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Friday, May 18, 2012

Choosing My Sorrows: Thoughts on Dogs and Loss

Yesterday, a dog I'd never met passed away.

Of course, thousands of dogs I've never met pass away every day, but rarely do their departures elicit a sensation of loss on my part. This is quite deliberate: I know I cannot bear the weight of thousands of daily dog deaths, so I avoid the cross-posted "URGENT!!! TO BE EUTHANIZED TOMORROW!!!!" messages that whiz around the internet and focus my attention and emotional investments on rescue groups that highlight the positive, the survivors.

Skinny Girl, still skeletal after a week of feeding.
Birdy was a survivor. When she found her way into one of my favorite rescue groups, she was starving and so close to death that they initially didn't give her a name (they referred to her as "Skinny Girl") because they weren't sure she would live. Even if she was able to regain her strength, her massive, visibly-swollen lymph nodes boded ill for her long-term prospects. But Skinny Girl had other plans. She may have been skin and bones and she may have had advanced lymphoma, but as soon as she had the strength, she made it quite clear to the rescue that she intended to keep on "living 'til the wheels fall off," thank you very much, and so she was given the name Birdy and introduced to the world.

Birdy's cancerous lymph nodes
When a dog with a terminal illness comes into a rescue, sometimes the group will be able to arrange what is called a "compassion hold": that is, some brave and kind soul steps up to give the dog a home until he or she dies. Despite her demonstrated zest for life, it was clear that Birdy had only a few months, maybe a year at the longest, before cancer claimed her. Treatment was out of the question and yet euthanizing a dog who was so ready to live seemed immoral. What she needed was a soft place to land, a home where she could hog the bed and be fed delicious meals and bask in the sunshine until she died. Birdy got lucky: a wonderful woman decided to take Bird into her life.

I got lucky, too. This early photo of Birdy, above, charmed me completely. Just look at that goofy, wiggly, mischievous girl! I was delighted, then, that Birdy's new "Nice Lady" set up a blog in Birdy's name and spent the next five months detailing Birdy's exploits as a beloved pet. The "voice" that the Nice Lady developed for Birdy exactly matched the personality that seemed to radiate from her photographs and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I managed to make an emotional attachment to a dog who I never met, whose stinky sardine breath I never smelled, whose "clippities" I never fondled, whose mismatched eyes never gazed into my own.

Seven months after Birdy was found starving in the streets, it became clear that the cancer, which had spread throughout her body, was finally going claim this spunky soul. The overarching metaphor used to discuss Birdy's condition from the beginning was that she would soon be "flying home" and so when I heard that it would only be a matter of days before the Bird took flight, Poe's song "Fly Away," with the lyrics, "Sweet bird/If you knew the words/I know that you'd say/Fly away," immediately popped into my head. The next thing I knew, I was putting together a tribute video with that song and photos from Birdy's blog and some from her earliest days at the rescue. The woman who adopted Birdy had given me a gift in the form of the blog she wrote and I felt I needed to somehow give a gift back. I shared the video with her--and with the substantial community of others who'd come to love Birdy, too--on Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, no longer able to breathe because of the tumors constricting her lungs, as she lay in the arms of her loving owner, Birdy spread her wings and took flight.

Birdy and her Nice Lady
Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows how painful it is to lose one. I recall reading that while considered less devastating than losing a child, parent, or spouse, most people rate losing a dog more painful than the death of a sibling or a friend. Even people who aren't crazy about dogs may find themselves getting choked up at the end of "Old Yeller" or "Where the Red Fern Grows." It's no secret that I love dogs. I really truly will miss Birdy's presence--virtual though it may have been--in my life, but she was incredibly lucky to have gotten such a wonderful ending to her story and she was an old, very sick dog and it's okay to let her go. So one of the reasons that I'm memorializing the loss of Birdy has to do with recognizing the grief that her owner is going through, the inevitable but no-less-painful consequence of the selfless sacrifice she made when she took in a dog that was going to die and ended up loving her more than she expected. That's the thing about loving dogs: it hurts like hell when you lose them and there's just no way of getting around it. (I happened to love George Carlin's line on pet ownership: "Congratulations! You've just purchased a small tragedy!") It's all too easy for me to imagine what Birdy's Nice Lady is feeling right now.

Abbey's muzzle is going gray.
Mourning for Birdy is also a little bit about preparing to mourn for Abbey. My gal has almost certainly got a few more years in her yet, but she's getting to be an older dog now. Her eyes are cloudier and her muzzle is getting increasingly gray. The vet and I have an eye on a lump in her neck that is probably another mast cell tumor. I don't know how it is she'll leave me, but leave she shall--and should. The only thing more terrible than losing Abbey would be if she should outlive me. I've made a point of reminding myself all along that Abbey will die. Once upon a time, when I was very sick, she was my reason for living and while it's been a long time since I needed her to be that for me, I still feel it's important for me to prepare for the immensity of losing this dog who has made such a positive difference in my life. Feeling sad about Birdy, knowing that it is similar to the grief I will one day bear, and furthermore, ceasing to feel sad about Birdy, as I know I shall, is kind of like training wheels for the loss that will be mine when Abbey dies.

And yet, my mind said to me, is it not a little ridiculous to feel sad about the death of a dog you've never met when there are so many larger tragedies out there?

My difficulty lies not in being insensible to the various ills that plague our world, but being too sensitive to their immensity. There was a time in my life when I had come to see the world as a terrible place filled with so much suffering and pain that it overwhelmed what light and joy might also be found in it. I felt helpless to rectify or mitigate any of the injuries and injustices being inflicted on the undeserving and staggered under the weight of feeling obligated to right so many wrongs. I felt guilty for enjoying what privileges I had and deeply ashamed that sometimes I just didn't want to hear any more. I started to drown in despair.

I think we bear, in our time, the somewhat unfair burden of knowing too much. It is not enough that I should care for my family and my friends and what might be more abstractly described as my tribe; I must now care about every pocket of misery that exists on this planet because there are pictures to prove the suffering being endured. However, I simply cannot. What I ultimately realized, with the help of medication and therapy (and dogs!), is that I have every bit as much of a right to exist as the starving child from a famine-stricken African country whose picture makes it into the magazines. Furthermore, it is not only not selfish, it is paramount that I put my survival first. That's the whole point of life: to survive. And I learned, that in order for me to survive, I had to be selective in what kinds of grief I took on. For me to manage my depression and anxiety, it was essential that I let go of things that were beyond my control. That meant surrendering my emotional investment in wars in far-off countries that were beyond my influence, distancing myself from images of poverty I had no means of alleviating, accepting that others would have to be the ones who stepped up to make changes.

Prior to the onset of the chronic migraines, it was possible for me to maintain a balance between staying well-informed (as I believed was my duty as a citizen of the world) and keeping a sufficient emotional distance. After the migraines started, I found that I no longer even had the tolerance for being well-informed. In order to be happy within the confines of my disability, I have to prioritize what limited time and energy I have each day and I am not going to spend them on being unhappy about things I cannot control. I wish I could do more, but if I am to cope with the fact that I am not well enough to work, to see friends, to travel, to care for myself, or to even leave the house most days, I can't sacrifice any of my energy on distant causes.

In other words, I need to choose my sorrows.

That brings us back to Birdy. It is within my capacity to mourn for this dog who was sick and old but also loved sardines and sleeping on the bed with the Nice Lady and chewing on bully sticks and digging holes. It's a grief of a size I can bear. But my hope is that in mourning for Birdy, I am also mourning just a little bit for those starving African children, for casualties of war and hate crimes, for the impoverished and exploited: in short, for all those who suffer, but whose suffering I simply cannot mourn for individually. I don't think Birdy would mind. I may have never met her, but I know she knew about suffering and happiness and in the end she demonstrated she also knew all about letting go. These sorrows of mine, both the ones I feel deliberately and the many more I wish I could afford to mourn: she's light enough to carry them. She's got wings now, after all.

Fly away, sweet Bird.


  1. Thank you, Colleen. Very beautiful.

  2. I think it's wonderful that you're acknowledging that we cannot bear the sorrows of the world alone. Some people interpret that as not caring about anything, but you're right, we need to choose our causes and admit that while everything else it worthy, too, we can't do it all.

  3. Very wise and eloquent. Thank you for sharing Colleen.

  4. Birdy had such a sweet face.

    Etsy Blog Team

  5. So beautiful and heartfelt (tears).

  6. Beautiful tribute to a beautiful girl! Enjoy the flight Birdy!

  7. Thank you for putting in to words so much of what I feel. Working through depression and anxiety the past few years myself, working on knowing it was ok to learn to put myself first, so much of what you wrote here resonated with me. But most of all, the shared grief at our loss of Birdy. What a wonderful tribute you've written to her, to Anneke and for all of us that "knew" them these last months. Thank you.

  8. Very well said. It expressed my feelings in a way that I could not. Thank you.

  9. I absolutely agree with you in that we have to choose what we can bear. I had written to Donna when Birdie first came to them what an amazing will to survive she had. Your article is so on target in describing that people who never met either Birdie or Anneke were just drawn to them both through the wonderful blog and compassionate care.I have lost three furbuddies in the last five years and the most recent was New Year's weekend and have a pup 16 who has survived two big cancer surgeries and is still here. I was drawn to this story from the start because taking in an elderly sick dog is difficult but you get to watch them have a great life for however long they have. That is definitely worth the end result. Your article says what all of us feel. You can't fix the whole world but doing your own" whatever you can" part helps. And there you have it. Thank you for your eloquence and the beautiful video.

  10. Thank you for this. It made me realize I did exactly the same thing. I never met Birdy, but somehow that loss was enormous to me. I think it was a sorrow for her that included so many other things. We I finally cracked and started to cry and grieve it was for Birdy, but underneath there was a lot more. Fly free sweet Birdy. You will never realize the many lives you touched who have never physically touched you, and can only imagine your stinky toots and soft face and kisses.

  11. I too want to say thank you. You were able to put my thoughts into words. I have been out of pit bull rescue for a couple years and lately have felt like im not doing my part to help rid the world of all the injustices. I also suffer from chronic migraines and all they entail. Thanks for helping me to see its ok to grieve a dog ive never met, and do only what i can. Its been comforting.

  12. Wow, Colleen. If I could write as well, that's what I would write. Thank you for putting my feelings into words. I also never met Birdy, but I loved her from a distance and mourned (and cried) at her death. My own dog, Jack, died from lymphoma 18 months ago and so Birdy's loss brought back a lot of memories.

    Thank you for this lovely tribute. I hope Birdy now knows how many lives she touched.

  13. Colleen, that was lovely. Just discovered this post and Birdy's blog through you. Thank you for the dose of humanity and compassion that I needed today.