A Lesson in Grief and Illness from Our Poorly Dog

Yesterday morning our eldest sheepdog, Nell, had to be lifted out from her run, where she’d suddenly become very unwell overnight. We immediately took her to the village vets, but we were soon referred to the larger surgery in town. The village vet thought she was suffering from a womb infection, and the second group of vets seemed to agree. Nell then had various scans and tests, and eventually an operation that became quite major and messy.

I was dealing with it rationally, although this morning it all got too much. Five minutes before I was due to leave for work I heard that it could well be tetanus, as Nell wasn’t recovering from surgery. The outlook seemed negative, but I was just about managing to hold it together. On the walk into work, I passed the post office and saw my Mum and her friend inside. Shortly after saying hello, I realised I wasn’t feeling so good about it all. My lip wobbled, then I started crying, snuffling; the whole works. Ever so slightly embarrassing. Needless to say, I skipped work today.

The situation is still uncertain, with the team of vets uncertain as to whether it is tetanus, or something slightly less serious called myositis. However, she’s in good hands, and all we can do is hope she pulls through.

I felt so stupid crying in front of people today. I was telling myself that I shouldn’t get so worked up about a dog, particularly as we’ve had so many sheepdogs before. I was meant to be the strong one, and not fall apart at times of difficulty. However, I’ve realised that I need to let myself feel how I’m feeling. Nell has been around for over half of my life, and therefore a sudden deterioration in her health was bound to unsettle me. She’s always been a happy, hard-working dog, and we’ve frequently commented on how she seems more like a human than a pet. I’d be heartless if I didn’t feel anything towards what’s happening.

Image from Goodreads

Nell is old, at eleven years old, and she is going to die eventually; these things I know. But it’s so difficult to accept that now is the right time. This is the belief that affects us all again and again when dealing with grief and illness, and it’s so hard to let go of. Because of this, I know that it’s time to test out my own recommendations to others on reading for grief, loss and illness…

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson can show me that life is circular and repetitive, and while I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll live my life again, similar experiences and attachments will both come to an end and replenish continually while I’m alive. While one person or pet becomes ill, another will grow up and enjoy years of health.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green demonstrates that death and illness really aren’t fair. However, we can deal with these situations the best we can, and even create memories that stick with us in the process. We can remember the positive and healthy elements of a life, and dwell on what difficult situations have taught us.

Dealing with illness and death isn’t easy, and nor should it be. It’s intensely painful, whether on the scale of the loss of Gilgamesh or the illness of my sheepdog, and we’re not meant to block out this pain. The best way forward is to consider what else we can gain from the situation apart from pain, sadness and grief. These feelings are to be expected, but they’re not total. There are other outcomes and things to be learnt, regardless of whether we are not ready to handle them or not at the time. As the popular motto goes, this too shall pass.

I’ll let you know how Nell gets on, and perhaps write another post on how I continue to deal with the situation. She may well pull through yet, which would be fantastic, but I can’t predict this. Illness and loss are inevitable parts of life, and we shouldn’t ignore the associated feelings, no matter how we feel we should act.

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.