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…