On the Death of a Dog

my dog smudge

Recently I came across an interview with Barbra Streisand explaining why she had her dog, Samantha, cloned.  It was a way, she said, of dealing with the devastation she felt losing her after 14 years together. Even though she knew she couldn’t actually replace her dog, she wanted to keep Samantha with her in some physical way and cloning, for her, was the answer.

While cloning might seem a bit extreme, it reminded me of the conversations I’ve had with a lot of people over the years about coping with the huge emotional pain we experience when our dogs die. After a long relationship with an animal, we often feel unmoored, struggling to get over the calamitous shock we feel at their loss, a hurt that can sometimes be more acute and traumatic than even the death of a human.

I recently came across a journal entry I wrote after my dog Smudge passed away suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of seven:

A couple of weeks is officially long enough
to mourn the loss of a dog. And so that’s when
I turned the facedown photos of him back up.
And methodically cleaned and stored his bowls away.
And vacuumed the rugs of his gazillion white hairs.
And sent jackets to the dry cleaners. And sadly washed
the slipcovers of his distinctive and now saintly smell.

And for the emptiness I encountered in my doorways,
I shoveled snow into them that, all winter, never fell.

But then one day at Barnes & Noble, I noticed a woman
at the register glancing at my chest. I looked down and
saw a glob of his slobber still wet and glistening
on a scarf I’d pulled from the bottom of a laundry room pile.

“It’s semen,” I  heard myself suddenly saying
so as not to break down in front of her.
As though she would have asked. As though it was
a perfectly reasonable explanation.

Looking back, I realize I dealt with his death by engaging in a ceremony of erasure (cleaning and storing away his bowls, vacuuming the house, washing slipcovers) in an effort to wipe away his remaining physical traces so as not to be constantly reminded of him. And while that may have kept me occupied, there was the undeniable fact that no matter what I did I still felt a huge emotional void that could not be mitigated. Even my encounter at B&N revealed the fragile state I was in, so much so that I was willing to say something totally absurd rather than let on that I was still a wreck over his passing.

We all deal with the loss in different ways. Some people swear never to get another dog again because it could never replace one that just died. And getting one, they believe, would diminish his or her memory. Some jump right in and start looking for another dog immediately, believing that a new one will help ease the pain as they become attached to a unique and totally different animal. Others choose to have more than one dog so that when one dies there won’t be such an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. That’s what I decided to do but have since realized that my dogs have grown so close that the surviving dog will also be devastated, perhaps making matters even worse.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers. No right or wrong reactions. No silver bullets. It’s whatever works for you. Whatever eases the tremendous heartbreak of losing a dog. Maybe the best response is to simply enjoy them while you can in the here and now. So find a leash and get out there for a walk as often as you can. A long walk. It will certainly be time well spent.

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