How I Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Dog?
March 22, 2011 12:10 PM   Subscribe

First time dog owner here: How do I deal with the fact that my dog will die (eventually)?

I brought my dog into the vet today because she was sick and it has me super emotional and scared in an irrational, disproportionate way.

Now, I'm worried about her today--throwing up all the time, etc.--but it's really triggered something in me that's been brewing for a while. How do you deal with the fact that someone you love so much will die?

I've always had cats in my life as a kid and while I loved them quite a bit, I never made it to the natural death stage of a cat's life. We either moved and the cat ran away, passed the cat to someone else or they fell pray to traffic. It was sudden, but they just... disappeared (and as a kid, I didn't have to deal with it).

Both when my husband had a medical scare and this time with my dog (who is going on 8 years old), I immediately jumped to the, "Oh god, they will die some day" and begin neurosing about it and worrying.

I've had people emotionally close to me pass away, but they lived far away. And when my dad went through cancer treatment, because he was very far away, it didn't trigger the "OMG, how will I survive without them!" because honestly I was surviving without him. Also, I found myself being emotionally distant during that time in order to "prep" myself.

This is not an altruistic feeling, but rather a selfish, "But I want her around!" thing that I do not want to culminate.

TLDR = How do I focus on the here and now of the people/animals I love and not their mortality?

Oh, and as is mandatory, here is Sassy the dog. Mentally send her happy, healthy mojo, please.
posted by Gucky to Human Relations (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
It's the grand tradeoff you accept when you get a pet. I feel you.

Seriously, for me it's just the knowledge that the tradeoff is worth it-- nothing is quite like loving, and being loved by, a pet. Yeah, it'll die before you (usually), but it'll make you so flippin' happy until that day that it just doesn't make sense not to take the tradeoff.

It's the same thing with people, if you think about it. I guess "try not to think about it" is the best non-answer I can offer.
posted by Rykey at 12:15 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a dog, whom I refer to as the "Mother Teresa of all dogs." She has been such a joy to have.

She's 14 now (a yellow lab/shepherd mix), slowed down a lot, her skin is not what it used to be, despite efforts to stay on top of it. She is starting to be a bit incontinent with #2, and she is getting an attitude.

We still love her dearly, and will do anything to make her life better, AND at the same time we are looking forward to her passing, as sad as that will be. It will be a liberation for us, and possibly for her, in that movement seems painful for her.

Love your dog while you have her.
posted by Danf at 12:16 PM on March 22, 2011

Some time ago -- I think on Metafilter -- someone quoted a French philosopher who -- I'm paraphrasing here -- said something to the effect of: "one of the greatest lessons dogs can offer people is the experience and knowledge of mortality". Indeed, your beautiful dog will die -- they live lives so short and bright it hurts to think about -- as will your parents, husband, many others. Mortality is a key existential ingredient to life itself. So, I understand not wanting to over-obsess to the point of neuroses and paralysis, but you do need to accept and not ignore.

As a kid, I experienced death through the loss of a couple of dear dogs before the death of an older sibling. All those deaths -- and the ones of people and animals afterwards -- were hugely painful; sometimes life doesn't seem to be worth surviving. But here we are, moving forward and enjoying our brief existences with each other while they're here.
posted by bumpkin at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think about it this way-- it makes me much much sadder to think about myself dying before my dog (for altruistic reasons, not for "I don't wanna die" reasons). This series of pictures, for example... it just kills me to see a dog that sad.

I have the faculties to process the concept of death, at least more than my dog does. I know she will die, and that I will die, so we'll someday be parted. If she were to get terminally ill, I would be able to prepare for that. To her, though... I would just be not there one day.

So I think of it as something I'm willing to do for my dog, and probably the dog after her and probably after that: I'm willing to live their respective lives -- their entire lives -- with them, and try to make them as happy as I can for as long as I can. After she's gone, I'm willing to bear the burden of being sad so that she doesn't have to. And life goes on and soon all I'll be able to remember are the happy times. I don't know that a dog is capable of getting over something like that, so I'm glad that it happens this way.
posted by supercres at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2011 [17 favorites]

I struggle with this too, and my current dog is by no means my first. I sometimes look at his bright eyes and laughing mouth, or listen to him chasing and barking in his sleep, and can't bear the knowledge I will lose him someday, and someday in the foreseeable future at that.

Here's a few things I can tell you as a long time dog owner:

1. I would rather have known and had in my life all my beloved dogs, even at the cost of all the sorrow their deaths have brought me. They bring such a huge amount of joy and love and fun into your existence. Nothing can take that away, not even missing them.

2. I hope for an afterlife, and my favorite vision is arriving and meeting a pack of my lost dogs, all running to greet me and play.

3. I remember a proverb which I think is one of the wisest I've ever encountered: Take what you want, says God -- and pay for it.

4. I know that the lives my dogs lived were rich, loving, and indeed cushy. I do everything I can to provide some return to my dogs for the love and joy they bring me.

It's good you love your dog so much. Treasure the time you have and make it count.
posted by bearwife at 12:27 PM on March 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

I bring this up in every dog mortality thread, but Good Old Dog has some great advice about what to expect with older dogs, quality of life, and dealing with end of life decisions. If you're prepared for what can happen, it'll be a little easier.
posted by zamboni at 12:28 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I see the death of the animal as "payment" (really not the right word, but there you go) for all of the fun, amazing things we'll do together. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my dog helps keep me sane, and I'm so grateful that she's in my life. We have a lot of fun together. The pain that I'll feel when she goes will be massively tempered by gratitude and the knowledge that I'm amazingly lucky to have been given a chance to know this wonderful creature whose sole purpose seems to be to please me.

It's not any kind of fun to know that someday I will lose her, but I've done the 5 stages of grief thing, as much as I can, already. I've accepted that she's going to die at some point. That will make it easier when the time actually does come. That said, if you can completely cope with the loss of your pet with complete equanimity, there is something wrong somewhere.

I guess my answer falls somewhere in the line of "think about it". Spend some time thinking about what it will be like to not have her here. Then go out and buy her the biggest juiciest bone you can and give it to her. It will hurt an awful lot, but it will help you get used to the thought.

A poem that often gets mentioned in threads like these is Rainbow Bridge. You might find it helpful after the fact. Guaranteed it will have you a blarting mess, but still.

Sassy is hella cute. :)
posted by Solomon at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is hard dealing with the death of a pet. If it weren't, there would be something wrong with you. I don't know what to say to refocus you on the pet's life other than this:

Everything dies. Your dog would die even if she were not your dog. Since she is your dog, try to ensure she has the best life possible.
posted by adamrice at 12:39 PM on March 22, 2011

I think the basic answer is that you don't think about it too much until it's about to happen. Then you deal with it--in whatever way it is that you deal with grief--and move on. In other words, basically the same approach you have to the inevitable death of any loved one.
posted by valkyryn at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2011

I had this same fear and mourning when I first got my bunny. I would rush home every day from work assuming he'd be lying dead in a corner and thinking about how I wished I had more time with him etc.

Then when he was 3, he got really sick and did almost die and spent about a week in the hospital. I did a ton of mourning and crying and blaming myself and looking at pictures of him. I read through many pet grief threads here and on pet-specific sites and that helped a little.

When he got out of the hospital, I was still very worried about his health and afraid of him dying, but after he got better, I realized that I had done a lot of the mourning work already so now I was free to enjoy him.
Since then, I worry when I leave him or when something is messed up with his stomach, but I don't have the same constant fear that I used to. Now I can even talk to people who ask how old he is and wonder what kind of lifespan rabbits have (i.e. how long does he have left) without my stomach flipping.

I hope that like me, you will come through the other side of your pet illness stronger and more able to deal with the eventual separation.
It's ok to worry and grieve now, so if that is what you feel like doing, do it. Look at all the pet grief stuff online and it will make you feel more prepared to deal with your emotions when that time does come.

Once you know how you will handle it later, you might feel better in the meantime.
In other words, it's ok to pretend he is dead now, spend some time figuring out your feelings, and then be so relieved when he is healthy and you don't have to worry about that stuff for a long time.

(This is the opposite of what everyone else is saying, on preview, but if you're the type of person who thinks about a problem until there is a solution because otherwise it nags you too much, try actually dealing with it now.)
posted by rmless at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It gives me some comfort to think about all the love and attention that I have given to my pet. Knowing that I worked every day of his life to feed him so he wasn't hungry, shelter him so he wasn't cold or overheated, and love him so that he was happy and playful. It's good to know that you gave your dog the best possible life he could have ever dreamed of. It is nice that I couldn't have loved him any more or any better and that he probably knows that.

Accept the pleasure of his company in your life and that he wouldn't of traded you for a million dog bones.
posted by amicamentis at 12:46 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: I had a little bit of an existential crisis in PetSmart when the shopgirl told me that I should really be feeding my dogmonster "senior" food because he's officially an old dog now.

I have a similar reaction to my dog getting sick - I get so emotional that I really can't deal with it. The slightest thing sets this off in me: my father feeds him table scraps and he ends up with an upset stomach, and I'm a wreck and can't deal with it.

The first thing I had to do was to identify that the overly-emotional reaction I was having was diametrically opposed to my stated goal of loving this dog and caring for him to the best of my ability. Essentially, I had to have a "snap out of it" moment. And for the most part, I have. Now, if Bailey gets sick, I instead go into hyperprotective-caregiver mode... rather than allowing the house to degrade into squalor while I eat Ben & Jerry's and watch classic Bette Davis movies in my pajamas. Because. He's. Going. To... Die...

So have a little "snap out of it" moment for yourself and realize that you're no good to your dog - for today or for the next ten years - if you don't keep it together.

This is my dogmonster, Bailey. And this is us recently, and back when we were both puppies.
posted by jph at 12:50 PM on March 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My boy died two weeks ago today, at 15. Strangely enough, I had started having the same thoughts and anticipatory grief you're having now, when he was the age your dog is now.

For the first few days after he was found to have cancer, I was so distraught that I didn't want to do anything more than spend all the time I could lying next to him on the floor, not moving, not doing anything, not going anywhere.

And then I realized - I was actively reducing the quality of his remaining time by doing that. Who would want to be cooped up doing nothing with a distraught depressed person? Of course, nothing was going to take away the fact that I was distraught but I could try to set that aside for his sake.

Apparently even humans have the ability to smell other people's tears, and we react physiologically to them. Dogs must be able to sense/react to bodily signs of sadness that much more. So it might help to remember that if you're upset around your dog, she might not be having as joyous of a time as she might if you are happy around her. You make her life better by being happier yourself.

For me, I think a HUGE part of my worries was fear of the unknown. I got my dog as an adolescent, and I'd never really had a dog before. I'd had hamsters and animals like that die before, but it wasn't the same kind of connection at all. I was so terrified, especially when he was younger (7-10, 11 or so) of all the unknown things that could go wrong with his health. As he reached very old age and his potential health problems became more known, that part actually became less scary. Until, of course, the cancer kind of came out of the blue. But again, information helped a LOT. The last, super terrifying thing was not knowing what it would be like when the time came to let him go. Now that I'm on the other side of that experience, even though it was probably the worst moment of my life, there's a huge amount of relief at just having the unknown gone. I really hope to have dogs again in the future, and I think I won't have this kind of anxiety to anywhere near the same degree with them, because I have already been through, as you put it, "the natural death stage" and I know what it is like. Even though there is a huge dog-shaped hole in my heart, and my brain, which is still reminding me when it's time for his walks and meals, it is a LOT less scary on this side.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:51 PM on March 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

I love her! She's adorable. Sending her much love and positive thoughts.

I am in the same position - sometimes I think of it and it just breaks my heart. This thread made me cry!

I just stop myself and give her an extra big hug - and I literally stop and go do something else in a different room if she's not around. I can't come to terms with it and accept it, and I just keep wishing that it never happens.

A very beloved dog passed away about a year and a half ago - honestly, it sucked beyond belief and I cried like a baby. But it was really comforting to think about the good times we had had, and how happy we had made each other.

I have the same fear about my parents - I can't rationalize it away, but I remind myself to be happy for what I've been given, and that there are no guarantees for anyone.
posted by mrs. taters at 12:57 PM on March 22, 2011

Why not just be as sad as you are about this, the fleetingness and impermanence of dog life and everything else? You won't be sad forever -- your emotions are also fleeting and impermanent.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:07 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do you deal with the fact that your husband will die?

(Yes, you might die before him, though apparently that's statistically less likely. For that matter you could also die before the dog. We never know).

I really don't mean this in a mean way. Rather, I mean it to suggest that this relationship with the possibility of loss is something that you've either already dealt with at some level - or have suppressed dealing with - and it could be useful to you to sit with that and explore it deeper.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:31 PM on March 22, 2011

This is different for everybody. The dog we had while I was growing up died when I was in college. It was a tough experience for me -- I'm not sure if being physically far away made it harder or easier.

The main thing I took away from it was that it's important to me to give my dog the best life I reasonably can. My childhood dog... my family was never cruel to her, but she was confined to a small part of the house and not really exercised enough. As an adult, I can see that now. I have big regrets about that.

So, my advice is to minimize your future regrets. If you get pangs of anticipation of your dog's death (and we all do -- my dog just dodged a cancer bullet), try to think about what you can do here and now to make her life better.

A related Copper comic.
posted by gurple at 3:13 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't prepare yourself for a dog's death without losing the joy of its life. Just love the pup while you can.

A little catharsis from Jimmy Stewart.
posted by tomswift at 4:10 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Careful with that Jimmy Stewart clip, OP. It just brought me to tears, and per Wikipedia had the same effect on Johnny Carson. It does say it all, though . . . that the love of your dog is worth it.
posted by bearwife at 5:25 PM on March 22, 2011

Oh, god. I started worrying about my beloved cat dying when he was like 4. And fretting even more when he turned 10. At some point I decided to re-focus myself on loving him as best I could, loving him better than anything, every day. I probably had to repeat this re-focusing weekly.

I was lucky enough to have 18.5 years with him. Were he still alive, he would've turned 20 this Thursday, 3/24.

In the end . . . all that re-focusing? Didn't matter. I just wanted him back. I still just want him back.

Now I try and re-focus on thinking of how lucky I was to have him. Since I got him when I was 17 and he lived for 18.5 years, I'd spent more of my life with him then without him. That's a rare thing. And he loved me so well, and so faithfully, and so freely . . . that's a rare thing as well.
posted by MeiraV at 6:10 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The last, super terrifying thing was not knowing what it would be like when the time came to let him go. Now that I'm on the other side of that experience, even though it was probably the worst moment of my life, there's a huge amount of relief at just having the unknown gone.

quoted for truth. my cat died about a month ago. i was absolutely devastated. still am, with tears gathering even now as two new little kittens play on the floor nearby.

this is the thing. in the first 10 minutes after we put our kitty down, i felt such a sense of relief and closure. that, at first, was an even more overwhelming emotion than the loss. for one, it was a relief that she didn't have to be in pain anymore (and man, when they do go downhill, it can be very fast). but also, selfishly i guess, that i had dreaded this moment since the moment i met her--and knew with increasing certainty in her final weeks that it was very near--and i was dealing with it. i was in it. it was happening. wasn't this completely overwhelmingly disorienting thing: it was just me, grieving. i don't know if that makes sense--i guess i was just terrified that when the moment finally came, i would be completely unable to function. but...i functioned. and you will too. and..i don't think there's really anything you can do to prepare for it. your pet's death could be sudden & too-soon. or it could be long & drawn-out, a deterioration at the end of a long life. you have no way of knowing, and no way of preparing. just love that little pup now.

your dog, incidentally, is way smarter than both of us. she doesn't concern herself with such existential worries. she's all about now now now. that's part of the attraction, right?

this truly is what you sign on for when you get a pet. but it is so, so worth it. i didn't last two weeks after my soulmate cat died before adopting a pair of kittens. i'm doubling down, baby. love all the way.
posted by apostrophe at 10:07 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

A lost my first pet, a 3 year old dog, who I'd had since he was a puppy, when he was killed by another dog. I was out of town (he was being walked by a friend when it happened) and I hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye when I left town, much less goodbye forever.

It was so shocking to get that phone call and beyond the mourning, I felt such sadness at not even having been there when he was in pain and scared, at not being with him when he passed. But I gave him the best home I knew how for those 3 years. I loved him and played with him and fed him treats and bought him toys and fell asleep next to him on the couch. And, most importantly for me, I let him be A DOG. I didn't keep him from playing with other dogs, or romping around in the backyard, or rolling around in dirt or maybe eating something from outside I couldn't immediately identify.

A lot of people are terrible and abusive dog owners. I loved my dog and I am sure he knew it. I gave him a good home and he got to be a dog. And even though I lost him prematurely, I took great comfort in knowing that he had a great life while we were together. That helped me get through the loss of my first pup and when that time comes for my current pup, I know it will help me at that time, too.
posted by buzzkillington at 11:11 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: Nothing substantive to add. But, thank you to the OP and Posters.
Reading this thread and the associated links has been really helpful for me.
I lost my dog last week after having him 13 years. He died in the week between his birthday and my birthday.
I loved him with all my heart.
On his last day he went for a drive, he puts his paws on the steering wheel - this never fails to crack me up. Barked at a few select dogs as he passed them. He had Taco Bell. I don't know why i'm telling you this. But OP, i hope you'll find your grieving process and embrace it.
posted by ten year lurk at 10:19 AM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. There are much cuddles for the sick dog as I read this and this has become one of those, "oh man, I love MetaFilter" threads. The strangest thing that made me feel better is all of your amazing dogs, which means that while Sassy is the best dog in the world, there are lots of best dogs in the world who will need a rescue home after, hopefully a long time from now, this magical mutt is no longer snoring and drooling on me.

(Vet says she will be fine, a stomach bug they think, but they found shallow hips during the X-rays, so there is diet food and Doggie Steps in our future together.)
posted by Gucky at 4:13 PM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

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