Alec, Teagan, and Me.

I just wrote this post for the Animal Legal Defense Fund blog. It was originally published here.

My German shepherd Alec was many things to me: best friend, partner, dependent, roommate, constant companion, apple of my eye, cherished family member, wonder dog and inspiration. Most of all, he was my soul mate. Alec was the love of my life. When he died last year, I wasn’t sure I could go on without him, even if I wanted to. To some that may sound extreme, but Alec and I shared a special bond and had been through an intense journey together.

Nicole and Alec

It is a long story and I have a blog if you want to read more: But here is the extremely truncated version! When Alec was seven years old, a disc ruptured in his back and my hale, hearty and playful friend was suddenly paralyzed and given a poor prognosis that he would ever walk again. After he recuperated from two spinal surgeries, I had him fitted him for a mobility cart (doggie wheelchair), to which he adjusted quickly, and Alec was soon able to go on walks again. I took him swimming to make up for his not being able to run and fetch on land. I learned all I could about caring for a large paraplegic dog. I monitored him closely for signs of depression, but Alec was a happy dog, even with his new physical limitations. To cut to the chase, I did physical therapy with Alec from the start and, amazingly, he beat the odds. One year after he was given that poor prognosis, Alec began walking again. I had started my blog originally to keep friends and family updated, but I soon learned that Alec’s story had given others in similar situations hope that with consistent therapy, patience, time, and love their dogs too might recover, at least partially, from devastating neurological injuries.

Our happy ending was fated to be short-lived, however. After being out of his wheelchair only a year, Alec was diagnosed with a very aggressive and terminal cancer of the blood cells, hemangiosarcoma, which is nearly impossible to detect until it is already too late. But we had already faced down tremendous odds, and I wasn’t going to give up hope. I did everything in my power to save him, but it was not enough. Nothing worked – not chemotherapy, not herbs and holistic supplements, not prayer, not love. Alec died within a few short months.

Alec swimming

After all he had been through, I was devastated. He was only nine and seemingly healthy. I thought we had much more time to enjoy our relationship. While close before, our bond had deepened and further blossomed after his paralysis upended our lives. After that, we truly became a team. We trusted each other and worked well together. His well-being had always been paramount to me, but when he became disabled Alec became the center of my world. He was my sunshine. In a very real way I revolved around him. Not in a bad way. In the way that happens when you are a caretaker for a dependent being who has special needs. When he died, I was lost, in every possible meaning of the word. It was as if gravity itself had deserted me. I was drifting through ether, no weight, no compass, no purpose, nobody home, nobody to go home to.

His absence not only left a void where a cherished relationship and our physical closeness had been, but it also threw me into an existential tailspin, from which it was difficult to recover. My entire world view was shaken. I felt unsafe in a fundamental way. I knew life was unfair, or I thought I did. Yet I couldn’t get over how unfair it all was, how after all he had already been through Alec did not deserve to be stricken dead by cancer before he had a chance to become an old lazy shepherd and enjoy some well-deserved, stress-free golden years. Who said life was fair? I chastised myself for being surprised, nay shattered, by this obvious fact of life. Alas, it is one thing to know something intellectually and something else to experience it. I had to struggle mightily with the question of meaning. I am still wrestling with that one. I was a complete and utter wreck. Anyone who has suffered a profound loss will recognize some of these feelings, which only barely begin to sort of hint at the teeny tiny tip of the hulking iceberg that is grief over losing a cherished love one. Just like the iceberg, there are many surprises lurking beneath the surface, ready to sink your already shaky ship. The bottom line is that I was devastated. I had lost dogs before, but they were old. I could not get over the fact that Alec had worked so hard to overcome paralysis only to be struck down by cancer. I had tried so hard to keep him safe and healthy. Despite my best efforts, I failed.

When Alec died, I vowed I would never adopt another dog. The pain of losing him was too great, too total. It was cataclysmic. I felt like I was gone with him – not just a piece, but the whole me. This is the price, they say, for having loved deeply. It was too high. And besides, I had no interest. I didn’t want another dog, ever. I wanted him. I wanted Alec. I railed against the finality of his leaving, of him not coming back. It. Could. Not. Be. It was a thing that could not be. Predictably, this line of thinking did not work out so well for me. But maybe it did after all.

Because I loved him too much to lose him, I decided I wouldn’t. I had to redefine our relationship, and develop some new beliefs to get me through, but ultimately what enabled me to move forward was the idea that he was coming with me even though our relationship had changed. I am in good company. Many of the best grief books, or at least the ones that helped me (for what it’s worth, I was most helped by reading books about losing family members such as a spouse or a child – not pet loss books specifically, though those can be helpful too), conceptualize successful grieving as forging a new relationship with the deceased, one that exists in the absence of his or her physical presence. This spoke to me intuitively. It felt true. When Alec was sick I told him (and myself) repeatedly that our bond could not be broken, that we would stay connected forever and always. I don’t logically know how that could be, but as I am fond of saying, there was a time when we thought we’d fall off the edge of the world and get eaten by sea monsters if we sailed too far out into the great blue ocean. The point being we just don’t know everything. So I don’t have to know how it works to decide to believe in something.

Mythical sea monsters notwithstanding, grief can lead to some interesting places. People will talk about needy dogs finding them when they thought they weren’t ready to adopt, and things like that. My colleague Tom had a stray dog run in front of his car on the highway exit ramp not long after his beloved dog Cassie had died at seven years old – even younger than Alec. He and his wife adopted that lucky dog, who seemed to know exactly which car to hurl himself in front of to ensure the best possible outcome. That didn’t happen to me, but a synchronistic series of events led me to learning about a little German shepherd named Teagan, who had survived horrific abuse at the hands of what many would deem a real monster (as opposed to the mythical sea ones), the type of depraved people ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program staff (god bless them) have to hear about every single day.

Teagan immediately after her rescue
Teagan was shot at close range and left for dead in Mississippi. When she was found she was gravely injured, starving, and riddled with parasites. Her front leg was trapped in her collar up to the armpit. With every painful step, the collar cut deeper into her flesh; when she was found, the gash went almost to the bone. Someone most likely deliberately looped her leg through her collar, and then held her down to shoot her. They were probably trying to hit her heart, but they missed. The bullet traveled up her throat and through her jaw, smashing several teeth along the way, before it exited out her eye, which was destroyed and had to be removed. In addition to the gunshot related trauma, she showed obvious signs of neglect. Her legs were crooked and bent, most likely from being kept in a crate that was too small, and her skin was flaking off. Upon rescue, she was severely emaciated and weighed only 15 lbs. Now at a healthy weight of 39 lbs. she is still tiny for a German shepherd. Vets theorized that her growth may have been stunted from early malnutrition and neglect.

Unfortunately, whoever did this to Teagan, a sweet gentle dog who despite everything still loves and trusts people, will never be found. But Teagan was lucky to be found by an animal lover. Although this person could not care for her, and local shelters were reluctant to take her because of the extent of her injuries, little Teagan got lucky for the second time when Janice Wolf of Rocky Ridge Refuge in Arkansas agreed to take her and start the emotional and expensive journey of saving the dog whose life someone tried to extinguish with a bullet.

It was a long road to recovery, and Teagan was at Rocky Ridge Refuge for a year and a half. But now she is healthy and ready for adoption. Oh, did I mention I am adopting her? Yup, me…the same person who swore she would never want another dog after losing Alec. But as it sometimes happens, when I heard Teagan’s story and saw her picture, I just knew: yes, I would adopt this dog. There was no hesitation. I would give her the best home she could ever want. Significantly for me, I know Alec would have loved her.

Teagan playing in the snow

I was supposed to adopt Teagan last October, but a few days before she was to make the trip from Arkansas to Oregon, she became deathly ill with a resistant infection that stumped the veterinarians. She received different medications and began to recover but no one is sure what was wrong with her. It could be that something was carried in with the bullet, fragments of which still remain inside her body because they could not all be removed. I waited eight months for her to be deemed healthy enough to be adopted and that has day finally arrived…almost! As I type this, Teagan is riding in a special transport van through California on her way to me in Portland, Ore. She was picked up in Arkansas on Saturday and has been traveling across the country for the last five days. She is supposed to arrive tomorrow morning and I could not be more excited to finally meet her!

Because of everything Teagan has been through, and all that I have recently lost, I know people are worried about me. My dad cryptically says only: “good luck.” A colleague said she hopes I don’t get my heart broken. What I didn’t tell her was that my heart is already broken. It broke forever when Alec died. But maybe being broken is not a bad thing. Maybe being broken creates cracks that need to be filled, spaces for more love to seep in. Love that would never have found its way to you had you remained whole, had you not suffered. Another thing I knew (as in, hello…obvious!) but had not experienced firsthand was that we never know how much time we have with our loved ones. Not only that, but we cannot know how long we will be here ourselves. One of my grief books said something that I found interesting. It said that while we may pine for the past and grieve for a future without our loved one in it, the truth is we don’t even know if we will be around for these imagined future events. So true! Today is all we have. And if all I have is one day with Teagan, I am going to try my hardest to make it the very best day of her life. I want every day to be wonderful for her. That’s what Alec did for me. I would like to share that. His presence filled my days with joy and happiness. Loving him made ordinary moments transcendent. Alec showed me the fathomless depth of love I was capable of, a love that strikes me dumb in its enormity, even now as I contemplate it. What a shame if I closed down and never shared my love again. As with compassion, we don’t have finite amounts of love, and Alec left me with so much of it. I love Alec still, so much. Even after his death, my love for him has changed and grown in ways I never could have predicted. He is still very much a part of my world; he is woven into the tapestry of my thoughts and feelings, of my deepest hopes and wishes. He will be there with me and Teagan. I don’t know how I know this. I just know there will be three of us.

It is frustrating to know there are so many animals out there who need homes; all are deserving, whether they have been abused or not. But although I cannot save them all, I can definitely make a big difference in one animal’s life, even as Alec still profoundly influences mine. My relationship with him keeps changing, keeps evolving, and a new chapter is about to begin. Teagan and I start our new lives together tomorrow. And it is going to be a very good day.

Posted in ALDF Blog


  1. Posted by susan on July 20th, 2011

    Beautifully written, Nicole. Thanks so much for sharing, and may you and Tegan have many happy years together.

  2. Posted by Elaine P on July 20th, 2011

    Brought a tear to my eye here at work… Please write again and keep us posted about your new adventures with Teagan.

  3. Posted by J. Biondo on July 20th, 2011

    I read your story and it brought tears to my eyes. I am an avid animal lover and I too lost the love of my life, CJ, last summer to feline leukemia. CJ was 3 when he passed away. His death effected me in ways I could never imagine. People would say to me, “It was a cat, stop it”. To me, CJ was not just a cat, he was my child, my best friend and my life. When CJ was diagnosed with Feline Leukemia when he was 6 weeks old, the Vet told me I should euthanize him immediately. I said NO WAY! Right now he is a healthy little kitten and I have hope that he will fight this horrific disease. The Vet then told me that CJ would have a life span of a maximum of two years and on some occasions, maybe longer, which was rare. I chose to walk out of the Vet that day making the best decision of my life because God gave me a blessing that day. CJ lived for 3 years, and 1 and 1/2 months with me and my fiance until he passed on July 11, 2010. I never cried so hard in my life and still cry until this day. He was very special. He was an angel and I truly believe that. I took care of him to the best of my ability. I wouldn’t let anyone touch him in fear of germs with a compromised immune system. The day he passed I felt my heart sink. I never cried like that before in my life and today my heart still remains broken. I think of him always. All day, every day. Sleeping without him is sometimes still very hard. We slept together EVERY NIGHT…with him on my pillow with his neck buried in mine. We had a special bond. A few weeks after he passed, my fiance and I adopted a kitten, I can say, adopting helped with my grief because I knew 1) CJ would have adored her, 2) the kitten helped me to cope with my grief and 3) I was giving a kitten a home who needed one. I took solace in that. Adopting does help with the grieving period but NEVER replaces your lost friend. Thank you for sharing your story. I am glad that you were also blessed with a forever friend.

  4. Posted by SP on July 20th, 2011

    I know exactly how you felt when you lost your beloved Alec. I’ve experienced this several times throughout my life with much loved dogs who have come and gone as time marches on, but none more so than my little mini doxie, Bourbon. All of my pets (dogs and kitties alike) were and are loved and cherished deeply but Bourbon held a special place. He was my constant, my “Bourb” and I loved him more than I thought possible. When I lost him suddenly in 2006 I felt all the same things you did. Reading your story was like reading about myself. Bourb’s death came just a few months after a painful divorce so losing my “constant”, my beloved, wonderful little dog and friend was beyond devastating. I was quite lost, like you, and didn’t know what to do with myself. Unlike you though, I’ve always been a multi-pet household, so I had other furbabies to comfort me as best they could. It still didn’t mend my shattered heart that still aches for my little Bourb from time to time. I suspect it always will. What you did for your beloved Alec was amazing. He was truly blessed to have you as well as you were him. Good Luck with your new friend, Teagan. She looks like a beautiful spirit!

  5. Posted by Janice Wolf on July 20th, 2011


  6. Posted by Dawn D on July 20th, 2011

    I love this so much! It definitely made me cry as I can totally relate to the author’s grief, sorrow, love, loyalty, and compassion. I lost two of my most beloved companions almost 2 years ago this September and the grief I felt was insurmountable, surreal and life changing. I am still heartbroken. Since then, I have adopted two more dogs that were in life or death situations and needed to be rescued immediately. With so many out there in these same circumstances, somehow these were the two that crossed my path and came into my life, and they most certainly rescued me as well. I still mourn for my babies (16 yr. old German Shepherd, Sheba & 14 yr old Pittie mix, Fats), as they were truly my soul mates – and like the author states – they are still with me and have taught me so much more about love, faithfulness and loyalty. Her statement “…being broken creates cracks that need to be filled, spaces for more love to seep in. Love that would never have found its way to you had you remained whole, had you not suffered.” Is so true, as I love my dear Sasha and Delilah, and I am so glad that I was able to provide a loving home for two beautiful souls that deserve so much!

  7. Posted by Dee VH on July 20th, 2011

    I felt the same way when my first cat died, I thought my world ended. I vowed to never have another cat ever. My Mother told me that it was selfish of me, when there were so many other cats out there who needed a loving home. Needless to say that now between my Mother & myself we have 23 cats!

  8. Posted by Dogsense Boutique on July 20th, 2011

    Beautifuly said, i know the depts of your love and pain and wish you and your new friend all the very best.

  9. Posted by Carole Walters on July 20th, 2011

    As I sit here crying my eyes out, I must say that I can relate to what you are going thru. Being a woman who was never able to have children, I replaced the void in my life with dogs. They filled the empty house with joy and made my life complete. After the loss of each one, I would grieve deeply, fill the house with their pictures, so as to keep them close to me, and get another precious life to love & cherish. It is devastating to lose each one, as they are my “children”, but they will always be with me in my heart. The love that they have given me is beyond anything that money could ever buy, and the memories that I have are priceless gems in the crown of my life. If I were a wealthy woman, I would adopt as many dogs as I could, but unfortunately, I can only afford two at the moment. Two of the most precious beings on this earth, as far as I’m concerned. We share every aspect of life, and I cherish every day that we have together, for I know that their time here on earth is much too short. Give thanks for the time that you have with them, and know that you gave Alex the best life possible and as much love as you had to give. It doesn’t take away the pain of losing them, but eventually that excruciating pain becomes just a dull ache, and eventually you will be able to think of him with a smile instead of a tear.

  10. Posted by Jane on July 20th, 2011

    Thank you for sharing b/c all those emotions I have felt on some level. My dog Jake was just diagnosed w/ hemangiosarcoma and every second of my day is thinking about Jake. I haven’t stopped crying since Friday nor do I sleep. I am always looking at Jake seeing if he’s ok…is he eating, drinking, breathing. His life since I got him as a pup has been flashing through my brain. This situation I call an “elephant” nobody wants to talk about it. It is extremely hard and I am just taking one day at a time 😦

  11. Posted by Maira on July 20th, 2011

    Teagan is lucky! And you are a great women! Wish all the best for u 2!!

  12. Posted by Terri Abplanalp on July 20th, 2011

    I made the mistake of reading this at work and I KNEW I shouldn’t ;(…I have lost dogs to illness and to cancer, and I have to say that I can relate on every level…to say it is heartbreaking is to inadequately describe the sense of loss and pain…but you are so right about the capacity to love being so great, and there being so many dogs out there deserving of it. Your blog is beautifully written and really captures so much of what is in my heart. I thank both you and Janice for your unwavering belief in beautiful Teagan. Janice is a goddess in my mind and I know that Teagan now has someone equally as great to spoil her and love her FOREVER….not just in “this” life, but forever.

  13. Posted by Juana Molina Sage on July 20th, 2011

    I truly can say I know exactly what you have gone through and how you felt and feel now. It was almost as tho you were telling my story. I lost my Saint Bernard this past March to cancer just 3 months after her getting the bloat which with the surgery had made it through. We also thought we had more time and thanked God for letting her stay with us, then just 3 months later the bone cancer took her away so fast I didn’t even have time to come to terms with her even having the cancer and she was gone. I do know the love and bond that is at the heart and it doesn’t stop just because life does. They do truly take our hearts to levels we never knew were there. i too adopted another Saint Bernard, i told Lily if there was another baby out there who needed us just like she did to send that baby to me, and low and behold another Saint needed rescuing. You have been truly blessed with your 4 legged babies and so have I . ❤

  14. Posted by nancy on July 20th, 2011

    I’ve been down that road too. My first dog I had for 18 years before I had to put her down. She was my furry soulmate! Keep us posted with all your new found adventures with Teegan.

  15. Posted by Mary on July 21st, 2011

    What a beautiful story, it brought tears to my eyes ! Yes, there are monsters who will do evil things to animals (I hope karma AND the law gets them) but there are also people like you, Nicole, this is why many of these precious creatures still trust humans after all they have been through. I hope you will write more & let us know what happens with Teagan.

  16. Posted by Sarah Luick on July 21st, 2011

    Who among us who have had a special dog in their life (mine was “Saint” Rex), are not touched by your remembrances of your connections with Alec, and the pure love and devotion you gave to the relationship. I hope you have met Teagan by now. What a lucky doggie life awaits her. The rescue group must feel blessed you came to help Teagan. And, as you know, Alec will be in your heart as you enter your relationship with Teagan. Your blog says so much about what is good about human animals – guiding principles that you and your colleagues at ALDF all possess in abundance.

  17. Posted by Reagan on July 21st, 2011

    YAY. Can’t wait to follow this new chapter of your life!!

  18. Posted by Karol on July 21st, 2011

    Nicole, you are a hero. I can only imagine how your heart broke at losing your beloved German Shepard. Sometimes the only way to fill the hole in your heart is by getting another dog. Bless you, you wonderful girl.

  19. Posted by Stephanie Atwood on July 21st, 2011

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I am so happy for the place that you are now – still with Alec, an sharing your heart again with someone who can really use some love. I cried through this whole post, and my own little family of 3 rescue terriers snuggled up and kissed my tears away. This is a story I will forever remember.

  20. Posted by Jeanette Holmgren on July 22nd, 2011

    That was so heartbreaking and yet so wonderful. I know what it is like to loose a loved one and having to learn to live with the pain, loss, sorrow and deep wounds in ones heart. And yet we can’t stop being alive, because there are so many innocent souls out there who need our help. Even though a few animals get loving homes and a better life, I still can’t stop feeling sad because they even had to go through it at all. All people who help and adopt dogs in need are such wonderful humans. May the two of you have a long and happy life together.

  21. Posted by Patricia on July 22nd, 2011

    It is so wonderful to know there are people in the world like you Nicole. My beautiful sweet “Buddy” was murdered in May and the unbelievable hurt and anger is with me still every day. After being shot, he drug his poor body home before he finally lost his battle,after surgery to try to prepare the damage. I have had many animals that I’ve recused and have lost to old age, but this horrific act is with me every day and I know the anger for the person who took Buddy’s life will never go away. I lost my 16 yr old shihtzu Rhett 2 weeks later. Rhett’s sister Scarlett was diagnosed with Vestibular disease a month later..a middle ear infection that has devastating side effects…I have a pet cemetery in my back yard and believe that they all will be there to greet me on the “other side”. I love what you said about the cracks in the broken heart being there so more love can enter..I will never stop welcoming those precious angels into my life no matter how many times my heart has to break…and now I feel better knowing that there is even more room now for more love for another…Thank you Nicole

  22. Posted by Joanne on July 22nd, 2011

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. I, too, am facing a devastating tragedy….at the hands of a Vet. She overdosed my dog with anesthesia and spent the next two weeks being syringe fed and couldn’t swallow. I had to let him go with whatever dignity he had left. Your story, your grief, everything you said struck a chord with me. Losing a special needs pet is one of the hardest things to go thru. I applaud you for having the courage and love to continue on and help another animal. I hope someday I can do the same…right now the pain is unbearable.

  23. Posted by Victoria on July 22nd, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can identify with it for I lost my beloved doxie. Very unexpected, I asked God to take me with him. Depressed , house bound etc. I don’t think that I will ever recover completely. Since then I have rescued two more doxie, and love them dearly, but…..I am still waiting to be with my Scooter.

  24. Posted by vickie on July 24th, 2011

    I know how you feel …grieving takes awhile to go through all the steps…you worked your way out…I had to keep going because I had many more animals to care for…I hope your new dog spends the best days of his life with you..Take comfort in that….

  25. Posted by S.K. on July 25th, 2011

    Absolutely beautiful story…thank you so very much for sharing it!! In addition to the love you possess, I am in awe of your lyrical writing ability. Spellbinding use of words. Your story truly brought tears to my eyes.

  26. Posted by Tom on July 27th, 2011

    Beautiful blog Nicole. Absolutely beautiful.

  27. Posted by Carla (Sage) Benoist on August 10th, 2011

    Very beautiful blog entry Nicole. My heart is .. nourished by the beautiful way that you loved and love Alec and by the breadth of understanding you gained through loving him and since you lost his physical presence. Really rings so true to me — thank you for sharing! I’ve been adopting and sharing my life with Greyhounds for many years, having adopted my first Greyhound, Harley Stardancer in part as a companion to my little German Shepherd, Joanna Darkwind. He saved her life and remade my life and consciousness and together they will always be my heart and soul, for eternity. I have found that a new adoption never, ever replaces the ones who have gone before — rather it’s a tribute to those who are with you in spirit. I think that sharing your life with Teagan is a perfect, wonderful tribute to Alec and exactly the right step as you continue to love and grow. I will look forward to hearing about your journey. Walk in Beauty, both of you. Blessings!

  28. Posted by Linda MacDonald Glenn on August 23rd, 2011

    I have felt that same grief that you have, Nicole — like walking around with huge hole in your heart, and feeling like you will never ever recover from this. I couldn’t imagine life without Oscar. Like you, eventually I found the emotional room to adopt a few rescues. Although there is and always will be a special place in my heart for my first four-legged furry ‘child’, the ones that have followed have given me great joy — and contributed significantly to meaning & purpose in my life. Thank you for sharing this…and bless your generous soul.

  29. Posted by Linda MacDonald Glenn on August 23rd, 2011

    I have felt that same grief that you have, Nicole — like walking around with huge hole in your heart, and feeling like you will never ever recover from this. I couldn’t imagine life without Oscar. Like you, eventually I found the emotional room to adopt a few rescues. Although there is and always will be a special place in my heart for my first four-legged furry ‘child’, the ones that have followed have given me great joy — and contributed significantly to meaning & purpose in my life. Thank you for sharing this…and bless your generous soul.

  30. Posted by Steven on August 23rd, 2011

    Hi Nicole, You are awesome. Live long and prosper!! Steven

  31. Posted by Lisa Levesque on August 23rd, 2011

    In June of 2009, I lost the love of my life ~ Emma. Emma was a beautiful mantle marked Great Dane, and she was my life. I still recall the day I brought her to meet my parents, and my Mom answered the door. I was holding my 9 week old bundle of 21 pounds on my hip toddler style, and my Mom exclaimed, “You could not be glowing any more, if you have given birth to that puppy yourself!” I absolutely adored her, every thing was about her, for her, and no decision was made without thought to Emma’s wishes. I had Emma’s love for 9 years, and the final year we battled her Lymphoma. Her oncologist told me that we amy win many battles, but the gfinal one would be lost…one year was what we likely had. Emma did very well on chemo…never a sick day…, and she seemed almost to revert back to a young puppy. Every day was about quality of life, so I monitored her very carefully. When she came out of remission after about 8 1/2 months on chemo, the oncologist told me that we had 3 months at best. I had a hard time getting my head around the reality that my most precious gift was going away far too soon. We had only 10 short weeks and I had to let her go. I sat on the floor with her lying in my lap, and I felt her heart beat its last. Truth be told, if I could ahve willed myself to die at that moment I would have gladly, as I could not imagine life without her. I still miss her every day, and at times I feel as if her spirit is paying me a visit (I know some might frown on that, but I believe it is so). Emma will always be in my heart.

  32. Posted by diane lindsay on August 23rd, 2011

    Thank you so much!

  33. Posted by Pat Bryan, Southern Pines on August 23rd, 2011

    I am so glad you have found another animal that needs you. You obviously have a great deal of love to give. I have lost so many, but I honor them by getting another abused or abandoned animal from a shelter and giving it a good home. It is not called “replacing,” as one cannot replace a beloved pet. That’s why I call it “honoring,” because I think that’s what the pet I lost would want me to do.

  34. Posted by Janet in Cambridge on August 23rd, 2011

    It is quite a common response to vow never to have another animal again. Fortunately for us animal lovers, it’s also virtually impossible to live without a companion. I’m so glad you were able to see that Teagan needed you. That allowed you to help her and help yourself. The heart has so much room for love that we can share that love many creatures in our lives. Loving a new creature does not diminish the love you had for any other creature in your life. It only adds. For me, the joy comes from being able to think back on how wonderful my companions were, how they made me laugh, how they got me through all the tough times, how good their lives were, how much I was able to love them, and I smile. I would never have not wanted them in my life to avoid the pain of losing them. “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

  35. Posted by jenny on August 23rd, 2011

    you have just described the way i was feeling when i lost one of my greyhounds back in may. i was heart broken i sobbed and sobbed i still miss her i always will. its so upsetting

  36. Posted by Maria on August 23rd, 2011

    Thank you Nicole for writing this… you can see you’ve touched many people with your story. I am about to enter into the most devastating time I can imagine. Soon, I’ll have to let the love of my life, Ellie, go and I cannot imagine what my life will be, without her here with me. Your words give me hope as I’m about to enter a time of no hope. I will try to remember your thoughts and experiences during this devastating time soon to come. Thank you again for sharing this with all of us. I’ll be thinking of you and Teagan;-)

  37. Posted by Melinda Shaw on August 23rd, 2011

    Please keep us posted about Teagan. I certainly empathize with Nicole about the loss of her sweet boy. I really wanted to die when my Lab died precipitously from hemolytic anemia: we couldn’t figure out why she got it and we couldn’t control it. The grief never really leaves. Bless you for giving your heart to your new girl.

  38. Posted by lyn on August 23rd, 2011

    Thank you for your sharing your story, I couldn’t stop crying. I too lost a very special dog Jack a couple of years ago and to this day I still choke up. I have other animals, all very special and loved, however Jack was just my little pal/ Than after about 6 mos. I went onto a website to virtually foster dogs. And there they were with a BIG captioned heading ABOUT TO DIE. A breeder in Missouri had just dropped off to the local shelter a litter of puppies and the mama because the market had dropped off. And the shelter was about to euthanize them. Well to make a long story short. I called the shelter and started the adoption proceedings and not a moment too soon. The little mama was to be euthanized the next day. It took me about 3 months to finally get her because she was halfway across the country. She has been a great addition to my family and is really coming out of shy shell ( she lived in a cage all of her life.)I know that my Jack would have liked her and is happy we are helping another dog out of a sad situation as we did with him.And she has helped me, she makes me laugh again. I won’t say good luck. Because it sounds negative. I will say I hope you have a great life with your new companion Teagen and you are an inspiration to us all.

  39. Posted by Kerin McCurdy on August 23rd, 2011

    I am so sorry for your loss!!! I have a Shepard, Lab mix named Elmer and he is my soul mate, angel, and best friend too. Your article was written so beautifully, I cried the whole way through. Please remember that your Alec will always be with you in your heart and in the many wonderful memories you made together, never forget that!!! God Bless you both.

  40. Posted by KIM HARKIN on August 23rd, 2011

    WOW…..God has graced you with another german shepard to love and you have opened your heart to receive her…..I dont know whether to cry happy tears or do the happy dance. God bless you journey together. I started fostering this year….3 dogs and 2 kittens so far. The MOST important work I have ever done….(Although I was the Tax Director, CPA for a billion dollar SEC company…..never a fulfilling as my new job!) Best of luck to you. You are an amazing woman!

  41. Posted by Sandra Guillot on August 23rd, 2011

    That was a beautiful story and well written. I had lost a cat that I had since a kitten, so I know how you felt. God bless you both. Sandy

  42. Posted by Lori on August 24th, 2011

    I followed Teagan’s story at Rocky Ridge! So happy to learn who the person is that’s adopting her 🙂

  43. Posted by M. Gail Laub on August 24th, 2011

    Your story is the first I’ve ever read that echoed so completely my heartache, grief, and utter sense of loss when my beloved cat died after struggling with a brain tumor for 8 months. My life was so wrapped up with taking care of her that after she died I was lost as to what to do with the evening when I came home from work. Weekends were horrible. I was heart broken and hollow, and had no one who understood my grief. “How can you be so upset about a cat?” Enduring your anguish in silence to avoid ridicule is a crushing extra burden. How can you explain? For all of our 13 years together, Faux Pas’s nightly ritual was to step her front feet up onto my left thigh and then turn around and lie down with her body practically fused to my leg. Looking into her eyes, you saw intelligence almost human. She helped me raise my son, showing him that animals understand an apology for an inadvertent tread on a tail or foot, how to think of the welfare and happiness of others besides yourself, and the wonderful rewards of accepting an animal into your life because of its needs, not your own convenience. She was brought to me as a tiny kitten covered in tar and fleas, with raw footpads from walking on hot pavement. “Thanks a lot!” I told my “friends.” I had just taken in a cat two weeks before, an absolutely beautiful one that had been abandoned by her divorcing owners when they left. This kitten could not have compared more unfavorably. I had never seen a homelier or more aggravating animal. I named her Faux Pas because she was certainly someone’s big mistake. It took weeks to trim the tar off of her as her fur grew out and she was destructive enough for ten kittens. She shredded my living room sheers and ate my plants (no poisonous ones in the house) and was just generally a pain in the neck. I tried to find another home for her several times but the prospective takers would take one look at her and say she was not exactly what they had in mind. Thank goodness! By the time I’d had her a year, I was shocked to realize I wouldn’t have given her up for a million dollars. It’s been twenty years since she died but her name is part of my email address. She’ll never be just a memory. I’ve always had pets since then, some who were endearing in their own way and others that I loved just because I love animals. I’ve never gone out and chosen a pet…..they find me. There must be a sign in my yard, visible only to cats, that says, “If you’re lost, sick, or injured, and especially if you need some really expensive vet care, come to this lady’s house.” I can’t say no when I’m sure I’m probably their only hope of rescue. I still had a fractured heart though. Then three years ago I found another tiny kitten, so young she thinks I’m her mother. I adore this precious cat that talks to me all the time and thinks she belongs wherever I am. She moved into my heart lock, stock, and barrel without usurping anyone else’s place. The wonderful thing about love is that it can expand to encircle the new without replacing the old.

  44. Posted by Judy on August 24th, 2011

    I just read your story yesterday on the ALDF e-letter. It really is a heartwarming story, although it did bring tears to my eyes. I remember reading about Teagan a few months back when her story first came to light. I couldn’t believe what I was reading—-the savage cruelty to an innocent animal. I don’t think Teagan could have found a better forever home. My current and last two rescues were wrecks of animals. Belle, my current furkid, and the last two are perpetually at the vet. One time, when I was waiting to see the vet, the one tech said to me “God knows who to send the sick and broken ones to.” Looking back at all the furkids we’ve been guardians to, and reading your story, the only thing I can say is there is a lot of truth in that statement.

  45. Posted by Dominick on August 24th, 2011

    Hi Nicole…Thanks for sharing your story..all I want to say is it takes a special person to do all you did for Alec..Teagan is a lucky dog to have you..would love to be able to read how Teagan does!

  46. Posted by Lee Ann on August 25th, 2011

    So beautifully written. I too believe, that all of the “souls” that have left before us are always with us. Their lessons are forever ingrained in our lives. Let Alec guide you and I have no doubt you and Teagan will continue his courageous & loving legacy. Bless you all ! Keep us posted on your new “love”. It goes without saying – treasure it, for their lives are so short. You are so fortunate to have found each other !

  47. Posted by Jane Kyser on August 25th, 2011

    Thank you for articulating the feelings we share so beautifully. I truly believe that the spirit in Alec’s form will always be with you. Cherish the memories you create everyday…..

  48. Posted by Sharyn Shubert on August 25th, 2011

    I have been exactly where you have been and are. You are blessed to have such wonderful dog friends in your life. Enjoy every moment, for they are all precious. Bless you for saving another dog in need. Alex would surely approve.

  49. Posted by Stefani Olsen on August 25th, 2011

    Thank you for your very beautiful article. Many people don’t understand that an animal can truly be the love of our lives, but I do know, because my Toonces was the love of mine. After a negligent vet left him with his son who overdosed my cat with insulin, he was left brain damaged. I tried hard to nurse him back, hoping his brain would regrow neurons. But he only got so far. It was the most heartbreaking experience of my life, and it made me realize how many veterinarians really are callous and also opened my eyes to animal cruelty in so many ways. I did a website to tell his story ( I too have tried to figure out how to continue our relationship. He is a daily inspiration to me, and my love for him has taught me what is really important.

  50. Posted by Janice on August 26th, 2011

    What a beautiful tribute to Alec and that the love you had for him was so massive you were able to channel that overflow for Teagan and show her love as it should be shown to all precious furbabies..i see her smiling in that picture with her one eye..I am so glad you and Alec’s spirit found her…All of my furbabies that have passed on remain in my heart and will be there til i take my last breath..

  51. Posted by SusanD on August 27th, 2011

    Wow. This is the very first article I have ever read that truly reflects the depth of grief that I felt when the love of my life, my feline soulmate, my beloved cat, Champy, passed away at age 16 over fourteen years ago. I heard the usual cliches, “he’s at the Bridge,” “it was his time,” “you’ll get over it” — I never did, never will. Fourteen years. Yesterday. An eternity. In the blink of an eye, he went from a tiny, abandoned, sickly bundle of bones and fur to a beautiful specimen of feline physical perfection to an elderly gentleman with multiple health issues. I thought he would be okay, he had to be, it was unthinkable that he could leave without me one day. That horrible day came on April 14, 1997, when he passed away at the local Veterinary Emergency Clinic. Four days later, his lifelong kitty companion, Brandy, also passed away. Although her kidneys were failing, we believe she sensed that something terrible had happened to her dear friend and didn’t want to live without him, either, so abruptly followed him. Without the support of my special husband, family and friends, I don’t believe I could have survived this long. Although we have three cats now, two wonderful shelter rescues and a beautiful black cat rescued from the now-closed St. Louis pound and who is my pride and joy, my beloved Champy was, is and always will be, the one and only love of my life. Bless Alec. His story will continue to inspire and help others cope with devastating loss.

  52. Posted by Rhonda Hodgman on August 30th, 2011

    So heartwretching beautiful … tears well as I look at all the urns of my beloved furrbabies sitting by their pictures and collars on the wall unit … I still cry and it has been almost 12 years since the first. It seems I can’t stop tho, tonight I am picking up another throwaway that I re-homed almost a year ago, he just isn’t working out for the family and I need to work with him, don’t know if he’ll be re-homed or stay…one day at a time. I also feel your grief and anxiety regarding an animal with cancer, my beautiful girl, Mescal, was diagnosed with Hemangiosarcoma in 1/10, she is still with me and fighting, we fight together as I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 10/10. We will never stop loving even tho it hurts so bad sometimes.

  53. Posted by Hank on September 4th, 2011

    Enjoy your new friend. She is lucky to have you and you her. It is a sad world, but I keep the faith. May God forgive those who are cruel in this world. Bless!

  54. Posted by Ulla on September 5th, 2011

    Bless you – BEAUTIFUL! People like you shines like stars of hope in the dark night of horror. I wish you the best of luck with Teagan. She will give back to you tenfold for all that you give her – as Alec did. The animals are the true masters of showing us humans what´s really important in life. Your empathy and grand heart is a signpost for us all.

  55. Posted by linden method review on September 18th, 2011

    Sad to hear that your dog died and how painful life was after that. It’s not always easy to lose a pet that was everything for you for long.

  56. Posted by Stephanie on September 28th, 2011

    Nicole, your story brought me to tears but at the same time it inspired me…Alec was a beautiful dog and I know exactly what you are saying in your blog…our animals are our children and the unconditional love is what makes it that way…Your pain is felt with the loss of your pretty boy Alec but knowing that Teagan has a loving mommy such as yourself she is a lucky girl…My oldest dog Abby is 13 and may possibly be facing liver problems and/or gall bladder cancer…I have spent a lot of my money on keeping her as healthy as possible with liver meds and prescription food for her bladder stones…when I was told that she may have gall bladder cancer I asked “how will I know when she is dying” and my vet said that her eyes will turn yellow and she will not eat right and start losing weight…as you are, I am a big animal lover and my beloved Abby is still with us but the day she leaves me I will be tore up for a long time as you were with Alec…I am hoping this is a misdiagnosis but its no guarantee…you have inspired me and just know that your feelings for Alec are genuinely felt by me cause I feel the same for my Abby…she is a min. schnauzer and I have had her since she was 7 wks old..I just dont think I can bear to lose her…I am trying to prepare myself but I dont think it will totally prepare me for the day I will never see her again…I have decided to have her cremated when she does die so that I can have her with me forever…Bless your heart and enjoy your baby girl Teagan…I hope she brings you joy as I am sure she will…if you have any tips for me on healing from a beloved pets death please friend me on facebook at stephaniedeoperehouston or email me….Love and Hugs, Stephanie

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Filed under Grief and loss, Teagan

Cookies from heaven?

Something kind of weird happened the other day. I was hanging up a skirt in my closet when one of Ali’s cookies fell onto the floor. I was shocked as I always am by some unexpected reminder of my former life, a life where my pockets were always full of dog biscuits and little crumbs, but instead of crying my immediate reaction was puzzlement. I couldn’t figure out where it had dropped from. I probably looked pretty comical standing there with my mouth hanging open looking around the closet. The skirt had no pockets, and the other skirt sharing its hanger I had not worn in a long time and could not remember ever having worn to walk Ali, though it’s possible. But I also have moved twice since Alec died, both times leaving my clothes on hangers and tossing them haphazardly into the back of my van, so I would think even if I had a cookie in there it would have shaken loose by now. Plus I didn’t even really touch it, the other skirt with the pockets I mean, so even if there was something wedged in there I don’t see how it came loose just then. I didn’t think I had touched anything, other than lightly draping my little stretchy skirt over the hanger. And nothing else on the nearby hangers had pockets. It was just bizarre.

Wherever it dropped from, it made me smile, and I picked it up and put it on the table next to my magic words collage. But even weirder, when I went back into the closet later that afternoon a second cookie appeared on the floor. Very strange! I left this one where it was (it’s still on the floor in there) and took a photo of it.

Mystery cookie

Something else that made me smile this week (see, my posts aren’t always super duper depressing!) was this card I came across in the grocery store. So I plunked down five dollars and bought it for myself. I really like it. I also propped it up next to my Ali collage.

I love you Ali.


Filed under Grief and loss, LOVE, Love after death

The light.

Dear Alec,

In some ways, everything reminds me of you. I remember driving home one Saturday afternoon a couple months ago and the sunlight filtering through the trees was so gorgeous that it punched me in the gut with how much I missed you, and I started crying. I know, that sounds like a John Denver song. When you were here, sunshine didn’t make me cry. But things are different now. The point is sad things, happy things, unrelated things, relevant things…all remind me of you. Sometimes more starkly than others but it is always there. You are always there. And on that drive I guarantee you were already on my mind, but the golden sunlight triggered a flood of emotions. I don’t know why. I just kept thinking how beautiful it was, and that thought led me directly to you.

The sun: formerly non tear-inducing phenomenon.

Beautiful things, sad things. You are everywhere, in my air, my breath, tangled in my hair and in my dreams at night. Sometimes I picture you walking next to me. You don’t limp anymore. You’re like you were when your body worked perfectly. I don’t need to look at pictures. I can see you. I mean, I pretend.

The way I miss you reminds me of the way I heard grief conceptualized once that stuck with me. It was grief as music: sometimes a symphony and other times background music, but always playing. This metaphor is akin to acute and subtle grief (intense distress vs. the relative calm moments in between). So it is with these reminders. It’s like I’m always thinking of you in the back of my mind. Sometimes it just overpowers me more than at other times. I have also heard grief described as an ocean with waves of different sizes, ebbing and flowing, changing but always there. In and out. Beauty and sadness. Life and death. Love and loss. Me and you.

Everything I say is you in parentheses. I don’t know what that means. But I wrote it down a while ago and it felt true.

When daylight savings time happened in March, I became (more) depressed (than usual). It took me a minute to recognize that the longer days had triggered this more pronounced sense of melancholy. This is when we were supposed to start swimming again after work. The longer days signified all the things I had looked forward to doing with you, but never would again. Triggers come from the strangest places (daylight savings time? this is what throws me over the edge?), but they aren’t really that strange. Nothing is strange in grief. Because everything is strange, unfamiliar, wrong. I’m so tired of crying. I’m so tired of me without you.

It’s a funny coincidence, just last night I read in one of my books (Grieving Mindfully – highly recommended, especially for people with busy brains who feel everything too deeply, like me) that changes in the length of the days can re-trigger grief. So once again, I find I am not alone in my experiences, as bewildering as they may seem; others have been there before and others will be after. We just don’t always talk about it.

Truthfully, after a brief hopeful period around when I did my “magic words” collage and imagined connecting with you, I have been feeling so depressed. Then I thought about the calendar. This time last year was the happy calm before the storm. No wonder I am anxious and feeling sadder than usual. I know the calendar is an arbitrary timekeeper, but does something inside remind us of what we were doing 365 days ago? Do our cells remember when the light changes? I don’t know. But March of last year was the last time I was truly happy. Everything changed in early April. Then I had a brief, all too brief, period of happiness, of elation in fact, when I got the news that it wasn’t cancer. I would learn in May that was not true. A false diagnosis. The lab results had missed a cancer so aggressive it didn’t need any help taking hold, let alone that six-week head start during which we could have started treatment. A mistake. Oops. This month. One year ago. Everything fell apart. Just a calendar. But the light reminds us when we try to forget.

Alec, it’s funny that the almost overwhelming urge to write to you came over me today, out of the blue. I understand people doing that with dead people, but we never talked, not in words, when you were alive, because well, you’re a dog. So why do I want to write to you, as if you could read? I don’t know. Of course I always wished we could communicate better. I always wished I could perfectly understand you, and you, me. Is that why? Is it that my blog feels unfocused, rambling, too sad, with no audience? Maybe with you as my imaginary audience I can gain some of the focus I lamented losing in the magic words post, one of the many things I lost in the fire of your death. These are called secondary losses, and there were so many that came with losing you. Parts of myself burned away, gone like smoke. Whole pieces of my soul gone missing. Important ones.

That’s all for now. If I have any hope to keep writing, and I feel I must, that it’s important somehow, then I must stop over-editing and second guessing myself and just write, let it be raw and unfocused, at least for now. Perhaps out of chaos will come clarity. I have time to see if that’s true, I suppose. With you gone, sweetie, there is not much else that’s really been pressing.

Theme song for this post is “The Light, pt. 2” by Mason Jennings:

Across the gardens, across the schoolyards
Across the chapels where lovers have leapt
Across the table in our old kitchen
Across the cities where our future slept
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s the light that’s changing
It’s only the light


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death

Of Love and Loopholes.

Grief is big but it is also small. One of the saddest random things: no one to give my kale stems to anymore. Alec was never much of a beggar, but he loved raw kale stalks and every time I took a bunch out of the fridge he would instantly appear in the kitchen doorway with his hopeful and polite begging face. He was never disappointed. One of my favorite sounds: the adorable crunch crunch crunch of Ali contentedly munching on a kale stalk. Sublime. I eat a lot of kale, and his absence tugs at me whenever I start tearing the leaves off the stalks and turn, half forgetting, to find nobody silently standing in the doorway with big brown eyes fixed on me, quietly asking me to share.

After my previous post about the JAVMA article that made me cry at work (don’t get me wrong, I cry a lot, but that was completely uncalled for), I wanted to share a short piece that I liked: “True Love, Loss and the Loophole,” which appeared in Grief Digest Magazine. In this brief essay, grief counselor Ashley Davis Bush uses the Cinderella fairy tale as an analogy for love and loss. Cinderella got her chance to attend the ball but there was a catch, she writes, some fine print: the magic would end at midnight. And as expected, her evening was cut short; it ended in” dashed dreams and a mysterious disappearance.” She asks:

What does this fairy tale have to do with our grief? When we fall in love and make a life with a beloved partner, we enter a similar sort of arrangement. Life is the fairy godmother telling us that there’s a small hitch to this wonderful miracle, that  separation is inevitable. This ‘hitch’ is even built into our marriage vows, “ ‘til death do us part.”

That last sentence is not applicable to partners who are companion animals, um, obviously, but the rest applies — especially knowing that most species of companion animals have shorter life spans than us. Although we don’t take formal vows with our dogs (because they are strictly defined as “property” under the law; despite Gregory M. Morris and the AVMA getting all kerfuffled over the word “guardian,” we in fact have very few legal obligations to them), if we are responsible guardians we make this vow unbidden, and we promise to love them until death parts us (“take care of them” until death parts us may be more accurate because, as the subtitle of my blog implies, love does not end with death. But I digress.).

Death is the bell ringing at midnight, cutting everything short. The reality that one of us will die first is not something that most of us like to dwell on. In fact, we are often shocked when the bell strikes twelve. We might feel cheated, betrayed, ripped off—as if we hadn’t been forewarned. But, inevitably, midnight comes, leaving someone alone on the dance floor, someone struck with the pangs of grief.

Alone on the dance floor. I like this metaphor. And even if we do not consciously think about it, we know we will be separated eventually from the object of our affection, whether through our own death or theirs. With nonhuman animals, given the disparity in our average life spans, the odds are we will be the ones left alone on the dance floor. She then asks:

Here’s a question for you: having experienced the pain of loss, would you have refused the terms of this deal and said, “no thank you”?

Well, my jury is still out on that one, but in light of the inevitability of loss, and the fact that nothing in life is permanent, not even life itself, it is a question worth asking. Especially for people like me, who really aren’t sure if not only the pain of separation, but also the torturous on-ramp leading up to it (pain, sorrow, more pain), were worth it at all. As I sit here wondering if I might be permanently broken, as if some essential part of me has been destroyed or gone missing forever, it is not as easy for me as it seems to be for some people to say “hell yes, it was worth it!” I am only being honest. The alternative — that I had never known Alec, never loved him — is of course also unthinkable. The author, along with most people (in my experience I am almost the only one who hesitates when asked this), comes down squarely on the side of “worth it.” Of course, she is a counselor, what is she going to say? “Don’t ever love again! It is clearly not worth it. Hope you learned your lesson! ” Nah, that would not be a very helpful message I reckon. So, she looks on the bright side:

A choice to avoid pain would seem to be a lonely shadow of life’s fullest potential. So, like Cinderella, we willingly accepted the terms of a curfew because we couldn’t imagine missing the ball. Even a few ‘hours’ of joy were better than sitting home alone—definitely worth the risk of heartbreak.

Maybe so, and maybe not. But her conclusion is my favorite part:

Fortunately, for each of us, not only did we get one beautiful night (so to speak), we also get to live with the blessed loophole that love never dies. To our surprise, we see that even after midnight, the magic continues. Love transcends separation. In other words, death may change the form of our relationship, but it cannot erase the relationship. Our hearts will forever remain full of the good times, full of the open hearted abundance, full of the memories and full of the life-enhancing love.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know she is singing my song. Heck, she practically wrote my song, as her book was one of the first resources that helped me in the beginning, when I was scrambling and grasping for any message of hope, the way a drowning person frantically claws for the surface. And not just any message of hope, but one that felt intuitively right to me. Love transcends separation. Yup, there it was. That was my tune. Still is. I started singing it before he even died. I sang it to both of us during those final days, like a benediction.

So now, as we grieve, as we acknowledge the painful end of the dance, we can turn our attention to the eternal love woven into the fabric of our beings. This love transcends loss in a way that is almost…well…magical. Thank heaven for love and alleluia for the loophole!

A very upbeat ending, and although I am definitely not shouting “alleluia,” I do like this concept of the “loophole.” As with the concept of death changing rather than ending relationships, it gives me something to hold onto. And I am all about the magic because however you define it, my love for Alec felt like some kind of miracle. Something magical indeed. It is kind of hard to describe, but what is this type of love that makes you feel like you could soar from the tops of trees, that your heart could burst, that every hackneyed cliche is true…what is that if not magic? The fact that this indomitable love, which felt like the strongest, most powerful and primal force on earth, the kind of love that lifts cars off people, could not keep him from dying seemed wrong, unfair. It made the magic seem impotent. But maybe there really is a loophole. I think she means it metaphorically but I don’t. There has to be a reason why we feel something so strongly. If true love can’t move mountains, save lives, and most importantly, transcend time and physical dimensions, then what good is it? I am only sort of being facetious. Sometimes my fingers just type these things. But I am inclined to let them have their way because who knows, maybe these unruly fingers have access to an essential truth my left brain – a stern editor – erases when I tap tap tap back and delete some of my more outlandish thoughts. Like the ones about string theory, and how I love that despite my oafish attempts to understand theoretical physics, it is so far over my head that I can use it as frame on which to concoct fantasies of a parallel universe where things turned out differently. In this other universe, Alec and I got our happy ending. We are still together.

It’s like this: all I have left are wishes and fantasy, and I always did have a vivid imagination (unhappily yoked to a hard-nosed skepticism, but imagination is holding its own), and so I am keeping my eyes open for the real loophole. Except in my mind it looks like a little keyhole, and I press my eye up to it, and in my fantasy he is there, on the other side of the door. I just have to find the right key but there is no rush. It will come to me. And then the door will swing open, and we will be together again, at last.

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Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death


Did I act in his best interest? Not according to Gregory M. Dennis and the AVMA.

It’s funny how you can just be going about your day and then something comes along and punches you in the gut. Not that I have been feeling particularly happy lately. Though my mood is not as relentlessly wretched, I have not quite recovered my equilibrium after that post. I have been feeling sad and melancholy of late, just missing him so much. But today I was at work reading an article on pet guardianship vs. ownership from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that had landed in my inbox when I got to this paragraph:

Guardianship is a fiduciary relationship—the highest civil relationship owed by one person to another—in which a guardian must always act in the best interest of the ward. If this relationship were applied to animals and their owners, Dennis says any number of legal dilemmas could unfold. In veterinary medicine, for instance, euthanasia could become far more problematic because how can ending an animal’s life be in its best interest? (emphasis added)

And then I started crying. “…because how can ending an animal’s life be in its [sic] best interest?” How? Indeed. The guy who said that is an attorney and not a veterinarian. I can’t imagine a veterinarian saying this; in fact my trusted veterinarian gently but emphatically stated many times that NOT ending Alec’s life would not only not have been in his best interests, but also would have crossed the line into the opposite territory, because he had begun to suffer. And he was never going to get better. OR feel better. Ever again. In all likelihood he would die a painful and frightening death if I did not help him transition (a gentle, spiritual way to put what feels like the worst thing you could ever do: kill your best friend [and even as I type this I know it is wrong. I did not kill him – the cancer did. I helped him die, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions that was happening with or without me]). So I can’t imagine a vet saying the above. Even my dad (not exactly a radical type) would disagree. He often says it is ridiculous that humans don’t have the same right (except in Oregon and Washington) to choose death with dignity.

So I know this, right? And I know it is stupid. But why did tears fill my eyes? Why did I feel as though I had been punched in the gut? I emailed Mike and he told me what I needed to hear. He was there, after all. He saw Alec. He saw him more clearly than me because I didn’t want to let go. I had so much trouble. Again words could never capture my agony in taking that final action (how forced I felt…out of options, out of time), which I only could have found the strength to do if I believed with all my heart it was the most compassionate choice – that there really was no other choice if I truly loved Alec. And I did. I do. So I had to. But for some reason, reading this crushed me. I told Mike I feel like there is always just a thin layer between me and crumbling. He said “there is a thin layer for all of us, especially when you care about another being so much.” I guess that’s true.

It’s funny too because while the decision was the hardest most gut wrenching thing I have ever had to do, it wasn’t something I really questioned. Oh I did beforehand, of course. But I never would have made it if it was not the right choice. No, no, no. I have regretted many things since that day – most of all being put in that position in the first place. But I did not make that choice lightly. I guess it will always haunt me even though it was the right thing. What haunts me is having to say good-bye. Of course I wish I hadn’t. But he was dying, with or without my help. And because it was hard on me was not a reason to not end his life. It was an act of compassion, the last one I could do for him. As I have told so many people in a similar position: a painless death is the last gift you can give them (it was so obvious when I said this to my friends; it’s harder to heed your own advice), but it tore my heart out. And there is still a gaping hole there. The wind blows right through.

So you know what? Screw you, Mr. Dennis, for saying that and making me crumble all over again. I know you said it because you have an agenda, which involves trying to scare people away from the term “guardian” with alarmist hypothetical scenarios (even though it has virtually no legal significance). But you should think before you speak. You are wrong and it is not true. How can ending an animal’s life be in his or her interest? Ask a veterinarian. You should be ashamed of yourself, and the AVMA should be ashamed to have you working for them. I am aware that many people euthanize pets prematurely (or put them to death for trivial reasons involving convenience) and this is a tragedy, but many animals also suffer when their guardians, owners, caretakers — whatever terminology we use — well-meaning though they may be, selfishly make their animal companions hold on because they are unable to let go. I am sure you are aware of this fact, but disregarded it in favor of making a dramatic point. Well, I think you are a jerk for making me cry at work.

You see, that’s why writing can be therapeutic. I just shifted from crumbled to righteous indignation in about ten minutes. I am not a big fan of anger, but at least I stopped crying. Until the next punch in the gut. But that’s the thing about grieving: it’s not easy. And sometimes your emotions will be ambushed from the most unexpected places.

For every decision, big and small, I ever had to make on Alec’s behalf throughout his life only one question guided me, and it had nothing to do with finances, convenience, or expediency: What was in his best interests? I don’t mean to imply this was ever easy, especially when he struggled with terminal cancer, and later when his body began to succumb to the disease. In fact these were the most difficult decisions I have ever in my life made (even more difficult than those I had to make after he became paralyzed a mere two years earlier). It is much harder to make life-or-death decisions on behalf of someone else, someone who cannot talk and is entirely dependent upon your judgment. This is a lot of responsibility and it requires setting aside incredibly strong emotions so you can balance your own need to never let go of someone you love so dearly, and the need to see what is in his best interests (and then to act on this knowledge, a separate but equally difficult task).

Alec didn’t like cameras much but I (obviously) overruled him on that; however, I always put his needs first when it counted. There were too many things that were out of my control, but I did the best I could. I think I did okay. I think he was happy most of the time. All I ever wanted was to give Alec a good life. When that was no longer an option, the only thing left for me to give him was a good death. I’m so sorry, Alec. I wish with all my heart I never had to make that decision. I never wanted to let you go. But it would have been wrong to let you suffer.


Filed under Euthanasia, Grief and loss


“May I accept the rhythms of grieving. I have enough to worry about without scolding myself that I’m still so vulnerable.” This is the daily affirmation for March 12 from Healing after Loss. Sound advice. So I will not apologize or feel bad about my previous meltdown (or continued blue mood), but in the name of balance, today I would like to discuss something more positive: lifeboats.

After tearfully typing out my previous post I stumbled over to the couch and sank into wretchedness. I was a complete and utter wreck. I tried to read, but could not. I tried to do other menial tasks, but could not. I contemplated leaving my apartment, but could not. So I just sat on the couch and cried. I tried to fend off the tears at first, but once I gave in, they did not want to stop.  As I sat there lost in misery, quickly decimating a box of tissues, my phone rang. It was my friend Mike, asking if I wanted to take a walk with him and his dog and then drive downtown, maybe do some shopping, grab a drink. Oh thank goodness!! It was exactly what I needed and he absolutely rescued me from the the wretchedness of that wretched day. I could not have been more grateful, not only for a reason to leave my apartment, but also for the company. He saved me on a very bad day with the simple act of inviting me out. He listened to me cry as I explained what I was feeling and why, and then we moved onto other subjects. I immediately felt lighter for having talked about it and I  appreciated him asking, and listening. I know it is not easy to sit with someone’s tears and just listen to the stuttering and blubbering (in my case). I’m sure it’s frustrating to know you can’t make it all better, but it is tremendously helpful to someone who is grieving to GET IT OUT (another reason this blog has helped me, but writing is not the same as having a two-sided conversation), especially when enough time has gone by where you don’t feel comfortable reaching out, if you ever did in the first place. Sometimes you don’t know you need to talk until you do it. It was a case of excellent timing, that day. So thanks, Mike.

I will never forget when Mike said good-bye to Alec. He told him: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.” Though we have had our ups and downs certainly, he has kept his promise and been a lifeboat for me many times since Alec left. Such simple things like friendship and companionship can be so comforting (although nothing is simple when it comes to grief, and some relationships don’t survive the strain). It helps that Mike’s dog is his best friend, too. He “gets it” as much as anyone can, although he is as much a stranger to what I am going through as I was before it happened.

I can’t thank all my little lifeboats here, but Mike would be at the top of the list, along with Kristine, who babysat me for a whole month after Alec died, and Cara, who never stopped checking on me and letting me know in a thousand ways big and small that she was there, even though she lives far away. And of course Alec’s wonderful vet (now my friend), Dr. Kristin Sulis, who patiently and with compassion listened to me cry, beg, bargain, deny, rant, talk in circles, and ask a million questions over, and over, and over again in the heart wrenching days and weeks leading up to the awful day when I was forced to separate myself from Alec, forced to make his suffering stop.

When Alec and I were together, I felt grateful all the time; now it is harder for me to access this feeling. But I am grateful to the people — some good friends and some I have never met — who have reached out to me with love and empathy. So, to anyone who has listened to me cry or laugh or just talk about Alec since he died, thank you. To everyone who has left an encouraging word on my Facebook page or a kind comment on this blog, thank you. I realize how hard it is to know what to say in this situation; I get it. If you said something, anything, thanks. It has truly meant a lot to me.

I happen to have pictures of Ali with three of the people I just mentioned, so this helps me with my slow motion project of starting to go through photos. Today’s entry: Alec and a few of my lifeboats…thanks for keeping me from drowning.

Ali and Mike on a sun-soaked afternoon in June 2010, the month before Alec died. Mike will always have an extra special place in my heart because he was there when I said good-bye to Alec. He also took care of me (and many details I could not handle) that night and in the next few days before I got on a plane and fled to Kristine in N.J. I will never forget he was present when I did the hardest thing I have ever had to do: authorize the shot that would make Alec go to sleep forever. This I had to do because he was suffering. I can’t put words to how awful it was, but it would have been so much worse if Mike wasn’t there.

Thanks, Mike, for making (and keeping) that promise to Alec.

Me and Ali and Cara, June 2009. Even though we had not been friends very long, Cara called and emailed me countless times after Alec died and never gave up reaching out to let me know she was thinking about me, even when I could not respond. Thanks, Cara, for being a constant presence even though you were far away.

Isn’t he beautiful?

And last but not least, my sweet sister Kristine, to whom I ran in my darkest hour of need; she took care of me for a whole month after Alec died. After more than 30 years of friendship, we also share a special and uncommon bond. Thank you, Kristine, for sheltering me. This was taken in December 2009 at Kelly Point Park in North Portland.

Finally, to the greatest lifeboat of all. I miss you so much, Ali.

(and I am most grateful to you.)


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death


And today I can’t stop crying. What is this? Nothing makes sense to me anymore. All I keep thinking is, “I am pretending.” I am pretending to be okay. I can’t really grasp what has happened. Not just his death, all the circumstances surrounding it. Why? Why did it happen? I know that no one can answer this. There is no reason. But I miss him so, so, so much. And some days I can’t keep up the pretense that I’m fine without him. That I’m fine with time rocketing me away from the place where I last saw him. What is wrong with me? Will I never be okay again? I know loss can be transformative but not in a bad way, right? Everyone talks about the gifts. I feel nothing but robbed. It sounds self-centered, I know. Why am I not grateful for the time we spent together? Why do I just dwell on him dying too soon? On his being struck down when he had already been through so much. I was so happy. I feel I will never be happy again. There is the ugly truth. It is wretched. I am wretched. And I miss him so much I can’t stop crying even though it has been seven months.  I want him back so badly. Please come back. Please come back. Please. come. back.  How on earth do people deal with this? There is obviously something wrong with me, something missing, that I can’t get over this. Will a drug help me? Some magic pill? I tried to embrace the faith that I will see him again, but some days it is so hard and it seems impossible. I went to a party last night and drank too much. I am hungover today and already felt awful. I know this is making me raw, my emotions are bubbling too close to the surface because I don’t feel well. I guess the lesson is to take care of yourself when you’re grieving. Everything is always worse with hangover. I learned that in the beginning, but I guess some lessons keep coming back around. But this wretchedness is almost unbearable. It is a place without hope or purpose. It is like a trap I can’t get out of, because that trap is me. Me without Alec. Everyone says this is the cost of loving someone deeply, and that it is better to have loved. I just don’t know. The price is too high.

I have a little book called Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Though Grief. In the beginning I read each entry every day; now I flip it open occasionally, usually when I need some help or guidance. Today’s entry was, appropriately, about mood swings:

Whereas previously our moods seemed simply sad with occasional patches of light, now we may find an unsettling variety in our feelings, as happy times seem engrossing and satisfying, and then we are plunged into sadness again. Perhaps we can learn to accept these mood swings, recognizing the reality of each, knowing light gives way to darkness and darkness to light.

When we begin to feel better we enter a new range of feelings, maybe even some guilt – How could I feel good when the one I loved is gone? but even putting that false monster aside, the mood fluctuation can be unsettling. We’ll be having a genuinely wonderful time, freed at last from that continual background music of sadness. Then we remember and it feels like dropping through a trapdoor – a much more sudden and upsetting shift than when sadness was our prevailing mood… (March 6)

It does feel like dropping through a trap door, one with no floor, like you will never stop falling. And the thing is, I know that what I am feeling is normal. There will be ups and downs. Better days and harder days. Hope and despair. I know this intellectually. This is grief. Seven months isn’t that long. There probably isn’t anything wrong with me other than the usual. But this knowledge doesn’t help. It doesn’t lessen the pain. Because while there may be nothing wrong with me, my life feels wrong…which happens to be a title of a nice pop song by East River Pipe, so here you go: My life is wrong. Why not make a mix tape out of my grief?

you were a meteor
you were a dinosaur
you were the two by four
that cracked me in my head last night
let me wake up right
let me wake up right
because I know my life is wrong.

Post Script: I banged this out yesterday morning while sobbing and making my way through half a box of tissues, and yes, it was a wretched day and honestly, it scared the shit out of me. I have had inklings of this feeling, but now I realize it’s hiding just underneath at all times and when I get tired, sick, hungover, or even emotional about something else going on in my life, it comes roaring to the surface, snarling and gnashing its teeth, and makes everything so much worse. I don’t mean to imply I don’t miss him every day – of course I do – but this feeling of frantic desperation, almost of terror, is more rare.

I realized this new cheery certainty that I am going to see him again, that this is a temporary separation (it’s like he’s just out of town! [chirp! smile!]), is like the nervous too-wide smile plastered on the face of someone who is perilously close to panic. I am trying a little too hard to convince myself everything is okay, maybe. I didn’t realize it was work keeping that up. I am not doing it for anyone but myself and it is what I need to do, so I have embraced it, reason be damned (intuition be embraced!). But it’s only part of the story. I guess the takeaway lesson is to never let myself become hungover, tired, or emotionally upset ever again lest the demons of doubt, hopelessness, and wretchedness come screaming back to tear away my tenuous and uneasy peace. Sigh. Good luck with that, right?

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Filed under Grief and loss


A few weeks after Alec died I randomly came across a little poem that perfectly captured the essence of what I was feeling at the time. It’s so cool when poems do that (although the poet was thinking of who knows what when he wrote it; again something I love about poetry and [good] song lyrics for that matter: their ability to be interpreted differently.) It was even neater because I came across it completely by accident; while looking to see if my favorite songwriter Chris McCaughan (whose own gorgeously impressionistic lyrics are the closest thing I have to favorite poems) had any upcoming shows, I stumbled upon a blog he had recently started and there was this poem, just waiting for me to find it:


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

— W. S. Merwin

Wow. My breath caught in my throat as I read and re-read those few words. Yes, I thought, this is the way things are now. Our bond has changed, not dissolved. My relationship now is with his absence. (This blog has been taken down, incidentally, or I would link to it.)

Since those early days of our separation, the books that have been most helpful, the ones that enabled me to keep breathing, have been those that conceptualize the loss of a loved one as a change in the relationship rather than the end of the relationship. This I felt intuitively when Alec was dying. The cacophony of desperate thoughts that filled my mind during this time were all variations on this single theme: we will not be parted.

I did not know then that many bereavement counselors believe that an important component of “successful” grieving is exactly this: forging a new relationship with the deceased. I highly recommend Ashley Davis Bush’s book Transcending Loss if you are interested in this topic. It’s hard to explain the twists and turns of my process in working through this (not moving on, but moving on WITH…not closure, but transcendence) without launching into a dissertation, but suffice it to say it has been the most useful concept I have encountered so far on this lonesome road.

But when I found Merwin’s poem back in August, I was far from being able to articulate anything about being separated from Alec. At the time, I only knew that his absence loomed as large as his presence. Far from being a void, this absence was tangible; it had weight and color. It took up space, and painted over everything.

It is in this space that I struggle every day to create a new relationship with my baby shepherd: a relationship that transcends life, a love that continues after death. I stubbornly cling to a dream that lingers at the edge of my consciousness because I feel something too strongly in my heart to ignore. This is a temporary separation. Things are not, will never be, the same. But I will discover what is left. Not of me — of us.

Because what if there is something in the shadows beyond our empirical perception?

It is perhaps appropriate that the one photo I have been able to bring myself to display of Alec is a silhouette. A few weeks ago I did look at some older snapshots that I keep in a shoebox (I have not been able to go through the ones on my computer yet), and I cried and cried, but I did it. I selected this one and put it on my fridge. I can look at it. Maybe because of the presence of the shadow. Maybe one day I will put up more photos. Maybe I won’t. But it doesn’t really matter because I am not interested in creating a memorial to him, as if he were gone, as if he could be.

No, Alec, you’re not gone. Just because I can’t see you doesn’t mean you aren’t here. I will keep looking for you in the margins, listening for you in the cracks, feeling for you in the shadows. I will never leave you.


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death

Magic words.

Last weekend I participated in a New Year’s collage brunch. Every year my friend Kristin (aka “our wonderful vet” from Alec’s Story, Pt. 1) gets together with a group of friends to think about and discuss their goals for the New Year and collage (and also, mimosas!). Though I am a collage neophyte, I was glad she invited me to join them this year.

This time the project was to select 3 adjectives to describe what you want from 2011. Then we would make a collage based on these words. This idea was based on an article she saw in Oprah magazine, which you can read here.

You should read the article, it’s interesting, but the idea was to pick a BIG GOAL for the year (have a baby, start a business, win an Oscar), and rather than focus on the noun-verb expression of the goal (“I want to achieve XYZ”) to imagine how you think you will feel once you have achieved this goal. Then you choose at least three adjectives to describe this feeling. To begin the exercise, you pick your biggest, most ambitious goal, “something for which you frequently hanker,” and then imagine what your life would be like if you achieved this goal. She says to spend some time in the daydream, observing it with all your senses. Then begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is simple but not easy, she says, because there is a right brain/left brain switcheroo that happens when we translate feelings into words.

The author, who is a life coach, contends this is a much better way of achieving happiness based on the abundant psychological research that suggests the situational elements people crave do not necessarily increase their feeling of well-being, but finding joy in the present moment does. So the idea is by focusing on these adjectives (rather than the goal itself, which can be limiting) we can scan our lives for situations and relationships that already make us feel this way, and redirect our energies accordingly. There is a sort of creative unlocking process that happens. Anyway, you should read the article. It’s short and describes this technique better.

At first, this seemed a daunting proposition to me. I wanted to be with this supportive group of people to celebrate and contemplate the New Year, but on the other hand, thinking about my goals for 2011 was a bleak prospect. If I am truly honest, all I want is Ali back, and that is not going to happen. (And she says you should be honest in picking your goal.) But then I realized that is not the only thing I want. I also want more than anything to commune with his spirit, to feel him around me, to know he is still with me, to know he is okay. This is a whole separate subject, and I won’t go into it now, but the point is I decided to take the exercise seriously by picking my biggest goal and imagining how it would make me feel.

If I could pick anything what I would want most in 2011 is to know I was right – that our bond was not broken. So I sat on my couch and imagined what it would feel like if I got an irrefutable sign from him, if I saw him, heard him, or felt him in a way that told me with absolute certainty he was not gone – that we were just separated by worlds. Then I wrote down all the words describing how this would make me feel. I came up with a lot more than three so the difficulty became narrowing them down, but I had fun with the thesaurus (I am a grammar nerd, and love words and reading their definitions) and trying to pick which one more perfectly captured the feeling (ecstatic? elated? jubilant?). It was an interesting exercise in itself and I spent a couple hours with it over the weekend.

During an email conversation with Kristin, I had mentioned the difficulty of coming up with a goal for 2011 because without Alec the future is like a blank slate, and I am drifting around directionless. She suggested I focus on the way I felt when Alec and I were together. She asked, “Did Alec give you an excuse for adventure? Then maybe one of your words could be ‘adventurous.’” That was an interesting way to think about it; I had taken the exercise literally and was thinking of a future goal. It had not occurred to me to think about the past and how I felt when we were together. So I tried that and came up with a whole different set of adjectives!

Ultimately, I decided I would rather focus on the future since I have said over and over I want to find a way to bring him with me (and the latest grief research backs me up on this; the concept of “closure” is outdated and not necessarily helpful). And when I am honest this is all I want. And the author said to pick your biggest goal (hey, winning an Oscar may be more difficult than communing with the dead). But I was still having trouble narrowing down the adjectives. Since I had a surplus, I decided to pick the ones that could apply to both scenarios – how I felt when we were together AND how I would feel if I could communicate with him or hear from him somehow now (and yes I know that sounds weird, but I know people who have had such experiences and I choose to believe they can also happen to me). So the ones that easily applied to both were: loved/connected, secure, blissful, and (I snuck in a fourth) focused. Why these four?


Loved is obvious. I felt loved when we were together, but after his death, that love is gone. I mean, my love is still here, but I have nobody to give it to; there’s only one of us now. On a more profound and painful (and I guess mystical) level, the fact that I have not seen or heard from him makes me wonder if he really loved me. This is the one that is hard to say out loud because the doubt is a very significant component to my grief. And while people invariably say, “pshaw!” and “Of course he loved you! How can you doubt that?”… well, that’s what grief does sometimes. It makes you doubt.

Also a complicating factor when mourning the death of an animal companion is that, unlike a human loved one, they cannot talk. Alec could not communicate in words what I meant to him, so it is easy to doubt myself and think I made it all up and that it was one-sided. After all, I am a needy imperfect human and he was a dependent domesticated animal stuck in an anthropocentric society. Hardly equal footing (though I did my very best to respect his alterity) and can true love exist where there is no equality?

Philosophical questions aside, I was always more sure of my love for him than of his for me (this is borne of my own personal insecurity but also the reality of the situation). But it didn’t matter when he was alive. I only wanted to take care of him, to give him a good life, to give my love flight through action. It has never been as important to me to be loved in return (though my soul yearns for it of course); for example, my dog Kobi did not love me I do not believe. His spirit was too wild, too free, and too independent. I loved him though, and as I have written before, I think that is the more important part of the equation – the mysterious unlocking of our capacity to love unconditionally (rarer than most think) that some people and animals bring out in us.

But I thought with Alec things were different, that we did experience a profound bond, only intensified by the challenges we faced together. I also recognize that this is flattering to me – this notion of a deep bond – but that he also needed me and was of anxious temperament. And that circles back to my above concern about dependency and love. Although rather out of context it reminds me of something I just read in the book On my own by Florence Falk:

“Yet, all too often, fear and anticipation of having to endure the absence of a ‘significant other’ causes a psychic backlash  that sends us rushing into someone’s waiting arms, whether or not the relationship is right, or even good. ‘It was marriage that taught me anxiety looks like devotion,’ says the writer Vivian Gornick about her own marriage in Approaching Eye Level…The real fear…is to be with one’s self. And to avoid that confrontation, the desire to be with someone, sometimes anyone, can take on an urgency verging on obsession.” (p. 31)

She is writing obviously about the fact that some people fear being alone so much that they take refuge in less than satisfactory relationships. This does not apply to me, but could we not stretch it to apply to a lonely dog in a crowded kennel, of a breed predisposed to bond with one person (as German shepherds are, and Siberian huskies are not)…a dog with an anxious and nervous temperament, in a chaotic world that lacks stability, as Alec’s life as a guide dog in training was? Then I come along and show him some kindness and WHAM – instant devotion! Or was it anxiety?

Hmmm, that was a rather significant digression. This “love” thing is complicated, even between members of the same species, let alone when talking about trans-species relationships where one member lacks (complete) autonomy. But to get back to the subject at hand, I only survived losing Alec by convincing myself that our bond could not be broken by death (and I do mean that literally, the part about survival). Yet I also believed it, irrationally, with every intuitive fiber of my being. I know other people have had visitations and signs from deceased loved ones; I have talked to some, read about others. So what does it mean that I have not had these experiences? If he loved me, would not he show himself to me, knowing how much comfort I would derive from this simple act, how much of my own suffering and anxiety would be alleviated? If he doesn’t, is the natural conclusion that he didn’t love me as I loved him?

Well, maybe not. People have said I should “give it time,” that maybe I am trying too hard. And also that he might not come while I am grieving so intensely. At any rate, in my dream-come-true scenario I would be free from doubt of the assurance that Alec loved me, that he loves me still, that we are connected always.


That leads me to my second adjective and probably my favorite. As I switched the combination of words around, one that always showed up on my list was “secure.” Besides feeling loved, this is the number one feeling that came to mind when I imagined communing with him. This is the primary feeling I have lost in his absence. Security is a beautiful word because it has so many definitions that are slightly different but of the same essence. If I had security, it would knock out a few concerns at once. It has about seven definitions and here the ones that spoke to me:

2. Free from risk of loss; safe

3. Free from fear, anxiety, or doubt

5a. Not likely to fail, or give way; stable

7. Assured; certain

In my dream scenario, I would be free from the risk of losing Alec completely (#2). I would feel safe again (#2 also). Safety was a big issue with me, both keeping him safe and the feeling of safety I had with him by my side. One of the hardest things about losing someone who is dependent on you is the harsh realization that you cannot keep them safe, thus forcing you to give up the illusion of control. I also would be free from the anxiety, fear and doubt (#3) that life is meaningless and cruel and terrible because I would be assured and certain that he was still with me – and that he loved me (#7). Thus I would feel stable again (#5a).

A secondary loss one sometimes experiences through grief is “loss of well being and lack of continued faith in the overall goodness of the world.” (This quote is from – no joke – Grieving for Dummies by Greg Harvey. Yes, there is such a thing as a dummy griever, to go along with all the other dummies in this series! And yes, I did check it out of the library.) This secondary loss was (and is) huge for me, and again comes back to the idea of security.

Another strange loss I had was the experience of “coziness.” This is one I have not seen written about anywhere and I know it taps into other emotions like safety and warmth and contentment and comfort. I had not noticed how “cozy” I could feel with Alec, but in stark contrast when he was gone I never felt cozy. It is hard to explain. I had trouble feeling warm (not just literally). The mattress that we slept on together suddenly felt dismally uncomfortable with him gone. And it was – after our second air bed popped, I went to IKEA and bought the cheapest foam mattress I could find. It was hard and uncomfortable, but I didn’t notice this when he was with me, yet when he was gone I felt like I was sleeping on concrete. It wasn’t his weight distribution because the foam was hard enough not to budge when he was on it. It was psychological. I have since gotten a memory foam topper, which has helped somewhat, but the point is I didn’t realize how many cozy corners of my life disappeared with him.

Through doing this exercise I think what I have really been missing – that feeling of being wrapped up in a warm fuzzy blanket – is security. That elusive coziness was basically the illusion that everything was alright, which enabled me to relax and experience deep contentment and comfort. No matter what personal storms I was weathering or whatever other stresses were present in my life, as long as we were together everything was okay. Because I knew what I had and I was grateful every day. I knew how I would suffer if he ever left me, so just to have him with me in the same room was a form of bliss to which my heart happily responded by allowing me sink into a lovely cozy cocoon, which came from a deep sense of safety, well-being, warmth, and gratitude that slipped away when he did.


There are so many words to describe how happy I felt when we were together but, more importantly, how happy I would feel if I knew he were still near: ecstatic, elated, joyful, euphoric, jubilant…and blissful. Blissful was the winner because I like its definition best:

1. Extreme happiness; ecstasy.

2. The ecstasy of salvation; spiritual joy.


Finally, the fourth adjective: “focused” may seem unrelated but it is important. Besides the formidable loss of Alec’s physical presence, there are many secondary losses, such as the loss of security and comfort I mentioned above. There is also “lost” as an adjective, the opposite of focused. I feel lost myself, adrift and anchorless, like someone pulled my life out from under me and I am still tumbling through the air. I have not only lost our relationship, but my sense of purpose. I also lost my entire routine, which revolved around taking care of Alec (and just spending time with him, enjoying his company), even before he became sick.

He was always important to me, but Alec became the central focus of my life when he developed special needs and he remained there, at the center of everything, until his death two and a half years later. My role as caregiver demanded a significant portion of my attention. I don’t mean to cast this as something I was forced into. No, I chose to devote myself to his well-being. But what that meant in practical terms was that no matter what else was going on my life, nothing was as important as him. It also meant that formerly simple things like trips to the park demanded much more attention from me. As anyone who cares for someone with a disability knows, you learn to scan the environment for obstacles that you never noticed before, indeed never had to. So, the mental focus required of a caregiver for an animal with a disability also narrows your attention (again not in a negative way, only as a practical matter).

Beyond the quotidian elements of daily life, my emotional focus was sharper too because I had almost lost Alec when he became paralyzed due to complications from the spinal surgeries. This shook me out of my complacency (he was only seven and had never had a major health problem; I thought we had years together! That I almost lost him seemed unthinkable) and created a new awareness of the precariousness of life, which in turn caused me to cherish him anew each day.

I also felt I had found my purpose in the book I was going to write about Alec’s story, which inspired me so much, and which I had had hoped might help others with dogs in similar situations.

Finally, from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer to the end of his life (an all too short period) every minute outside of the working day, every square inch of brain space, was devoted to his care or to research about treatment options, supplements, specialists. I was going to save him; I would not let him down; I would do everything in my power. FOCUS. It is no wonder I lost my focus when he was gone, that I felt lost with a capital “L”. If my dream scenario came true, I could regain my focus because I would have confidence and security that he never really left.

Perhaps I should have written a separate post on this subject, which seems infinite.

Besides the tangible losses, there are many ways to feel lost too; existentially is the biggest and broadest. I lost all sense of meaning when Alec died. But grievers feel lost in the literal sense in “smaller,” less cosmic ways too, like getting lost while driving and forgetting conversations instantly after having them, etc. I have had this feeling of not being able to concentrate, of having thoughts fly away, of being in a store wondering what I was doing there. I said it before he died, but Alec was like my compass, and living without him feels like one nightmarish LOST episode without the Dharma initiative and polar bears, but with the “abandoned on a desert island” feeling and suspicions about having possibly landed in purgatory – or hell. I have also felt like I was losing my memory and my mind, that I was maybe going mad. In other words, pretty much the opposite of “focused.”

Who knew my scrappy fourth adjective would produce such fertile ground on which to reflect?

Lastly, the second part of the definition of “focused” (in addition to “close or narrow attention; concentration”) is:

2. a condition in which something can be clearly apprehended or perceived.

I had thought about the adjectives “enlightened,” “aware,” and “awake” as ways I would feel in my dream scenario, but this definition of “focused” also covered this aspect of apprehension – of knowing – pretty well (with regard to the mystical/spiritual/ghost world).

So, it was an interesting exercise coming up with these words, but I didn’t know what to expect of the collage-making session. After a couple failed attempts at art therapy and expressing my emotions through arts and crafts in a group setting, I was wary. But the collage brunch group was very relaxed and supportive and fun and we basically sat down with scissors and a ton of magazines and flipped through them cutting out words or images that represented our adjectives (or that just spoke to us). I found myself drawn almost 100% to words rather than images, but decided to just go with it because I felt like some intuitive part of my mind was kicking in and I wanted to give that part free reign since I am maybe not always so good at accessing my intuition (being a classic over-thinker). My friend Laura was also cutting out mostly words, so I didn’t feel so bad.

At the end, only one person had actually finished her collage (and it was beautiful by the way!). The rest of us had merely cut a bunch of stuff out and would finish the actual collage later. It seemed like a good idea to let things settle for a bit before going back to them too, to do it in stages. I brought my stack of cut-outs home yesterday and have not looked at them, but I am going to pull them out now because I am curious to see what I chose. I am not going to artfully arrange them yet, but just lay them out as a first step. I am not even sure that the words and phrases I cut out necessarily pertained to my four adjectives, but that’s okay too, I figured. Maybe they will show me something else! I will share a photo of it once my collage is done.

One interesting thing about this exercise is that I felt absorbed in the activity while I was doing it, something that psychologist Csíkszentmihályi has famously referred to as “flow,” a state of single-minded immersion and focused motivation. Neuroscientists and psychologists are increasingly recognizing the experience of “flow” as an important key to happiness. So that was a good side effect of this exercise and activity too. Something like four hours passed without me even noticing while I flipped through magazines and snipped images, words, and phrases to which my intuitive mind was drawn without stopping to think too much about them. This can also be a by-product of art therapy so I’m not ready to give up on that yet, especially after this positive experience.

Finally, I know admitting (out loud, in public) that my most cherished goal for 2011 is to commune with Alec’s spirit will make me sound like a nutcase to many people; I have nothing to offer in defense of my dearly departed rationality. All I can say is I would have felt the same way at one time too, but I have become more open-minded since losing Alec, maybe out of necessity. I can’t describe it other than to say I literally had no choice. I need something to hold onto and if my dream is that Alec is still out there and that I can somehow connect with him…well there are worse dreams to have right?

Since Alec has died, I have struggled with increased generalized fear and anxiety, which may be obvious from some of my writing here, but would definitely be apparent if you saw my private journals (heaven forbid!). I remember talking to a friend about staying alone versus potentially adopting another dog (he had suggested this, thinking it might help me out of my tailspin) and I posited that maybe my caretaking behavior was a distraction, a way for me to avoid dealing with my own neuroses, which have become so stark and risen so resolutely to the surface now that he is gone. He replied, “Well, it’s better than smoking crack; some people do that to deal with their problems. There are worse things than taking care of others.” Amen.

Not sure where I was going with that other than to say, I could harbor more nefarious and even dare I say crazy fantasies than one involving me and Alec being reunited in some magical netherworld. Why the hell not? Not that long ago people thought they’d fall off the edge of the world and be devoured by sea monsters if they sailed too far into the great blue ocean. Just sayin’…we don’t know everything. (I guess I am trying to defend my irrational hopes after all! Some habits die hard.)

I will leave you with a song called “As the Crow Flies” (by Chris McCaughan as Sundowner), which I took a break to listen to during my adjective conjuring daydream session. Somehow it became the perfect soundtrack to my beautiful reverie. I don’t know why; it was more the feeling than the literal words. I wrapped my arms around myself and cried and cried, but I felt like Alec was with me. I already liked this song, but now I love it like I love my magic words. You can listen to it here, if you want.


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death

Queen of pain.

I am not going to talk about crying or pain in this post, I promise. I know some of that has been necessary but I also know there is only so much relentless sorrow any reader can take, and I want to apologize if my grief has hurt anyone else. My housemate and friend recently told me how helpless he felt hearing me crying in my room every night, more than a month after Alec died (I did try to be quiet, but it’s an old house). As a problem-solver he felt frustrated that no matter what he did he could not “fix” things for me. And he was right of course. There is no fixing this. But he always helped just by listening and talking with me. I always tried to make that clear, but it’s hard for the problem solvers of the world; they tend to underestimate the therapeutic value of just being a good listener. But taking care of someone who is grieving can be exhausting. You don’t know what to do or say. You can’t take away the pain. You wonder if maybe they need professional help. You worry when you find them out in the yard at night, hysterically crying in the rain. You are reminded of your own experiences with grief, past and pending.

Um, by the way, I noticed I mentioned crying twice in the first paragraph so I guess I lied a little in the first sentence. Sorry.

I realize it’s also hard for some people who have suffered a recent (or not so recent) loss to read this kind of stuff. It can be an upsetting reminder of a grief that still may be unresolved. A friend told me she started reading my last post but had to stop; it reminded her too much of her own experience losing a loved one last year. So I felt I should post something (relatively) positive next and maybe apologize in case my pain has inadvertently caused painful feelings in others. My intention was not to hurt other people, but just to give an honest voice to this process because I feel expression is the key to assimilation and indeed survival in my case. Holding it inside forever works for some people; this wasn’t going to work for me because of a variety of factors. I needed to force the cork out of the bottle. That shit isn’t always pretty.

I know my last post was probably a drag to read for anyone who cares about me. I’m sure people expected some progress after four months, not more of the same: “I am in so much pain…also pain…and more pain….nothing but pain!” But this is part of the process. I needed to confront those feelings forthrightly and not try to lock them away. I had sunk into a denial that was not going to be sustainable. I understand why my mind is trying to protect me (thank you subconscious – good lookin’ out, seriously; you are no slouch). I am afraid to face these feelings because they are vast and terrible, but face them I must. I always said I was going to take Alec with me, no matter that his physical presence is gone; I knew from the outset this would be the only feasible way I could integrate his death into the remainder of my life. Honoring my feelings is the first step in figuring out my new relationship with him, the relationship that exists after death.

Speaking of my last post, a dear friend who is much wiser than me showed me a way out of the “how can I deal with the past while mindfully staying in the present moment?” conundrum. She recently suffered her own loss and told me part of staying in the present for her means being with her feelings when they arise, whether that is crying or whatever. Well, that makes sense, and although I am still terrified of really, truly letting all that pain in – the abyss and all – it gives me a starting point for a way to be present without running from the past. This way of “being present” is different from what I had been doing: aggressively focusing on (nothing but) the moment right in front of me (blinders on, head down!). This is a coping mechanism (thanks again, subconscious, for doing your level best), but it is not a good way for me to integrate this loss into my life. I can’t pretend Alec is going to come around the corner any minute…unless in ghost form, which I probably don’t have to tell you I would welcome.

Anyway that’s enough wallowing in self-pity (at least for now). I want this blog to be helpful! Along those lines, I have planned for a while to write a post on complicated grief and how it can be distinguished from “normal grieving.” Complicated grief (also called protracted, unresolved, or traumatic grief) has characteristics of both depression and PTSD and develops when the symptoms that are normal responses to loss linger or become debilitating. There are many risk factors that make the development of this disorder, which may benefit from special treatment, more or less likely. Even if complicated grief (which is rare) does not develop, the factors associated with it can shed light on why certain losses are harder to handle. It may help someone understand why they are having so much trouble compared to someone else. I know there are many factors about losing Alec that have made this particularly unbearable for me. Those are all here in this blog spread out over many posts, but I think it will be helpful as part of my own journey to unpack those. See, I said “helpful!” Can I have a cookie? I am trying.

I would also like to share some books that have particularly helped me, among them Transcending Loss, Grieving Mindfully, and Healing after Loss. I had planned to review these in a future post in hopes they may be helpful to someone else. I have read a LOT of books on grief (maybe most of them), but these three have stood out.

So these entries are on the radar if I can keep writing enough to keep my head above water. I have so much I want to say, and I will say it, for Alec. I will create a corner of my life that is a monument to him. And it will not be full of pain forever. My love for him, still so strong, will help me, like it did when he became paralyzed, to find strength I didn’t know I had. I will find a way up and out. Repeat as necessary.

As a first step, I selected a picture of Alec to post. Anyone who has been reading knows I have not been able to go through my photos of him. But keeping in mind Deb’s cautionary tale (in the comments) about not waiting “too long,” I am going to wade in. Also blogs without photos are really boring. Photos made up so much of Alec’s Story (Part 1) and it pains me to know there will be no more. However, I do have an extensive back catalog. Deep breath. Here goes:

Waiting for me to take his floaty rubber ball out of the backpack so he can hit the water. Sauvie Island, July 23, 2009.

I chose this photo because when I think about him, and when I think about not being able to look at pictures, this one pops into my head often, because it is a favorite. I think it’s because he looks so happy, but also a lot is symbolized in this image: his triumph over paralysis; our adaptation to his lingering disability (swimming instead of running); my commitment to making sure his life remained full and happy despite his physical limitations; and the smile that made my heart melt every time. It also makes me remember how strong he got, how much he improved. He stopped using the wheelchair a month before this was taken. Eventually he did not even need that life vest. Truthfully he probably stopped needing it long before I removed it, but all things considered it was better safe than sorry, and he did not mind his vest.

This photo also makes me remember how I was at my happiest when Alec was happy, contented, and safe. Especially in the beginning I had a lot of fear and anxiety surrounding taking him swimming due to the potential dangers: off leash dogs (aggressive or playful – both posed a threat because he could reinjure himself); rocks hidden under the water, letting him swim so long he’d be too tired to make it back to the car, etc., etc. But after one of these swimming adventures, when I had him safely back home, relaxed and tired, I could finally relax myself and be truly content. My boy had safely exercised, played, and had fun. I felt proud, successful, thankful, in love. There was nothing better in the world. It was another great day.

I miss his smile so much. I used to sing “you are my sunshine,” to Alec a lot. Please don’t take my sunshine away. You see, I always knew that’s what it would be like.


Filed under Grief and loss, Love after death