Taking off the Big Girl Panties (Part 1)
My dog died last week.
It was sudden, unexpected and devastating. Posey was only 7, but on Wednesday I noticed she was lethargic, and didn’t come running for her morning treat. On Thursday she didn’t eat a thing – definitely not like her – and on Friday I tried calling vets to get an appointment. Even her own vet wouldn’t see her until Tuesday. She would be gone by then.
After a Saturday vet clinic diagnosed a GI problem and we shelled out $600 for shots and medication, I dutifully made her rice and planned to poach chicken for her for the next week. That night, she started falling down -- her back legs gave out. My husband took her to an emergency vet that next morning and she was diagnosed with a high probability of cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. For $10,000 we could diagnose and treat her immediately, plus a couple of other thousand a month for basic care.
I made the terrible decision, on the phone with my husband, to put her down. I never got to say goodbye. And my heart broke. Literally. It was as if it just split open and waves of grief came pouring out. I haven’t cried much in the last few years, despite shedding a few tears at my son’s wedding. But I sobbed, on and off uncontrollably, for three days. I couldn’t concentrate on my daily life, my work, my family, my responsibilities to my aging mother, who lives with us. I was a mess, as if suddenly my heart shrunk three sizes that day.
It was a surprising and astonishing reaction. I mean, I loved Posey and my other dog Lola fiercely, and I reveled in being a “dog mom.” Posey had been with me through some of the hardest things of my life, from losing and leaving jobs I loved, losing my beloved cousin to Lymphoma, sending my last child off to college, a global pandemic for Heaven’s sake. She and Lola stood by me when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and last June, when she moved in. They had stood by me when she had a stroke in November, and her rehabilitation.
They had stood by me when I lost confidence in myself because of debilitating panic and anxiety issues that ripped up my stomach lining and my self-respect, and stood with me when I dealt with them and got myself back, even helping me reinvigorate my own writing business. We jokingly called it The Pawfice.
But Posey was a dog – a talking cupcake with a terrifying bark and an independent streak that was both annoying and endearing. And she was mine. But I had put down dogs before, and never had the same reaction I had to the loss of Posey. Especially three weeks before Christmas.
I felt guilty for feeling my own loss so keenly when there were so many other, bigger losses happening, like the tragic storms that ravished the south and Midwest, a child killed in a senseless highway shooting, the fact I’m posting this on the day after the Sandy Hook massacre, and nearly 800,000 souls lost to COVID-19, just in the U.S.
Then a wise friend told me that grief wasn’t a contest -- grief was grief. And Posey’s death had unlocked all the profound sadness I have been feeling for years, but not acknowledging. After all, successful professional women with three children weren’t supposed to show grief. It wasn’t cool. Where the hell did I get that idea?
Posey’s loss opened my heart for a reason: to acknowledge that I was sad, mad, upset and confused by my life the last few years. My kids were pretty well launched, and they are all wonderful. I even have a new daughter and a new son to come. But they’re gone from my everyday life. In their place is my 94-year-old mom, suffering from a devastating disease that is grueling to live with, as well as a variety of health problems, and I’d been living with it for a while. Alzheimer’s is like seeing your parent die a little bit in front of you every day. Not to mention my own health issues, from skin cancer to three concussions in 13 months, and a stomach that may sideline my love of barbecue judging. And there is the constant feeling of financial insecurity, which I can trace back to making a preventable error and losing a job over it.
My grief even goes back further to when my husband and I both lost our jobs during the Great Recession – remember that? – and while I freelanced, my husband eventually landed a good job in New Orleans. We sold our beautiful home in Walnut Creek, California, at the bottom of the market, taking our very scared and disappointed 15-year-old son with us so he could start high school in a different state where he didn’t know a soul. Meanwhile, I couldn’t even move my other son into his college dorm at San Diego State. My youngest and I were miserable, and when my husband’s job also became untenable, we moved home. I will always be grateful that we were lucky enough rent a home near my son’s original high school.
During my time in Louisiana, I remember being sad, depressed and even despondent, but not this astonishing grief-stricken. I didn’t cry that much. Those were the days I drank my feelings. But I had been filled with grief, not only because I was homesick but I was sad for my youngest.
Posey was not remotely connected with the NOLA experience, but bits and pieces of my feelings came out last week like nutria falling over a levee in a hurricane.
A friend finally told me that it was okay to be sad — I didn’t have to put on a smiley face or deal with my issues with witty self-deprecation. I was allowed to feel sad, angry and in denial about a lot of things. In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ definition of the stages of grief, you have to walk through them. It’s okay to cry like a baby, punch a pillow, then cuddle it in pain.
I’ve been lucky, or blessed, I kept telling myself. I haven’t lost too much in my life.
But I lost Posey, and thanks to that, I’ve realized that it is okay to cry. Life is just sucky sometimes, and many people have it a lot worse than I do. No, it’s not a contest. It’s learning to recognize sad situations and feel them.
Lola and I still have each other, and she will get to enjoy the benefits of being a spoiled Only Dog for a bit, with a doting dog-mom and a gruff but secretly loving dog dad. Lola and I may even take up jogging together. When she gets sad, like when she bounds into an empty house, looking for her lifelong companion, I’ll be there to dry her tears. And in time, another four-legged friend will join our little family.
My wise Posey taught me a couple of important lessons: sucky things happen, and big girls do cry.