sure that I PAY ATTENTION!!!

Run and spin with abandon, dear Faith. You were greatly loved all eleven years I got to share with you, and I will carry you in my heart until we meet again.

Calm

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It always amazes me the difference it makes to spend time with lots and lots of dogs – and the people who love them.
Having just spent a week at a National Specialty show, I find that I am calmer, happier, and far less reactive.
Granted, the dogs I spent time with are happy-go-lucky people lovers, calm and elegant dogs with remarkable spirits.
That they are willing to share so much of their spirit with us, mere humans that we are, is what is truly amazing.
Perhaps the reason they are so short-lived is related to the parable of the boy saying goodbye to the family dog, refusing to lament that he is losing a dear friend:
The vet who was there to euthanize the dog was trying to comfort the family when the child said, “I know why animals don’t live as long as people.
“We are all put on the earth to learn to love and make others happy. Animals are born knowing how to do that, so they don’t have to stay here as long.”
They give us love and joy, asking so little of us in return.
They are treasures, blessings to our lives, if we will only just stop to see it.

Canine health – Hope and Tragedy

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Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through this over and over and over again?

This morning I found out that a dear friend’s dog was diagnosed with cancer – a cancer all too prevalent in the breed we love. This is the second dog she has had with this form of cancer this decade.

Years ago I lost my beloved Border Collie to hemangiosarcoma. At the time, I could imagine nothing more devastating.

Then I fell in love with Bernese Mountain dogs.

Sanity would suggest that these dogs are their own Greek tragedy. Their life span is one of the shortest of all breeds, they are subject to multiple cancers as well as having a tendency to bloat, bleeding, and dysplasia. Why anyone would self-select for the kind of grief that is almost certain is almost beyond comprehension.

Until you meet the dogs. My first Berner was not my first dog. And my relationships with my dogs before her were wonderful relationships. But something in Sophia really, really got to me.

She was a challenge, both in attitude and health. We had a lot of issues to overcome before she blossomed into the dog we always both knew was lurking behind her pain aggression.  We worked together to make her well. She taught me so much about patience and courage and perseverance and joy. Especially joy.

Even on a bad day, she could light up with energy, happiness, goofiness, … She was clever and she was smart. And she needed me in ways I had never expected. When she was young, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of the whole house – I quickly learned the up – and down sides of crating. For her, a few months of being crated while I was at work gave her the time to mature to the point where she could take care of the whole house while I was gone. She became my most trustworthy, ‘bulletproof’ dog to be loose in the house.

Berners love their people – and don’t like separations. For a time (after she had once again been given full run of the house all the time) she was growing increasingly agitated when I got ready to leave. After a week or two of this escalating anxiety, one day I turned around, set my stuff back down, and sat down in front of her.

“I always come back. I will always come back. As long as there is breath in my body, I will come home to you. I will never, ever abandon you.”

I sat with her, looking into her eyes and telling her this, for several minutes.  I watched and felt her body relax. She finally put her chin down between her front paws and gave me that look: “What are you still doing here?” I never had another moment of separation anxiety from her.

My girl died of cancer, Malignant Histiocitosis, several weeks shy of her eighth birthday. Although we tried chemo, we were too late. She let me know she was ready to leave.

I wish that no one ever again would have to experience the kind of grief I felt, but I know that isn’t going to be a reality for some time to come. I fear that my friend’s dog, another goofy, sweet, intelligent and challenging dog, will break her heart much as mine was broken.

But I know, too, that the sorrow we feel is a reflection of the love and the joy we have known, and I have never known dogs that bring more joy than these.

So we keep coming back to these dogs. We rescue, we support the health studies, we support each other in times of illness or injury (to our dogs, mostly – our own illness or injury seems trivial in comparison).

And we support the breeders who carefully track the health of the dogs they are considering breeding, and of those dogs’ relatives, and of the puppies they have been responsible for bringing into this world – those breeders who work so hard to breed toward longevity and health and self-confident dogs.

We know they exist – we have met some, and we celebrate the 10- and 12- and 13-year old dogs, and the people who love them. And we weep with the people who love the 4- or the 5- or the 7-year-old dogs who have just been diagnosed.

It isn’t fair that such lovely, loving and intelligent dogs should have such short lives. It isn’t fair that the people who love them feel such grief at their loss.

But we are so lucky to share what few years we do with them.

And I will put in a plug for the Canine Health Foundation – they support research into so many of the ills that plague our dogs, of whatever breed. If we keep working and searching for the answers, perhaps someday I will not see the letters MH and feel like I have been kicked in the stomach.

We can overcome. My Berner taught me that.

I couldn’t, I will

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I couldn’t call you to dinner tonight

Nor take the time to lovingly prepare your food

I have no need for turkey necks or sweet potatoes or summer squash

Your brush lies idle, I cannot use it on the other dogs

There is no silken fur that compares with yours

I could not lie on the floor with you

Playing pattycake or just quietly sharing a moment of calm

I could not take delight in watching you run

Nor smile at your expressions as you watched the other dogs getting all worked up about something or other

Your special chair is not a spot for the others to rest

I have put some papers there, and computer bag

It isn’t a place that can be taken

I could not take time before sleep to hug you,

To tell you how much I love you,

To tell you how big a place you will always have in my heart

The little things we shared are bittersweet

I still hear you, see you, talk to you

But I don’t know whether you hear

You stayed so faithfully by my side

Not long enough, though I am grateful for every moment

I will always love you

I will always remember you with joy

I will always remember the feel of your lovely head

Your warmth and trust, your stubborness and your strength

Your special grace and beauty

A year does not ease my sorrow

Any more than it could lessen my adoration

It only helps me realize that much more how remarkable you were.

Tonight I still miss you.

Tonight I still wish you were here.

God speed, sweet girl.

I will see you again someday at the Bridge.

Thanksgiving – a hard year, and yet…

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This is going to be a very odd Thanksgiving.

A year ago my sweet Sophia was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her less than three weeks later.

In July we moved our parents into an assisted living facility near two of my sisters and both Mom and Dad promptly ended up in the emergency room. The move meant leaving the house where they had lived almost 60 years, the only home I had ever known until I left for college.

Though both parents bounced back from the stresses of moving, in October Dad died, and I’m not sure that I have really gotten through even the first few steps of grieving.

In March I welcomed Hagar into my home. He’s settling in, finally, still a goofball, still a challenge at times, but a sweet, silly Berner boy.

And I remain thankful, even in the midst of grief and stresses and a complete lack of time and organizational fortitude, for how incredibly lucky I have been.

I got to spend more than 57 years with the support and love of two of the best parents anyone could hope for. They have challenged me, helped me, guided me and given me a foundation in life that I have been privileged to pass on to my own children.

I have three of the most remarkable sisters on the planet. We often disagree about the little stuff, but we all understand the importance of family and being constructive and being there for each other. I don’t think any of us could have gotten through the difficulties of this past year without each other.

I have sons of whom I am unapologetically proud. They forgave my mistakes in childrearing and embraced the lessons passed on through me from my parents, and have become thoughtful, considerate, wonderful young men. I’m not sure exactly what I did right, but I’m so glad I did.

And then there was Sophia.

As I approach the anniversary of her death, I feel her loss more strongly than ever. She was my beautiful silk scarf, a little exotic, a little fragile, definitely exquisite in her grace and joy in life. We had a bond that was born of struggle, as we worked through her pain aggression, her food allergies, her hip and elbow dysplasia and finally her cancer.

She taught me patience, determination, forgiveness, and faith. She approached each day, even when I knew she was in pain, with such courage and strength that I was in awe. She knew how to stretch the envelope – whether helping convince my vet that a raw diet was not some sort of fringe cult behavior, or helping me learn about canine health, positive reinforcement, and not leaving eyeglasses or Pringles cans or First Editions of books out where a curious puppy could get to them. After all, exploration is the the start of knowledge!

Even with four other dogs in the house when I lost her, and then the addition of Hagar, I miss her more than I can begin to say. As a friend wrote when she lost her own Berner, as much as she appreciated how lucky she was and as much as she appreciated the outpouring of sympathy and support, she just wanted her girl back. I still wish I could give her one more, ten more, 100 more hugs, hand her a few more turkey necks, cajole her a few more times to come back inside so we could go to bed.

But she isn’t coming back. And it hurts.

I still feel so lucky to have shared almost eight years with her. I know that few people have the kind of relationship with their dog that I had with her. I still see her, hear her, sense her presence in times of both quiet and chaos. I know that she, like my parents, my sisters, my kids, will always be a part of me, a part of who I am and what I do, and for all of them, I give thanks.

Thank you for being here, for sharing so much with me, for helping me be a better person. Were it not for the love, there would be no grief.

 

Loss, love, life

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Eighteen days ago my father died. It has, since then, been something of a whirlwind of activities, emotions, travel, tasks – enough so that it is hard to come to terms with the very permanent change in my family’s life.

I wrote a post to him at Father’s Day, and since then have realized more than ever how much a part of me, my sisters, my sons, and my nieces and nephews he is and will always be.

He truly provided the bedrock on which our lives are built. He gave us the tools to continue that construction, he was determined that he would make sure his children were safe and secure. He did.

I closed my part of his memorial with this comment, and it is one I believe all that more strongly after returning home and seeing the tail end of a rainbow.  I know that some of you know what that told me.

My father always made me feel that I had a guardian angel. And I did.

I do.