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Pet loss

In Life with dogs, Pets on Monday, 1 October 2012 at 06:22

When my dog Lucky died, I disappeared too

By Bob Sullivan, TODAY

Among the cruelest truths of biology is this: A dog’s life is considerably shorter than a human’s life. The math is unforgiving; if you love a dog, you will lose a dog, and you will suffer the pain and biting lessons that death brings — probably several times over.

A million things are wrong when your dog dies. Here’s just one: You become invisible.

My Lucky passed away a year ago this spring and my loss was profound; those of you who’ve been through this understand; those of you who haven’t, I’m not nearly a good enough writer to describe it to you. My grief was complicated because, as my reporting sidekick for many years, Lucky was a mini-celebrity. He had completed several cross-country trips with me as we chronicled American life. We even had a theme song (“It’s Bob and Lucky’s/Hidden Fee Tour of America!”). He was a fantastic journalist. And he died suddenly, just as we were going to leave on a new trip, so I had the task of disappointing readers and sources from coast to coast, telling them that Lucky wouldn’t be sticking his head out my Jeep window this time.

But my sadness grew even deeper as I realized that my entire life, right down to how I interact with the world, had changed. Pet owners know the “You’re Fido’s owner!” phenomenon well. Plenty of neighborhood folks knew me only by my dog. They knew his name, not mine. When he passed away suddenly, I felt like I’d disappeared.

I wrote a column about turning to social media for comfort in my time of grief. It was among the most popular pieces I’d ever written, even though it had nothing to do with my day job. No question, the Internet helped.

But Facebook friends and retweets are a meager replacement for the dozens smiles and laughs from strangers that spoiled me daily, thanks to Lucky. They were gone now.

When my dog Lucky died, I disappeared too

By Bob Sullivan, TODAY

Walking my old Lucky around the block was like going to a never-ending cocktail party. Everyone would stop for a pet, and a chat, and 30 minutes later I had 10 new friends. Now, I would arrive home from work, dreading the thought of walking into an empty apartment, and set out to walk around the block. I got in the habit of taking the slowest stroll I could, as if I’d become the aging geriatric dog that Lucky never got to be. It wasn’t just my heart that hurt; it felt like every muscle of my body suffered a dull ache, as if my blood didn’t really have the heart to push its way through my veins any more. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst was the blank stares. If I did, occasionally, work up the strength to smile at a sidewalk passer-by, I’d get an odd look, if I got any response at all. There certainly was no stopping for idle chat. Sure, some neighbors I knew better did pause and ask me how I was doing, but it wasn’t nearly the same. The party was over.

In the 1960s, psychiatrist Eric Berne introduced a new model of psychology that he ultimately called Transactional Analysis. It has many components, but the simplest is this: Our days and nights are filled with small and large “transactions” between people. A quick hello from a friend is a small, positive transaction, while a dirty look from another driver is a negative one. A deep conversation with a lover is a large transaction — it might be positive or negative, depending on the outcome. Berne believed that people’s happiness was a function of how these transactions went, and how many positive interactions a person piled up during the day. He believed that positive transactions were as important to mental health as water and food are to physical health. Chart a few days of your interactions with people, and I think you’ll become convinced that Berne was onto something.

When Lucky died, I lost probably 100 or more happy transactions every day. The ache I felt was primal. Berne would say I was starving. OK, I’ll say that.

Enter Rusty.

As pet owners know, you can’t just replace your lost loved one. Pets aren’t like cars or refrigerators. The timing is different for everyone, but you must wait until the time is right, lest you cheat yourself out of that critical soul-searching “in-between time,” and you cheat your new dog by expecting the pup to be too much like your old dog.

So I waited a year….past the point when every day was a sad anniversary…and mentioned to a friend that after a long summer vacation, I thought I’d be ready to love again. During my trip, she found Rusty at a shelter, facing an uncertain end. When I got home, he was, essentially, waiting at my door for me.

There are a million reasons not to get a dog, and anyone who’s ever thought about it can cite them all chapter and verse. You travel too much; your apartment is too small; you don’t want your stuff destroyed, peed on, or chewed up, you don’t want to miss after-work happy hours; you don’t want to disturb the neighbors. All those can be good reasons, as taking on a pet is a serious, life-long commitment to be made with both head and heart. The problem is that while the reasons not to get a dog are specific, and easy to cite, the benefits of having a dog are far more subtle, and hard to count. Let me clumsily offer one:

You become visible. Dogs make you somebody in the eyes of the universe.

Maybe the isolation I felt after Lucky died says something about alienation in modern life, and the fact that people would rather text than smile while walking; or about the cruelness of urbanity, the heavy social armor city-dwellers must wear to protect themselves. Or maybe it just says people in some places aren’t friendly enough. Whatever — dogs are the world’s best icebreakers, and that can’t be argued.

I don’t know a lot about Rusty’s past, but I do know he hadn’t been on a leash very much before meeting me, and I’m pretty sure no one had ever told him to lie down. As a roughly 8-month-old golden retriever, Rusty is at the age that often gets dogs in trouble. Dogs’ bodies grow much faster than their brains. Rusty is almost full-grown, but he’s still very much a puppy. That means he has puppy fits, when he wants to jump on everything and everyone, he wants to steal food, socks, remote controls, and anything else that I don’t want him to steal.  If he’s not getting what he wants, he literally bats people — in the face, even! — with his paw. He can’t resist trying to wrestle with every dog we encounter. In short, he’s doing things that would be adorable if he were 15 pounds, but are dreadful now that he’s 50 pounds. This is the age at which many dogs end up in shelters.

But Rusty is also a beautiful, auburn-red golden retriever who melts hearts as easy as he chases tennis balls. Passers-by can’t resist patting the fur on his soft, soft head. The second someone shows the slightest bit of interest (“What a cute dog! He’s so red! What is he?), he hurls himself onto his back, on his “victim’s” shoes, and demands a belly rub. One block=30 minutes. At least. And at least 100 or more smiles, hellos, handshakes, how-do-you-dos, etc.  An NBC colleague often reminds me that golden retrievers are the bartenders of the dog world. True, but I know Rusty isn’t just being friendly for the tips.

Transactional therapy has few real advocates now. It’s viewed as old-fashioned and incomplete. But you’ll find fewer more thought-provoking books than Berne’s “Games People Play,” which describes the stunts people pull (rackets, Berne calls them) to fill their emotional needs when they aren’t being filled through normal daily life. Since learning about it years ago, I’ve often thought about the troubles of suburban life in America. It’s possible to walk from your house into your garage, drive to work, pull into the office garage, and take the elevator to the cubicle without ever interacting with another human being. That life might not be sad, but it’s certainly not happy. Berne would say it’s like trying to get through the day without eating.

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I’ll just say that, according to the American Humane Society, 61 percent of U.S. Households are dogless, and that number is creeping up slightly because of the recession, as some people give up their pets for financial reasons. Those folks might not know what they’re missing.

It’s been about a month now, and Rusty has changed everything. I’m unmistakably visible —particularly to friendly folks my dog pees on when he gets so excited as they are petting him that he literally can’t contain himself. Last Sunday, walking down the block, a small puppy and his companion walked towards Rusty and me. Our dogs played, while we chatted. Then, a man walking two other dogs arrived. More playing, more talking. A petless woman we’d met the day before, who missed her childhood dog, strolled up and joined the fun. Then, an older woman and a pug nicknamed “Piggy” snorted their way towards our dogpile. I mean, our spontaneous cocktail party. I loved every minute of it; my heart was filling up.

I’m sure Lucky paused from chasing a tennis ball in heaven to smile down at the scene.

To those who walked this walk with me, who contributed to my So Lucky dog memorial page, thank you. To anyone who feels invisible, or even sad — the ASPCA estimates that 3 to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized every year in the United States. The life you save may be your own.

Retrieved from: http://animaltracks.today.com/_news/2012/09/12/13825121-when-my-dog-lucky-died-i-disappeared-too#.UFEgvqZGedM.email

When Lucky died: A grief observed, on social media

By Bob Sullivan, TODAY

In fact, finding others who understand is probably the only way to get through it. This story will explain how this devoted skeptic of social media found it to be a great source of comfort during my time of great need.GOLDEN, Colo. — There’s a reason the expression goes “You look like your dog just died.” Losing a dog is a sadness so profound that it’s useless to explain to anyone who hasn’t been through it.

Many of you know that last year I traveled America with my golden retriever, sniffing out scams and ripoffs as part of “Bob and Lucky’s Hidden Fee Tour of America.” (There was even a theme song.) Naturally, Lucky stole the show, getting on national TV twiceand appearing live on local TV in several towns along the way from Washington to Seattle. His pawprint was far more popular than my signature at every book signing. We made hundreds of friends in dozens of newsrooms, bookstores, hotels and rest stops along the way. He spent nearly all of those 3,000 miles with his head nudged onto my right shoulder, leaving drool stains on the right arm of every shirt I had brought for the trip.

We were all set to make the same trip this summer, but Lucky decided to go on a longer road trip instead, taking the expressway to dog Heaven on June 11. He was roughly 10 years old — he was a rescue, and he landed in my life eight years ago — and the calendar said I should be ready for this. I was not. He acted like a puppy until the day he died. Right to his last afternoon, every muscle of his oversize body was desperate to say hello to every man, woman and squirrel we encountered. So it was a complete shock when he died of heart trouble — an enlarged heart, to no surprise — during one horrible night at the vet a few weeks ago.

I am writing this piece in Golden, Colo. — that’s an accident, but a good one. Lucky sure would have liked it here: My hotel is crawling with dogs.

* * *

Comparing personal tragedies is a game you should never play, and I would never dare say my sadness is equal to that of anyone who’s lost a job, a home or a child. I will say simply that in losing Lucky this month, my sorrow is complete. When I finally got home to my family about 5 a.m. that awful night, I lay in bed wide awake and could feel every cell of my body hurt. I can still feel that as I type now. No one, nowhere, will ever love me like Lucky did. He was typically food-obsessed, scarfing every meal in seconds, but there was one time he wouldn’t eat — if I were rushing in the morning and threw food in his bowl on my way out the door. On those occasions, when I came home after work, I would find his food still in the bowl. In the morning, he’d followed me to the door, laid down and waited there for me all day. The second I opened the door, he’d say a quick hello, and then the poor starved animal would run to eat his breakfast at 6 p.m. He just couldn’t eat without me. Now, I feel the same way.

This kind of loss leaves you searching for answers, and in the sleepless nights that followed I spent a lot of time fruitlessly reading about enlarged hearts, alternatively looking for an explanation that might calm my racing analytical mind or an excuse to blame myself for the ailment to distract my aching heart.

You probably know the ending to that trip. I found no answers. But I did find a lot of places to share. For all its faults, the Internet is very good at sharing. In particular, for all the scary things about social media — Facebook’s consistent abuse of privacy and the Twitterverse’s self-absorption — I found these tools indispensible in my grief.

Sharing makes nothing better. It doesn’t replace a wet nose, a joyful face, the endless presence of love that follows you everywhere. But still, sharing eases pain.

* * *

Of course, there’s nothing new about online grieving. People have been finding new and sometimes strange ways to express loss and mourning since the arrival of the Internet. Virtual wakes appeared almost as soon as Web pages did.

Among the newest forms of digital mourning: following someone on Twitter who has recently died. Ryan Dunn, a TV personality made famous through the TV and movie franchise Jackass, had 30,000 followers before he died in an automobile crash June 22. Now, he has 145,000 after a surge of followers arrived when the news hit. Why would someone follow a recently deceased person? The urge to connect, and the Internet’s ability to deliver it, sometimes both seem to be stronger than even mortality itself.

Online mourning raises sticky issues. You might have noticed not all Web users maintain a sense of decorum or class. Posting a page describing your grief opens you up to hurtful sarcasm, or worse. For that reason, Facebook now offers a “memorial” state for accounts of the deceased that blocks strangers from making posts.

Still, the urge to virtually eulogize — even among strangers — is strong, as evidenced by the success of a relatively new site named 1000Memories.com, which makes it easy for loved ones to create a memorial page for the deceased. It promises to never allow advertising or to charge a subscription fee. Bring your Kleenex if you click.

* * *

As in “real” life, mourning the loss of a pet doesn’t get quite the same regard as mourning the loss of a person, and perhaps it shouldn’t. You can’t tell me that right now, however.

When Lucky first died, I spent a lot of time reading Web sites that offer advice on surviving the loss of a beloved pet. There’s many places offering tips on how to cope. I suspect some would find them helpful. I did not. The sheer amount of people discussing the problem helped me hang on to my sanity, however. A couple of the better sites are here and here.

There are also a number of sites that allow grieving pet owners to post memorials of their lost dogs, with pictures and paragraphs that serve as online odes to the beloved pets. Some of these post advertisements; some promise not to. I chose not to put Lucky on any of these sites, but reading through the stories there, I found,  helped a little. Misery loves company. Here’s a few:

http://www.dogquotations.com/write-a-memorial.html

http://www.critters.com/

http://www.ilovedmypet.com/

http://www.pets-memories.com/

http://www.petsremembrance.com/

But using the Internet as part of the mourning process, rather than just a source of information, was much more effective, I learned. Plus, I was facing an immediate problem. Lucky was a social butterfly and had hundreds of close friends. And I’d already promised readers another Red Tape road trip with Lucky as the mascot for my blog. How would I tell everyone?

When someone you love dies, there is always the complicated and painful affair of telling others about the tragedy. The conversations often force you relive the horrible moments, when people naturally ask questions like “How did it happen?” No one knows what to say, and you, as the recipient of the kindness, always sense that and spend your energy trying to make sympathizers feel better instead of saving your strength for you.

When a dog dies, less sensitive non-dog-owners will inevitably ask a dumb question like “So, are you going to get another dog now?” as if you were trading in a used car. Others will just breeze past the sadness with a trite “He had a good life,” and change the subject.

It all begins to feel like piling on, and sometimes you just can’t face all that pain at once.

Facebook turned out to be a powerful friend in this dilemma.  I wrote a simple status update that explained the basics and created a photo album for Lucky. I was able to tell most of my friends and family at once. It was the most effective way I could avoid telling and re-telling the story hundreds of times. As is custom now, I changed my Facebook avatar picture to an image of Lucky, which signals to Facebook users that something might be wrong. I did the same with my professional Facebook page, letting readers know that he wouldn’t make my coming trip for the saddest of reasons; I called attention to the notice by Tweeting it.

I was surprised that pressing “share” on Facebook turned out to be another one of those painful goodbye moments, like packing up his dog toys or placing his dog collar around my car’s rear-view mirror. I knew it would set off another chain reaction of sadness, but I was committed to getting that part over with as soon as I could.

I expected to cry again.  I didn’t expect the incredible outpouring of love that came flying through the Internet during the next 48 hours. There is just something about losing a dog, and either you know about it or you don’t. I heard from hundreds of people who did, strangers who expressed deep sympathy and then sent me their own tales about their beloved pets who’d passed away. One woman I heard from was even named Sullivan and had lost her dog named Lucky.

The notes I got from friends touched my heart even more. Many confessed to secretly giving treats to my dog when I wasn’t watching (I was very strict) or reminded me of long-forgotten sweet moments. I won’t tire you with stories of how special Lucky was. Your dog is just as special, no doubt. But Lucky lived an amazing life and brought not just joy but healing everywhere he went.  Indulge me this one tale:

A friend and co-worker told me a secret I’d never heard that was seven years old. She’d lost a baby to a rare childhood illness, and would often seek out Lucky when the depths of her sadness were unbearable. “Things just seemed better” after playing with him, she said. “He just seemed to get people, intuit what they needed and purely, simply offered love.”

My dog was able to comfort a woman grieving the loss of her baby, and I never even knew about it. Oh, did that make me cry. Every time I re-read her note, I cry.

But somehow, things seemed better. All these kind thoughts, these memories, these well-wishes — they felt as important as food and water to me during this time.

I think this point is particularly important for men, who in are society are neither well equipped to give nor to receive this kind of emotional outpouring in public. I was able to privately read these notes over and over when I needed to, particularly when a wave of sadness came, and somehow, it did make things better. I was in awe of how much good Lucky did in his short life.

None of this has made hotel rooms less lonely as I make my way across country now. I miss the way Lucky would charge into each new room, taking complete inventory of the place with his nose and then try to beat me to the toilet bowl. His breathing at night —even his snoring — was more powerful than any sleeping pill. It’s so strange not having to wake up early and run outside to search for just the right patch of grass so Lucky can  do his business.

Sharing things on social networks is hardly foolproof. Despite how it seems, not everyone reads Facebook every day. Plenty of readers and sources I’ve encountered on this road trip have still asked me why Lucky wasn’t with me. Then they felt bad, and I felt bad.

But Facebook and Twitter saved me hundreds of these dreadful encounters and eased my pain. For me, it was the perfect tool for tastefully sharing bad news and for facing grief head on. Social media 1, social media critic 0.

I know I will get another dog someday, probably sooner than seems right now. As another friend put it, “another fellow will just wander up to your campfire when the time is right.” But that’s not until I get over the irrational anger I feel every time I see a healthy dog running, jumping and wagging his tail. I’m going to be sad for a while, and that’s how this is supposed to work. For now, I will hope and pray that whatever family has my future rescue pet today is taking good care of him and that whatever the reason they will eventually put him up for adoption, the pain of separation will not be too great for them or him.

Retrieved from: http://redtape.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/06/30/6979113-when-lucky-died-a-grief-observed-on-social-media?lite#__utma=40784765.1908236897.1347448063.1347454467.1347461478.3&__utmb=40784765.1.10.1347461478&__utmc=40784765&__utmx=-&__utmz=40784765.1347461478.3.3.utmcsr=newsvine.com|utmccn=(referral)|utmcmd=referral|utmcct=/_nv/publish/blog&__utmv=40784765.|8=Earned%20By=todayshow%7Ctoday%7Ctoday%20pets%20%26%20animals%7Canimaltracks=1^12=Landing%20Content=Original=1^13=Landing%20Hostname=animaltracks.today.com=1^30=Visit%20Type%20to%20Content=Internal%20to%20Original=1&__utmk=87462301

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