Allow Me to Grieve, Help Me to Heal

By Margaret M. Smith, Leader Dog Graduate

To those who have loved and lost an animal friend, may you find comfort in this story. To those who hesitate, uncertain of how to console, may you find answers. To the staff of Leader Dog and to my other friends, you reached out when I needed you. Thank you for being there.

A gentle rain was falling that Thursday evening as I harnessed Bid. I had to buy milk - Friday morning’s coffee wouldn’t be the same without it. On our way home, I smiled as Bid swung around the barricade blocking the sidewalk next door. Although he was my fifth Leader Dog, the thrill and appreciation of such a simple part of his work never wore thin. I set the gallon of milk on the front porch. My right arm was aching from carrying it two blocks. I wasn’t thinking about my stiff arm as I hugged the hulking 90-pound German Shepherd.

You’re such a good boy, I said into his right ear with a squeeze for punctuation. His answer was a wet swipe of the tongue across my face. He was such a good boy and he knew it. Of course, I didn’t know this walk in the April rain, three weeks before Bid’s fifth birthday, would be our last.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when I felt Bid thump the foot of my bed. Half-asleep I called to him, not realizing it was his mute plea for help.

"It isn’t storming. We haven’t had any thunder."

As if thunder crashed in my ears, I heard his heavy panting; his labored breathing. I don’t remember leaping from bed. Laying hands upon him, I felt his sides heaving, his mouth half open.

It seemed an eternity before I was standing by Bid as he lay on the vet’s examining table. I never stopped stroking him as an IV dripped lifesaving fluid into his paw. Steeling myself, I vowed silently that I wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t escape into irrational hysteria. The vet didn’t need two patients. The only one on whom he must concentrate was MY Bid.

Time stood still as three of us kept vigil for two hours: the veterinarian, my friend Sue (a retired RN), and I. Dr. Herzog had diagnosed Bid’s sudden illness as a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite - probably a spider. Laboratory tests and favorable results from treatment made Dr. Herzog nearly 100% certain of his diagnosis.

About 2:00 a.m., Dr. Herzog said, "You can go home now. Bid’s vital signs have stabilized. Call me at 9 a.m. to see how he is. I want to sit with him awhile until his IV is finished. We’ll keep him here in the cage until we’re sure he’s better." I stepped to Bid’s head. His eyes, no longer glassy and unfocused from shock, fixed on me. "I’ll see you in the morning," I whispered into one huge ear. "Just keep on being such a good boy."

The phone rang fifteen minutes after I reached home. I didn’t want to answer it for I knew before I heard the words. "I’m calling with bad news," Dr. Herzog said. "Bid had a cardiac arrest. I couldn’t revive him." His voice was shaky. He may have been crying - I don’t know.

I mumbled something like, "You tried your best."

I heard those fateful words, "I couldn’t revive him," but they didn’t register somehow.

As I hung up the phone, I turned to my friend Sue. "Bid just died," I told her in a lifeless voice.

We sat in silence for a long, long time. Finally Sue spoke, "Don’t you want to cry? You’ve just heard that you lost your best friend."

I shook my head. "I just don’t believe that Bid is dead. He’s going to be all right in the morning."

I went to bed at 3:30 a.m. with two hours before the alarm went off. As I tossed and turned, thinking about Bid in his cage at the veterinary clinic, I was beginning the first stage of grief: denial. Of course I had misunderstood the vet. Bid was strong, healthy, too young to die at almost five. I was sure he was going to be just fine.

That first day at work without him, the last day of the work week, I felt numb.

Colleagues spoke to me softly, not daring to pierce the invisible armor I had wrapped around me. I asked a friend to have lunch with me away from the hospital, our place of employment. Bid was well-known and loved by many of the 1,700 fellow staff. I didn’t want anyone to wonder where the dog was. I didn’t have the heart to answer questions.

With the weekend came the overwhelming realization that Bid would never come back. He would never rumple his rug by my bed as he made his nest. I would never hear his tags jingle, never fix his supper again, never reach down to scratch the cowlick in front of his right ear. As the world awakens from winter with the promise of the lushest season of the year, I would never walk with Bid at my left side. I was in the full throes of grief: acceptance.

As I write this account, I have had five Leader Dogs. I have loved and lost each one of them. I had Duke, Jack and Joshua put down from complications of old age. Smokey retired as a pet before he was four because of medical problems. And now Bid, in the prime of life, died unexpectedly. Five times my heart has broken by loving and letting go. Somehow that heart hasn’t hardened. Each loss is no easier than the last. Yet grief is not self-contained. It is an emotion that not only engulfs the sufferer - it touches the lives of others. To watch another person suffer is painful, uncomfortable, sometimes even frightening. If these words can help those who want so much to help, if this message comforts and consoles those students who must replace a dog for any reason, then it is worth the anguish. For as I write, I am still caught in the choke-hold of grief.

Let me reach out first to veterinarians. In my case, it was Dr. Lawrence Herzog this time. With four words, he was to shatter my life, "I couldn’t revive him." Bearing the bad news that my friend, my guide, my link with vision was gone, no wonder his voice trembled. My heart ached for him in his frustration, anger, self-doubt, and sadness that must have assailed him. I have had veterinarians tell me that they would rather not treat Leader Dogs because of the staggering responsibility. I am comforted that Dr. Herzog never said that.

Like many who practice his profession, he cared about patient and owner. Now he pays a high price for caring. Ah, and then there are family and friends who come to make things right. If you are among those who think too much fuss is being made over a dog, keep on thinking it if you must, just don’t say it. Remember that a blind person who gives up a dog perceives that loss as if it were a family member. And so do many pet owners. Tread carefully. Respect that person’s sorrow, even though you don’t understand or agree. Perhaps you love the dog user and the dog. Your grief doubles. Offer solace if you can. It can be a long walk with your friend; a gentle suggestion that you can bear to listen to an account of the dog’s death; quiet times in which you give the unspoken go-ahead - it’s okay to cry.

As for you, the student who has given up your dog, I am in the same boat with you, rowing upstream. You too, will probably pass through the classic stages of grief: denial, shock, acceptance. Don’t be surprised if you feel anger, too. Why did this have to happen to me? Why did I let myself get so attached to that animal? Even, why did that dog have to die, leaving me forever?

Once in the grip of grief, you find habits hard to break. Hurt works on you. You think of feeding your dog at the usual time. You slow down to edge around the places where he or she used to sprawl. You keep uncovering all that belonged to the dog; harness and leash, feeding pan, toys, maybe an unfinished bag of dog food. Each discovery is a painful reminder. A memory can catch you off guard for no apparent reason. When it does, you fight the tears that fill your eyes. That memory takes your breath away.

You may feel vulnerable. If you worked often with your dog, no longer is he or she there to guide you. You want to run an errand or maybe just go for a walk and then you snap back to reality - no dog.

Although I am no stranger to sorrow, I can’t give you a magic formula to work through mourning. There is none. Let me tell you that you need to give yourself permission to grieve. Your feelings are real, are warranted. You have good reason for your suffering. You needn’t feel guilty or ashamed.

Remember that suffering doesn’t belong only to you. Family members and perhaps friends loved your dog. They love you, too. They hurt not only because the dog is gone - they hurt because of you.

Then there are people who are on the fringes of your circle. They will ask what happened to your dog, when will you get another? Somehow you answer. You don’t need a full account. At times I just find it impossible to explain. I simply say, "I can’t talk about it right now."

I have found it helpful to talk about my dog’s death with a concerned friend. Perhaps giving voice to sorrow makes the world go away, at least a little. Choose your listener with care. Remember that to witness another’s suffering is painful in itself. Select someone who is strong, yet sensitive. You may find relief in recounting the good times and bad times with your dog. And there is the cleansing release of tears. As a hope lurking in the horizon beckons the promise of a new dog. But will a replacement dog fill the aching void? Not right away. To the trainers who work with replacement students, allow me to make a few pleas. You have trained that replacement dog for four months. You have sweated, hoped, and prayed that, as you turn over the dog to the new student, the match will be perfect. If your student shows signs of impatience or even resentment, you are disappointed, perhaps angry. You expected to turn the world around for that blind man or woman. Instead it looks as if that student dropped the world at your feet.

You feel as if your work is for nothing.

Stop. Look at the situation through the student’s eyes. Time is the only possible healer. The student is still working through raw emotion. The dog in his or her hands feels strange and unfamiliar. That man or woman must learn to follow a dog with a different gait, a dog whose turns and stops don’t feel the same through the harness. Most of all that student must learn to accept and trust another creature on whom he depends for his life at times.

In your confusion, disappointment and subconscious tendency to back away from grief, you may be tempted to say, "forget your old dog. You have to concentrate on your replacement."

Worse still, you turn your head, shutting off sorrow as if it were an unpleasant odor or grating noise.

As one who has picked up the harness of a replacement dog, I can only implore; please, please don’t. If ever a student needed you, it is now. I remember working Bid for the first time. Joshua, his predecessor, was put down two days before. Nearly ten, Joshua was dying from an incurable blood disorder. Judy Campbell, my instructor, was keeping vigil beside me. Bid was doing all that he should - a flawless first time out. We returned to the waiting area in Rochester. As I knelt to praise Bid, the tears came, unbidden, unrestrained.

"What’s wrong?" Judy asked. "He worked beautifully."

My answer was choked. "Nothing is wrong. It’s just that he isn’t Joshua."

Judy put an arm around my shoulders. "I’ve loved dogs as pets. I’ve trained them as guides. But I’ve never had to depend on a dog the way you do. I can’t possibly know how you feel."

When a student compares a replacement with the other dog, when he resents his new dog for mistakes he insists the previous dog didn’t make, don’t turn away. Step forward. A touch on the arm, a pat on the shoulder, a few words like, "I know you still miss your old dog." "That must be so painful." These gestures will help to make the hurt go away.

Although time softens the sorrow, time also erases and distorts the memory. A student picks up the harness of a replacement dog, expecting the new dog to take over precisely where the old dog, after years of service, left off. We forget or deny that the previous dog ever made a mistake. Jack was my second dog. As I was training with him, we waited for the light to change at Main and Fourth in Rochester. I stepped from the curb with confidence. Jack executed a perfect diagonal crossing. Dazed and frightened at the corner, I felt someone take my right hand which was then knotted into a fist.

"I have a three-year-old colt who is just as green as your new dog. Don’t give up, Margaret. They will both grow up and do what we’re counting on them to do."

He was Dave Schwab, a riding instructor who had taught me to ride years before. I took consolation in Dave’s wisdom as I learned to adjust to each of three more dogs. Oh yes, Dave was talking good horse sense. Jack developed into a conscientious worker and beloved friend. Dave’s silly colt went on to win many blue ribbons in the show ring.

My sadness will take on different shadings as each student fills in the agonizing details about his or her dog. The names won’t be the same, the plots will vary. Yet we are bonded by loss.

For the loss of an animal there is no protocol, no wake or funeral, no sympathy cards or condolence calls. For bystanders, feeling helpless and uncertain, step forward to share compassion the best way you know how. For those professionally close - from veterinarians to trainers - forget for a moment the countless dogs you have treated or trained. Think only of one dog who is no more. The death of that animal has left someone with a broken heart. If you are the one who has lost a Leader Dog, let me say that there is never a right time to say good-bye.

I’ve just hung another harness for the last time. It makes Number Five. I can name each dog who wore each harness. I can tell you why part of me still clings to those leather straps. Ah, but that would be another story. Someday I shall slip a new harness over an unknown dog’s head. No matter how hard I resist, slowly, fearfully, I will place my trust and love in that dog. Yes, somewhere down that twisting road through life I will have to stop to hang Number Six. My hands will tremble once more. My voice will be choked with emotion. I just hope I can get out these words loudly and clearly enough to those who can bear to read and listen to the collective voice of all who give up a Leader Dog: Allow me to grieve, help me to heal.

© 1991 by Leader Dogs for the Blind & Margaret M. Smith. All rights are reserved, including those to reproduce this story or parts thereof in any form without written permission from Leader Dogs for the Blind.