Here are some numbers:
On November 19, 2009, Gadget, my Bouvier des Flandres service dog, died of cancer. That was five weeks and three days ago. He was nine-and-a-half. We waged war against the cancer for six months. Depending on who you quote, from one-in-four to one-in-eight dogs in the US will die of cancer this year. So, we are in good (or rather, bad) company.
But this blog is not about numbers. It’s about surviving a devastating loss that most people are very sympathetic to, yet few really understand – the loss of a service dog.
It’s about a dog who liked to chase squirrels, slam doors, and let himself out when he wasn’t supposed to. He loved stinky things like cheese and liver — and long-dead carrion! — and me. We shared a fierce, deep, quiet love.
It’s about celebrating him, mourning him, finding ways to live without his love and without his practical assistance. It’s about the emotional and physical journey of grieving a star of a service dog while beginning the raising of a new pup. It’s a place for others who have, or will, experience a similar loss to find comfort and joy.
Why start this blog now?
Why not the day after Gadget died? From a practical standpoint, that probably would have made more sense, but nothing about death is practical or neat. Until now, I’ve been too much in shock to do much of anything. I still am in shock most of the time. In fact, right now, writing this blog is the only thing that does make sense.
Why This Blog?
First of all, it’s a way for me to grieve and make sense of this loss. I’m a writer, and so far I haven’t found a way to “cope” that feels like it works. Writing about Gadget, sharing his life and story with the world, seems like the natural path. I’ll share my feelings and my memories of Gadget as a joyful, loving spirit; as a working partner; as a teammate in training and creative problem solving; as a playmate and clown; as my means of survival. In words, in photos, in video. Fortunately for you, he was beautiful.
I also hope that for you, if you’ve gone through a similar loss, this will help you grieve, too. Grief in all its forms is welcome here: numbness, anger, denial, sadness, loss, relief, questioning, or whatever you feel.
There are very few resources that I’ve found for grieving the death of an assistance dog.
There are groups who understand the loss of a beloved pet dog. I belong to one such listserv, and it has been a lifeline. The people on it are loyal and open and funny and kind. I love them.
Still, some parts of my loss are unlike theirs. Tonight, for example, I had a lot of trouble getting out of my bedroom because I couldn’t open my door. And I couldn’t call for help because I’m often nonverbal. If Gadget was still alive, not only would he have opened the door, he would have been happy to open it. It would have been fun for him, a game. He would have wondered, “Will I get some liver for this?”
When people help me, even when they are doing it because they love me or they’re being paid to help me, or both, they are never thrilled to do it. Sometimes they are resentful, frustrated, irritated. Sometimes they’re not bothered at all, but I worry that they are, anyway.
When I cry over the loss of Gadget, it’s not just his soft fur, his wet nose, his deep brown eyes, his beating heart against mine, it’s also how much physically harder and more limited my life has become. How much more dependent and scary. His death has created so many layers of aloneness in my life. Some of these layers of aloneness are common for pet bereavement, but some are unique to assistance animal loss.
Sometimes it is even hard to get support from others who have lost service dogs. There are groups for assistance-dog partners who are grieving, but they may be small or inactive. My guess is that unless one is in the midst of grieving, it is too painful to be exposed to the topic. That emotional wound could reopen at any time, because — if we’re fortunate — we will outlive our assistance dogs, again and again. The choice to be a life-long service-dog partner is as Kafkaesque as it is fulfilling. Few who have escaped the black hole of that loss want to be reminded of staring into the abyss again.
This will be a refuge to cry, to remember, to distract yourself, to laugh, and to find little ways — or big ways — to move on. All forms of sincere emotion are welcome here. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. There is just emotion that moves through you, that rises and falls like waves, and the process of surviving loss.
The loss of an AD is not just that of the heart, but of love, companionship, independence, safety, and partnership.
The Coming Attraction
I will be getting a puppy in several weeks whom I will train to be my next service dog. The puppy is due to be born in a week, January 1, 2010.
Looking back necessitates looking forward, and vice-versa. Even as I mourn Gadget, I prepare for his successor. Training the new dog in a Gadgetless home will be part of my mourning process.
Here, you can join me on my journey as a severely and multiply disabled first-time puppy raiser!
It seems a ludicrous, risky undertaking. Even healthy people find puppies exhausting! Yet, I’d always planned for a puppy this time around, instead of adopting an adult or adolescent, as I’ve done in the past. I thought Gadget would be here to help train the pup, as his predecessor helped train him. Now it is just us humans to raise the pup, and me much more disabled than when I trained my previous SDs. Still, I am full of hope.
I am excited and nervous. I already anticipate the joy and frustration, the weariness and triumphs, and how it will take everything Gadget taught me to be very, very, very patient to get through two years of raising and training to get a working service dog again. A dog whom I am sure I will love and come to rely on, but who will never be Gadget.
There can only ever be one Gadget. He wasn’t my first service dog, but he was and for forever will be my best. (I think!)
I wish you’d gotten to know him as I did. But here at AfterGadget, you will know him a little. Thank you for joining us in this journey.
Sharon and the spirit of Gadget, forever my Muse
P.S. I welcome your thoughts and feelings on my journey or on your own journey — whether you are facing a current loss or have lived through it in the past. Leave comments below.