Saying goodbye after my dog passed away from cancer

This is the third email in a series about dealing with grief after the loss of a pet. You can subscribe to Ideapod’s newsletter here.

Hey Ideapod family, it’s Nathan again.

It’s my third and final email on my series about grief and loss (read the first email on dealing with grief and second on sitting with sadness).

Today, I want to talk about “saying goodbye.”

After Grover’s last oncologist appointment, his condition gradually worsened. His energy faded, and he increasingly looked for places to be by himself.

My fiancée and I were in agreement: we would do everything we could to give Grover a life of happiness and enjoyment. We would commit to whatever treatment kept him free of suffering.

While Grover couldn’t make these decisions for himself, we decided to make all treatment decisions based solely on his quality of life.

By this, I meant we wouldn’t shirk treatment because it was hard on us. Conversely, we wouldn’t prolong his life if he was in agony.

And I’ll tell you, his treatment was hard. His mood was very upbeat, but he became quieter. My shirt continuously had poop stains on it as his incontinence suddenly picked up. We dutifully followed his medication regimen, keeping his pain at bay and his appetite up.

He wanted to go on walks. He wanted to play ball. He was happy.

The Sunday after his oncologist appointment, we took him to the soccer field nearby to play off-leash with my parents’ dogs.

He gleefully ran with a happy, if staggered gait, chasing after his friends. He was happy. We were happy.

It was a brief, but powerful moment of being almost fully invested in the present. For a small moment, I almost felt like what he felt: unaware of the dangers that the future held, just purely happy and grateful for the joy that was this moment.

But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the understanding that the future was nipping at our heels, that this may be the last time he might play like this.

In The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop says, “All humans are aware of death. So we’re all a little bit sad all the time. That’s just the deal . . . but we don’t get offered any other ones. And if you try and ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there. And everybody’s been there. So don’t fight it.”

That’s the burden we bear as humans. We’re aware of death. And it’s an agonizing blessing caring for a sweetheart who isn’t aware of this. It forces you to live in the present, but it also forces your grief into privacy.

Grover’s condition never again improved. Wednesday morning, his back legs had given out. He was panting rapidly, and barely moving from the couch. His abdomen had suddenly become distended and discolored – the tumor looking like it could burst through his skin. It became clear: Grover was suffering.

In consultation with his oncologist, we agreed upon at-home euthanasia, to happen that evening.

From 10 am (when I called) to 5:30pm (when the vet would arrive) felt like the longest day of my life. My fiancée and I worked to give Grover the best last day we could muster. She bought him a rib-eye, which I served up a bloody rare. He managed to perk up for that!

We arranged the backyard with a few blankets and his favorite toys, hoping to make it as comfortable and pleasant for him as possible. Grover certainly seemed to appreciate it, nosing his toys and enjoying the early autumn air.

When the vet arrived, Grover gently walked over to her and sniffed her leather bag. He then plopped right back down on the blanket near us.

He was perfectly calm the entire time she was there.

For my own sanity, I don’t want to re-hash the death process, but I will say that he seemed more relieved and calmer than he’d been since his diagnosis.

He left us a little before 6:00 in the evening, surrounded by family, his toys, and the grass in the New Jersey sunshine.

The word euthanasia means beautiful death. I hadn’t known that before Grover got sick. In fact, I had been very terrified of the concept itself – euthanasia.

But when I learned that it meant “beautiful death,” I realized that my fiancée and I had the opportunity to provide a beautiful, and peaceful transition for Grover from life into death – to give him the gift of peace.

It’s not a decision we wanted to make, but we had to remind ourselves that we needed to act with his best interests at heart, not our selfish desires.

And it is hard not to be selfish! I love my dog! He’s my family. I didn’t want to see him go.

But you have to let go. I fell back again on the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

After someone – be they human, dog, cat – dies (especially after a painful illness), the primary pain gets transferred from the victim to their closest loved ones.

By this, I mean that Grover was the primary victim of his cancer – no doubt – and my job was to care for him and provide him peace. But after he died, my fiancée and I had to carry the emotional burden of grief.

Grief is for the living. We had given him peace, but we were left with agony and emptiness.

We had spent so much energy working to give him a beautiful life, that we had forgotten the toll his parting would inflict.

It was devastating. It is devastating.

It catches us unsuspecting. One moment we’ll be dancing together, the next we’re in a puddle of tears.

But, if anything, what I’ve learned is that these feelings have to be accepted. And they cannot be sped along or slowed down.

The grief is a force unto itself. It can’t be forced to behave. Instead, it has to be accepted when it arrives.

There’s a beautiful line from the musical Next to Normal. “The Price of Love is Loss. But still we pay, we love anyway.”

We pay. That’s the beautiful agony of being alive.

As the two of us sat alone, surrounded by Grover’s toys and bed, I looked at my fiancée and I said, “I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.”

I would.

I will.

All the best,
Nathan Dennis, Ideapod

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Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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