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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Reflections Four Days After Departure

Updated: August 27th, 2019

This post will be a little different.

I put my own dear Ginsu down four nights ago due to cancer.  Ginsu was a loved cat, not the usual subject of the Dog Cancer Blog. Yet loss is loss, and as a provider of information that sometimes involves coping with loss, I would like to give you some reflections that might help you, when  forced to deal with loss of a loved one.  I’ve always found the best wisdom comes from the trenches, after all.

Ginsu, thankfully, beat the odds, and hung on long after a textbook might have suggested.  But his passing was no less brutal, and the brutality of death is something worth mentioning.  For a lucky few, the passage of someone in your heart can represent something beautiful.  Yet for most, its finality can be spirit-crushing, especially during the passing and for the days following.

Sure enough, just as written in the Guide, my mind was clouded and it was difficult to think and function. But I took the steps prescribed for guardians myself, and was able to get some clarity. I had to guard the guardian and experience the sadness.

I heard from a very smart man long ago that the way to move through something is by “experiencing it away”.  We have to be controlled in this, and so I’ve  took it bit by bit, stopping what I am doing for a couple of minutes to shed some tears, then moving on to what’s next. This provides the salve that helps us to function during grieving.

I saw a thought in myself during this time. There was something not okay about the whole experience.  In other words, this was something that I had not signed up for and that was simply not right, unjust.  These were what they call preconscious thoughts, not quite easy to pinpoint as they were kind of floating in the background of the mind.  But they were there, and I feel that this “wrong” sensation is common in those coping with final departure.

And when something feels wrong, the natural thing to do is to find its cause.  Next comes doing something about what’s wrong. And here is where things get a little weird (and again, I am speaking from self-observation here, so these ideas may not apply to everyone’s experience).

Inside all of the grief is this current of addressing the injustice in front of us, somehow helping to soften the wrong-ness of it all.  So I noticed myself searching for a release valve to help fix the unfair situation. In my case, it was  a little life form, my dear Ginsu, who did not deserve to have his jaw broken by an invading tumor. What in the world did he do to deserve this?  Where is the justice in it?

A few things happened from these thoughts.  One was guilt.  This as many know is common during guardian grieving. Also, anger. As I watched myself I realized that I was trying to find a release from the unfairness, and was turning it on myself (guilt) or the outside world (anger).

It seems these are connected. In other words, our pet is experiencing undeserved suffering, which feels unfair, which needs a resolution, which has no resolution, which gets turned to “someone’s gotta pay”, which travels to ourselves as guilt and outside ourselves as anger.

Once I realized this, it helped me cope with what was happening.  Some call this a “handle”, which means you identify what’s going on so you can deal with it (handle it).  A handle allows you to move at least one of your two feet out of the mess.

Once some of the feelings grew softer, all that was left was a deep sadness, just a wound. And as this did what wounds do (hurts), it dawned on me that that this is the price of the joys of life. There is a cost to life, and it is only my inappropriate feelings of entitlement that make death feel unjust.

Another way to look at it is that humans often believe we, and our loved ones, have a right to be here, like a big cash prize that we expect to be free. No repayment expected, no abrasions of life tolerated.  Yet this was my delusion, created by my own simple and silly human way of only looking at a small piece of a much larger picture.

For me, watching this simple and silly idea fall apart was the root of the guilt, anger, and even sadness.  It was not just Ginsu leaving- it was also my silly idea of what is “supposed” to be.  And I have carried this over the years, and encountered it with other guardians in my veterinary practice and life.  But for the first time I can actually see it.

I read a quite wise thing once.  It sounds a little grim but it actually is not- it can be joyful.  The short point was this:  if we live with the deliberately continued recognition that we may die at any time, it changes everything.

As I am passing through Ginsu’s departure, this is the gem I’ve gained. And I pray as the weeks, months and years travel by, that I remember this advise to myself.

By the way, a simple new tip: look at pictures and any videos.  Go do it. It helps a lot through the whole thing.


Dr D





Leave a Comment

  1. Lori Bradley on August 11, 2021 at 2:47 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I had to have my rescue boy, Prince, euthanized last week and its one of the hardest passings just because he was such a challenge to live with. By the end though he was my closest buddy with such a lust for life that I didn’t want to let him go but nasal cancer was eating away his bones and happiness. I helped him cross over before he starved or bled to death and was determined to do this while he still had some quality of life but, of course, feel terribly guilty and very angry afterwards. So I relate to what you say here. I realize that humans feel entitlement to not suffer or experience suffering in their loved ones. I was so distressed by Prince’s death that I thought about quitting dog rescue but now I’m starting to see that all I can do is help each dog live a joyous life for as long as possible and then try to give them a peaceful death when disease becomes untreatable, with the least possible suffering.

  2. Richard Smith on September 30, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Dear Dr D,

    I just wanted to say sorry for your loss and thank you for all the help your words and work have given me.

    Also 4 Days ago I had to make the hearwrenching decision to have my beautiful boy Camden (a Canarian Podenco) sent to sleep. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma on AprilI 11 2012. I read your book cover to cover and it provided me with lots of great information, he was put on the dog cancer diet immediately. We moved swiftly and had the affected leg amputated on April 20th. He was up and about the next day and the day folloing that up and down the stairs.

    2 and a half weeks after the operation stitches were removed and painkillers stopped, our baby was back to normal running around like a crazy thing! We satrted with Chemotherapy, Apocaps and Artemisinin. He suffered no side effects what so ever, always happy and energetic even the day after chemo sessions. Our vets were amazed at his levels of energy and happiness.

    3 weeks ago his blood test results for AP levels were back to normal and the outlook for the future was bright I was elated, a few days later we did a chest x-ray just to check for metastic spread to the lungs. Unfortunately it confirmed our worst fears with 2 areas of concern showing. He was fine and none the wiser however the news knocked me sideways. I had the feeling we were nearing the end.

    Last weekend we went on a 3 day trip to the Mountains for some reason I was compelled to do something special for all of us. We walked and ran for miles, relaxed and ate good food together. On the last day I noticed his abdomen was bulging slightly and felt hard and he was quiet and a little sad looking. The following day we returned from the mountains and went straight to our vet, Camden was still walking and trotting around but his sparkle had gone, he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm a little even for the fun things. Surely enough another mass showed on x-ray. I was gutted and cried for hours. The next day by ultrasound (September 26 2012) it was confirmed in his abdominal lymph nodes a 7cm by 9cm mass, also his liver, lungs and heart had been invaded. We had discussed this and had both agreed that if this was the case and due to the fact we knew he was “tired” we chose to send him off.

    Both of us and our wonderful vet Zereida were all in tears, Camden laid and licked my head (his favourite passtime) as she administerd the drugs, he quietly, calmly and peacefully fell asleep, he felt no fear or pain.

    I´m struggling to cope with my loss and feelings as it´s all so raw and it hurts like nothing I´ve ever felt before. I always described him as my little soul mate. He´s left a big space in our lives,our beautiful, sensitive, funny and gentle boy.

    We had 5 and a half months (3 dog years) from diagnosis until his passing. Despite the pain and the tears, I know we did the right thing to let him go at that time, I know we did evertyhting we could to extend his time with us and it was all quality happy time.

    I know time is a good healer, I´ve already managed to laugh at some photos of him wading around 3 legged in a filthy swamp. Soon I hope all I remeber are the great and fun times we had.

    To Dr D thank you, your words have helped me rationalise things and get through was has been a very tough but probably the most rewarding 5 months of my life.

    To any one reading this your possibly going through something similar, keep going, stay strong for your beloved friend. If your bond is even half as close as ours you´ll know the right thing to do.

    Camden, I´ll love and miss you forever with all my heart. X

    • Chris on March 23, 2022 at 4:34 am

      Thank you so much for sharing this. I just lost my soulmate of a dog to cancer as well. I only had 2 weeks after diagnosis before i had to let him go. I have also not felt pain like this before. It feels like it physically hurts. I really appreciate you sharing your story – it really is what i needed to read today. Thank you. And i hope Casper gets to meet Camden at the rainbow bridge. x

  3. April on August 20, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Dr. D,

    So sorry for the loss of your beloved cat. They can never be replaced and will remain forever in our hearts until we see them again.

    Take care.

  4. Melissa on August 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    Dr. Dressler,

    So sorry to hear of your loss. Your cat knew your love. That is for sure. Your thoughts about what is supposed to be are not silly. We as humans were not intended to deal with death, in my belief, and it is not really possible for us to know how to deal with loss of this kind. It is wrong and unjust. Your feelings are right on the mark. You did your best for Ginsu, and I believe that somewhere in Ginsu’s mind, there was understanding of this and trust in you. I grieve with you.

  5. keath rhymer on August 13, 2012 at 11:07 am

    My prayers to Father Sky as he surrounds you in his arms.

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