Now, as to your question: we’re going to put this as gently as we can without coming across as preachy. Imagine that we have just given you a big hug, and are looking at you with big, earnest eyes that are brimming with tears — because we’ve all been exactly where you are, and we really understand the urge to go over everything, over and over, and wonder if there was more you could have done.
We understand second-guessing everything about our dog’s cancer, treatments, and ultimate outcome.
Here’s our answer:
No. There was nothing more you could have done.
Cancer is clever, and crazy, and a mighty foe, and no matter what we wish, there is NO MAGIC BULLET for it. There are some health issues that can be managed away — a broken leg, or an ear infection. But cancer isn’t something that happens in a discrete, straightforward fashion. It zigs and zags and it darts around corners and it hides in dark places. Sometimes, we can manage it for so long that it feels like we WIN. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can cut it out and be DONE with it. But more often, particularly for harder to treat cancers, or for cancers that have metastasized, we can only do the best we can — and then wonder if there was more to do.
You’re right — there are things that can help, as you found out! But are using any of those treatments, supplements, lifestyle choices a guarantee that cancer won’t win in the end? No! Even if you HAD found the book sooner, there is no way at all to know now that you would have seen a different outcome or gotten more time. There just isn’t a way to know the answer to that question. As my grandfather once told me, asking yourself questions that only God can answer is a sure way to drive yourself crazy.
So stop asking that question. It will drive you crazy, because you will never, ever get a satisfying and definitive answer. No one can tell you for sure if there was something else you could have done.
You did the best for Belle that you could have done. You cared and made changes, and when it was time, you helped her to rest. I have no doubt that you did right by her.
It’s difficult to face, but the pain our dogs experience is not, in some ways, like our pain. When a dog is in pain, that’s all they are — in pain. As far as we can tell, they don’t have the thought “This will get better.” So when they fill ill, they just feel ill, and little else. If we see them in chronic, unremitting pain, we know that they’re in some ways more miserable than we would be. A human with brain cancer (I speak from a little experience, knowing a child with a brain tumor) can take a little comfort from knowing that something — some treatment, some drug — might help reduce the pain, at some point. It’s a little easier to bear the pain when you can look forward and imagine a time when it ceases.
But dogs just can’t do that. Their world is NOW. So sometimes, if we can’t hold out hope for a future without pain, we choose, as dog lovers, to ease their pain for them.
One of the things that helps me to understand my own desperate feelings for my dogs is something I read about how dogs trigger parental patterns in our primate brain. Primates, and particularly humans, give birth to helpless infants that we MUST protect at all costs so they can mature into adults who can take care of themselves. Our dogs and other pets, because they depend upon us so heavily, remind our primate brains of our own babies — and so we start to feel that same fierce protection toward them — and the same feeling of “I must keep this creature alive.”
These feelings are biological and evolutionary in origin, and there is nothing we can do about them.
The trick is that our dogs live far shorter lives than our primate brain expects. When our dog is ten, we think of him or her as a ten-year-old child. The death of a ten-year-old is unthinkable — it makes us queasy and upset and panicked. It is unnatural for our children to die so young.
But it’s not unnatural for our dogs to die “young.” Even in the longest-lived, we get only a couple of decades with them.
This extreme pain you’re in, and the second-guessing your doing, is completely normal and natural when you look at it from this evolutionary mindset. Belle triggered these parental feelings, now she’s gone, and you are beating your head against a wall trying to figure out if it’s your fault — because your child is NOT supposed to die so young.
Your job now is to be patient with yourself as your primate brain unwinds all of the events, traumas, and facts and goes over this territory again and again, for a while. Be relaxed and observant of your brain as it tries to make what’s wrong somehow right. This is normal and natural. … for a while. After a bit, you MUST stop this cycle of wondering.
For your own sanity, please, don’t beat yourself up. Get the support you need to grieve and talk this through, and then let it go as one of the great mysteries of life. Was there something more you could have done? No. Because even if there WERE … you didn’t know about it at the time … so you couldn’t have done it.
You are off the hook. You are free and clear of blame. You were Belle’s best friend — and she knew it. We guarantee that she would NOT want you to feel this bad and beat yourself up. She wants you happy and content and comforted.
Grieving sucks, and it comes in waves. Get yourself the support you need, and know that Belle has not been hurt by you. She loved every minute of her life with you.
Many, many blessings.
Molly Jacobson is a writer and editor for Maui Media. As editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide and a lifelong dog lover, she is all too familiar with dog cancer.