Six New Tricks Your Old Dog Can Teach You (with the help of friends, family, and sobriety)
I originally wrote this for a newsletter sent in early 2012, shortly after we said an unexpected and heartbreaking good-bye to Audrey. Audrey was my first rescue dog, the first dog I had as an adult, my first clumber spaniel, and my first true experience with grief. Two days before Audrey died, another clumber spaniel was rescued from one of the worst puppy mills in the country and a few months later would become our sweet, scared, and silly “Betty.” Betty lived with us for two short years before we had to let her go due to illness.
Through both losses, there was Matilda (“Tilly”). I adopted Tilly in 2009 when I was working as a volunteer at the SPCA in Baltimore. Tilly was immediately attuned to me (Audrey, her older “sister,” was adorable and aloof) and we had a bond the moment we met. Tilly was my “heart dog,” which is pretty much the canine version of soul mate. In one EMDR resourcing session (where I was the client), Tilly appeared in my mind, and my therapist was like, “Yeah, of course she’s there. Tilly is your spirit animal.” We used to just sit around and stare at each other. It was sweet and deep and kinda intense and totally weird.
We had to say good-bye to Tilly two years ago, after over a year of medical ups and downs from which she always bounced back, until the day she didn’t. I don’t have words for how much she meant to me, for how difficult this was, or for just how much I missed her every freaking second (still do, two years later). And I can’t explain to most people how even many months later, I would still tear up within two seconds of thinking about her, which I did all the time.
Tilly was the ultimate. And so, in her honor, I re-wrote my original piece, because I had to re-learn all these lessons with her, 100% more sober, and 5 years older than when I first wrote them. If you’ve experienced a loss of a pet that feels almost unbearable, you might see yourself in my story. I hope this is helpful.
Lesson 1: This grief is so valid.
I cannot emphasize this enough and I’m resisting the urge to write this in caps. If you can count to three, you’ll put together the number of doggie good-byes we said in just 5 years. I’d been very fortunate to have had relatively few losses for someone my age. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t sad when my grandparents passed and that doesn’t mean I have had things particularly easy in other ways, but to me, my dogs were my best friends, my kids, my secret-keepers, my cuddle buddies, my tear-lickers, and my greatest sources of joy, even on the days where everything else in the whole world sucked. If you’ve never loved a dog, you probably won’t get it. If you’ve ever loved and lost a dog, you’ll get it all too well. Please resist the urge to minimize your grief and please steer clear of anyone who will try to do that for you. It’s easy to compare losses in our minds, to think this one shouldn’t be “as bad” as someone else’s “bigger” one. If that helps you have some perspective, fine; but if it’s to shame you or make you feel even worse, dump that business. In this moment, in your moment, this is a very big and very sad deal.
Lesson 2: You may will never be ready to say good-bye. And that’s OK.
Both Audrey’s and Betty’s deaths were unexpected. Neither had been dealing with chronic health issues, and little Betty was only 7. However, Tilly had been struggling with health stuff, and almost died twice within 6 weeks in 2016. She bounced back from intestinal surgery and slipped-disc paralysis and gave us another amazing 14 months, but even though I knew very well that our time with her was limited, I was in shock when it arrived. I had left town for a writing and yoga retreat at a Buddhist center in the mountains. She was fine when I left, but in less than 48 hours, I was back home and we were saying good-bye. My readiness to let go wasn't even the issue; it didn't matter. The only choice we could make was the one that was right for her. And though it came sooner than I'd imagined, I could never, in a million years, have been ready for that day. (There would never have been enough time and it truly is one of life’s mind-boggling mysteries why dogs don’t live longer.) But ready or not, that day comes. Acceptance, one of my most important lessons learned in sobriety, was essential here.
Lesson 3: Feel the feelings.
There’s nothing like grief to bring up ALL the feelings, often ALL at once. Sadness, anger, despair, confusion, gratitude, sometimes even relief; the list goes on. I was really pissed when Audrey died (likely not helped by drinking). I felt I had been given the shortest end of the crappiest stick. This time I wasn’t angry, but gosh, I cried so much. I felt lost, empty, pits in both my heart and my stomach. I wanted my dog back, I didn't care how, I just wanted her back. Believe me, I wasn’t delusional, and I knew this was impossible, but my denial had my heart hoping that perhaps there was a mistake, she was just on vacation somewhere, and would be back soon. One of the things that I allowed myself to do with Audrey’s and Betty’s deaths was to drink over it. I numbed the crap out of those feelings, which of course, only helped temporarily. I never forgot that my dogs were dead and I didn’t stop feeling sad about them. My grief was clouded and worsened by alcohol and I know now that I did us (my dogs and me, as well as my partner) a tremendous disservice. Tilly was there for me as I got sober and what I knew now was: a) drinking would have made me feel drunk but then worse and changed nothing, b) it would have been a dishonor to her, and c) the intensity of the sadness and grief I felt was awful, but temporary, and I could survive it.
Lesson 4: There is no timeline for grief.
This is one that needed to be hammered home for me, me who loves schedules and structure and correct answers. There is no convenient timeline for this stuff. Although drinking wasn’t a great coping strategy, I did take time when Audrey died. I took time from my day job and my coaching practice and my strict-at-the-time diet and exercise and wedding planning. I didn’t do that with Tilly, and I do wish I would have eased back into things a little more slowly. But just as there’s no schedule or timeline for grief, there’s also no one-size-fits-all checklist for how you handle your post-loss life. For me, there was a balance to find between shutting everything down and being so busy, too busy. Busy-ness can be its own emotion-numbing agent, for sure. Take the time you need to figure out that balance for yourself. Let people help you, do things for you, listen to you if you feel like talking/crying. You might be really ready to stop crying or think there’s no way you could possibly have any more tears, and grief is like, “Nah, just kidding, here we go again.” Being gentle with yourself is key here, but so is being honest about when it’s time to try to get out of bed. You might feel all set to get back into the swing of things after a few days and then you might cry in front of your co-workers or at the grocery story. I mean, you probably will. It is OK to be a total mess. You won’t be forever, I promise.
Lesson 5: Time really does heal (but no, it doesn’t erase).
It’s the most cliché thing, isn’t it? Don’t you just want to yell at me? It’s also really true, but not in the sense that you will just stop being sad in a few weeks. More like, the sadness just gets a little less intense, you are able to breathe a little deeper, you don’t think of it every minute, and/or, you don’t get totally thrown off course every time you remember your new reality. There will be more and more space between breakdowns, you will start to feel yourself coming back online. And when life starts to feel a little more normal each day, it has nothing to do with you not being sad, or that your loss doesn’t matter anymore. That’s the healing. Welcome it, each new day that passes when things feel a little easier. (When the time was right, when we could no longer stand being dog-less, we adopted a new furry friend. She will never take the place of Tilly, but that’s not her job and she is amazing at being herself.)
Lesson 6: Say Thank You.
One thing that was so instrumental in my healing after Tilly died was my sheer gratitude for the fact that I had 8 beautiful years with her. That I was so lucky to be her human, to have her as my beautiful friend. That that little dog loved me with all her heart. That heartbreak, that Tilly-sized hole in my heart, was proof of a great love story; hers and mine. I still say “goodnight” to her every night before bed. And I will always miss her, but more than that, I will always be thankful for our time together.