How do I comfort a friend who just saw a dog get hit by a car and die?
December 4, 2013 11:49 AM   Subscribe

One of my best friends had the unfortunate luck of having a front row seat to the violent death of a dog last night. She is inconsolable. Is there any way to help her process the experience?

This friend of mine is a dog owner and lover and is understandably taking the experience very hard. Hell, any human with a heart would be upset. As I understand it, the dog (a beautiful great dane) was off leash on a major street and, in an attempt to grab the dog, the owner spooked it. It jumped right right into traffic and got hit by an SUV and died shortly after. She was in the next car. Oddly, everyone on the scene was horrified except for the owners. Apparently they did not seem to be particularly bothered. Granted, people react to trauma in different ways so I try to account for that, but my friend is a rational woman and I do not believe she would misrepresent that. The bizarre experience of the owner's apathy/indifference seems to be the major factor that she is struggling to reconcile.

Any ideas regarding how to help her work through her emotions? Maybe some way she could channel her feelings into volunteering? Suggestions appreciated! She's heartbroken and I'd like to help in whatever limited way I can.
posted by amycup to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe the dog had terminal cancer and was staring down a long and painful road to eventual euthanization, and the owners had already made their peace with the pet's death. Maybe the dog killed their cat and bit their child and they were considering having it destroyed. Maybe it belonged to a dead family member who no one liked and they were burdened with it in a will. Who knows? She doesn't have the data to know why they weren't outwardly upset, and if it's the indifference that's bothering her, she should try to keep in mind that she's making a lot of assumptions about the owner's state of mind that might not necessarily be true.
posted by Jairus at 11:56 AM on December 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

I can't comment on anything except that the owner's 'apathy/indifference' is what bothered your friend the most. This is the last thing that should bother your friend. It's very likely that they were shell-shocked and simply did not know how to respond with any emotion, especially if they mostly just felt anger at the person who hit the dog but understood at some level that it wasn't there fault and in any case being angry would not bring their dog back.

Acting normal in the fact of something terrible and traumatizing is a VERY NORMAL thing to do. Your friend was not privy to knowing whether they got home and broke down into fits of sobs and tears.

I'm not sure if this provides your friend comfort in general, because she saw something terrible, but if any of it is in fact due to the owner's reaction, then imho that doesn't make sense.
posted by cacao at 11:58 AM on December 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

If I had just spooked my dog and the result was it got hit by a car I would feel enormous guilt. Some people shut down emotionally rather than face that guilt. Some people shut down emotionally when they have to deal with a traumatic emergency. Either could explain the owners' reactions or lack thereof.

Volunteering is a great way to help others and yourself.
posted by obol at 11:58 AM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

With all due respect to your friend, she does not get to determine what another person's appropriate reaction is. It may be that the owners were deeply bothered but didn't show it, or it may be that they were not too bothered, for whatever reason. Working in veterinary medicine, I can tell you that not every pet owner has the same sense of connection to their pet, and some are really not that troubled by their death. It's not the same way you or I (or your friend) might react, but it's not for us to judge, especially, as Jairus says, with such little information.

I don't know how this helps, frankly. I guess I would just tell your friend that if she is upset by what she saw, that is fine and understandable, but she should focus on working through that, and not on worrying about other people's reactions.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2013 [17 favorites]

Oddly, everyone on the scene was horrified except for the owners. Apparently they did not seem to be particularly bothered. Granted, people react to trauma in different ways so I try to account for that, but my friend is a rational woman and I do not believe she would misrepresent that.

Shock takes strange forms. Sometimes, the emotional parts of your brain just... shut down. There's a very good chance that the owners are just as emotionally devastated right now as your friend.
posted by Etrigan at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I will add that volunteering is great, but if she is very sensitive to the suffering of animals, I would actually not recommend volunteering in a shelter or an animal hospital. It can be very hard to see the condition of sick and abandoned pets, and I have known many people who loved animals too much to be able to work in the veterinary field.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry to thread sit - I just want to add quick clarification. She's trying to work through the perception part and is aware that she can't know that for sure. I'd like to see if there are possible ideas for focusing her energy toward something positive to help her process. That's it. In the same way that focusing on their reaction is not productive for her, it's probably not helping for me to tell her not to be upset for their lack of reaction either.
posted by amycup at 12:02 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

That is very sad, and my heart goes out to your friend, not to mention the poor dog, over what happened. That said, Jairus makes excellent points about the way people react to trauma and shock, and the fact that your friend has no way of knowing what the backstory might be. As one of those people who reacts with robot-like calm in public when something bad happens, and then falls to pieces later in private, I can also attest that she has no way of knowing what those owners are going through right now.

I'd suggest listening to your friend and letting her vent her feelings, but also gently refocussing her on how much she loves her own dog, and how well she cares for him/her. Spending extra time with other responsible, loving dog owners might also help to remind her of the good in the world.
posted by rpfields at 12:04 PM on December 4, 2013

Lots of people react to unexpected trauma by acting outwardly unemotional - they're in shock, and go through expected motions to take care of the immediate problem, and then slowly release into other forms of grieving after danger has passed. It's likely that this is what happened with the dog's people. This is super normal.

It's also possible that your friend's latching on to the owners' seeming indifference is just a part of her own odd grieving thing. Instead of shock, people sometimes hone in on one unexpected aspect of a situation and won't let it go.

Perhaps you can help your friend by being there for her as you would when she's experiencing a death. Maybe bring her dinner so she doesn't have to worry about it, be with her quietly in her own spaces. Let her be emotional and work through it at her own pace. That means, if she has other obligations, help her out with them while she's grieving. Maybe help with her dogs.

I understand that you want to help her work through this quickly, but probably the best thing you can do for her is make it easy for her to process it at her own pace by lending a helping hand until she's good to go again.
posted by Mizu at 12:05 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mizu: It's also possible that your friend's latching on to the owners' seeming indifference is just a part of her own odd grieving thing. Instead of shock, people sometimes hone in on one unexpected aspect of a situation and won't let it go.

My thought exactly. That's why I think it would help to suggest that she focus on her own personal feelings.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:06 PM on December 4, 2013

Last year at the dog park, I saw a pit bull (male, intact) suddenly grab and practically rip apart a boston terrier puppy. At the time I so was unaware of my actions that I was doing things like trying to put my hands in the pit's mouth to try to get him to let go, which was, in retrospect, a very bad idea. I remember the owner's screaming, and then I was home. I don't remember finding my dog, getting in my car, or driving away.

This happened at the start of the summer. For the next few months, I stayed in bed as much as I could. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, would get panic attacks out of nowhere, was afraid of any dog - even my own - and could not keep the image of the attack out of my mind for any length of time.

Eventually, I realized that, although this was not something that happened to me or my dog, my body was responding to trauma. I spent several sessions with a wonderful therapist who used talk therapy, CBT, and meditation to help me process what had happened so that it stopped affecting me physically as well as emotionally. But still, I can't go to dog parks, am terrified of pits (even through I know they are basically good dogs), and occasionally break out in a cold sweat when I get a sudden and intrusive memory of the event. Like now. Sweating.

I know this is standard AskMe advice, but please have your friend consider therapy if she appears to continue to be distressed about the event, or if you notice any other behavioral changes. It's good that you want to be there for her, but sometimes the psychological trauma goes beyond a friend's ability to heal.

Although you might want to let her know that her feelings are valid and not atypical.
posted by bibliowench at 12:06 PM on December 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

One thing you can do is to validate her feelings and let her know that it's okay to feel what she's feeling. I used to volunteer at an animal shelter and I helped a lady bring in a really sick/injured dog that she found on the side of the road. I knew that dog wasn't going to make it. I held it together at the shelter but on the way home I pulled over and started bawling. It's totally okay to be traumatized by something like that and to just accept it. I think sometimes we feel like we shouldn't be upset about something, or we feel pressure from other people to not be affected, and that can make things worse.
posted by radioamy at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2013

It is not unusual to fixate on a small detail after a trauma. I still remember very vividly the tape popping out of the tape player when someone rear-ended me at a stoplight 20 years ago.

There are probably books or something with guidelines for the first 48 hours after a traumatic experience, and maybe you can help her do that research. We know a lot about the minutiae of trauma now thanks to military medicine and psychology, and there are probably visualization exercises she can do to lessen the intensity.

There are probably also some books on shock, if she'd like to exercise some compassion for the dog's owners. I am quite certain that if one of my dogs had successfully done this (they've tried, my dogs are dumb and spook badly after they work so hard to disassemble windows or fences and get loose in the first place) you would also not see an outward reaction. Not until you questioned me, anyway, and then you'd be more worried about my overreaction and your personal safety. You can't know what's going on inside someone else. You don't know how many times another person can replay the image of coming home to a dog-less house in a few seconds.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:15 PM on December 4, 2013

Lord, your poor friend.

This terribleness only happened yesterday. She's not going to be able to start working through anything in such a short period of time. She might just need time to freak out, and hurt, and rage at the world. Then she can get down to processing what she saw. Or rather, her trauma-influenced perception of what she saw.

And what she saw was horrifying. Strip away her perception of how other people were reacting, and you end up with this: She saw a living creature meet a violent, unnecessary, possibly preventable death. And she can't fix it, she can't make it better. She couldn't control any of it. All she could do was watch. That's some serious staring-into-the-abyss stuff, right there.

And that might be what she needs to focus on. Not how the owners reacted, but what this event meant to her. I agree with other commenters, that she may be seizing on the owners' behavior, as a solid and steady channel for these horrible emotions. Something to hold onto, because otherwise, everything she feels is chaos.

Anyway, she doesn't have to try to understand why those people reacted the way they did. Not right now. She might never understand it, even though it's definitely possible they just don't exhibit sorrow and horror in the way she would. At this point, she might need to let herself feel whatever she feels. Without trying to tamp it down, soothe it, or explain it away. She has the right to those feelings, and it's not my experience that it helps to apply rationality or comfort to such a fresh emotional wound.

Another perspective from someone who saw a dog die violently:

When I was a kid, my mutt Nathan was hit by a truck. It was at night, so I didn't see the details, but it happened right in front of me. It wasn't anyone's fault, just one of those horrible things. Since we were out in the country, and his injuries were so bad, one of the people in the truck offered to euthanize Nathan with his rifle. That was the kindest thing that could have happened to Nathan at that point, but of course I was quickly escorted from the scene. So I didn't have to witness it.

I loved Nathan SO MUCH. He was the best dog, and if you knelt in front of him, he would throw his paws around you and hug you. But even as a kid, I didn't show my grief and horror outwardly. I think that my family thought I got past it very quickly, because I didn't make a scene. In reality, it was very rough on me. I was just never the type of person who liked displaying my grief in public.

But it's been over 20 years since that happened, and it still quietly haunts me. I still miss him. Clearly, my reaction was not unique - plenty of people react similarly to traumatic scenes.

Your friend doesn't have to try to immediately grasp the millions of valid ways to grieve. She's coping with her own valid grief at the moment. But eventually, I do think it would help for her to realize, that there isn't just one okay way to act when something terrible happens. She doesn't have to realize that NOW, but it might help her in the future.
posted by Coatlicue at 12:28 PM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I saw a cat get killed in traffic last year and it was bad. Really, really bad. It was probably the most horrifying thing I have ever seen, so awful that I actually had a minor car accident with another person who had seen it too .

The vision haunted me for some time afterward. I'm afraid this is just something that it takes time for her to get over. I really don't think there's anything you can do, other than the standard "be there for her." I mean, really, it's a terrible thing to see, unless you wipe the memory clean its going to be a disturbing thing to deal with. A sentient, wonderful creature lost its life in horrible circumstances. In my case I didn't tell anyone, I really did not want them to hear about what happened, it seemed wrong to inflict the mere thought of the incident on people lucky enough not to see it.
posted by jayder at 12:34 PM on December 4, 2013

I'm so, so sorry.

When people behave in ways that confuse, mystify, or otherwise confound you, it's important to try to extend compassion to them as consciously as you can because you have no idea what their story is, really. There are two types of meditation that excel at forcing you to embrace this, both of which involve silently repeating a mantra rhythmically with your slow and focused breath.

* Mettā (lovingkindness): Usually it goes something like "May I be from suffering, may [close friends] be free from suffering, may [acquaintances] be free from suffering, may [difficult people] be free from suffering, may [the world/universe] be free from suffering," but I prefer to focus on the external.
* Tonglen (exchanging): When you inhale, consciously imagine that you are taking on the suffering of one or many sentient beings, and when you exhale, imagine that you are sending out love, peace, warmth, acceptance, and light to everyone who is in pain.

I know it sounds like nonsensical woo, but nothing concrete can save your friend or that poor puppy from the pain of what happened, and time will march on regardless, so the best thing to do is send as much good energy into the world as you can, and to try to practice empathy and compassion in every aspect of your daily life. So, could you set aside some time to meditate with your friend? Center your thoughts on the idea that all dogs everywhere will eventually be free from suffering, and then use that positive energy to inspire you to work toward that goal.

If volunteering with animals directly is too painful -- I can't handle it at all, myself -- could you help her put together a bake sale or similar fundraiser to help pay off some of a shelter or rescue's vet bills, or donate to a local Great Dane rescue? When I was helping to transport 'last day' dogs out of middle-of-nowhere high-kill shelters, it crushed me to lose even one, but it was very uplifting to see the individual dogs that had been saved go to their loving forever homes. We might not be able to save them all, but we can damn well try.
posted by divined by radio at 12:37 PM on December 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

She was in the next car. Oddly, everyone on the scene was horrified except for the owners. Apparently they did not seem to be particularly bothered.

I would be wondering whether they were in fact the owners rather than people who just happened to be walking by and scared an off-leash dog into the street--accidently or on purpose.

If she wants to do something to work out her grief, she could go back to that neighborhood and ask around a little, or ask city authorities about disposal of a dead dog that night.
posted by jamjam at 12:46 PM on December 4, 2013

It might help, as has been suggested, for you or your friend to do some research into shock and how it manifests, so that she can understand the behavior of the owners.

I understand how troubling it can be to see a pet owner react calmly to a sudden death. Over twenty years ago, I came across a cat lying dead on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building I lived in. It seemed pretty clear he had fallen out a window. I went back inside, trying to think what to do, and saw one of my neighbors leaving the building. I did not know her well, but I thought she had a cat or two. I asked if she had a cat, and when she yes, I tried to prepare her for what she would find outside, and went with her. I was very upset (but tried not to show it, for her sake), and was astonished when she very calmly picked the cat up and put it in a trash can outside the building. I kept asking if she was all right or if I could do anything, but she said she was fine and just went on her way. To this day -- a couple decades later -- it still feels weird to remember how completely unfazed she seemed.

But then I remember when a cat of mine died suddenly. He had not been well (it turns out he had a heart condition), and was at the vet's overnight. The vet called me around 2 AM in the morning to tell me that my cat had just passed away. I said something like "oh, okay, thank you," and hung up. I could tell he was taken aback by my seemingly casual response. But let me tell you, I mourned that cat deeply every single day for about three years. It really broke my heart to lose him.

So maybe you can share stories like that with your friend.

Beyond that, as others have suggested, maybe she should, at some point, talk with a therapist. But it's hard. I think sometimes that witnessing a traumatic event can take a long time to get over, and only the passage of time will help -- and then, only to a degree. One event that haunted me was when Eric Clapton's little boy fell out a window in a high-rise apartment building. I did not witness it, I just read about it in the newspaper, and I certainly didn't know these people personally. But that event shook me to the core, and haunted me for about six months; it was the last thing I thought about every night when I tried to go to sleep.

So I think your friend will be bothered by this for a while, and what you can do is be there, and lend a willing ear when she needs to talk about it.
posted by merejane at 2:59 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been the animal lying in the street, hit by a car. When I was thirteen, I rode my bike into traffic and was hit by a Buick on a major thoroughfare.

Tell your friend to be at peace; shock is a wonderful thing. Although I was critically injured, and beginning the process of bleeding to death through a torn femoral artery, there was very little pain unless I tried to move. For the rest of my life, when I have seen a dying animal and looked into the glassy stare in their eyes, I know what they're experiencing: a slow descent into the nether world, where pain fades and merciful unconsciousness begins to take hold.

In all likelihood, the dog suffered very little. It seems to be one of nature's mercies that, the more devastating the injury, the less the suffering.
posted by dinger at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2013 [11 favorites]

« Older I've just recently come back f...   |  Now that the deep dark winter ... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments