On the Bearing of Unbearable Loss, or, an Ode to a Best Friend

By Catherine DiMercurio

Like any major grief, the pain you feel when you lose a pet is one of those soul-bruises that you feel every day. Your heart remembers, your muscles do, before your brain does. And then upon waking fully, you realize that this is a different world now, you are in a new phase of your life, the one without your sweet baby in it.

I lost Phin, my dog of 14 years, last week. Lost is such a nice way to put it when the reality is much graver. We bear witness to a painful decline and no matter how much we want to avoid it, we bear the responsibility for making a decision guided by love and empathy, and the desire to protect our loved one from further suffering. It doesn’t matter if the vet and countless other people tell you it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known it for a while. You still have to make this impossible decision, and then follow through on it, and then live with it every day.

I picked up Phin’s ashes recently. It is a startling thing, to see what a body is reduced to.

When the grief hits the hardest, I try to remember how joyful Phin looked when galloping across the yard toward me. I’ve combed through all my photos and videos of him, but I don’t quite have one that matches the memory of him I hold in my head. He loved to run. He loved his walks. I aways used to say he could be at death’s door and still want to go for walks, and this was true to the end. His last walk, the day before his death, was brief, and only lasted a few minutes, a few steps. But he still stepped into the harness the way he always did, certain and eager.

In the mornings he would greet me with a wagging tail and lean into my legs the way big dogs do. Countless times during his life, he upended beverages, either by sweeping them across a coffee table and onto the floor with his tail, or by bumping into a side table and sending everything clattering and spilling.

We don’t get the same death rituals for our pets that we get with people, not in the same structured and expected way. But my dogs are the ones I talk to every single day, there for me when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night. Constant companions since the pandemic sent us home from the office, never to return.

Phinny loved bread, sardines, and pancakes more than just about any other foods. Pita was the food that brought him back from the brink after a bout of pneumonia sent him to the ER a couple of years ago. The day before he died, after refusing rotisserie chicken, hunks of cheddar, a tin of sardines in olive oil, I offered fluffy, fresh pita bread. And he just turned his head away.

I want to remember all of his youthful frolicking more than his painful last days, but it’s not working like that for me, not yet. I’ve lost dogs before. I know how sharp the pain is in the beginning. I know how narrowly focused my brain is on the suffering that prompts the call to the vet. It is such a horrible call, and I think I am self-soothing, in a way, by reminding myself of what was necessary.

My dreams are haunted, but not by him. I’d welcome a glimpse of him in my dreams. I’m eager for any sign I can find that he’s out there, on the other side. I don’t know why I wholeheartedly subscribe to the lore of the cardinal being a sign of a passed loved one, but I do, and I saw one the other day when I was getting ready to take the puppy for a walk. I opened the door and there it was, flitting in the burning bush right in front of me. To be clear, the bush was not on fire; that’s just the common name of it. But a nice touch for a sign from the other side, no?

My big emotions are operating within me the way they have in the past, leaving me longing for connection but also resistant to comfort. Nothing feels quite right. I only want the softest fabrics against my skin, I can’t find anything that tastes really, really good, and there are few sounds that soothe me. I heard a bird this morning chirping in a quiet, rhythmic way that reminded me of the way Phin used to whine when he wanted something. He always sounded like a bird when he whined. When we first brought him home as a puppy, I used to think that a bird had gotten trapped in the house but then I’d realize it was him.

Overzealous gardening a few days after Phinny’s death left me with a very sore knee. Apparently “gardener’s knee” is a thing. The pain is more prolonged and sharper than I imagined anything gardening-related could be, but I think in general my body is telling me to slow down and let myself feel the things I’d rather avoid feeling. But it’s hard and it takes so much out of me. And while anyone who has gone through this understands how ongoingly brutal the pain of losing a pet is, as someone pointed out, there’s no bereavement time from work or anything. You walk into various situations expected to keep performing and sometimes it’s fine, the compartmentalizing, but gosh is it tiring. There are no shortcuts. We’re either exhausted from feeling the pain or exhausted from all the ways we try to avoid it, and we have to do both in order to make it through. Feel it, and take breaks from it.

I’m not ready for this part. I don’t want it. But I guess that’s the way it is when we lose anyone, either by death or other circumstances. But I certainly would never wish away a moment of the time I had with him, and I get that what I’m going through now, what my kids are, is the price of all that time, all those years of love and joy. I miss his earnest face and his big goofy smile and his big dog lean and his ability to see a simple neighborhood walk as expansive and fulfilling. And maybe it wasn’t just the walk. Maybe some of it was his appreciation of the company on the other end of the leash. I’d like to think so anyway. I’d like him to know I tried to give him a good life, and I’m sorry for the mopey years when everything was a struggle. Miss you, my sweet boy.

I wish this wasn’t such an inelegant attempt at expressing what this first week has been like, but we have to start processing somewhere. To anyone who has experienced this, I’m sending you big hugs.

Love, Cath