Should I pray for the loss of a pet? How I coped when my dog died

This is the first email of a series on dealing with the loss of a pet. Want to get our emails in your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

Hey Ideapod family,

It’s Nathan here, jumping into your inbox with another series of lessons I’m learning.

Over the next three days, I am going to talk to you about grief: about uncertainty, loss, confusion, and healing.

Today, specifically I want to talk about uncertainty.

A few weeks ago, my dog died. He was a year and a half old.

At the end of August, he yelped while playing with his pup friend. My fiancée and I took him to the vet, where they diagnosed him with a hurt shoulder.

A few weeks later, he was back at the vet after not eating. The next thing I know, I’m at an animal hospital in Asbury Park where my dog is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

That was September 17th.

There were a lot of words thrown at me. Inconclusive. Lymphoma. Nephroblastoma. Needle Aspirate. I did my best to understand the specifics of what was happening to my dog, but the baseline was clear: he had terminal cancer, and he had somewhere between two weeks and six months to live.

Why the discrepancy? It was unclear which type of cancer he had: lymphoma (which would respond to chemotherapy) or congenital cancer which was untreatable.

We took my pup back home after an optimistic dose of chemotherapy, with the hope that it could jumpstart a remission period.

I’ve mentioned before that I am the praying type – having been raised in the Presbyterian Church. Lately, I’ve been working through Rudá Iandê’s masterclasses where he speaks about praying to your body, as opposed to praying to a specific deity.

(I recommend starting with his masterclass on turning frustrations into personal power to get a good idea of what these teachings are all about.)

Both of these were on my mind as I grappled with a dog who was set to die.

First, of my faith: what can you actually pray for? I would ask myself the question “is it worth praying for good cards after the deck has been shuffled?”

With my dog, Grover, it was inconclusive as to what type of cancer he had. Is that something that I could pray for – for him to have a more responsive form of cancer? It would be like praying for good cards – after the dealer had laid them down.

On the other hand, how could I pray to my dog’s body? That’s one of the things that has frustrated me about how people talk of cancer – that it’s an invader. Cancer is lethal, I understand.

But ultimately, it is a part of us. It’s our cells gone haywire. It’s not an infection – it’s a breakdown in biology.

How are you supposed to fight something that is a part of yourself?

It is easy to get caught up in the metaphysics and allegory of cancer – to question if cancer is some form of “darkness” counter to your body’s light. Whenever I tried to comprehend any deeper meaning behind it, my mind ended more jumbled than when I began.

Ultimately, I kept arriving at the same question, “what the hell am I supposed to do?”

What am I supposed to do when I am powerless in this situation?

The first thing I realized relatively soon after was that I am not powerless in this situation. Not entirely.

Prayer or not – whether to God or to the body of my dog, I was in charge of myself. I could control how I responded to the news I was processing. Most importantly, I could choose how I would take care of my sick dog.

What I needed to do was live in the present, because, at the end of the day, that was the only time I could count on. I had no idea how my dog would be by the next day.

I touched on this in my “go with the flow” article series, but what I ultimately fell back on was the “serenity prayer.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the serenity prayer was written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It says:

“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.”

In the case of Grover, I could not change what type of cancer he had. I could not change whether his medication would work for him. I could, however, choose what treatments to pursue, and I could choose how I would care for him until his time came.

When we first brought Grover home, his energy and appetite quickly rebounded. The swelling in his legs receded. He seemed happy. He’d chase after the ball, and play with the other dogs in the backyard. I was tempted to believe that the emergency dose of chemotherapy was providing a very positive effect.

But ultimately, we wouldn’t know whether the chemo was working until Grover’s appointment with the oncologist a week later.

In the meantime, there was this great period of unknowing and uncertainty. It became very easy to slip into anxieties about the uncertainty – about what the doctor would say.

I found myself so pulled between the anxieties of the future and the present happy state of my dog that I turned to Reddit, where I posted on the r/dogs subreddit, asking for advice.

The best one I got was the simplest. At the end of the day, your dog doesn’t know he has terminal cancer. That’s your burden to bear.

I hadn’t realized this before. My dog didn’t understand that his lifespan had been truncated. I knew that he would die soon, but he didn’t. I was despondent about the news, but he currently was happily playing in the yard.

I had been given a gift: the gift of time with a loving pet. It was up to me to use it properly.

Thanks for reading, friends. I’ll be back over the weekend to discuss sitting with sadness.

Kind regards,
Nathan Dennis, Ideapod


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Nathan Dennis

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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