Two weeks ago, I divulged being a squirrel whisperer and the pain and heartache that accompanies losing an animal you’ve nursed to health. This week, let’s talk about our canine companions.
Ariel, a two-pound fluffy white bichon frise tied in a pink bow, was my twenty-first birthday present from my parents. I giggled when she humped the stuffed pig my best friend had given me in college (who knew spayed female dogs still have such libido?)
Ariel was there on my first day of medical school.
She was there when I got married—and then five years later, when I got divorced.
She helped me survive four years of medical school and four years of residency.
She got me through half a dozen health problems and survived four surgeries of her own.
I cried into Ariel’s fur during the year I called my “Four Funerals and a Wedding” year. We survived love affairs and breakups and cross-country moves in stinky yellow trucks. She expected little of me, which was good, because at that time of my life, I had little to give.
Ariel pawed at my belly and growled when my baby moved, but when she met my newborn, she curled up right next to her and let herself be used as a pillow.
Then all hell broke loose.
It was January 2006, and I was in the midst of my Perfect Storm. I had just given birth to my daughter via C-section, while my radiation-bald father was dying of a brain tumor. Ariel was acting needy with the baby around, and all I wanted to do when I left the hospital was go home to a peaceful place to bond with my newborn daughter and snuggle with Ariel.
But I spent every day of my brief four-week postpartum leave at the chaotic rented beach house where my father got hooked up with Hospice so he could die with an ocean view.
Ariel Was Not Happy
My father and Ariel had always been close. Because he was disabled with multiple sclerosis, he spent more time sitting on cushy chairs and less time flitting about like I did. So Dad was always a soft place to land with a welcoming lap for Ariel. But once Dad got sick, Ariel got restless. It’s like she could tell Dad was sick.
Ariel was sixteen years old but seemingly in excellent health when Dad was dying. Then all of the sudden, Ariel got sick and quickly decompensated. She spent all day and all night crying. The vet dosed her up with Xanax and pain medication, but nothing helped. He doubled, then tripled the dose. Ariel couldn’t see straight, but she still kept crying.
I Couldn’t Deal
While I was trying to nurse my screaming newborn, while wiping away my own grief-stricken tears, Ariel sat next to me, crying and wailing.
A few days later, my brother, who came out to California to be with me and our father for Dad’s last few weeks, wound up in the ICU in full-blown liver failure as a rare side effect of the antibiotic Zithromax.
I Was Losing my Mind
I finally handed Ariel over to my husband Matt and asked him to take Ariel to the vet to make her stop crying. He called me from the vet’s office. The news wasn’t good. They wanted to put Ariel to sleep. I wept uncontrollably.
Matt asked me if I wanted him to come home and pick me up so I could be with Ariel while she died. As I held my newborn, sitting next to my dying father, while going back and forth with the ICU doctors who were caring for my very sick brother, I shook my head. I just couldn’t face another trauma.
Matt told me afterwards that he held Ariel in his arms while the vet injected the potassium chloride that finally stopped her crying. The image my imagination cooked up about how that scene went down is burned in my memory, even though I didn’t watch it. Matt says he’s still scarred.
I Never Got to Say Goodbye
Then, a week after I lost Ariel, I lost my father. The next couple of weeks were a flurry of funerals and breast pumps and seventy-two hour call shifts intermingled with sleepless nights at home.
It wasn’t until months later that I noticed a little cedar box engraved with Ariel’s name, containing the ashes of her cremated body. I couldn’t look at them, much less deal with them. I was completely numb.
Now, more than six years later, I just came across the little cedar box, and like it was yesterday, I remember Ariel humping the pig and then whimpering beside me as I nursed the newborn who is now skiing on a Lake Tahoe ski slope. Only now that I have mostly healed from the loss of my father, the recovery of my brother’s liver failure, and the other traumas of my Perfect Storm, have I begun to allow myself to lean into the grief of losing my beloved pup.
But it’s time. Time to say goodbye. Time to bury her properly. Time to honor the cherished place she holds in my heart even still.
EPILOGUE: I wrote this post two weeks before my beloved eight-year-old dog Grendel, who had been Ariel’s buddy, unexpectedly passed away. I must have somehow known that it was time to deal with this, because all of the unhealed parts of me that never dealt with Ariel’s death surfaced when I was thinking of how I lost my father six years ago, and then Grendel went into respiratory distress and died at the vet hospital.
We wound up burying Ariel’s ashes with Grendel’s still body, along with thirteen tennis balls and Grendel’s stuffed teddy bear. As I write, I can look out my window into the backyard, knowing they are there. As much as my heart hurts, I am filled with gratitude for the unconditional love, the purity of heart, the joyous memories, and the many years of love these dogs gave me.
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
What about you? Have you lost a pet? Tell us your stories.
Healing my heart
*Photo by Wedding Photography by Jon Day