Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Grief and Goodbyes

“The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.” – Hilary Stanton Zunin

We all came bursting into the house upon returning from our spring break trip, eagerly looking forward to seeing the dogs after a week away. The dog-sitter assured us they had all played together just fine, had slept well, and had not destroyed the house. When we tumbled into the kitchen with our luggage and bags, the dogs were waiting for us, tails a-waggin’, but the smiles slid from our faces as we registered what we were seeing.

“Oh, Bones,” I whispered. “Bones, this is not good.”

Bones, our huge, solid, boulder of a French Mastiff, was thin and sluggish. I knew he had lost a little weight before we had left, but this was a lot of weight.

He was sick.

I brought him to the vet the next day. He had lost 21 pounds. My heart sank like a rock. I knew this was going to be bad. Weight loss like this doesn’t happen with anything easy. They took x-rays of his chest, which showed one of his lungs had no air. They couldn’t tell if it was all fluid or a mass, but it was so distended that it was pushing his heart and other lung out of place. To get a better look, they needed to do an ultrasound.

Bones was so docile that he did not require sedation for any of this. He was such a good dog, so sweet. So gentle.


The ultrasound revealed huge tumors in his right lung. It also showed a lot of fluid in his chest. The vet took samples to send to A&M for official diagnosis, but she told me that she believed it was cancer. In the meantime, she put him on Lasix to help reduce the fluid in his chest, and an anti-nausea medicine to try to get him eating again.

Two days later, we received the official word from A&M: Lymphoma. My not-even-three-year-old dog had cancer. With intense treatment, he might have 6-12 months, but it is incurable. The ultimate outcome would not change. Bones would still die. Without treatments, he might have two weeks.

Two weeks.

I did what I do: research. A lot of research.

Then I talked to my kids. I let them be part of the decision. I told them everything I knew about his diagnosis. I explained what was happening to him and told them what was going to happen to him. I explained what the treatments would be like, and how they would make him feel. Then I explained what would happen if we elected not to treat him.

There were many, many tears that night. Bones is part of our small family. He joined us when he was only seven weeks old. He and Emma were practically inseparable any time they were home. Best buds. Comrades. Partners in crime. And now she was being called upon to make decisions about his end-of-life care.

              Seven-week-old Bones instantly bonded with Emma           Bones has always enjoyed being in pictures with Emma

Emma and Bones, her enormously strong giant baby.

The girls came to me. “We don’t want him to suffer more than he already is,” Violet said.

“Ok,” I replied. “What does that mean?”

“We don’t think we should put him through treatments,” Emma said.

“So you’re saying when the time comes, we should put him to sleep?” I clarified. “You know that will be soon? The vet said only a couple of weeks.”

More tears.

They were agreed that this was the best course of action. And in my head, I knew it, too. I needed to do some more research – just to be sure – before I could make that final decision. Just so my heart could be sure, too.

Over the next couple of days I did my research and I came to the same conclusion as the girls. The vet said Bones would let us know when it was time, and he did. He stopped eating. He wanted to eat. He sniffed the food so appreciatively. He licked it. But he could not chew it. He could not swallow it. And he was losing weight again. Walking was becoming more painful for him. We could hear him wheezing when he breathed, a high-pitched whistle in and out.

It was time.

I went to work that day knowing I was going to bring my dog in to be euthanized that afternoon. It was terrible. I just wanted to spend the day petting him, telling him what a great dog he was, letting him know he was loved. Those chances were so finite now, so numbered. Here I was wasting all these last hours of his life sitting at a desk watching my students take exams while his life ticked away.

I had to help Bones into the car that afternoon. He couldn’t quite get his feet in; he didn’t have the strength. “One last ride, Bones. You ready?” I asked as I settled him onto the backseat.

My vet was so kind. She explained everything that was going to happen (and offered to explain it again in case I wasn’t quite listening the first time). They gave Bones a sedative as I held his paw. He liked to hold paws a lot. We did this at home regularly. Then they injected the lethal drug, and the vet’s assistant gently held his head as it lowered to the floor.

And it was over.

The vet sat with me the entire time. We sat there and pet my dog as we cried.

When I got home, Emma asked me to help her. She realized that this is the first loss she has known in her life, since her dad died before she was born. She said, “Mom, I’ve never had to grieve for anything before. I don’t know how. Can you teach me?”


I told her, “Honey, I don’t think grief is something that can be taught. You just have to let yourself feel what you feel when you feel it. It’s okay to be sad, or mad, or however you feel. Just know that.”

She has relied on me to teach her everything she needs to know. I’ve been the one to teach her all the skills she needs to know in life because I have been the only one to raise her. But I cannot teach her this. I never thought about it before this, but grief is something you cannot learn without the experience of the loss.

I wish I could teach her this lesson without her having to experience the heartache that comes with it. I wish I could save her the pain. But I’m learning that a good mom knows when to teach with words, when to lead with example, and when to let the silence speak and Experience take over as teacher.

We had Bones cremated. He was returned to us in this beautiful box, something
Emma can still say "Goodnight, Bones" to each night as she comes to terms
with her grief. She is - as we all are - coping with his loss. It's a lesson
she had to learn young, and one she had to learn, as we all do,
ultimately alone.