A first hand experience of grieving pet loss
By Corban Smith - forwarded to us by a reader - a beautiful, and true story that I am sure. many of us will relate with
By Corban Smith - forwarded to us by a reader - a beautiful, and true story that I am sure. many of us will relate with
Dallas came into my life at eight weeks old when I was only 19. The small brown bundle of rolls and wrinkles that clumsily paraded around my house with oversized paws never had any chance of developing into what most would consider a classically “good dog.” As he grew into his oversized appendages as a 115-pound lap dog, I was also developing through the tumultuous stage of emerging adulthood. As my social, occupational and personal identities solidified, Dallas remained a constant denominator across each dimension of my self-identity. I was a “dog owner,” and most who knew me were unable to picture me without my enormous and drooly companion at my side.
As life progressed, Dallas effortlessly provided the unconditional positive regard that so many counselors strive to exude to clients. He was present during graduations, new jobs, loss of family members and personally devastating health diagnoses. Whether I was joyous or tormented, Dallas was there to share in my experience and offer the validation I needed through his droopy brown eyes.
Eventually our family was complete when I met my now fiancée, a veterinary student at the time in the university where I was receiving my master’s in counseling. She promptly told me that Dallas was overweight and kindly pointed out other ways I could best serve Dallas. As we reached relationship milestones and eventually added another companion animal, Willett, Dallas seemed to become even more joyful and content.
Dallas gets diagnosed
In the 11 years leading up to August 2019, Dallas had survived dozens of mischievous acts that threatened his well-being. So much so that although I knew his life eventually would come to an end, I couldn’t envision a world where anything could cause his demise. One morning that began as any other, I took Dallas outside to produce his abnormally large morning “business” deposits. I heard him emit a strange noise and looked down to see him convulsing on the grass. As he continued to seize, I held him as I never had before. Covered in morning dew, grass and dirt, I had never felt so helpless. I screamed for my partner, and once Dallas emerged from his postictal phase, we took him to his veterinarian.
The news was grim. Given my financial status, the veterinarian advised against costly diagnostic techniques, reasoning that I likely would be unable to afford the likewise costly treatments for whatever was discovered. He concluded that Dallas likely had a sinister brain tumor lurking in his furry brown head and said we should focus on making his remaining time with us as comfortable as possible. As the first pains of grief and guilt set in, I began experiencing shame that I could not afford to give Dallas the care that might prolong our time together just a little longer.
Armed with anti-seizure medication and the terrifying knowledge that Dallas would, in fact, no longer be with me one day, I began one of the most stressful years of my life. A pattern soon developed in Dallas’ symptom management. He would have an extended period of time with no symptoms, then a breakthrough seizure would emerge in the middle of the night like an evil intruder. My partner, now Dallas’ primary veterinarian, would reassess his medication, and the cycle would continue. Slowly, the periods of well-being shortened, and the breakthrough seizures increased in intensity.
This slow end-of-life process was excruciatingly unpredictable and painful as I began to experience a feeling of learned helplessness. Each evening, I crawled into bed terrified that at some point in the night, I would hear the initial gag that signaled an episode. During the day, I walked around the house dreading the discovery of puddles from postictal incontinence. I lamented this emotional roller coaster immensely. Periods of health were bright spots in my life, while breakthrough seizures were increasingly darker reminders of reality. I knew eventually, I would have to say the words: “This is it.”
The gagging and thrashing noise signaling a seizure came, as it always did, in the middle of the night, just when I imagined that things were OK. This one felt different though. Not only did it last longer and cause more confusion afterward, but the unsettling truth that Dallas was at his maximum dosage for medication signified that this was, in fact, “it.” We waited apprehensively with a semblance of hope to see if another seizure came. Previous recurrent seizures had presented eight hours after the first; this next round came in just four.
Making the decision that this particular day would be Dallas’ final day was shamefully easy. A combination of emotional exhaustion, stress surrounding the impending doom, and the reality of treatment limitations all likely contributed. My partner was forced to go and work at the practice where we would remind Dallas that he was a “good boy” for the last time, while I got the privilege of spending Dallas’ last day with him. I was disassociated from what was coming later that day and treated it as simply any other day for Dallas. In between additional seizures that day, Dallas got to play his favorite game, “What Won’t Dallas Eat?” We lay on the couch and watched The Fifth Element (the movie in which Dallas’ namesake, Korben Dallas, is the protagonist) while his sister, Willett, licked his ears, attempting to rid his head of any hint of ill will. Eventually, the time came to load up, and I experienced the first sense of loss that snapped me back to reality. Leaving Willett behind, I told her, “We’ll be back,” then quickly amended that statement to “I’ll be back,” tears forming in my eyes.
I had experienced euthanasia of a pet only once before, when I was a little boy. I was transported back to my younger self on that day, attempting to organize thoughts of death and meaning of life in an intellectual way instead of experiencing the present pain. What had made this unavoidable outcome cognitively distant was Dallas’ presentation when he was not seizing. Even in the euthanasia room, Dallas presented in his usual demeanor. He happily ate Cheez Whiz sprayed on the floor for him, selflessly sharing the remnants on the clothes and faces of my partner’s co-workers as they came in one by one to say goodbye. Eventually, we were left alone with him.
My partner and I sat there, attempting to say our final goodbyes while Dallas tried to reassure us that everything would be OK. My partner was forced to take on the role of veterinarian in telling me what to expect. She kindly outlined the euthanasia process, as I am sure she had previously with countless other mourning owners, but her voice was shaky, and tears were forming in her eyes. Another veterinarian timidly knocked on the door and asked if we were ready. I shakily answered “yes” but truly was not. She knelt next to Dallas and began administering the chemical as I tried to remember every detail of my beloved companion lying on the floor. In true Dallas fashion — being the dog that could handle anything and survive — it took an extra dose of the lethal concoction for him to pass into the next world. Once my fiancée’s co-worker told us Dallas was gone, I embraced him wholly, one last time, and then truly broke down in a way that only a deep loss can provoke.
The Grief Process
Grief truly is a unique and unavoidable part of the human experience. We are all forced into grief through loss at some point in our lives. I had experienced loss before in the form of relationships, failed endeavors and hobbies deemed too dangerous for someone of my growing age. But these things were nothing compared to the way Dallas had deeply embedded himself within my self-identity. The pain of this loss permeated through my core.
As a counselor, I have been trained on grief, bereavement and the strategies we use to empower our clients. All of that knowledge and experience seemed to dissipate as soon as Dallas was diagnosed. Suddenly, grief and loss were not topics discussed in a classroom; they had become deeply personal.
Soon after Dallas was diagnosed, I had begun preparing for his loss as best I could through that classroom knowledge. I dusted off my crisis intervention textbook and attempted to remember the works of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and William Worden. I quickly landed on Worden’s tasks of mourning model as I tried to intellectualize my now inevitable loss of Dallas. As a counselor, I try to promote resilience and empowerment in my clients. As I embarked on the dangerous endeavor of becoming my own counselor, I told myself to focus on the tasks I could accomplish to help myself emerge from this process more resilient than I had been going in.
Tasks of mourning
Worden’s tasks of mourning are not intended to be completed in any particular order and may be revisited throughout the mourning process. As soon as Dallas was diagnosed — and before I sought out knowledge of grief — I had begun to complete the tasks, and I continue to do so after the loss of Dallas. Sometimes I feel content in my accomplishment of tasks, whereas other times I am caught off guard by signs suggesting a lack of progress. My understanding of the grief process so far is that it ebbs and flows in a nonlinear, somewhat unpredictable manner throughout.
Task: Accept the reality of the loss.
I began to accept the loss of Dallas conceptually as soon as he was diagnosed with the potential brain tumor. During the year of symptom management, I was able to work through this task on a surface level so that I thought I would be ready for my new reality when Dallas was gone.
Once Dallas had passed, I struggled with this task on a much deeper core level. I naively believed that the previous work on the task prior to Dallas’ departure would help insulate me from not accepting this new lonely reality. Returning home from the veterinary clinic on the day he was euthanized, I was most struck by the sense of numbness. The rest of that week’s activities and responsibilities seemed to pass me by because this new reality I was living in was foreign from the one I had known.
Technology was both a curse and a blessing as I attempted to gain footing on this task. I found myself clinging to Dallas’ presence through endless scrolling of the camera roll on my iPhone. As I scrolled upward, Dallas became younger and more the companion I idealized. Photos of him jumping as high as houseguests offered a stark comparison with the old man that had required assistance to get on the bed. The Live Photo feature was particularly unsettling. By holding my finger on a photo, Dallas all of a sudden sprang back to life, my phone emitting the daily sounds and visuals that I desperately longed for again in our home.
Social media did, however, provide one of the best mediums for memorializing Dallas as I continued through this task. My favorite photos discovered while scrolling were shared with friends and family in a memorial post. As others expressed sadness and condolences, I was astonished to learn how many other lives Dallas had touched. Friends and contacts long forgotten reemerged to share stories and memories of Dallas. Many of them validated my new reality without Dallas as being both painful and uncomfortable. Their support helped me better accept this different world and motivated me to move closer to it instead of resisting and staying in the one that was comfortable.
Task: Process the pain of grief.
I am very fortunate in that any inhibition to process the pain of my grief was self-inflicted rather than being promoted by those around me. I have heard stories of those who lost pets whose grief was disenfranchised by those around them. Expectations to continue working while compartmentalizing grief plague many people after the loss of a companion animal. I was extremely fortunate that no one in my life placed such expectations on me. I was supported and understood as having just lost a family member that was deeply integrated in my self-identity.
My work on this task was predominantly inhibited by self-imposed restrictions. I falsely believed that the processing of loss completed since Dallas’ diagnosis would be sufficient for the actual event to be a mild speed bump on my road of productivity. The counselor in me said, “It is OK for you to experience this pain and have difficulty functioning,” but my cultural background stated simply, “Get over it.”
Toxic masculinity is prevalent in our world, and I am also guilty of propagating it. People who do not know me well would consider me a classic stereotype of masculinity by most metrics. I am genetically broad-shouldered and proudly wear a full beard. My previous hobbies have included skydiving, riding motorcycles and owning German sports cars. I drive an SUV to my Olympic weightlifting club, and my bias toward men who are similar to me says that the loss of a dog should not break such men down to tears or inhibit their ability to participate in life roles. As I viewed myself through this lens, I repressed the pain and the experiencing of it longer than I should have. Eventually, I could no longer be the stable and stoic presence in my home and work; I had to succumb to the pain.
As I began to reconcile my views on masculinity with what I knew as a counselor, I realized the feeling of pain and the expression of my emotions were among the manliest endeavors I could partake in. I shared my feelings and experience more freely with those around me and continued to be validated and supported as I tried to meet life’s demands while experiencing such pain.
Task: Adjust to a world with the deceased missing.
Articles I read in advance of Dallas’ loss described the new home environment as having a “deafening silence.” As I attempted to mentally prepare for Dallas’ departure, I became attuned to the noises he emitted on a day-to-day basis. I tried to steel myself for what an absence of those noises might be like, but the void upon returning home after his passing was still debilitating.
My partner and I did our best to make this task as quick as possible. We removed all the reminders we could think of shortly after Dallas’ passing. Toys that were Dallas-sized and unattractive to Willett were donated to my partner’s practice for other dogs to enjoy. The tumbleweeds of short brown fur were sucked up from the various surfaces where they always clung. Dallas’ medications and food were removed. These physical reminders were easy to erase; classic conditioning ingrained over the span of 12 years was much more difficult to ignore.
Given the enormity of Dallas, there was little he could do that did not resonate throughout our small home. The clicking of his nails as he walked, the thud of furniture as he forcibly followed his intended path, even the heavy panting echoing through the house from his mere existence were all instantly gone. There was no longer a giant brown speed bump in the kitchen to navigate while we were cooking or a face of pure joy at the bottom of the steps when we returned home. Even watching TV at night without the occasional burst of flatulence from the corner of the sectional seemed a foreign experience.
Countless other experiences have become isolating and lonely affairs since Dallas passed. Thankfully, as time passes, this task becomes easier as the frequency of unexpected reminders diminishes. Eventually, I know the relationship between daily activities and Dallas’ presence will erode and disappear, shifting this void from absence to a new normal.
Task: Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.
Worden’s previous iterations of this task involved the phrases “emotional reallocation” and “emotional reinvestment.” This task is characterized by a sense of moving on while accepting and appreciating the impact of the loss on the griever’s life and self-identity. As I move forward in my life, it is impossible not to consider the impression my relationship with Dallas has left and the residual effects it will have in the future.
I think of all the lessons I learned from Dallas and how they will present in the future. I wonder how my capacity for caring for those around me would have changed without first caring for Dallas. I wonder how differently I would experience frustration without first building patience through Dallas’ destructive behaviors. Lastly, without experiencing the loss of Dallas, I wonder how much less prepared I would be for loss in the future. I feel that my experience of being a caregiver to Dallas has greatly elevated my ability to show compassion and kindness in other roles. Thanks to Dallas, I am able to be a bit better in my many life roles as a counselor, partner, son and friend.
As I continue to bounce between and progress within these tasks, I sometimes find myself wondering, “Am I doing this right?” Questions about whether I removed reminders too soon, carried on with life too soon or even made the decision to euthanize too soon have dominated my grieving process.
This experience has provided me better insight into a process that I had conceptualized only in a classroom previously. Being forced to confront this inevitable human experience has taught me to give clients who are grieving a lot of room and compassion and to hold minimal expectations about how they grieve. Grief is an individualized experience. While there are models, none perfectly encapsulates what it means, feels and looks like to grieve.
Our grieving process culminated last year as we traveled home for Christmas. Dallas lived his life, with the exception of his final five months, in my small home in Alabama. Before we moved into a proper home in Virginia with a fenced-in backyard, his outside time was spent on a picturesque patch of land next to a lake. Closing my eyes, I can still picture my happy and healthy Dallas splashing around and chasing geese, frequently looking back at me for encouragement. This location, where Dallas seemed his happiest, is where we spread his ashes on a cold Alabama day with tears in our eyes but a sense of resolve in our hearts. I hope that one day I do find him there again, splashing and galloping, just over the Rainbow Bridge.