Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The New Normal

We lost our dog last week.  I posted the following to a pet loss support forum today and wanted to archive it here.


We lost our dog Ginger this past Wednesday Sept. 28th.  She was 11 years old and aside from a few minor health issues, was healthy and active.  We thought for sure she would have at least 2-3 more years with us.

Wednesday she seemed like her normal self, and when I got home from work at 5:00 pm all was as usual.  But as the evening wore on I noticed she acted as if she didn't feel well.  She vomited a little, but that didn't worry me because she was one of those unfortunate dogs that is inclined to eat her own poop and if we weren't diligent about keeping the yard clean, would sneak a little "Ginger Snack" from time to time.  Sometimes it would make her throw up, but afterwards would be fine.  So, I thought this was just one of those occasions.  I took her outside in case she had any more to throw up, and noticed her panting really heavy.  She then laid down on the ground, exhausted.  Still, no red flags went up for me at this time.

A half hour later I noticed her walking around the house slowly, still panting, with her head down as if she wanted to try and retch up something.  I took her back outside and after a bowel movement she came over near me and flopped down on the ground as if her legs wouldn't support her anymore.  THEN I started to get worried.  My first thought was that maybe it had something to do with her ending a run of steroidal medicine she'd been on for a couple of months for a skin infection.  The doses had been tapered down but that was the only thing I could think of that could be causing this abnormal behavior.  I got online real quick and learned that steroid withdrawal can be dangerous in dogs, so I called the vet clinic and their after-hours answering service picked up.  I asked that the vet on-call contact me right away because this was an emergency.  I brought Ginger back inside, where she flopped down on the floor next to me, and we sat there for 20 agonizing minutes waiting for the vet to call.  By now I was seriously freaked out, heart pounding, trying to figure out what was wrong with our doggie.  He finally called me and I tried to explain her symptoms over the phone.  He asked me some questions, and I brought up about the steroid meds.  He didn't think that was it but without seeing her he couldn't say, of course.  He asked me if I wanted to have him look at her tonight (at an after-hours charge, of course), and I hesitated.  I was fighting with myself, part of me feeling like I was overreacting.  Then he asked me if her stomach looked or felt bloated at all.  I thought that was an odd question, and I answered no, because how in the world do you tell if a dog (who admittedly was a little overweight) is bloated or not?  I equated bloat with the human kind of bloat, like when you eat too much fast food.  Uncomfortable, but not serious.  He said to try to see if she would take a little food, watch her overnight, and bring her in in the morning if I thought she still wasn't doing good.

The bloat thing had me curious and so after hanging up I hopped online again and looked up "bloat in dogs."  Oh my god, did I get a rapid and heartwrenching education in those few minutes, and I called him back and said yes, he needed to see her right away tonight because I couldn't make that judgement call on whether she was bloated or not.  So by now it's 9:00 pm and I'm on my way to the clinic to meet him.  I left a note for my husband, who was in night class, to drive up to the clinic if we weren't home by the time he got home.  He must have just missed us because he drove up about 5 minutes after I got there.

The vet arrived and with the tech did an initial exam, and he questioned me more thoroughly on everything she did that day, ate, when she pooped, etc.  He could see that she was obviously in distress but no immediate diagnosis was screaming out at him.  He asked us to leave her there with him that night as he wanted to do blood tests and xray, he thought it might be pancreitis.  At first I misunderstood and thought he was just going to keep her there overnight and do the tests in the morning, but he said no, he was going to do them right away that night and that he would call us with the results.  So my husband and I left to go home.  I didn't even pet her goodbye, we just left.  We had no idea that it was going to be the last time we saw her.

He called us at home about 10:30 pm and said the xrays showed bloat and the beginnings of twisted stomach happening and he needed to do emergency surgery right away.  We said yes of course and then the wait began.  He then called us at 12:30 am with the bad news that she had died, and that he hadn't even had a chance to operate because they had trouble getting her to take the anasthesia because she was in so much shock and distress.  By the time he called us he had already been doing CPR on her for 15 minutes to try and revive her.  My husband, who spoke with him on the phone a little bit told me he thought the vet sounded shaken himself, and that he'd said in all the 30 years he's been a vet, that this case would stay with him for a long time.

The next day, Thursday, we were both pretty much just catatonic.  I stayed home from work and my husband canceled classes.  We went to the clinic and spoke with the vet and he reassured me that there wasn't anything I did wrong, given the circumstances I did all I could do and couldn't have done more.  I just couldn't wrap my brain around the fact that she was actually gone.  I'm still having problems accepting that.  The pain is so acute it's overwhelming and I burst into tears at the drop of a hat.  I can't walk anywhere in the house or in the yard where I'm not constantly reminded of her.  Her toys are still strewn around the house.  Her bed (two old comforters folded up) is still in the hallway right outside our bedroom door.  Her harness is still in the backseat of my car from when I transported her to the clinic that night.  I couldn't stand to see any of these reminders, but I couldn't bring myself to remove them out of sight either.

Well Friday, I stayed home from work again, still completely unable to grasp reality.  I was still bursting into tears out of nowhere so I knew I couldn't be at work, but I forced myself to get up and do stuff around the house and fell into kind of a numb trance as I cleaned.  I think it was just me caving into the shock and denial of it all, because later that afternoon I felt almost normal like nothing had happened.  When my husband came home from work he jolted me with the news that maybe to help with the healing, we should go be around dogs.  He wanted to go to the humane society and just look at the dogs, not to find a new one, but just to be around their doggyness.  I relented and said yes.

So we go up there, me ready to break into tears, and inevitably he wants to see a dog so we get the staff to bring the dog to the consulting room and my husband got the doggy hugs and kisses he apparently needed to heal, and a few bite marks (it was a very rambunctious puppy) and then we left.  We tried (or least I tried) to pretend everything was normal by going out to eat and renting some movies.  We also have 4 cats so we spent the evening watching movies with all our cats piled on top of us, and that was healing, but the glaring absence of our Dog-Dog was so hard to accept.

Saturday, my husband said maybe we should think about getting another dog.  I couldn't believe he was even suggesting it, and Ginger hadn't even been gone 3 days yet!  I felt betrayed and also felt that he must not be feeling grief over her as deeply as I am.  Our lives had just been turned upside down and now he wants to create more heartbreak and chaos by replacing Ginger.  I was distraught and I guess wanting to feel that maybe having a doggy presence in the house again would help me heal that I went along with him back up to the humane society.  He said he didn't necessarily want to get another dog so soon, but he wanted to interact with different breeds to feel them out, or "test drive" them for when we are ready again.  Well the one dog he was interested in had been adopted earlier that day so we wandered around the other kennels again and then saw a dog that hadn't been there the day before.  She was immediately different than the other dogs in that she was quiet, not barking, and when we knelt down to let her sniff our hands she put her face against the bars so that we could rub her cheek.

So into the consulting room she goes with us and it's obvious she really, really liked me.  She's an older dog, they estimated her to be about 5 years old, and a german shorthaired pointer.  Very affectionate, very gentle, and very obviously longing for someone to take her home.  We spent a lot of time with her in the room, and then we asked the staff if we could take her outside in the yard to see how she reacts in other situations.  It's obvious that she's had some hunting training and is generally well behaved.  We leave and go home, and spend the evening talking about everything that has happened, me frequently bursting into tears, and incredulously contemplating bringing a new dog into our lives so soon.  To distract ourselves, we got online to research about german shorthaired pointers because we were unfamiliar with the breed and its temperment.  We've never had a pure-bred dog before (and it's obvious that this dog is purebred, not a mix).   Ginger was a "Heinze-57 variety", with some german shepherd, possibly some chow and possibly some sharpei.

Sunday comes and my husband seems completely set on bringing this dog home, now.  I'm still so depressed and still having trouble accepting that Ginger is gone.....on top of all that I feel such a huge amount of guilt.  Guilt that I didn't get her to the vet sooner that night, guilt that I didn't even pet or hug her before we left the clinic, guilt that I'm actually contemplating getting another dog already.  I trust my husband's judgement much more than I trust my own sometimes (he's less emotional, more stable) and so I allowed his cautious enthusiasm and hope to buoy me up.  We spend a couple of hours cleaning the house, dog-proofing it (no need to proof it with Ginger, she knew the ropes) and me feeling like I was in the Twilight Zone.  Then we go back up to the humane society and ask to see the dog again.  We also asked if we could "test" her around cats, because we'd read this breed, being a hunting dog, can see cats as prey if they haven't been raised around them and we had no idea of her former history, so they let us take her into the lobby to see how she'd react to the resident lobby cats.  She had no reaction at all, didn't even bat an eyelash at them so that was a good sign.  I told my husband that if we took this dog home and she harmed our cats, that I would never forgive myself, or him.

So moving along, we took a flying leap off a cliff and went ahead and adopted her.  We named her Sasha.  We brought her home and slowly introduced her to the cats, and thankfully our fear of her harming them was a non-issue.  Two of the cats took to her right away, the other two will take some time to come around.  We spent the rest of the day getting to know her, and showing her around the house.

Monday, yesterday, I went back to work and during my downtimes went searching out for pet loss support advice because I was still so in the depths of grief for Ginger, with a heaping amount of guilt and confusion over Sasha coming into our lives so quickly.  I couldn't reconcile the two together, and last night let my husband know how upset I was over everything.  He was taken aback, because he can't relate to my feelings of still not being able to accept that she's gone.  He can process his feelings and come to terms with reality much speedier than I can.  I had told him, before we got Sasha, that one of my fears was that I would start to resent the dog for not being Ginger.  Yesterday I started to have some of those feelings, seeing her on Ginger's bed, seeing her in Ginger's yard, sniffing around Ginger's things, drinking out of Ginger's water bowl, etc. etc.  It's not fair to  Sasha but I couldn't help it.  I told him that I also resented him taking advantage of me like that, knowing I was in an emotionally vulnerable state, and leaving the final judgement call on whether we got Sasha or not up to me (I was the one who said the final yes, let's do it.  I really did not know what I was saying).  He should have known how conflicted and upset I was and just said no, you're right, it's too soon.  He reassured me that he was sad too, missed Ginger terribly, but insisted that Sasha would be good for us, and that we would be good for her.  He asked me if I wanted him to take her back to the humane society and re-surrender her.  That got me even more mad because now she's totally at home in our house, loves us to pieces and how fair would that be to her?  And how could he ask me to make that decision now, after we'd already made the committment?  He could tell that I was pissed so he said if it hurt me too much to be around her that much to care for her, take her for walks, etc that he'd be ok with assuming total responsibility of her care until I was ready.  I didn't want that answer either, but I was so upset nothing he could have said at that point would have been right.  At least he acknowledged my feelings, apologized, and agreed with me that perhaps I was right, that it really was too soon.

So that brings us to today.  I'm at work right now writing this.  I went home over lunch and spent the hour outside with Sasha, in the serenity of the yard.  The weather is nice, leaves are falling everywhere, and it was quiet.  Sasha came over to me and I hugged her and started bawling for Ginger again.  It almost felt like Ginger was there in the yard with us.  It was a little bit healing.  Registering for this site, and writing this all out has helped too.  Maybe I just needed to get it all out.  Sasha is very clingy and seems to need to be touching me at all times when she's not sleeping or running around the yard.  Today I could see through my grief a little for the first time that maybe she can sense my distress and is trying to help me.  I don't know.  I'm still so hesitant to try and create a bond with her, like it's a betrayal to Ginger.  I'm not ready to let go of her yet.  I'm not ready to try and forge new feelings for another dog.  But maybe she will help me to start releasing some of this awful grief, the emptiness and guilt.  I even feel guilty for wanting to release the guilt so soon, as if I haven't punished myself properly enough.

Sorry for the book, but I've been aching to write all the details out for days.  It's all so raw and confusing, dealing with the loss of our Dog-Dog (one of her many nicknames) in such a traumatic and unexpected way while simultaneously dealing with getting used to a new, strange dog in the house, a dog that doesn't know our ways and we don't know hers.  Yesterday I was feeling so mad and resentful that I was being forced to learn a new dog so soon.  I'm not really sure where I'm at today.  Tomorrow it will be one week since Ginger died.  A part of me still cannot believe it.  For a long, long time to come I think I'll still be waiting for Ginger to be there, to come trotting into the room, to hear her jump off the couch, to hear her toes clicking across the wood floors, to see her holding her rope toy in her mouth wanting us to throw it.  That's another thing that's unnerving with Sasha, she's a very, very different dog than Ginger but some things she does are similar and it disturbs me.  Her sighs sound just like Ginger's sighs.  Sneezes too.  I was in the basement and heard her walking across the floor above and for a split second I thought it was Ginger.  When I sit on the couch Sasha lays next to me, her rump pressing against my leg, in the same position Ginger would do.  Instead of being comforting, it's disturbing.

Just when I feel that I'm stronger and can get through this, it all comes crashing down on me again and I feel that I'm in a worse place than the night she died.  Yesterday I totally felt like I was regressing, not progressing.  I've been through pet loss before, in 2007 I had to put my beloved 17-yr old Panther cat to sleep after battling kidney failure.  But that was different.  He had no more life left in him, and I knew it was time to let him go.  I had closure.  I got to hold and comfort him before it happened, and we got to see his body afterwards.  I had never experienced anything so gut-wrenching in my life up to that point (I've never had anyone I was really close to die before).  This time though, it's different because Ginger had A LOT of life left in her, and this completely hit us out of the blue.

To think that a perfectly healthy dog could die from a freak occurrence like bloat in a matter of hours is hard to grasp.  I blame myself.  What kind of dog owner am I, to never have heard of this phenomenon before, when it's (that we've since learned) the second leading cause of death in dogs following cancer!?  Now that I know about bloat (or twisted stomach, or gastric torsion), I know a lot of things we could have done differently with Ginger to prevent this from happening.  I guess it's good that we know it now, and have that knowledge for other dogs, but did we have to learn the lesson so harshly?  If you've never heard of it either, please look it up online and educate yourself.  I never want anyone to have to go through what we did with this.

Thank you for listening.


  1. I'm so sorry for your loss. We lost our big guy in August this Summer. Our dog had a heart problem and because of his enlarged weakened heart, he could not survive the recovery of the emergency surgery he had to have due to a blocked intestine. We got to say goodbye to him before surgery and we got to see him breifly the day after surgery but he died later that night without us being present. This haunts my husband. He feels horrible that his dog passed without him being there to hold him. We still are dealing with our loss and grief. It takes time. I'm with you about feeling resentful to the other dog and not being able to connect because it's so soon. I would have felt the same way in your place. I need to feel the emptiness of grief and loss to heal before I can reopen my heart.

    All the best,

  2. Thank you Mary; to my husband's credit, when I came home from work tonight he told me that he (finally) was feeling some of the same emotions that I was yesterday, and that it was all he could do to not cry in front of his class when he told his students why he'd canceled class last Thursday. He agreed with me that we'd made a too-rash decision and was having regrets, and that he was also grieving Ginger more acutely than he had up til now. Not that it makes it any easier to deal with our new normal, with Sasha. Losing a pet is such a strange, lonely, heartbreaking thing because we can't seem to have the kind of closure we do with losing human loved ones. Having a funeral for a pet would garner strange comments and looks from people, there's no paid funeral leave from your job, etc. Yet the pain can be so much more acute than losing a human loved one, in a way that just can't be explained to someone who isn't a pet lover. I'm sorry for your big guy, and I hope you and your Sargent are doing better now that some time has passed.

  3. My dog Jet died yesterday. I just found you post through Penny D's blog as I was aimlessly trawling the internet trying to take my mind off it. I am heartbroken, Jet was only 5 and showed no signs of being ill until he started vomiting earlier in the week, we took him to our vet who sent him over to a specialist hospital, he didnt respond to any treatment and died of a double heart attack yesterday evening. I am still in shock. I was devastated when my last dog died, she was 18 and had been ill for a while but it didn't make it any easier. My dogs mean everything to me and only 'pet people' truly understand their loss is equal to that of a human. Jet was the pack leader and my other dogs are lost and confused, they are sad too. Having them is a comfort, they do understand. This was a brave post for you to write and you are right we need to educate ourselves about these things.

  4. Pearl, I"m so sorry to hear about your Jet. I know it's no comfort to you right now but you did all you could for him. Sometimes these things just happen, just like in people, and no, it's not fair. The pet loss support site I originally posted this to is here: http://www.lightning-strike.com/forum/index.php

    There are many pet people there who do understand. I've gotten such wonderful, kind words of support there, as well as advice. Please check it out. (((hugs)))

  5. ...SO sorry to hear of your loss, Betsy... I never really HAD a pet growing up, and ignorantly wondered why folks got so emotional when a pet died... My first pet was not long after being married, when we got a golden retriever - he was awesome, and seemed to be in great health. But at 3-1/2 years old, he developed lymph cancer and had to be put down, right at ten years ago now... it sounds bad, but ya know, I cried a LOT more during that time than I did when my grandma died...and I loved my grandma!
    My wish is that the healing process is already well underway for y'all, and your new pup will fill the void left by the loss of Ginger.



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