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Tightrope of Gratitude and Grief, Taking Care of Sick Dogs

I remain befuddled by the reality that Lilly may still die from this vaccine-induced brain and spinal cord inflammation. That, I think, reflects my overall sense of optimism in life. Early on, it  never truly dawned on me that she would NOT survive. And, yet, I know I easily get bogged down by worry and not-so-positive thinking. While massaging Lilly’s back for more than an hour Sunday night, I realized that I constantly walk a tightrope between gratitude that she still lives at my side and (preemptive) grief over what her loss would mean to me.

This week, with Valentine’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about why girls like me cannot imagine life without a dog. People talk a lot about the GETTING love from dogs, but I’m learning through Lilly that it’s also about experiencing my true, vast potential to GIVE love — to feel it in its almost painful glory.

I may combust.

As a naturally, deeply empathetic person, I experience emotions in their most extreme forms. Sometimes, simply to survive the day, I need to shutoff the emotional faucet.

I haven’t done a good job of that lately — losing weight, losing sleep, worrying nonstop.

Amid my amazement and gratitude that Lilly continues to fight her illness and face her challenges, I often teeter into goodness-help-me-when-she’s-gone territory.

Truly. I may have to put myself to bed for quite some time, if we lose her.

I considered many worn analogies as I worked up and down her spine the other night … Two sides of the same coin. Balancing on the blade of a knife. Dancing on the head of a pin. Walking a tightrope  … with a strange mix of fear, hope, and resignation.

There’s that saying about bravery not being about NOT feeling fear but acting in spite of it. That’s me. All day. Every day.

If you’ve weathered a lengthy, complicated illness with your pet, how’d you survive the toll?

Right now? The best I’ve got is to make homemade chicken soup with tiny pasta.



Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Dillon Miller - February 18, 2013

I don’t know how I would cope, except to lean on Christ for his comfort. I have contemplated what it would be like without my beloved border collie. I can’t imagine her absense, the pain would be intense. She is the center of my universe, with me nearly every waking moment. She is older, entering her ninth year. I’m not the type of person who can live without a collie companion. After a period of grief, I would get another puppy. After we lost our Belgian Tervuren to cancer in 2003, I had an offer of a BC puppy, so that is how I got my present companion. I will keep you and Lilly in my prayers. We have to cherish each moment with our BCs.

Jodi - February 17, 2013

I so want to offer words that comfort, but I’m not sure if there is anything I could say, that would help. Please just know that you are always in our thoughts and prayers. Hang in there.

Donna - February 16, 2013

I hope you (and Lily) are both feeling a bit better this weekend. Thank you for sharing such an honest expression of what you are going through. I can’t even imagine. It is very brave of you, and my heart goes out to you.

Terry Cramer - February 13, 2013

I’m so impressed by everyone’s beautiful expressiveness about their amazing pups and cats and special people. I think we are leaders in knowing how to survive loss as we reach out to each other. We say the things that are ripping us apart emotionally, and try so hard to survive the excruciating feelings. I too am struggling with a beloved dog’s illness. My greyhound, Matilda has lymphoma and is undergoing chemo. Yesterday I thought she was on her way out and slept on the couch with her, not wanting to make the same mistake I made with my Mouschi poodle last year on her last night. In the middle of the night, Matilda went to bed, and today is ok. The not knowing from day to day, the smell of vomit, and the loving glances from the unassuming dog are all torture. The enormity of the love for the pup, and the extraordinary realization that maybe the pup has brought out that depth in you, is all quite overpowering. One feels lost, rudderless…


    Roxanne Hawn - February 13, 2013

    Oh, Terry. I’m so sorry to hear about Matilda. Wishing you peace and strength for what comes next.

Lynn - February 12, 2013

I loved my little dog Henry the way you love Lilly, I think, so much that when he died of cancer, the heartbreak seemed physical. I felt a part of me was missing, as if a limb had fallen off or something. He still scampers through my dreams sometimes, 25 years later. Nursing our diabetic hound, Kooter, through the last years of her life was an emotional rollercoaster, too, but although it wasn’t that long ago, all the sleeplessness, worry, laundry and cleaning up, not to mention expense and never being able to go out for more than a couple of hours, all that has telescoped into practically nothing in my memory, and I only remember what a lovely, sweet dog she was, and how glad we were that we did everything we could. We were so dog-centric that one day, when friends came over to eat and found out I was ordering pizza our of sheer exhaustion, one of them asked if we couldn’t just have what Kooter was having – a special meatloaf I was cooking for her. That’s how it was at our house.

Try to avoid the pre-emptive grief and revel in Lilly’s lovely furry presence, day by day. I believe there’s power in positive thinking, and I’m sending some your way.

Judi - February 12, 2013

About 5 years ago my Belgian Malinois had terminal cancer. A woman I think is a mutual friend of yours and mine (Mary Ann Simonds) gave me a couple of suggestions. She suggested I make a list of everything Lucy had brought into my life, and that I share that list with Lucy during our quiet moments together. Secondly, she suggested that I make a list of everything I thought I would gain, for better or worse, through Lucy’s death (as an example of good, I would no longer dread the July 4th fireworks since I wouldn’t have to manage Lucy’s terror). That list I didn’t need to share with Lucy.

I found those lists very helpful. Sharing with Lucy was very tender and sweet. The “death benefits” list was liberating for me. Once the list was written down, I no longer needed to think as much about what was on it, freeing me to live in the moment with Lucy.

I loved Lucy very much, but she was in some ways a warm-up for losing the dog of my heart last year. Kyah came first and lasted after Lucy. Losing Lucy was hard enough that I knew I needed another dog in the house before I lost Kyah — I would need a reason to get up in the morning. So I did get a puppy when Kyah was 13 (about 7 months after Lucy left). Kyah was 16 when she left last year, and the young one was 3. Kyah faded away, so I did have many opportunities to write and share my lists with her.

One hard thing about the aftermath is the void. I had huge amounts of suddenly free time both physically and in my head. It took a while to stop tracking how many hours I’d been away from the house so I’d be back there when I was needed. Walking with the young dog and friends was helpful. I just didn’t want anything that would call for make-up since it would probably be ruined by tears somewhere in there.

I’m holding you and Lilly in the light.

Tamara - February 12, 2013

I lost my most beloved kitty 1 year and 4 months ago. My heart still breaks every day, but I take comfort in the time I had with her. That includes the simple moments, lying next to her and rubbing her back. I know what you’re going through. She was my heart and still is. I went through pre-grief before I lost her. It did not make it any easier when she was gone, but I think of it as a sign of how much love she brought into my life and how much she taught me about love. I still love her. Love does not end when the loved one is gone. It remains, and we keep feeling the pain of that loss, but it does get easier. Don’t ask me how, because I still can’t tell you, but in time it’s the good moments I remember most. Your early grief and thoughts of what it will be like when Lily is gone are natural and part of the process you’re going through. It’s not an easy process, but in the end, it’s an important part of sharing our lives with animals we love. That pain is part of the love, and it is an honor to feel it so deeply and to be there for them in their time of dire need. No one can do that better than those of us who cherish them beyond words can say. Do try to stay in the moment when you’re with Lily. There will be plenty of time to think later. You may prefer not to think too much. I definitely shut down after losing my Brianne. I was angry and sad and depressed and heartbroken. It is grief – something we feel when we love that deeply. Like others, I wish I could say something to help, but I can’t. As someone told me, “No words, just hugs.” That was the best thing for me at the time.

Hilary - February 12, 2013

I, too, am thankful for your honesty, and your post moved me considerable. I can only imagine how much you worry, how difficult it is and will be. Mine is nothing like yours, but with Luna’s kidney disease, I know that one day within the year or so she will pass and there is no alternative. Each stage of the disease is more alarming to me, but she continues on as if nothing is different. I subscribe to your philosophy of shutting off the emotional faucet and go day by day. It’s all you can do! Lilly is coping so well, considering, and her will to survive is very strong.

You and Lilly are such a great team, and I am thrilled every time you post positive progress, and weep with you when things don’t go so well. xoxo

Ingrid King - February 12, 2013

What a heartbreakingly honest post. When I went through Buckley’s prolongued illness, I had to constantly remind myself to live in the moment and not get ahead of myself and think too much about what it would be like once she was gone. It’s impossible not to, we’re human, but I tried to take my cues from her. She didn’t worry about a poor prognosis or a bad lab test result, she didn’t even worry about a bad day. She just enjoyed each moment as much as she still could, until the very end.

My heart goes out to you, and you and Lilly are in my thoughts and prayers.

Jana Rade - February 12, 2013

Roxanne, first of all I wish I wasn’t exactly the same way. And I KNOW that worrying does not make any sense and does not do any good.

I was crying on Dr. Dan’s shoulder when we had the bad neck relapse. Consumed by the thought that this just might keep happening now. Consumed by trying to figure out how to prevent the unpreventable. He was kind to spend a bunch of time with me. One of the things he said was, “Spend your time enjoying Jasmine. Why worry? Jasmine doesn’t.”

If I go back and read it again, it works. For a little while. Then I have to go read it again.

But the truth is this:
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
(Matthew 6:27)

Now just being able to get this into our brains. Let’s have a contest, who will manage first.


    Roxanne Hawn - February 12, 2013

    I’m not very competitive, Jana, so I think it’s safe to say that you win, but I will sure try not to worry. I actually slept most of last night. Probably because I was so exhausted from NOT sleeping hardly at all the night before.

      Jana Rade - February 13, 2013

      Well, I am competitive to some degree but it would really love to find a way of not worrying. (((hugs)))

Eileen - February 12, 2013

I am very moved by this post. I lost my dog over a year ago and I still kiss her photo when I dust, I even hold the casket with her ashes in close to my chest.

I have a dog who is six years old and healthy and still hold the fear of how I’ll cope when I eventually lose her. I worry how my daughter will cope when she finally loses her two fogs, one is her princess, her true heart dog!

Love her, love every day you spend with her.
I’m sending much love and respect to you. xx

    Roxanne Hawn - February 12, 2013

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Eileen. It’s a big price we pay for their love, for sure.

Saoirse - February 11, 2013

I have been very, very attached to two animals in my life, but both of them became ill suddenly and I lost them quickly. I’ve lost other animals, but both of these were quite remarkable creatures and my heart was truly broken when they died. I mourned deeply for many months, and still felt deep, deep sadness for years after. You’ll possibly think this odd, but when my daughter was young, I thought through what it would be to lose her. I’d lost my father at a young age, and knew the cost of such a deep loss. I knew I could not bear it, and yet I could not prevent her from living fully, letting her go away from me sometimes when I just wanted to keep her near. It’s not the same. Your body must be swimming in cortisol from the stress of the never-ending worry and decision-making. Yet she is there with you, you can massage her back and feel her heart beating close to yours. It’s your life and the cracking open of your heart, every day.

I witness your story every day. It’s about all I can do. But I do that with the deepest of love and respect for the depth of your passion. You feel so much and then you write it down, for us, for yourself. I believe that the writing of it is part of how you cope with the pain of it. You sort it out somehow, and make peace with who you are and how you walk this path.

I am humbled by your bravery. And I wish you rest, for this day at least.

    Roxanne Hawn - February 12, 2013

    Thanks, Saoirse. I’m holding up, but there is definitely damage being done.

merr - February 11, 2013

So poignant, so true and moving.

Living Large - February 11, 2013

I felt the same way when I was caring for my aging Maltese, Angel and the Dachshund that came after, Hershey. I do believe sometimes just the *fear* of losing them is almost too much to bear, and when the end comes, when we both know it’s time, I think the fear of losing them is actually worse than the actual event, if that makes sense. Yes, we feel the horrible loss, the feelings of not knowing what to do with ourselves now that we don’t have the constant laundry, the medicating, the worry of it all. I know I had the same awful dread in care taking for my elderly mother. On her last ER entrance, I was a total wreck and I left the room to have a meltdown in the hall. The ER nurse came out and asked what I feared most. I told her, “Losing her,” and she said to me, “WHY is that your greatest fear?” Quite honestly, that made me think. It was because *I* would miss her, it was not for her, because I knew she was tired and she was ready and if people can hold on, she was only holding on for me, because she knew I wasn’t. It’s an emotional hell, this care taking and fear and loss. I’m thinking positive thoughts for you, and for Lilly, Rox, that the monumental love you feel for Lilly overcomes and that takes the place of the fear.

    Roxanne Hawn - February 12, 2013

    So true, Living Large. When we lost Tom’s mom in 2012, even amid the grief, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the anticipation in those final days, etc. A friend said to me, “Of course not. The worst has already happened.”

Cathy - February 11, 2013

My last dog, a JRT who truly was the baby I never had, had degenerative discs in her spine diagnosed at age four. We were told she’d be lucky to make it to 10, so we began monthly chiropractic treatments right away and continued them for the rest of her life (side note: I credit those treatments with extending her life and greatly improving her quality of life). From the time she turned 12 till we put her down at age 15, I thought every birthday, every Christmas would be her last one and treated each one as the last because her mobility was decreasing seemingly rapidly, and she had lost her hearing. She had also developed pancreatitis at age 11 and was on a very limited diet. She held on, though, for so much longer than I thought she would and seemed to me to have a decent quality of life. Nevertheless, I feel that I grieved her loss for those three years and for the 2.75 years since, with some moments of grief being much more acute than others, of course.

I don’t really have any advice for getting through it, other than loving her with all you’ve got and never allowing yourself any regrets. Enjoy and be grateful for every day she’s by your side and summon up every single coping skill you’ve developed through this entire ordeal. Loving and losing is never easy, but as the cliche suggests, it’s still always worth it. {Hugs to you and to Lilly}

    Roxanne Hawn - February 12, 2013

    Thanks, Cathy. I’m so sorry to hear about your JRT. These long illnesses are so very tough.

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