Grief Sucks and Dogs are Amazing

My dog died on January 29th. I had to put him to sleep because of an issue that wouldn’t get any better, and would only cause him pain. There would be no “quality” in the phrase “quality of life”. 

It was the hardest decision of my life and is a moment I will never forget. I’ll never be the same, but each day brings a new opportunity to reminisce and remember what an amazing experience loving Tank was.

I woke up the morning of January 29th — the day after my birthday — and dropped off my girlfriend at her place. We had to deal with some winter driving and parking issues but nothing major. I went home to get ready for work and when I got out of the shower, I noticed something was wrong with Tank. Something was very wrong.

Tank was bleeding profusely from his anus. I had brought him into the vet for a similar, more cosmetic issue a few months prior, but nothing of this magnitude. In a panic, all of the thoughts came to my mind.

Is this the day I’ll have to say goodbye to my best friend? Is he going to be okay? He seems so lively and has so much energy — there’s no way he’ll die from this, right?

Covered in blood and anxious, I promptly loaded Tank into the back seat of my car. I called everyone I could think of while on my way to the vet — work, my girlfriend, my dad — to let them know what was going on.

I remember reciting “Amor Fati” and “Memento Mori” to myself as I navigated the snowy streets. Those phrases helped a little, but not much. All while doing this, Tank walked back and forth in the back of my car — switching from looking out the window to looking at me to looking out the back of the car.

When we got to the vet, there was blood all over the back of my car. All over him, his blankets, the door. I picked him up quickly and got him out and we walked towards the entrance of the vet. He stopped to sniff a spot on the ground and me, in a worried panic, forced him to walk inside.

I’ll always regret not letting him sniff and leave his mark.

As we walked in, the vet staff quickly shuffled me to a room towards the back. A room I had never been in. I sat down and realized where we were. We were in a room where there is rarely good news. We were in a room where countless tears were shed, tissues were used, and decisions were made.

The room was heavy with realizations. Heavy with sadness. Heavy with grief.

Things got real. And they got real real fast.

Tank and I sat in the room. Him panting and pacing. Me a leg-twitching nervous wreck. As I tried to get him to stay calm and sit down, the vet shuffled in and introduced herself. I don’t remember her name — and didn’t when she introduced herself. She attempted to examine Tank in the room but eventually settled on bringing him to the back.

As I sat there nervously for about 5 minutes, she came back in and sat down. Basically, she broke it down to three options. “One is diapers and antibiotics. Two is sending him to a specialist. They might not even suggest operating because of how dangerous the area is to operate on. That would run around $5k to $10K. And then there’s the option of starting to think about end of life choices.”

Then came the waterworks.

My feet started to tap uncontrollably. I think it’s a new nervous tick I developed at the moment.

I just wanted to shake out of my skin and be somewhere else at that very moment. Why today? Why right now? Why ever?

As I continued crying uncontrollably, the vet sweetly handed me a box of tissues and consoled me saying, “I know it’s hard — he’s your buddy…”. She was so right. He was my best friend and that was the hardest option I never thought I’d have to think about.

“You don’t need to make a decision right now — please take all the time you need. I’ll step out and get Tank cleaned up.” Through tears I thanked her and when the door closed behind her, I went completely unhinged.

More kicking. Pacing. Nose-blowing. Tears…tears everywhere. The room looked like a crime scene because of the amount of blood. That didn’t help anything. There was blood on my coat. Blood on my boots. Blood drying all over the back of my car.

My dad called and asked where I was. I told him and he arrived soon after. He and I talked through tears. We both knew what had to be done. I just didn’t want to say it out loud. Or think about it, for that matter. Amy, my girlfriend, came soon after my dad, and she sat down and hugged and hugged and hugged me. We sat there silent for a while. I went to the front desk and asked for the doctor to come back and go over our options again.

My dad was a Minneapolis police officer for 42 years, so he’s been through his fair share of tough situations. I’m not sure where this ranked, but I know it wasn’t an easy day for him. Tank lived with him until Tank and I moved out in 2012 — when Tank was 8.

The vet came back into our room and went over all of the options with us again. My dad, being the stoic man he is, asked all the tough questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Deep down he knew I couldn’t bring myself to ask these questions. As the vet explained, we all further realized the decision we needed to make. She stepped out and gave us more time.

I remember staring into space thinking over and over to myself, “You have to make this call”. Even as I write this, a week later, I can’t bring myself to imagine making that call.

Climbing that mountain of realization, standing on top and deciding the fate of my best friend.

It’s a decision I hope I never have to make again.

Tank came into the room, excited and sleepy, and gave love to all of us. We could see his situation had only gotten worse since I had brought him, so we knew the decision we settled on was the right one. Having seen the sort of shape he was in, I remember being overcome by a sense of relief. A selfish sense of relief telling me we were doing the right thing. I say selfish, but I hesitate because it isn’t as selfish as I think it is.

Tank wouldn’t want me to live a life where I had to prolong the inevitable. He wouldn’t want me to be sad day after day. He never liked when I was angry or sad. He would set his what felt like 1,000-pound head on my leg while his tail wagged until I cheered up.

I’m the kind of person who beats himself up over the smallest fuck up — but seeing Tank in the state he was before we put him down, that’s a decision I can be proud of making. He wouldn’t suffer any longer. I wouldn’t suffer watching him suffer.

Of course, that didn’t make it any easier. I sat on the floor as he walked back and forth between me, my dad, and Amy. He started to get a little wobbly — partially from the diaper the put on him and partially because the medication had made him very sleepy. He eventually laid down in a perfect spot on the carpet of the vet’s floor.

Tank, laying there extra sleepy from the sedative, resisted them taking his leg for the final process of the procedure. The vet tech was struggling to position it at an angle that was comfortable for him and proper for the procedure. As she continued to struggle, I scratched his ears — which he would approve of with a giant sigh and occasional moan. This time he just sighed in comfort and she was able to position his leg as they needed.

As the procedure continued, he took four quick, giant breaths. They’ll always stand out in my mind because it sounded like he was dreaming. Tank had very animated dreams. Sometimes he would half-bark. Sometimes he’d whimper and I’d pause the television to listen. Other times his feet would move a mile a minute. But this time, he just breather in and out four times in rapid succession.

Tank just laid there and I continued to pet his face and head. I told him over and over again how good of a boy he was. How it was time to go to bed. After his last four breaths, he just laid there as peaceful as ever. It was as if the time between breaths was constant.

I continued to stroke his head and face. His droopy lips. I kissed his cheekbone — the area between his eye and lips. I remember pulling away after having left a wet mark on his face from my tears. The doctor took her stethoscope, put it over his heart, and gently said, “He’s passed”. Those necessary words will echo in my head forever.

They kick-started the grieving process that I’ll go through forever.

As Tank’s body lay, she said, “You can stay here as long as you’d like.” “I don’t know if I’ll ever leave,” I said, bookended with an uncomfortable chuckle.

I held him through the entire process. He knows I was there. I excused myself from the room and asked my Dad if he’d like to stay and have some time with Tank. He agreed.

Amy and I walked outside of the room and I just hugged her. We hugged and hugged and hugged. I cried. We continued to hug. The staff looked over at us as we left the room and for a moment all I wanted to say was, “What the fuck are you looking at” — which would have been incredibly rude.

I wasn’t angry at them. I was angry at time. I’ll always be angry at time.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I dropped Amy off at her place and drove home. I was fielding calls and messages from friends and loved ones left and right. It was overwhelming and only added to the emotions from the day.

When I got to my house, I started to clean Tanks things. I gathered all of his toys and put them in a closet. I cleaned remaining blood from the floor and the area where, just a few hours earlier, he had eaten his morning breakfast. After a few moments of calm and quiet in the house, I texted Amy and she came over.

We laid on the couch and I continued to cry. My roommates eventually came home, both solemnly speaking in low, choppy tones. This was hard for them, too. They would tell me later just what they were going through, which I’ll always appreciate.

As Amy and I laid there, my roommates shuffled in and out of the kitchen, making dinner as they normally would on any other day.

“Life just doesn’t stop, does it?” I remember saying to Amy as my roommate poured rice into his rice cooker for dinner he would eat later. “No, no it doesn’t”,” she whispered.

I had always heard people saying that, when grieving, the world just keeps moving. And it does. Time doesn’t stop. Time doesn’t slow down. It stops for no one, and that’s an important lesson in grieving. Give yourself all the time you need, of course. You’ll probably never get over various losses throughout your life. But you have the choice of how you approach it.

You can let grief win and be a shell of your former self. Or you can meet it head-on and trudge through it like the blackest, stickiest mud you’re sure will never come off of your soul. It’ll never fully come off. You’ll always have remnants of that stickiness, but there’ll be less of it over time.

Like a stain of stepped-in gum — it might not ever fully come off, but most of it will. And you can handle what doesn’t.

I’m a believer in the idea of soul groups. Essentially you travel from plane to plane with the same souls in your current life. For instance, your mother in your current life may have been your daughter — or son — in a past life. Or your brother could have been a dad in a past life. Long story short — I think Tank was someone from a past life. Was he my grandfather? I don’t know. I’ll never know — no one will. I mean, I’m sure my soul will find out someday who is who, but I’ll never be able to hang onto that information.

Maybe this is me grasping at straws because I had to put my best friend to sleep, or maybe there’s something there. Either way, it’s an idea that’s helping me keep my head up through this entire process. There have been small moments of things I know that help me take my mind off of that fateful day. I’m not sure if they’ll help anyone else, but I figured I could mention them:

  1. Writing — I wrote this blog post in under 1 hour and it’s already over 2000 words. That has never happened about anything I’ve ever written about. So it’s important — whether you think you’re a good writer or not — to get all of your thoughts onto paper or the screen. Rehashing that day, however painful it was, has been hugely helpful.

  2. Talking — Whether you want to or not, you need to talk about what you’re going through. With your friends, your family, your church, grief hotlines — anything. You need to vocalize your experience so you can come to the realization of everything that much faster. This helped me immensely.

  3. Escaping — Take a few days for yourself and go somewhere. Take a mini road trip and visit somewhere you haven’t been for years. I did this and I can’t recommend it enough. I was lucky enough to escape with a big group of friends, but I imagine a solo trip would have been just as fitting.

  4. Crying — Cry. Cry always. Never second-guess your emotions. If you’re overcome while at work, excuse yourself and go somewhere and let it all out. I’ve cried myself to sleep. Cried in my car. Cried in the shower. Anywhere you can think of. Emotions are going to come rushing back so the sooner you’re comfortable crying whenever you need to, the sooner you’ll be able to continue to heal.

  5. Laughing — Throw on an old TV show and get lost in laughter. Put on something you know is going to cheer you up. Be it mindless or high-brow, watch something to put your mind somewhere else. Go see a comedy show, force your friends to hang out with you, listen to a podcast. Just get into a happier state of mind. That way, when the grief does come back, you don’t feel so empty and alone as the laughter will surely fill you up.

  6. Stoicism — I made a promise to myself to embrace stoicism for 2019. I started by diving into everything written by Ryan Holiday, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Throughout the day Tank died I thought about everything they had written. How the obstacle was the way, how we all die and how we’re lucky to have had what we had. Their words didn’t help in the moment as much as I thought they might, but being mentally surrounded by their ideas during that day and since has acted as a safety net, more or less. I could have gone to a very dark place. And I’ll admit, I did for a few minutes. I remember thinking, “Wow — I can understand why people who are going through serious grief may turn to self-harm or something worse.” I didn’t act on any of those thoughts, of course, but the teachings of the stoics helped steer me on the right path.

By no means do I think that the 5 above-mentioned strategies will help you get over your loss like they did for me. Far from it. I just know what helped me get out of the darkness.

My heart will never be whole again. Sure, I’ll own more dogs and I’ll go through this again and again. And it’ll be hard each time. Tank, the sweet animal that he was, helped me be comfortable with me. I wouldn’t say I was lost before I got him, but I was definitely found once I had him. And I’ll always remember him for letting me be my authentic self with him.

Dogs don’t judge. They don’t hate. They don’t say hurtful things behind your back. They love you unconditionally. Tank loved me unconditionally and I loved him. I’ll always remember him for being the love of my life.

God speed, Tank.

Here’s to endless fields of Kongs filled with peanut butter - just across that rainbow bridge.