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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. Kim on August 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Dear Dr. D,

    I am so sorry o hear of your loss our thoughts and prayers go out to you. We have an 11 year old pug named Penelope and she has cancer. With sympathy. Kim

  2. Celeste on August 11, 2012 at 3:33 am

    Sorry to hear of your loss.

  3. Rene @Tripawds on August 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Dr. D., we send our deepest condolences. Thank you for sharing your insight at this difficult time, I know it’s not an easy thing to write about.

    I’ll be sure to refer to your sage words often when our own members at Tripawds are grieving their own great losses. Thank you so much.

  4. Mary Emmons on August 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Dr. Dressler-
    I am so sorry for your loss of Ginsu. I knew that I was going to cry so I had to wait until I had a quiet moment to ready your story. My heart is heavy for you and Ginsu and I just wanted to THANK YOU for sharing your personal story with us. I too think that looking at pictures and videos help the grieving process, and 7 years later, I still have a picture of my beloved Boxer Baron on the wall in our front room in the middle of all of our family photos. My best to you!

  5. JanMontgomery on August 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    My heart goes out to you on the loss of you companion and friend. I am living with a 9 1/2 year old female lab mix, Gracie, who truly lives up to her name. A graceful and beautiful girl with a beautiful soul. Shewas diagnosed a year ago with a very aggressive foem of melanoma that was located in a skin tag. After two surgeries and experimental treatment out of the University of Wisconsin, we hoped for the best but in March, the cancer was found in her lungs. Chemo did not help so we have opted to let her live out her life as nearly as normal as her disease will allow. Shewas given 2-4 months to live in March so we have been blessed to have her a little longer. Now we are at the decision making time and I am so struggling with when we should give her to God. She is a lumpy little thing now, with the cancer growing everywhere, but she still wants to go on her walks and in the car. She is on prednesone and previsid to help stimulate her appetite but I am cooking for her, whatever she will eat. Chicken and noodles, eggs, cottage cheese….whatever. Will we know when it is God’s turn to enjoy her? How?

  6. Vickie Karrer on August 10, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Dear Dr.
    Thank you, in advance.
    My 10 year old Lab, cancer is stable. However. his heart disease is progressive.
    We know that we are down to week, or days. Cannot count on years, any longer.
    You have helped so many pet “parents”, and I pray that God helps you, now at this
    very difficult and very sad time.
    God Bless You and Your Work.

  7. Gloria on August 10, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Sorry, I meant ‘their time’….not ‘there time’..//

  8. Gloria on August 10, 2012 at 5:41 am

    It is 2 days since my little Toro passed and reading all these posts, I am gratified to find so many who understand what it is to nurse and finally send a pet to peace.

    My two other dogs visited the crate that Toro had been in the morning he left the house for the last time and now are getting my full attention. The “twin” of Toro, a chi-corgi mix I adopted from the shelter, is on a tonic for his liver but in good health, as is Slick, the stray min pin I rescued years ago, They are both about 11 years old. The vet I now go to does extensive blood work in older dogs so she can spot any metabolic changes before things get to a crisis state like we had with Toro. She spends an hour to an hour and a half on exams and bloodwork and acupuncture if needed. Her clinic is quiet and peaceful, without a big room of dogs, etc. waiting to see one of many vets, as was the case with my other vet. I feel that my two buddies will now have a better chance at a graceful aging process as a result of my experience with Toro and the new vet who looks at quality of life and, as she says, balancing everything as well as possible so that they are happy until it is there time….

    My heart goes out to all of you who have also been through your recent losses.

  9. Lisa on August 10, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Dr. Dresser, I am sorry for your loss of Ginsu;it is very hard, and only time eases it a bit … I was wondering about Ginsu’s life, when he got cancer and if he was on an anti-cancer diet?

    My dog is on the anti-cancer diet, and I swear it’s why she has beaten the odds — she is 5 months away from being *cured* of lymphoma, which is not supposed to happen!
    But my cat won’t touch homemade/human food, and eats Royal Canin Urinary SO for crsytals in his urine. Do you have an anti-cancer diet for cats that he could eat?
    Thanks again for your book; it helped me/my dog, and I had a friend get it too for her dog.

  10. Kellygirl on August 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss, Dr. Dressler, and I hope that through your grief, you will find a way to honor Ginsu’s memory and what he meant to you. You are right about the unfairness and why of it all also prompting gratitude and appreciation for every moment you have with a loved one, because you cannot take it for granted how long you will have that time. My golden retriever Bailey was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in May 2011 at almost age 10 and had amputation surgery in June. I decided against chemo and was given about a 4-6 month life expectancy for Bailey. I discovered your books after the diagnosis and have incorporated a lot of your guidance in choosing to prepare a home-cooked anti-cancer diet and a lot of immune-enhancing supplements. The diagnosis was surprising and shocking, the amputation was radical, and I had many tears and fearful moments of grief last year, yet I felt at peace with all my decisions once I made them. But I knew that Bailey might be on borrowed time. I could not wait for the first real milestone to me–6 months, which we hit last December. I relaxed a little after that. And then, as 1 year and another birthday for Bailey approached, I rejoiced and celebrated and shared postcards and dog treats with all the family, friends, and neighbors who have been so supportive. There is so much meaning and value in every moment I have with Bailey. I really have wanted to take Bailey to the beach again, and now at 14 months after his surgery, it appears he will be with me at the beach this September. I know and dread when that day will come for him to go, but I am immensely grateful for time I have now that I did not think I would get.

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