Species of Grief
My father died. Then my dog died. I’m not sure which variety of grief is worse.
Two weeks ago, just a few days after the long-planned memorial service for my father, I had to put my dog down.
My father had died six months earlier after a relatively brief illness. The grief felt like a slow, steady trickle, a constant if generally manageable sadness. It was different for Phoebe, my Saint Bernard: a relentless firehose of grief. For days, I did little but sob. Any activity I associated with Phoebe — and this is including walking, sitting, eating, and sleeping — was now so punctured by her loss as to be almost intolerable. Though my apartment had been heavy with my father’s effects for months—tax files, photographs, his forwarded mail—Phoebe’s accoutrements threatened to turn the place into a museum of melancholy.
For days, her water bowl remained on the kitchen floor, still filled, as if she might come back at any moment. Reaching into coat pockets, I’d invariably pull out one of the ubiquitous plastic bags I carried around to pick up after her outside. Opening my backpack one morning, I happened upon her leash and collar, which I’d stuffed inside after the vet handed them back post-euthanasia, and then crumbled to the floor. When my housekeeper, Emelie, arrived for her monthly cleaning, I contemplated paying her in full and sending her away because I couldn’t bear the thought of permanently ridding the apartment of dog hair. Emelie, who’d loved Phoebe (as had her kids), grew teary at the news. I, in turn, was too choked up to speak. All I could do was flail my hands around and apologize for being such a mess.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” a friend said later, “but you seem more upset over your dog than your dad.”
I did not take this the wrong way. I took this as a perverse article of faith. Losing a parent is terrible. Losing a pet is shattering. Both occurrences are more or less inevitable. We all walk around this earth knowing our parents will eventually die, if they haven’t already. (The alternative, dying before they do, always falls into the category of tragedy.) Similarly, to have a pet is to know that it will almost certainly die before we do. The prescheduled heartbreak is just part of the deal.
Phoebe, a stocky, tanklike animal whose snub-nosed, mushy face and red-rimmed eyes gave her the air of a sad, out-of-shape prizefighter, had recently been rescued.
So why did losing Phoebe feel so much worse than losing my father? Maybe because my relationship with her was built on loss to begin with. She came into my life six years ago, shortly after the death of my last dog, a creature I’d loved more fiercely than anything before or since. I was married at the time, and though my husband and I hadn’t planned on it, the house was so unbearably quiet without a pet that we’d signed up to be dog foster parents. Phoebe, a stocky, tanklike animal whose snub-nosed, mushy face and red-rimmed eyes gave her the air of a sad, out-of-shape prizefighter, had recently been rescued from backyard-breeding methamphetamine dealers in the California desert. When she was found, Phoebe was still nursing 10 puppies, all of which were eventually adopted after being showcased on a local television news broadcast. (Indeed, they were so gigantically adorable that they’d been scooped up by staffers at the news station.) Their mother looked young enough to be a puppy herself.
The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but within hours of her arrival, Phoebe made it clear she’d be staying. She lay under my desk all day while I worked, allowing me to rest my toes on her hindquarters like a slobbering, snorting footstool. She used the dog door like a pro, refrained from chewing on the furniture, and never stole food even if it was at eye level — which our dinners nearly always were, given our habit of eating off the coffee table while watching one of the cable dramas we used as a substitute for emotional intimacy.
Phoebe turned into a strikingly beautiful dog: 120 pounds, with a thick and gleaming (if endlessly shedding) white-and-brown coat and soulful brown eyes that always suggested a human consciousness lurking inside. Her health and disposition, on the other hand, presented challenges. Within a year, Phoebe was diagnosed with arthritis and spondylosis, conditions common to giant breeds that were irresponsibly bred. She had hyperthyroidism, then hypothyroidism, then hyperthyroidism again. It was also posited that she had mild brain damage due to early exposure to methamphetamine. Though Phoebe spent most of her time dozing and loudly snoring, her waking life featured moments of such extreme excitability that she routinely knocked over furniture. She became so giddy at the prospect of going for a walk or a car ride that she had twice hurled herself into the front gate with a force that would have given another dog — and certainly a human — a concussion.
During walks, Phoebe had a habit of lying down and refusing to get up. She often pulled this maneuver in busy intersections.
In addition to her astonishing physical strength, Phoebe was a champion drooler. When she leaned her head against the window near the back seat of the car, slobber dripped down the glass and into the door, where it finally caused an electrical short and rendered the window inoperable. During walks, Phoebe had a habit of lying down and refusing to get up. She often pulled this maneuver in busy intersections, which left us frantically trying to stop traffic while she rolled around on the pavement.
“I’m looking at this dog,” a vet said to me once, “and seeing a Prozac type of dog.”
When I said I didn’t feel right giving my dog psychotropic pharmaceuticals, the vet sold me a plastic collar for $75 that was supposed to secrete soothing pheromones and last for a month, at which time it would need to be replaced by another $75 collar. Within hours, Phoebe had wiggled out of it. She was a creature who simply refused to be soothed. Except, arguably, by me. She followed me when I walked out of a room. She barked inconsolably when I shut her outside. Often it seemed as though all she really wanted to do was lie under my desk.
Eventually, my marriage broke up. Needing to put space between my husband and myself, I loaded Phoebe into my ancient Volvo and drove across the country with her to New York City. The idea was to stay for a year or so, but nearly four years later, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, she and I were still there, keeping each other company amid the lingering sting of divorce. With her head-turning looks and limited athleticism, Phoebe turned out to be the perfect urban dog. Though she lunged at pit bulls from the end of her leash, she calmed down considerably once we arrived in the city, like a restless suburban teenager whose angst was alleviated by the sheer act of becoming a New Yorker. Phoebe generally thrived on a few short walks per day, but she also loved to take long strolls through the park and even went with me to the Women’s March in 2018, where young girls in pussy hats fawned over her and posed with her for selfies.
That march turned out to be one of her last major outings. In the ensuing months, Phoebe resumed her habit of lying down spontaneously during walks in the middle of city streets while I frantically directed traffic around her. She began slipping when walking up stairs and lying down in the elevator, even as the doors threatened to close on her.
A veterinary neurologist diagnosed Phoebe with wobbler syndrome, a disease of the cervical spine that would eventually render her unable to walk. Miraculously, for nearly a year, steroids kept her mostly upright. She couldn’t walk farther than a block or so, but she loved nothing more than to hang out on the park benches across the street from our building, which we did for hours in all but the coldest weather.
The day my father died, I sat with Phoebe on the benches and watched the late-afternoon autumn sunlight break off into strips of indigo and violet. My father had died unexpectedly in his apartment early that morning, going into cardiac arrest even though doctors had been hoping to treat his early stage cancer with surgery. That summer, before my father knew he was ill—or at least before he’d admitted it to himself—I brought Phoebe to my father’s girlfriend’s house in Staten Island, and we all sat in the yard drinking gin and tonics and eating salami and crackers. One perk of Phoebe’s encroaching infirmity was that she’d stopped lunging at other dogs — she couldn’t get on her feet fast enough to bother — and on this occasion she happily socialized with a corgi and a border collie.
“Eventually she won’t be able to walk, and I’ll have to put her down,” I remember saying.
When you live in New York City with a Saint Bernard, people see the dog first and you second, if they see you at all. Phoebe was my face.
My father asked how long I thought that might be. I said maybe six months. I didn’t really mean it. It was the kind of prediction you make to keep it from coming true. Besides, my real concern during that visit was my father. He appeared almost shockingly thin and a little jaundiced. At one point, he lost his balance and tripped on rug.
I asked what was going on.
“Well, I’m slowly dying,” he said in way that sounded like he didn’t really mean it.
Three weeks later, my father called me to ask, his speech alarmingly slurred, if I could meet him in the emergency room at New York Presbyterian Hospital. I was eight hours away, teaching at a writing conference in central Virginia. I’d brought Phoebe with me in the Volvo, since her mobility was too quirky to entrust to a dog sitter. I immediately packed us both up (including the collection of yoga mats I’d brought so Phoebe wouldn’t slip on the hard floors of the pet-friendly hotel room) and raced through the night back to New York.
My father died 11 weeks later. Phoebe died six months after that. My father’s death makes me feel like the ceiling of the world has been lowered. I’ve learned to get by in that constricted space, constantly ducking my head to avoid hitting that ceiling. But Phoebe’s death is a different proposition somehow. Phoebe’s death makes me feel like someone has come along with a giant eraser and rubbed out my face. When you live in New York City with a Saint Bernard, people see the dog first and you second, if they see you at all. Phoebe was my face. To many of my neighbors, who knew her name but not mine, she was my entire personality. She was the main thing about me.
The dog that came before Phoebe, a mystery mutt named Rex, who was also large and astonishingly beautiful, was with me for 13 years. That means I haven’t been dogless for nearly two decades. In that time, I have gone from being a young woman to a not-so-young woman. I have gone from being someone who could attract attention without a dog to being someone who attracted attention mostly because of her dog. When we were together, everyone who passed us acknowledged us in some way. On the rare occasions when I was solo, I blended into the sidewalk, just another pedestrian. Now that I’m solo all the time, I go mostly unnoticed, or so it feels. And because my current situation does not allow for a dog, I am going to have to figure out how to live this way. I am going to have to learn to exist without a face. And possibly without a personality.
That facelessness should be an interesting look, if hardly a unique one. It’s the look of growing older, which I’m beginning to understand is in no small part the look of loss. Maybe the key is this: Don’t take it the wrong way. Take it as inevitable. Or as an article of perverse faith. We’re all slowly dying. It’s just that pets and parents — the ones who see us even when we’re invisible to ourselves — tend to leave us first. It’s the natural order of things—that is, if we’re lucky. And sometimes even the best luck, it seems, is still perfectly devastating.