Finding love again after the death of a pet
Deep, heaving breaths came from the cancer-riddled lungs of our beloved cocker spaniel. Sidney had been part of our family since he was 11 weeks old. And now, 13 years later, he was helplessly gasping for air.
Jay and I knew it was time to make the hardest decision facing a pet parent.
How it Began
Sidney was an impulse buy in the midst of an extremely frustrating day fixing a printer for my 84 year-old uncle in December of 2005. I left his condo to get some lunch and buy a part for the printer, and spotted puppies for sale a few doors down from Office Depot.
I certainly had no intention of buying a dog, and definitely not from a pet store. My husband Jay and I had never even talked about getting a pet. But I needed a momentary break and petting a puppy would definitely calm me down.
I was greeted by four cocker spaniels in a pen just inside the front door. One floppy-eared baby boy raced to the edge, whining for me to pick him up.
Perhaps if I’d just reached in to pet him, there would have been a different outcome. But instead, I picked him up … and he cast a spell over me.
I was lost.
Desire overtook all reason and I forked over $900 for our new family member.
When I got home with my puppy, Jay stepped back in shock. His first reaction was, “Oh no, take it back!” But I held the puppy out to him, snuggling him into his arms, “Just hold him for a minute,” I said. Jay had no defense.
So that was the end of the resistance … and the beginning of our beautiful life with Sidney (named after the uncle who had unintentionally set the entire life-changing event in motion).
Over the years, Sidney had his share of medical issues, including cysts, ear infections, and a sensitive gut. But overall, he was a hearty dog who loved his trips to the dog park, sleeping at the foot of the bed, and his daily dose of roast chicken.
Life Changes in an Instant
Thirteen years later, in December of 2018, Sidney’s back leg suddenly gave out while on a walk. We thought it was arthritis. Or maybe a sprain. We expected a splint, or, at worst, a cast on his leg.
Instead, tests showed a tumor on his spleen, which had metastasized to his lungs. Surgery wasn’t an option and there was no cure.
This unexpected diagnosis sent us reeling.
Keeping Sidney comfortable for as long as possible was the best we could do.
“As long as possible” turned out to be less than two months. We weren’t prepared for this quick downward slide of our dog child.
At first, there were no signs other than a limp. Hoping for a miracle remission, we delighted in days when he seemed his old self and was able to visit his beloved dog park.
But in mid-January, he developed rhythmic, Darth Vadar-like breathing. It increased in intensity and frequency, growing ever louder and more desperate.
By mid-February, Sidney was suffering, yet his appetite continued, he was able to walk around, and was perfectly alert. But we felt we still had to meet with the vet to discuss our options.
After she examined Sidney and talked to us, we decided to wait, to give him more time. Or maybe, it was more time for us.
When to Let Go
How much suffering is enough to euthanize a beloved pet? That was truly the question that haunted us.
One day at a time, we waited. Nights were the worst, hearing that increasingly loud, mechanical, ventilator sound.
We counted Sidney’s breaths a hundred times a day and when he was breathing over 100 times a minute, we called the vet. We didn’t want to wait until his heart, now clearly failing, exploded in his chest. This dog we loved so much deserved a peaceful transition.
We scheduled the appointment for the next day at 4 pm.
I was wracked with guilt for times I had yelled at Sidney during barking episodes that began a year ago. Had he been asking for more attention? Or was it a sinister sign that he was becoming ill? Either way, it was a gnawing regret.
I felt guilty for not playing with him enough. For taking him for granted. For treating him like furniture in the evenings as we watched TV.
But I couldn’t change the past. I could only be as present as possible with Sidney now. So we gave him the best last day we could.
It was time to go. I brought a small bag of chicken with me and sat in the back seat with him, loving and stroking Sidney’s face, his head, his back, telling him how much we love him, all while feeding him bites of his favorite treat.
When we arrived at the vet’s office, they took us in the back immediately and placed Sidney on the cold, steel table.
Our vet said we could take as much time with Sidney as we wanted, and left us alone in the room. Jay broke down and said he couldn’t stay during the procedure, which I completely understood. But I knew I needed to be there until the end, no matter what.
The vet and her assistant returned. It was up to me to give my permission to proceed with the first injection, the one that would simply let him sleep. She said I could then have up to a minute with him before she gave him the final shot that would stop his heart and finally relieve his suffering.
So, I spoke to my baby dog, my voice cracking, the lump in my throat nearly choking me, tears welling up, but not releasing. I told Sidney how much I’d loved him over the years, how much he meant to us. He stared into my eyes with all the love I knew he felt for us.
I fed him chicken while he lay on surgical steel waiting to die. But all he knew was the sound of my voice, the feel of my kisses, the touch of my hands, and the taste of his treats.
All I heard was the incessant pounding of that nightmarish gasping for air.
I told the vet to give him the first shot. One last bite of chicken as the needle gently pierced Sidney’s soft flesh.
Momentarily, his whole body relaxed and the wretched mechanical sound was replaced by the quiet breathing of a perfectly sound dog, his lungs gently expanding and contracting his body ever so slightly.
I felt a rush of relief knowing he was no longer suffering. Couldn’t we just let him sleep for a while, I asked?
But the medication was short-acting, so it would be cruel to wait too long.
I held him in my arms and told the doctor to complete the process.
As she inserted the final needle, I burst out sobbing, tears finally released.
It was over.
Once it was done, there was paperwork and decisions about cremation.
And then, it was time for me to leave. Walking through the waiting room and seeing all the pets who were going home afterwards caused me to dissolve into tears again.
We drove home in a silence broken only by controlled, soft sobs.
Our house felt cavernous and empty without Sidney, no longer like a home.
Once Sidney was gone, our pet-owning friends urged us to get another dog as soon as possible to help us heal. But there was no way we were capable of that.
When we got Sidney, Jay was 62 and I was 51. And now, we were 13 years older and I’d developed some chronic health conditions. Both of us were grumpier, more impatient and easily overwhelmed, less tolerant, and quite tired — not the formula for success with a new puppy.
Most importantly, we couldn’t imagine being able to love a dog as we’d loved Sidney. Or finding one that was the right fit for us now.
Plus, moving on felt disloyal, like it erased the memory of our beloved dog and meant that we didn’t really love him enough.
Even as the days grew into weeks and months, we still missed Sidney with an aching longing. We kept his leashes and collar, but grudgingly donated his toys and food.
My heart was healing at a very slow pace. There was no room for a dog.
So, we agreed that, while getting a dog wasn’t completely out of the question, we weren’t going to consider it any time soon.
A Change of Heart
A year later, the grief in my heart finally gave way and space opened for another dog to love.
But this time would be completely different. This time, we agreed that getting a dog would be an intentional and well-considered decision. Despite Covid, we began our online search in the Spring of 2020.
A Needle in a Haystack
Though I saw hundreds, maybe even a thousand, dogs online, not one hit me on a heart-gut level.
I’d been searching for a cute, small dog. We actually “auditioned” a couple of rescues for up to a week. Both ended badly. It finally occurred to me that maybe “cute” is not a criteria for selecting a pet. And that, maybe, I’d been going about this the wrong way.
After all, the “cute” dogs (and all puppies) have no trouble being saved. During the pandemic, the “cute” were scooped up instantly in a dog adoption frenzy (and sometimes even before appearing in the listings).
So, on February 20, 2021 I asked myself, “What if we found a really ‘un-cute,’ adult dog to adopt? A dog so scruffy that nobody else wanted it.”
That afternoon, while looking for a mangy mutt to love, I stumbled onto a picture of an animal that looked like a mini Bigfoot or maybe Alf, the space alien. She was full of wild hair going in all directions and looked like she was made of spare parts.
Her head seemed too big for her body. And her colors were strangely mismatched — brown in some places, black and white in others, wavy, curly, straight. She was the dog version of a camel — designed by a committee.
My heart melted. It’s that feeling you can’t manufacture, but you know it when you feel it. The feeling I had with Sidney, the feeling you experience when you’ve found the right pet.
Despite her frenzied appearance, Dumplin’ (as the shelter staff named her) had the happiest expression on her face.
She was The One.
When I showed Jay, he kind of squinted and made a face … and then told me to fill out the application.
Dumplin’, as far as they could figure out, was a four or five year old Yorkipoo found wandering the streets by Animal Control with no tags, no microchip, and unspayed. After no one claimed her two weeks later, she was transferred to the shelter, where she’d been for a few weeks.
We arranged to meet her a few days later. It couldn’t have been easier or gone smoother.
When they brought Dumplin’ out, she immediately jumped onto my lap. And I burst into tears. We were floored to see how different she looked after a haircut.
No Bigfoot anymore! Dumplin’ was not just cute, she was everything I could have hoped for in a pet — small, sweet, cuddly … and hypoallergenic.
It took a couple of weeks before we could bring her home, as she had to heal from spaying and some infections from her days on the road.
During that time, Jay and I experienced much fear around whether we could succeed at this. In fact, we nearly canceled the adoption. But we were determined not to let fear win over love.
We brought our new dog home on March 5th.
She needed a new name since Dumplin’ no longer described this precious little girl. We realized we’d probably call her Sidney, out of habit. So we decided on Cindy.
The 3–3–3 Rescue Rule
It soon became apparent that Cindy had likely been abused and maybe used as a breeder dog. We had a strong feeling that she was probably dumped on the street.
She began exhibiting heartbreaking behavior, such as not wanting to go outside, fear around going to the bathroom, and trembling at hearing a ball bounce or the sound of thunder.
The good news was that she’d clearly been housebroken and taught to run back to her crate after going to the bathroom.
It was clear that caring for Cindy called for a more intensive effort than Sidney. In researching trauma in dogs, we discovered the 3–3–3 rule for rescues: expect different challenges and changes after three days, three weeks, and three months.
I’ll share one sweet story about how thinking outside the box solved a big problem. Cindy decided she wouldn’t take walks if it meant leaving our yard. Driving her to the park daily for a walk is our morning solution.
Because she loves car rides, it occurred to me that getting a stroller might be a way out of this problem. Indeed, she jumps right in and we wheel her halfway around the block. Letting her out, she then has no choice but to walk home, doing her business along the way. Problem solved!
As I write this, it’s six months later and Cindy is a complete delight. She brings us joy every day and we love her dearly. She’s become a calm and much more secure dog who is endlessly entertaining.
Before getting Cindy, Jay was becoming more and more disheartened from the pandemic. It’s been a gift to see him laugh out loud every day at Cindy’s antics and to watch how much she dotes on him. Though she follows me around the house all day, she snuggles up to him in the evening to watch TV.
Saving Cinderella … and Celebrating Sidney
It wasn’t long before we realized that Cindy is actually short for Cinderella. As in the fairy tale, she’s a princess who suffered greatly until she was rescued; her dainty little paw a perfect fit into our shoe.
We still miss Sidney. He’s forever part of us.
What have I learned?
I know hearts expand the more we love, but grieving, which temporarily blocks that opening, is necessary too.
But, while grieving the death of a pet is important, the best way to celebrate their life is to open your heart to loving another.
Bringing new love into your life when your heart becomes open to it can be scary because you know that nothing lasts forever and the pain of that loss can be so great.
But allowing ourselves the gift of saving a life, to experience the love of a pet you’ve saved is a gift you’ve given yourself.
We’re grateful that we were able to save this Cinderella and give her a home where she feels safe.
But the truth is, Cinderella really saved us.