In this final installment of a three-part series, Jeannine Moga shares her struggle to come to terms with euthanizing her dog Tucker and adjust to life without him. Anyone who has ever dealt with severe behavioral issues will understand Jeannine's anguish and feelings of inadequacy from not being able to "fix" what ailed Tucker.
Nothing can prepare you for watching life leave someone you love. Nothing quite eases the ache that comes from knowing that death occurred by your hand.
Coming to terms with the loss of my imperfect dog requires letting go of the fear that I, his imperfect human, let him down. I suspect it will take a long time, perhaps years, to resolve those feelings of failure.
Adjusting to life without Tucker
I work with illness and death every day. My profession as a social worker requires that I accept them as part of life's journey, knowing that bodies change and fail, that death is just one leg of a journey humans struggle to understand. Still, I am no different than anyone else in that death comes to those I love too soon, letting go is heartbreaking, and learning to live with the space left behind by death is an exceptional challenge.
I walked into my home without Tucker, at first in shock, then with an almost unbearable sense of emptiness. I did not realize how much energy I devoted to his needs until he was no longer there. Beyond that, I felt a crushing sense of inadequacy that surely comes from not being able to prevent or relieve a loved one's pain. As his guardian, caregiver and dearest friend, I believed that I should have been able to fix the panic with which he met every waking moment.
Moving past regret and failure
Letting go is tricky business that inevitably requires moving past regret and failure. For those of us who make the complicated decision to euthanize emotionally and behaviorally disordered animals, those feelings are palpable and difficult to shake. Chronically distressed animals carry with them a secret code of crisis, marked by almost imperceptible markers of fear, anxiety and aggression. To the uninitiated, those markers may not seem as severe as those associated with "medical conditions" - and yet I can tell you that they are ever-present and just as challenging to manage. Emotional and behavioral disorders are just as organic and life-limiting as the cancers that most frequently take the lives of our four-legged family members.
Beyond the negative emotions aimed at my own perceived deficiencies, though, is a strange combination of sadness and relief. Admittedly, I still grapple each day with longing. I wish desperately to feel the softness of his ears, to watch the bounce of his trot, to hear the soft hum of his snoring. The longing is tempered, often uncomfortably, by a sense of freedom: I no longer worry when I am away from home, wondering what fresh hell I will find when I return from a long day at work. I don't have to plan each outing to the Nth degree in an effort to prevent Tucker's aggressive outbursts, sudden panic attacks and unpredictable destructive tendencies. I don't miss the physical and emotional exhaustion that came from managing him. I imagine this must be like what many people feel when a loved one with a terminal condition dies: we can't help but miss them desperately, but we don't miss the disease that fundamentally altered their lives (and ours).
Memories of love and Tucker
What I do miss is an endless list of the things that made Tucker special to me and the handful of people who loved him. I miss the sunny disposition that took years to uncover and too infrequently graced his walk through this world. He was a bright light in my life, a silly dog that brought laughter to those who were lucky enough to see him acting every ounce a buffoon. For a dog that knew far too much trauma in his early years, he had a remarkable ability to love. I dearly miss the way he would drape himself across my lap when he wanted a hug, or walk underneath my legs when he needed a rump scratch. A hunting dog through and through, I miss the deep, rattling "purr" that would come from his nose when he caught scent of something delicious, dangerous or wild - a sound that only came forth when he was calm enough to attend to the world around him. An image that will always be with me is the tempo of his delighted dance when someone scratched the spot just above his tail - the "Tucker Two-Step" - usually accompanied by a wide grin and eyes sliding back in delirium.
It is these memories I cling to when the agony of grief overwhelms me. Coming to terms with the loss of my imperfect dog requires letting go of the fear that I, his imperfect human, let him down. I suspect it will take a long time, perhaps years, to resolve those feelings of failure. In the meantime, I hold tight to the tender truths that defined my relationship with him: I did the best I could, with all the love in my heart, and he returned the favor.
Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW is a social worker and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central. www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc/clientsupport.html