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. Demian Dressler is internationally recognized as “the dog cancer vet” because of his innovations in the field of dog cancer management, and the popularity of his blog here at Dog Cancer Blog. The owner of South Shore Veterinary Care, a full-service veterinary hospital in Maui, Hawaii, Dr. Dressler studied Animal Physiology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis before earning his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. After practicing at Killewald Animal Hospital in Amherst, New York, he returned to his home state, Hawaii, to practice at the East Honolulu Pet Hospital before heading home to Maui to open his own hospital. Dr. Dressler consults both dog lovers and veterinary professionals, and is sought after as a speaker on topics ranging from the links between lifestyle choices and disease, nutrition and cancer, and animal ethics. His television appearances include “Ask the Vet” segments on local news programs. He is the author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Hawaii Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the National Animal Supplement Council and CORE (Comparative Orthopedic Research Evaluation). He is also an advisory board member for Pacific Primate Sanctuary.