Grief is a Trickster

Here’s the thing about grief. It’s always lying in wait. Just below the surface, waiting for a quiet moment. When the house is dark, the music stops, the kids are asleep…grief creeps in and sweeps over you.

The moments between sleep and wakefulness are some of the worst. Regardless of the content of your dreams (assuming it wasn’t the reality of your grief), there’s a brief moment as you’re waking — before you’re fully awake — when you’re unaware of your grief. A brief moment of forgotten heartache and loss. Then the memory flashes in your now-awake mind and the grief crashes over you.

Yep, grief is a tricky thing. One moment you’re enjoying your favorite show, playing with the kids, making dinner – and in an instant the loss comes flying in, screaming at you for your few stolen moments of peace.

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I keep catching what I think are glimpses of Jack in my peripheral vision – mostly through the kitchen windows, where my subconscious registers him walking by in the yard or on the deck before my thinking brain reminds me that he’s gone.

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His food and bed are still here; we aren’t quite sure how and when to part with these elements that fed and comforted him while he was with us.

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Ping-ponging through the stages of grief is exhausting. Whiplash. That’s how it feels sometimes — to go from perfectly fine one moment to a painful reminder and flood of tears the next. The passing of time has dulled the pain some, and the fullness of activities has filled the space initially reserved for mourning.

Time marches on and the new normal is pretty normal. But we still miss you, Jack. One of your final gifts to us is this: where we had grown somewhat lazy as pet parents, your passing has reminded us how important it is to cherish the moments with Teddy, taking better care of him and showing him lots of love and affection. May we continue to learn from your love and loyalty.

Saying Goodbye to Jack

He was here, and then he wasn’t.

“It’s time to say goodbye. Bring the kids.”

Blink.

He doesn’t wag his tail or lift his head when we walk in; only his eyes move to greet us.

His pain, which has been steadily increasing for months, skyrocketed in the last couple of days, it seems.

Hard swallow.

It was January, 2005. Abilene, Texas. I had met Dave in August of 2004 and we dated briefly before a break so I could figure my life out. But then in one of the most brilliantly strategic moves of his life, he showed up on my doorstep holding a teeny tiny yellow lab.

The runt of the litter, Jack was Dave’s chosen wingman. If he would have to be single, at least he would have his dog to join him on adventures. The two of them would hike and backpack and explore the world together.

 

That was the plan, anyway.

Jack was the sweetest, most adorable puppy I’d ever met. And that little bundle of unconditional love thawed the ice between me and Dave, making way for a beautiful relationship to blossom.

Soon, Jack became “our dog” and life was nearly perfect. Together we took Jack camping, hiking, and on road trips. In addition to the usual dog tricks, he also knew how to fetch (and match) Dave’s shoes and how to play hide and seek. He loved to stand on his hind legs and give hugs or high fives. While he was a friend to everyone, his loyalty to his family was unmatched.

As our first child came along, I didn’t want Jack on our bed anymore. He was nothing but gentle, but I didn’t want him to accidentally hurt Anna. As our family grew, the responsibilities and messes and commotion seemed to multiply exponentially. Somewhere along the way, I grew tired of the endless shedding and all the normal dog smells.

Sweet Jack loved laying on my pregnant belly

I’m ashamed to admit that for years, I kept Jack at a distance – my love for him buried under the weight of overwhelm and irritation. I never wished him harm, never mistreated him – but I often regarded him as a nuisance. Nevertheless, he was nothing but kind, loving, and happy to see me.

A little over a year ago, he started having trouble getting up and down the stairs. As he slipped, the sound could be heard throughout the house – of nails clawing to grip an ungrippable hardwood surface as he struggled to regain his footing. He didn’t jump up on people anymore, but we couldn’t really remember when that stopped. He was always smiling, though.

His control of bladder and bowels would come and go as the months wore on. He was now hard of hearing. Mostly my complaints remained the same – I was tired of the smells, and having to clean the floors so often only to have him walk through and drop fur everywhere.

I worried that his body was shutting down, and grew anxious over the uncertainty of it all. How long will this go on? Will we have to make this decision? How will we know when it’s time? I knew Dave would be devastated. I mostly focused on that and bit my tongue more often than not when I observed Jack’s decline.

I felt trapped between a responsibility to do something about Jack, and a responsibility to take care of my husband. My pragmatism was in the driver’s seat, leaving emotions out of the picture. I worried that Jack might be in pain, but neither of us could say for sure if he was.

On July 28, Dave took Jack to the vet who confirmed that he had arthritis, muscle loss, and was in pain. We started him on a steroid and supplements for joint health. On August 3, I took a video as Jack awkwardly paced, paused, and bumbled around the deck. I had been witnessing similar behavior over the last few weeks, but this was far more pronounced. He was out of sorts, lethargic, no longer himself. His smile was gone.

The next morning Dave picked him up and put him in the van, taking him to another appointment with the vet. She watched the video and said in addition to the tremendous pain he was obviously experiencing, that strange behavior on the deck was characteristic of a brain tumor. As soon as she said those words, Dave’s hearing blurred and his vision tunneled. He knew in that moment that this was the moment. This would be the day we would have to say goodbye to Jack.

No one told me what this would be like. No one prepared me to hear “we’re going to give him an injection to make him fall asleep, and then the second injection will stop his heart.” STOP HIS HEART?!?! Wait. What? NO!!!!

He’s in a lot of pain. We don’t want that. He’s not going to get better. We don’t want to accept that. He probably has a brain tumor. How do we even begin to process that?

My thinking brain knows without a doubt that we have to let him go. We can’t allow him to continue to suffer and decline. But my safe pragmatism has left me. My heart is shattering as the reality of what we’re doing sinks in, and I watch my kids sob and give Jack hugs. Lacking full understanding and the ability to truly empathize, our four-year old Lane sniffs and makes sobbing sounds to mimic the others so that he, too, can participate in the grieving—providing us just a brief moment of levity.

Jack’s physical presence seems to communicate that he’s ready. He’s never been like this before – just laying there with his head on the floor between his paws. It’s as if he has been trying to hold on, trying to be okay for some time, but waiting until we were ready to let him go. He needed Dave to be okay.

The vet gives us time to say goodbye.

How much time is enough—a few minutes? Hours? Days? Nothing seems adequate. Two of the kids had already gone to sit outside with Aunt Crystal, who had serendipitously flown in to visit us the day before. Without directly saying so, the vet makes it clear that the other kids should also go out for the injection. Dave and I stay.

It was one of the worst moments of my life. Though I had sensed for at least a year that his time with us was limited, I hadn’t given much thought to how it would feel to lose him.

The day before, as my sister and I drove back from the airport and I told her about Jack’s behavior that day and that this might be the end – even then when she asked about my attachment to him, I said I used to be attached to him but it changed when we had kids. “I just don’t think I’m an animal person,” I said.

In the fluorescence of that sterile vet room, the hardness of my heart crumbled away to reveal a tenderness and love I had all but forgotten were there. The shock and emotion and gravity of the moment were overwhelming.

Flashes of Jack as a puppy and young dog raced through my mind. So many sweet memories.

Seeing that tiny bundle of fur through the peep hole of my duplex in Abilene. Throwing the ball as far as we could and Jack running for it over and over and over.

Jack laying on the floor as one Christy baby after the other would lean on him, lay on him, tug on his ears or tail, and try to ride him. He was the sweetest, most tender, loving dog ever.

How could this be the end? How could we let him go?

We sat, watching and petting him while she gave him the medicine to fall asleep. When she said she was giving him the injection to stop his heart, in my head and heart I screamed “NOOOOOOOOOO!” but no words came out. I knew it had to be done, but that didn’t relieve the ripping feeling in my chest.

It happened so fast. In just a few moments his abdomen no longer rose and fell. He was gone.

It was surreal, horrifying. One moment we were petting his fur, talking to him, and the next moment he was gone.

The decision we had made was irreversible. Final. Devastating.

We all shed a lot of tears that morning. Dave and I found things to keep ourselves busy during the day, but in the quietness of night, the memories and grief were relentless. It’s been the same for me every night since, though it’s creeping into the waking hours as well.

Like a video stuck on repeat, the scene in the vet room plays over and over. Our decision. Our responsibility. His pain. His life. Those horrible words the vet said. His death. How can it be that this decision was ours to make? How could we stop his heart?

There’s never been an “us” without Jack.

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It’s always been Dave + Jack + Jen. Add kids.

And then there’s Teddy, our almost five-year old Bichon-Poodle mix, who was Jack’s best buddy.

The first few days, Teddy would lay by the back door or on Jack’s bed – watching and waiting for Jack, we think. He’s been especially attached, dashing out to the car whenever we leave, wanting to be with us all the time. And we’ve been extra affectionate with him as well.

So many things trigger the flood of emotions – seeing his things (food dish, brush, leash); the tactile memory of his fur under my fingers or nose against my skin; the sinking regret of how irritated I had been and kindness I wish I had shown him; walking downstairs in the morning and expecting to hear him stand up and shake, ready to go out back; remembering the sound of his tag on the collar as he came running in from outside; and basically every single memory of him.

His ashes were prepared the very next day. How did it happen so fast? We let him go on August 4, and on August 5 – Anna’s 11th birthday – they cremated him.

On August 6, they called Dave to pick up Jack’s things. In a small paw print-covered gift bag, we found: a clay paw print, a small bag with a clipping of fur, a paper containing his nose and paw prints, a certificate, and a handsome walnut box containing the ashes of a beloved member of our family. I can’t look at these things without crying.

This grief is pervasive; everything feels harder and heavier. I’m grateful my sister was here. Having walked through this with her beloved dog just two months ago, her empathy was especially strong. Now that her visit is over, a new normal is setting in. I don’t like it.

I have hope that it will get better, though it will never be the same.

Jack, you were the best dog we could have asked for. You brought Dave and me together; how could we ever thank you enough? You asked for so little and gave so much. We miss you deeply. Your joy, excitement, loyalty, kindness, and unconditional love taught us how to be. We are forever changed.