COPING WITH THE LOSS OF A FURRY FRIEND

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(A therapeutic piece from your editor Derek Green)

For our daughter’s 7th birthday, “Dad went to see a man about a dog”. Literally. It was our first home in the west, and we’d moved in to our new Yarraville digs with its expanse of green grass a couple of weeks prior, the ability to have enough space for a dog being one of the main reasons for crossing the bridge. What an awesome community and local vibe we discovered – the best decision we ever made.

For any parents considering buying a pet for their child, believe me they will be loved and appreciated, but let’s be realistic, you are going to be the one feeding them, walking them, picking up after them and taking them to the vets.

And occasionally cleaning up dog vomit.

And through these rituals, and after two solid years of training and trying to instil a sense of calmness, Shanti and I became truly connected. Sure, she chewed everything in sight, including but not limited to; our favourite shoes, anything that wasn’t well pegged to the washing line, pot plants, shrubs and trees, the weatherboards, my wallet, our friend’s dog’s ear, (and come to think of it, our friend’s plants, shrubs, shoes etc etc.), but that’s all part of what you take on with a lab. Crazy, loving, loyal, and eventually, serene.

When she was sick or frightened, she came for me, eyes pleading for help, whether it was due to an unfair encounter at the dog park, from eating her breakfast too quickly (more vomit), or at 3am in the morning after a loud bang somewhere in the neighbourhood.

If ever we left her – for the day or for a holiday – she was always accepting of this, and waiting for us.

After we returned from an extended time away in 2014 she developed the habit of coming into our bedroom in the middle of the night, and waking me by going nose to (cold) nose. My theory was that she was disoriented and wanted to make sure we were still here, but with hindsight – and understanding our connection – my wife’s theory may have been true. She guessed that Shanti knew I was sick a year or two before any of us did, and she was checking on me like loyal friends do. And during those many months of sickness and recovery she was there, sitting at my feet through the good days when I was able to get out of bed and collapse into the “sunny chair”, or in the home office when I felt able to perform a few hours work.

She partially tore her ACL at aged 10, which put paid to her days off-lead, and running wild at her favourite place – the beach (vomit again). Her arthritis got worse but she coped, her level of discomfort was always so hard to diagnose as she never complained.

I had been worried for a while that her companionship, my daily responsibilities to her and the routine was what was holding me together. Was I allowing myself to become too attached? Was I easing back into the comfort of a relationship with a soul that was undemanding, subservient and unequivocally forgiving, rather than seeking to grow my more challenging human friendships?

It’s said that dog ownership gifts you the best years of your life, but hands you the worst day of your life, and this is true. For us that day was April 19th this year. With her back legs giving way and suddenly diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure, unable to eat and fading quickly, the time had come. Most of my visions of saying goodbye to a pet involved sudden pain, suffering and an emergency trip to the vet, but luckily that wasn’t our experience. We got a whole weekend to sit with her, hug her and calmly thank her for being such a great dog, barely leaving her side for three days straight.

I couldn’t bring myself to erase her in the days and weeks afterwards, even when tidying up around the house. I left a bowl of water out for a while – irrational I know but I wasn’t ready to put it away. Same with her newest bed, still lying expectedly in the corner, the one which, unlike all her previous beds (and believe me you go through many in 15 years) she had taken to its warmth and natural wool fibres immediately. Some form of bed or blanket had been with me in the office as long as I can remember, along with her constant presence, always there to listen, relieve my stress, and celebrate the little wins. We talk about holes and that is the big one right there. Now that I am reflecting it has clicked – she and I spent every day together.

It’s easy to feel disappointed or even bitter about the fact we will almost always outlive our pets, but Shanti gave everything she had for us every day, happily let us prop her up for a couple of years on Pentosan, and would have given more if she in any way could have managed it.

The reminders of mental muscle memory still appear – if it starts to rain I momentarily think to go and make sure she isn’t standing out in it. Wind, the washing machine and dishwasher all bothered her, and now, so too me. And if it’s hot I still instinctively think to check that her water bowl is full.

Eventually I know the pain will subside, I’ll start talking about her in past-tense, the left-over bag of dog food will be gifted, and the last of the many hairs seriously entwined into our carpets will be sucked up – all to be replaced with just fond memories and the odd pang of emptiness. Until then I will just sit here and hurt.

Goodbye my little polar bear.

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