Your vet walks into the room with a somber look on her face and says those four dreaded words: “I’m sorry, it’s cancer.” You look through your tears at your beloved greyhound, your heart in your throat, and what seem like millions of questions swirl around in your head: How long does she have? Is it treatable? Will it come back? How much will this cost? Is she in pain?
I know. I felt it too. But how do you deal with it?
Recognizing that there is a path for grieving was helpful for me. I hope the day never comes when you have to hear that your pooch has this horrible disease, but if you do, I hope this brings you some comfort.
In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families” (New York: Macmillan, 1969), she described the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone goes through these stages, and it’s quite often a roller coaster of all of them at once or at different times and in different orders.
Looking back now, in between the first trip to the vet on December 23rd and the diagnosis on January 30th, I had a sneaking suspicion that Ruby had cancer, but I kept playing that Kindergarten Cop/Arnold Schwarzenegger quote “It’s not a tumah” over and over in my head. I may have even said it out loud. Having lost both my father and my father-in-law to cancer, I could not accept that cancer would take my dog too. That’s just a cruel joke, which led me to stage 2.
Man was I pissed. I was pissed at the cancer, pissed at myself, pissed at my vet, pissed at God. Why the hell didn’t I do something sooner? Would it have made a difference? Why would God play such a cruel joke on me and my Ruby? It’s just downright mean to make animals suffer. I wanted answers, and the only answers I was getting was “It’s very aggressive…there really is no treatment that will help her…spend what time you have with her…these are the signs to look for when you need to bring her back in for her final visit.” I felt helpless, and that made me mad. I felt like I should have known, and that made me mad. I felt like the first vet who saw her should have listened to us when we said that Ruby had a lump, and that made me mad.
I barely remember this phase. After her diagnosis, I wanted to spend as much time with Ruby, make her as comfortable as possible, and at the same time, respect her enough to not let her suffer as a result of my selfish desire to keep her alive so I could be happy. She was diagnosed on a Friday, and we said goodbye that Sunday. Yeah, she went downhill that quickly. Kind of like my father: diagnosed on a Sunday, and we lost him that Tuesday. After we put Ruby down, I went back and forth, wishing I had more time with her, asking myself a lot of “what ifs”.
After we put Ruby down, I had no desire to eat. I cried for days. I just wanted to lay around and sleep. My husband, the sweet man that he is, pulled me out of bed the following day and took me for a drive just to get me out of the house. That helped, but I couldn’t look at any of Ruby’s things without losing it. Having Ruby’s ashes on the mantle with her collar and portrait helped. Planning a trip to Mt. Everest to scatter her ashes helped. The silence in the house hurt. Not hearing her jingling collar as she trotted to my office from her nap hurt. I swore I would never get another dog again – the hurt was just too much.
As time passed, the hurt lessened. I began to want to interact with a greyhound, so I went to our local rescue during an open house. It felt like every red brindle looked like my Ruby. Man, was it tough to fight back the tears that day. But these sweet hounds just wanted love, and I made fast friends with one grey who just wanted to lean against me and have his head rubbed. I missed that. I decided that I wanted to volunteer. That was safe for me. I could go do good things, and feel good in the process without worrying about losing another pet. It still hurts to not have Ruby, but I spoke with my husband quite a bit about it, and we reassured ourselves that we did the right thing. We respected Ruby by ending her suffering; that was very important to us. Eventually, the desire to share love with another greyhound outweighed my fear of hurting again. I know it will happen, since death is a fact of life, but the joy along the way is so much greater. Isn’t that what makes life so special?
Dr. Ihor Basko, a holistic vet, suggested that you, as the caregiver, reconnect with your support system (friends, family, your pet) and do breathing exercises. It is important that you take care of yourself during this stressful time.
Recognize that grieving is a process, and eventually the pain will subside. No one is asking you to forget the special bond that you had with your greyhound – cherish it and celebrate how much more full your life was with her, and know that your grey knew that you loved her very much.