Showing posts with label grief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grief. Show all posts

12 February 2023

Lost puppies and the consequences of silence

I often write about the lost puppies – the issues that impact our lives but are lost in silence.

I’ve written a few articles on grief following the death of Carol, my dearest friend. The immense loss and prolonged grief of losing a friend is not on most people's radar, so many don’t ask, don’t talk about this and leave it in the realm of silence.

Silence is the worst prescription for healing. I say this as a doctor with expertise and decades of clinical experience in mental health. Yes, I’m that kind of doctor and that is exactly why I write about the lost puppy issues – to bring them out of the dark, silent places into the chatty, healing light.

Here I am again, on a lost puppy issue and this one is literally, and not just figuratively, about puppies.

Let me introduce you to Kai, my 100 pound Bouvier.

We met her as a tiny 15 pound puppy and, when flying her home from Toronto, Carol met us at the airport because she was always the first to meet all my dogs and children. Carol held Kai and, when she saw my look of longing to hold the pup, Carol responded by saying, “You have a lifetime to hold her, let me have this.” Yes, Carol was that kind of friend who could read my mind.

When Kai came home, she refused to be crated or even lie on the floor quietly. Unlike any other dog I’ve had, she wanted to be carried. At some point that night, out of sheer exhaustion, I carried her onto the bed and fell asleep with her. She slept the whole night, didn’t wet the bed and our nightly routine of sleeping together began. Kai was the first dog in 30 years of living with dogs that had done this. 

From the start, Kai was a calm but ardent student of language - a true kindred spirit. She listened carefully and developed an understanding of many words and phrases. As a family, we have had to modify our conversations so that Kai didn’t get excited about things we talked about in the past. We tried spelling words, but she soon picked up spelling too so woe to anyone who mentioned or spelled ‘car’ because that’s where you’d end up taking her.

Kai proved to a dog who not only remembers language but also music, so watching TV became difficult. She would rush into the room if she heard a familiar tune for an ad with a dog and then bark at the intruder. Kai also understands the meaning of music, so any music that sounded violent or frightening during a film would elicit barking. Luckily, I'm happier reading than watching TV.

When Kai went to obedience classes, she progressed so quickly that she was kicked out of advanced obedience because of boredom and put into a more challenging therapy dog course at the age of seven months. She sailed through that. She was a natural student, curious and calm.

When Carol got a cancer diagnosis, I flew back and forth to Toronto and Kai knew when I was leaving and that displeased her. She’s a bouvier, so her displeasure was signalled not by whining or acting out but by a calm, sad look. When I got back, I was often gutted, more so as it became evident that Carol was dying, and Kai was there by my side. Refusing to leave me even for a minute. Bouviers are work dogs and I suspect she was trying to fix me. I appreciated the effort. 

In my mind, Carol and Kai are forever linked. I spoke to both of them constantly and both understood the important things I felt. 

 The last few weeks have been difficult. Kai was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy - the normal prognosis is six months to a year - much shorter than our expectations of having her for 5 years more.

We’re working off the hypothesis that this may be food related and reversible but it may not be. Regardless, I will lose this dog one day - sooner or later.

All the research on loss of a beloved pet shows that it can impact us as much as any loss with one important difference: the ability of those around us to understand the extent of this loss. When we experience grief, our brains undergo physical changes that can affect our thought processes and emotions. If the individual who is sick and dying is a husband, wife or child, people understand more easily and allow us to speak. This social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds but, as we know, many people think that pets are less important than people so many pet owners grieve in silence. 

If we stay silent, then all sorts of things grow: loneliness, bitterness, cynicism and anger. The consequences of silence are not merely unpleasant - they can be dangerous if they blossom into mental health issues like depression and suicidal ideation or even anger management issues.

There are consequences to silence on all issues of import and that is why we should all be brave – speak up.

09 June 2019

How Long Does Grief Last?

In a few weeks it will be one year since Carol died. She was my dearest friend since childhood. I hesitate to write about Carol because using words to describe a friendship like ours is like trying to carve a sculpture from water. 

We met when we were seven years old and throughout our childhood we wandered our neighbourhood chatting and laughing. During our teens we talked intensely about every dream, every heartbreak and all the new feelings descending on us. As we became adults we discussed university - all our courses, all our insecurities and, eventually, our marriages. She shared her stories of students she taught in her lab and I shared stories of my patients.

When my children were born, she was the first one in the door. She spent countless hours with my children, wandering the woods, reading books and calling every birthday with her lovely rendition of Happy Birthday. My children were almost in their teens before they realized that their beloved Aunty Carol wasn’t related to them. 

Over our decades of friendship we never fought. We thought that was odd since we were both intensely passionate people. What we did do was to find the humour in every and all incidents in our lives - no matter how trivial or serious. The closest we came to fighting was when we had spirited discussions about who paid the restaurant tab. We discussed this intensely and decided it was not as serious as a squabble but also more serious than a quibble, so we named these squibbles. We found that so funny and even our restaurant tabs became hilarious.

Once as the tab arrived, I asked Carol if this was going to be another squibble. She said it was going to be an outright squabble. We were grinning ridiculously at each other and the waitress asked - as we were often asked - about our relationship. People were perplexed by this Viking Beauty and WOC with a mass of curls and how we were so impossibly close. Carol, completely deadpan, replied, "Twins." Then, without missing a beat when the waitress looked perplexed, Carol continued. She pointed at me and said, "The lipstick always throws people." I have no idea how funny the politely smiling waitress found this exchange but we chuckled about it all evening. 

Over the nine months from her breast cancer diagnosis to her death, I visited, spent as much time as I could at her home. When she had her mastectomy, I was there and stayed for her recovery. We chatted and talked as we always did about everything. When we found out that the breast cancer had spread to her bones, we continued talking about that too. All through that time, we found so many things funny. Including cancer. When she was in hospital I stayed in her room when she was frightened.

Near the end, I had left to go home and her sister called and said she was asking for me. I went immediately and spent the last conscious night of her life with her. She lay there so quietly when I walked into the room that I pulled up a chair and held her hand. She said, “Mary! I would know that tiny hand anywhere.” We hugged. And then she slept. As I watched her sleep, I marvelled how, with her brain full of cancer, she still knew my hand. Still loved me. 

Many people have wondered when I’ll stop grieving Carol’s death.

A friend recently sent me an article that looked at a study where “They collected data from 26,515 people over 14 years, and found a range of negative consequences experienced by those who had a close friend die. In the four years after a death, significantly adverse wellbeing was found in people both physically and psychologically.”

This reminded me of a question I asked my supervisor when I started practice. I was trying to understand a patient who appeared to still be in mourning 15 years after the death of his child. I asked  about the length of the normal mourning period. I was young, didn’t have children but that question, quite frankly, was incredibly stupid. My supervisor kindly answered that the normal mourning period for a child was a lifetime. 

But what about a friend? Not just any friend, but a friend who forged me, who made me who I am and when there is nothing, nothing at all I have ever done that Carol wasn’t a part of? That kind of friend. My supervisor was a wise and kind man. If he were alive today, I would call and ask. I long for that conversation. 

There is something else about Carol and me. 

I was never the person I wanted to be. I wanted to be carefree, bold and irrepressibly confident. What I am is hopelessly serious, full of thoughts when I want to just be easy going. Carol was bold enough to climb apple trees without fear as a child and throw a knapsack on her back and head to Europe on her own after high school. She was far more carefree than I could ever be. She was a brilliant research scientist and a talented teacher. Maybe more so because she treated the meticulous and painstaking work of molecular biology like an adventurous journey with pipettes and gene splicing.

But we were also similar.  We both were totally honest, so we talked about our insecurities, our painful embarrassing incidents with ease. We also deeply loved kindness and recoiled from cruelty so we talked endlessly about the treatment of animals, children and people of all ages.  

For me to have someone as wonderful as Carol love me so deeply, so loyally 
for so long, made me feel better. Somehow less serious. Less hopelessly awkward. 

Carol was beautiful. Tall and blond. She was also strong. Until the last few months of her life. This photo of her as a young student leaving the apartment now is so poignant - it is her leaving me.

This year has been tough. My father died. My mother is now ill. I so needed to talk with Carol - these were the first hardships that I haven’t been able to share with her. Also, my daughter won a prestigious award and got a cat. My son went to Australia and published some exciting papers. Carol would have been eager to hear all of this and we would have chatted endlessly - and then she would have called the children for more details.

I miss hearing about the adventures of her life - her story was cut off mid-sentence. I want to know what would have happened if her story went on till we were old and ornery.

This was one of our last texts:

If there was ever a testament to the calibre of Carol, this is it. With cancer in her bones, spreading to her brain, unable to breathe and this, this is what she worried about: not being there for me. Steel in her spine. Pure steel.

This is the story of Carol and me, but each death leaves people with stories cutoff in mid-sentence. While some friends wonder when I'll get over my grief - my longing for Carol - my children and husband don't wonder. They share memories - sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh - but always we miss her. We expect nothing less. 

Since I can’t ask my supervisor, I’m going to call this one. 

I will miss Carol for my whole life. 

When I die, missing her will be one of the last thoughts I have.