Sitting with sadness after losing my dog to cancer

This is the second email in a series about dealing with the grief of losing a pet. Want more like this in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here.

A few days ago, I wrote to you about losing my dog to cancer. I touched on uncertainty, and how important it is (when dealing with a great tragedy) to understand what things are in our control and what things are not

If you missed the email, you can read it here.

Today, I want to talk about sitting with sadness.

In the case of my dog, I had control over how I responded to his cancer diagnosis. Over the course of the week leading up to his follow-up oncology appointment, his energy and appetite increased, and his incontinence diminished. I was optimistic that the chemo was buying us some additional time.

My fiancée and I took Grover on walks as best his energy would allow. We cuddled him, played ball in the backyard, and took as many family portraits as time would allow. We were on borrowed time, but we vowed to maximize as much of it as we could.

Then his oncology appointment came.

We drove down to Asbury Park where Grover was picked up by the technician. About 15 minutes later, I got a call from the oncologist, who wished to speak to us outside at the Gazebo.

Let me paint you a quick picture: it’s an Animal Hospital. There’s a White Gazebo in a grassy field. Where the oncologist wants to talk in person.

I suddenly feel like I’m 19 again and I’m about to get broken up with over coffee.

My fiancée and I walk over to the gazebo, where the oncologist and the vet GP (do dogs have GPs?) quietly shuffle across from us. It’s formal. My heart is sinking.

The tumor is not responding to chemo. His increased energy and appetite are likely due to the daily prednisone.

I’ll be honest with you, friends, at this moment I was very frustrated. Why? Because I had asked the vet a week ago if his improvement could be attributed to prednisone. Her answer was no. It had to be the chemo.

I apologize if this is pedantic and not terribly salient, but I couldn’t get this thought out of my head: “why didn’t you tell me this could be a false improvement?”

That thought went unuttered, and Grover’s diagnosis remained quite grim. Another round of chemo was ordered for good measure, but it wasn’t expected to work.

It’s hard not to get bogged down in the “it’s not fair” and the “why did this happen” feelings that naturally come in to play during a crisis. They’re pesky thoughts, that (to me) don’t do a whole lot more than to make everyone feel like garbage.

To me, there are certain things in the universe that happen, that are cast. They’re dice randomly rolled with outcomes that are beyond our control.

Terminal cancer in a puppy would be one of those.

It’s certainly tempting to frame the diagnosis around the self – that my dog’s cancer was something I had to suffer. It’s easy to ask “why did I have to get a dog who died so young?” But this is an unhealthy and selfish way of thinking.

As my fiancée’s mother said, “maybe you guys came into Grover’s life for a reason – to give him the best life possible.”

By the time we got home, Grover had become quite sleepy, and had plopped himself down for a nap. I’m pretty sure I went for a run. Or at least tried to. My body sort of conked out on me for a few days. I managed to hobble about a mile down the road before ending in a disappointed shuffle.

My whole body hurt. My abdomen felt torn from crying so heavily over the last few days. My shoulders hurt from carrying my dog when he normally would walk. I felt like shit.

And this brought me back a little to what Rudá Iandê said in Laughing in the Face of Chaos. “Embrace your nature.” We live a dual life of light and shadow, where the shadow is our negative feelings that we attempt to falsely remove from ourselves.

I thought to myself, “I can’t outrun this grief. I can’t will away this anger. I can’t simply exercise myself until I feel happy.” I literally couldn’t. My body wouldn’t let me.

So my fiancée and I went out to eat. We sat outside and barely talked except to acknowledge how horrible the situation was. All we could do was simply “sit with our sadness.”

I couldn’t will it away, and I didn’t want to. I was sad. Sad my dog was on death’s door. Angry that the doctor hadn’t given me accurate advice. Confused as to why my dog was selected for this fate. Pissed that I couldn’t run more than a mile. And embarrassed that I was packing on the pounds with ice cream and M&Ms.

“I feel like I’m getting broken up with,” I said to my fiancée, “except this time we’re still stuck together.”

She laughed (I promise). We split the check and then walked home, a cloud of healthy devastation over our shoulders.

Kind regards,
Nathan Dennis, Ideapod

P.S. Tomorrow I’ll share the third and final email in this series with you. The subject line is “saying goodbye”. Look out for it.

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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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