On dog grief

About 10 years ago, I was at an animal emergency clinic late at night with a sick cat. There were others in front of me, so I sat down in the waiting room and was thumbing through a magazine when a man rushed through the front door carrying a large dog.

The dog was motionless, limp; the man was wild-eyed and disheveled, breathing hard, his face wet with tears. 

He had pulled his car straight up to the door of the clinic and not even turned it off. It was still running, the lights shining eerily inside the clinic, the driver’s door still ajar.

He must have called in advance; a couple of staffers quickly took the man and his dog into a private room and shut the door. Those of us in the waiting room just sat there in silence. We all had troubles that night, troubles that lay at our feet or in our cat carriers. But they did not compare to what we had just witnessed, what I know to be dog grief.

Dog grief is not the same as cat grief. It is not even the same as person grief.  It is a distinct kind of loss, unfathomable to those who have not experienced it. You can witness it, as I did that night, and feel enormous sympathy and think you know what a person is going through because you, too, have suffered great loss. But unless you yourself have suffered dog grief, you don’t know dog grief.

Now that I know, it’s as if I live in another dimension.

I can tell whether other people have suffered dog grief by what they say when I tell them of my loss. The person who says, “I’m sorry, dogs are such a big part of our lives” —  nah.

The person who says, “There really aren’t words big enough. Take care yourself” —  they’ve been there.

Dog grief is the tsunami you didn’t see coming. It yanks you under its dark, roiling water, collapses the flimsy structures that previously held you up, obscures the foundation of your life. 

Dog grief is two parts loss and one part guilt.

The guilt is there not only because of the million things you should have done, could have done, would have done if you had only known it was the last month, the last week, the last day, but also because it is dog grief.

The very word tries to diminish what you are experiencing.

Despite our nation’s love affair with dogs — Americans have more dogs than they have children — the word “dog” still connotes something inferior, much like the word “donkey.” We cover it up with silly euphemisms like “fur baby” or “fur kid” but we have been unable to find a word to describe these animals, and what they mean to us, and what their loss does to us.

There really aren’t words big enough.

Still, even as we hurt when a dog dies, we feel vaguely guilty because, of course, it was “only” a dog.

A few years ago, before I knew dog grief first hand, I read Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars,” which is a beautiful novel set nine years after an apocalypse brought on by a deadly flu. The narrator, named Hig, is one of the haggard survivors; having lost his wife and all his family and friends, he lives off the land, knowing only the companionship of another survivor he occasionally encounters, and his dog. 

Halfway through the book, he loses his dog.

It takes three days before he can even muster the energy, the will, the courage, to bury him.

I don’t. Don’t do anything all day. Don’t start the fire. Don’t cook the fish. Leave them on a stringer hanging from a bough. Attractant to bear and cougar. Don’t care. Get up to pee, drink a little water from the creek running colder from the icy night. Lower in its bed, the fallen tree propped on rocks upstream higher off the water. So. Retreat. Heart like the stream contracted too.

When I first read “The Dog Stars,” I understood the book to be about grief about the loss of the ordinary world. Now I understand the book as all about dog grief.

You can’t metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your gut. Muscle sinew bone. It is all of you.

With all due respect to cat lovers, to cat people, like I used to be, you really don’t know. As they say on Twitter, sit this one out.

It has been well documented how the relationship between dogs and people is different from relationships we have with other animals; for example, dogs are the only animals that we have sustained eye contact with, releasing the same chemicals that flood mothers when they gaze at their babies. Dogs protect us, make us feel safe. They are companions, not only in our homes (like cats), but also on our walks, our errands, even sometimes our vacations. The loss of a dog is not only the loss of companionship, but also an erosion of our sense of safety, our sense of being loved, our very sense of self.

The only people who know dog grief are the people who have experienced dog grief.

After the man carrying the dying dog was ushered into a private room at the animal emergency clinic, I went outside and turned off his car and closed the door. In my mind’s eye, I can still see  the front seat of the car, which was splattered with blood. It irritates me to no end that my mind still holds onto this unwanted memory when it can’t trouble itself to remember where I place my glasses or my car keys.

I never saw the man again that night, but have thought of him periodically over the years, and how awful it was that I, a complete stranger, was a voyeur of one of the worst moments of his life. I hope he eventually metabolized the loss. 

As good as “The Dog Stars” is, no book on loss will ever eclipse the Book of Job, the ancient reflection on suffering that may or may not have been written by Moses. It is one of the biggest tragedies of our secular age that there are children growing up today with no knowledge of Job.

Job, of course, lost nearly everything when God decided to let Satan test him. He lost his children, his wealth, his health, his servants, his sheep, his camels, his oxen and his donkeys. Eventually God restored all of these two-fold, which is supposed to be a happy ending, if you can look past all the people and animals who died to make a point. 

But it’s notable that Job had no dogs. 

God, who has intimate knowledge of human grief, knows well that dogs can’t be replaced.

Dedicated with love and grief to Bebe and Balta, and to my Jason.

Main art, “Job and His Friends” by Ilya Repin, in the public domain.