Sunday, November 14, 2010

A loss is a loss in its own right

Today I read on Facebook that my friend's dog hasn't got long to live.

It has made me incredibly sad.

Because I know the indescribable pain my friend will feel when he dies.

I can remember losing our 9 year old Rottweiler so vividly, and the shock of searing pain that scorched both of us.

I remember him looking so puppy-like, moments after his legs seemed to buckle as he laid down on the floor next to me. It was Christmas Eve shortly before midnight, when "we three" would open our presents next to the tree. He was interested in his soft toy - a snowman, and sniffed at his Cadbury's Milk Buttons, but didn't bother eating more than one of them. He seemed fine, but I knew. Just as I knew that last November the 5th would be his last ... and actually the whole evening centred around him and his enjoyment. I made sure he really enjoyed that last fireworks night - he loved them so.

Those last hours, he was happy. You could see it in his eyes, and the love he had for us, and we for him shone from his big eyes. The house was cosy and warm, the tree was gorgeous, the smell of meats, including a joint of pork and an entire turkey reserved solely for him, wafting up his nostrils. Even though he wasn't eating by then, Cliff laid a slice of each meat - pork, ham, turkey, chicken, beef - next to him ... and he licked them, kept sniffing them to check they were still there right up to the end. We kept replenishing a shallow bowl with water, which he drank ... each time pushing it away when he'd had enough. He laid with his head under the tree, and the house was peaceful.

Just like my beautiful strong husband, he went bravely and surrounded by love. The only time he made any complaint was when I took 10 minutes to have a bath. The noise was pitiful and broke my heart. It was a noise he'd never made before and I rushed back to him. I believe that he didn't want to be alone, that he wanted me or us with him all the time.

Someone knocked on the door, and I told Cliff no one else was welcome that night. It would only be the three of us till the end.

And so it was.

Cliff and I took a sofa each late Christmas Day, refusing to leave him, even to sleep. The tree lights were dimmed, as was the volume on TV, and we kept checking him, making sure he was warm, talking to him, even though he slept almost solidly, and refused to drink any more water.

He lifted his head to look at a giraffe that Cliff had made him out of those sausage shaped balloons. He loved balloons too. He also liked bubbles, so Cliff bought him a bubble-machine ... which I think may be in our loft today.

We talked quietly and I know he felt safe because it was just "we three".

At two or three in the early hours of boxing day, I suggested that we go to bed because he was sleeping soundly and seemed alright. Cliff was halfway up the stairs and Hammer started retching. I held him and stroked him, telling him, "it's alright Ham-ham, mummy's here."

He breathed in and I held my breath, just as I did when my husband left this world, waiting for him to exhale and take another. Seconds lasted for an eternity. Then he exhaled - and I knew that my 14 stone "puppy" had left us. I didn't let go.

I looked round for Cliff who got off the sofa, with an expression I'd never seen him with before.

Then I saw this shimmering wave-like, colourful light and I put my hand up to it. I touched it and at that moment, I was positive it was Hammer's spirit. I still believe that. I took my eyes off it for a second and when I looked for it again, it had gone. In fact when Cliff had taken his last breath, I looked for the same shimmering ethereal light and couldn't find it. One of my friends told me that was because he would have stayed with me a while and not left straight away. I liked that rationale.

My head told me our dog had died but my heart refused to hear it. I remember telling Cliff that I thought he would be alright now and that we could go to bed. I remember asking Cliff to promise me that he'd be okay.

On December 26th, I heard Cliff walk around to my side of the bed, softly crying and saying, "come here baby" and me wailing, "no, no, noooooo" and rocking together, holding each other so tightly. I remember admitting that I knew he'd gone the night before, and Cliff shared that he felt a "wave" coming over him while he was watching me hold him ... and he knew that he'd gone in that instant. We spent a couple of hours laying on the bed, crying, sobbing, sniffling and laughing at our shared memories with this wonderful intelligent human-dog.

Cliff was shocked at how badly affected he was. He kept saying, "why do I feel as though I've lost a child? Why am I more devastated about this than I was when my mother died? He was the bain of my life for nine years, I shouldn't feel so broken". (This really bothered him and my friend Kendra explained that grief is cumulative and when I repeated this to Cliff he felt less bad.)

I went next door to ask our neighbour to help Cliff bury him, because Cliff refused to let me do it. He was adamant. I was, however, equally adamant that he would not do this alone.

Cliff told me that if I wanted him to be buried in a pet cemetery with a headstone, whatever I wanted ... he would do. He had to stay at home with us though, there was no question in my mind. I suggested that he rest under the beautiful ferns ... a spot he would lay ... like a lion on the savannah, mistakenly thinking that we couldn't see him ... spying on the dogs next door.

So they dug a hole - six feet deep and three feet wide. A hole that you'd dig for a human coffin. Meanwhile I was tasked with collecting all of Hammer's possessions. I filled a big black bin liner to the brim with his toys. Then I collected his stuff out of the freezer - his ice cream, his joints of "reduced price" meat that Cliff procured for him, his sausages. Then the larder - his meatballs etc. His homeopathic medicine (for a recurring skin and eye irritation), his Christmas presents - one of which remained unopened. His milk buttons. His food bowls, his drinking bowl that was so large you could have bathed a baby in it. There was so much stuff.

I kept watching Cliff and Paul digging and my eyes kept being drawn back to my beautiful Hammer, wrapped in a baby blue soft blanket, lying next to them.

Cliff placed a bowl in each corner of the grave, and put food in the bowls. He wouldn't let me watch them lower him in the hole. But he took so much care, so much love and tenderness. He told me that he was snuggled in his blankets and he placed all his toys and stuff around him carefully. And he reassured me that he double and triple checked that he wasn't breathing, that there was no sign of life first.

I threw the turkey in the bin outside and told Cliff later.

We laughed ... imagining that one day in the future, an archaeologist would find Hammer's grave and announce that he had discovered a royal or a warrior dog. We both liked that.

He also told me that EVERYTHING had to go with Hammer. That I mustn't keep anything. But I sneaked one toy out to keep. An orang-utan - it smelled of him, and was covered in his fur, his dribble. I had to keep one thing, firmly sealed in plastic. Just in case. I've opened it twice to smell him in four years.

We were off work for the holidays and we stayed in alone. Cut off the world. We couldn't cope with anyone else. We mourned, we cried and laughed and we reassured each other constantly that he went without pain, that he had a great life, that we'd been good dog-"parents". We informed some friends, and they admitted that they cried when they read the news. If we had to go in the lounge, we would go together, because the big gap that was left on "his" sofa physically hurt our hearts.

Then Cliff threw himself into work around the house, then projects at work. I seemed alright. I returned to work, but I know now, looking back that that first year, I was depressed, especially at weekends.

I created a collage of photos of him in a huge frame, and typed up all the memories of him, printed it out and cut the memories into ticker-tape pieces, sticking them by the photos of him taken around the time of the "memories". Cliff hated it. He said it was a mess. It is. But I love it. Doing that was so cathartic for me.

After I kissed Cliff goodbye when he left this world, as I walked down the hospital corridor ... I remember whispering out loud, "there had better have been a big black dog there to meet you".

Right up to the week before Cliff died, Cliff would tear up if I talked about him. I could. Cliff couldn't. He grieved as men do, by doing stuff, keeping busy. I just grieved ... and in the end I could talk of him without getting upset.

But I still can't listen to Texas' "Black Eyed Boy", because I used to sing it to him. He loved me singing to him, his beautiful brown eyes would gaze off into the distance. And he knew. Absolutely knew that he was special enough for a song to be all about him.

I so wish I could protect my friend from all this pain and heartache, but I can't. It makes me nauseous to think of what she has to come.

When her baby "Ronnie" was a puppy, he was found to have a bone disease whilst in training to be a guide dog and I think he was going to be euthanised because it was assumed no one would want a puppy that came with a life-time guarantee of high vet bills. She immediately fell in love with him, and made him hers. I loved having hugs with him and spoiling him when I went out to Savannah. He so reminded me of Hammer. He is a beautiful black lab. Beautiful in and out.

When it's time, run free Ronnie. Hammer will meet you. And Cliff will now have two "bains" in his life.

He'll be fine. But I know my friend won't be. Not for quite some time anyway. My heart goes out to her.

I feel so helpless and useless.

Human or animal ... death fucking sucks. And it isn't healthy to compare one loss to another. Comments like, "he was just a dog" or "get another dog" or "he lived 12 years which is older than most Labradors" just aren't helpful and frankly, they are insensitive.

It's similar to insinuating that one widow's pain is worse than another's. Because one husband died young vs. a 60 year long marriage, or because one had a long-term disease vs. a sudden death through a heart attack or a stroke. That it's better or worse if you have children. That it's worse because you are struggling financially, or you feel so much guilt at receiving life insurance money. That if you weren't married - and only engaged - that the pain must be less. That because one widow laughs, sings or dances in public that she's not grieving as much as another. That's all bullshit. The pain is not worse for one more than another. It is what it is.

Every loss is a loss in its own right, and shouldn't be demeaned or compared to another.

Each loss is unique and personal.

Each loss breaks you.

A person. A dog. A horse. Whatever. That person's pain is very real.

It's not a competition ... it's a broken heart. If it's insinuated that your loss is less than another's - that it's worse for another, it's offensive because it undermines the love you feel and the pain that you are going through.

I should know.


  1. your story is heartbreaking. i have two dogs that i have pet urns for. i am sorry your friend is about to lose their beloved pet/companion. your last 6 paragraphs say it all. all are in my thoughts. you and your friend. i wish you all peace.

  2. I knew you would "get it" wNs <3

    Our dogs are our companions and confidantes these days, more so than they ever were I think xx

  3. What a sweet and sad story. Our 14 year old dog died a day before the one year "anniversary" of Austin's death. Austin would have been the same as Cliff. And as Caeleigh (our first child) was dying, I kept telling her to go to Austin, because I'm sure he was there to meet her. You are so right - all death is hard and we can't compare them. No matter who died or how the survivor is dealing with it, it is so damn hard.

    You are a good friend Boo. Your friend is lucky to have someone like you in her life!

  4. Oh Margo - I love you to the bottom of my heart - always, always. xoxoxoxoxo

  5. Debbie, I knew that you thought your dog didn't have long ... but I had no idea that you'd lost her. I'm so sorry honey, that must have been hell. To lose that living link from "your beginning".

    Aww Suzann, I've been thinking so much about you these past few days xx