Sharing our Stories

Posted by Nicole Pallotta, ALDF's Animal Law Program Student Liaison on September 28, 2011

Well, it’s my turn to blog again, and I seem to be a bit of one-trick pony these days (pardon the speciesist expression), so here I go again, writing about love and loss. Words cannot express how deeply touched I was – and am – by the comments left on my last blog post (“Alec, Teagan, and Me“). I have my own blog, where I have felt comfortable expressing all of the messy, awful, bewildering, painful roiling emotions that engulfed me when my beloved shepherd Alec died. But this was my first time writing about grief for the ALDF blog, and I was apprehensive to post something so personal. Little did I know it would connect with so many people! I just re-read the comments again and tears streamed down my face as I did so. Every story, every relationship, is different, yet shares so much in common. These comments are windows onto so many dear and special relationships that cannot be quantified, explained, or forgotten, and I am privileged for the glimpse. To read such bittersweet stories of love and loss and resilience makes me feel strong, through osmosis, I guess…strength in numbers, a community of kindred spirits, a little club where people understand. Thank you for sharing with me and each other.

Alec and me“Grief is the price you pay for love.” Well I hated that one after Alec died, I really did. I know some people find this a comforting thought, and I understand how it could be. And it is certainly true. It just didn’t resonate with me in the beginning. It felt flippant; it didn’t seem to capture everything Alec and I had been through together, how unfair it felt to lose him that way. What did bring me a modicum of comfort (and I use that word, comfort, very loosely, as it was almost impossible for me to come by anything resembling comfort for a long time after he died – if anyone out there is in that dark scary place where I was, I’m sorry; trust me it does get better; I didn’t think it would either) was the knowledge that grief is a universal experience. Rare is the person who is not touched by grief in his or her lifetime. Although there was no grief *exactly like mine* (so unjust!) and no relationship *exactly like ours* (so special!) and no set of circumstances *exactly the same* (so many exacerbating factors!), it did help just knowing that there were people out there who could relate to some of what I was going through, if not all.

Some of these people I knew personally, and others came to me through words I read in books or stories I heard on the radio. Some were people who had suffered similar losses; some were people whose losses were in no way similar to mine save the feelings left at the end of it. The processing that must occur, the door through which the bereaved walks (forced march is more like) and steps out on the other side a new person, someone transformed inexorably, even if nobody knows but you. These commonalities were like an invisible thread connecting me to people I had never met. Yet we shared a bond. Reading your comments was like that too. They are a gift. I printed them out. I will treasure them. In fact they inspired me to begin a memorial project I have not been able to bring myself to face yet – the mountains of photos I have of Alec, the ones that in my mind will become a beautiful slideshow, a tribute to him and the life we shared together. The problem has been manifesting this vision, getting it out of my mind and tackling it in the real world. As tears slid down my cheeks reading your amazing stories of loyalty and pain and friendship and everlasting love I realized I was ready to go through his pictures. More than a year later, it’s true; this has taken me a long time. But he is not going anywhere (else), and neither is my love. I carry my grief with me like a satchel, like one of those hobo sacks on the end of a stick. Sometimes I put it down, but it is always with me. I take it from place to place, from day to day, from dawn to dusk and into the dark night. He is gone but my love for him remains. It is what is left of him. It feels weird, one-sided…almost imaginary. It wakes me up at night sometimes. It is the truest thing I can say about the way things are now. I am holding this love that never left. Like that Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where Calvin looks up and is suddenly sitting all by himself in the cafeteria; he was daydreaming and didn’t hear the bell. Everyone has gone to class. He is alone. It feels like that, a little. Where did you go? Why didn’t I hear the bell? And who pushed me through this goddamn door?

Watching the sunset with AlecI was talking to my friend not long ago about Alec, and I said that we exist outside of time now. Something like that. It just popped out of my mouth but I paused on it, considering what it meant, wondering why I said it. My perceptive friend heard me slip into ponder mode and said, “Hmm, I sense a future blog post.” Well I have not written about it until now, but I have thought about the idea of time a lot in the aftermath of Alec’s death. The tie-in here is the question of the photos, of being a weirdo who cannot create a slideshow of her dead dog until more than a year later. But, really, what is the rush? I always say people should not bury their grief deep inside, no matter how temporarily compelling it may be as a short-term survival strategy, because it can come back worse later. But I have been writing, I have been crying, I have been thinking, I have been talking. The pictures are tough for me though. And I think it’s because of the time thing. This is hard. Sometimes the particulars of grief are so clear in my mind yet difficult to write about. It’s like I keep Alec in my pocket, hold him close, can bring him out when I need …okay it’s like, you know how your favorite song can take on a wallpaper quality if you listen to it too much? I have always been the sort who when I fall really in love with a song or album, I have to limit myself in how much I listen to it because I don’t want it to lose that special magical quality and deep emotional resonance. I don’t want to wear it out. Not everyone does this. And I don’t do this with *every* song I love, just those really special songs by my favorite bands that I have some kind of weird connection with -an entire album like this for me is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (and this album is this for many people, I realize). When it came out in 1998 I was absolutely stunned and wanted to listen to it over and over all the time. But not wanting to dilute the awe those songs inspired in me, I rationed myself. And I never let it just play in the background. I limited myself to times when I could listen to the album with intention, to experience it fully. And though diminished somewhat in its ability to knock me over emotionally, it still feels fresh to me after more than 10 years.

What does this have to do with looking through photos of Alec? I guess I don’t want Alec to feel like a dusty old memory, like some song playing in the background that has lost its transcendent luster. And I fear if I stare at his pictures all the time they will lose some elusive quality, some freshness. They will become of the past, old and blurry relics. Because the thing is, they’re all I’ve got now, the only thing that is somewhat tangible and of the senses. There will be no new ones. Is this me trying to stop the passage of time, to corral it, to exert some measure of control in an area where I have been denied agency? I couldn’t stop his death but maybe if I lock the pictures away one day when I really need him it will be like meeting all over again for the first time. I don’t know. This is the first time I have really tried to articulate my problem with the pictures. Nobody gets it. In this way, my grief is more unique than universal. People really relate to some things I say, while others are more likely to get blank stares. This photo thing is one of the blank stare inducers.

I have a couple on my walls now. I am making progress. And I can’t stop time. But part of my grief process, most of what got me through the door to other side where I decided (yes, it was a conscious decision) I was going to survive, was the idea of forging a new relationship with him. The ghost of him, if you will. The “him” that is in my pocket, or my satchel, wherever non-corporeal Alec is, whichever imperfect metaphor is most apt. But for some people the most comforting thing they can think of is to surround themselves with photos of their deceased loved one. That is awesome. I wonder sometimes if I am doing my grief “right,” whether I am handling it properly. But then I realize there is no right or wrong answer and I think as long as I keep writing I will be okay. He will still be here with me.

One of the comments on my last post that struck me was SusanD writing about her beloved cat Champy’s death over fourteen years ago. She wrote: “I heard the usual clichés, ‘he’s at the Bridge,’ ‘it was his time,’ ‘you’ll get over it’ — I never did, never will. Fourteen years. Yesterday. An eternity.” I have said very similar things. Alec died more than a year ago. It feels like forever; it feels like 5 minutes. This is what I was saying to my friend in the conversation where I mused that we existed outside time now; I just remembered the context.

And Victoria commented about her dearly departed dachshund: “I don’t think that I will ever recover completely. Since then I have rescued two more doxies, and love them dearly, but…I am still waiting to be with my Scooter.” I can so relate to that too…that feeling of waiting. I don’t find comments likes this – “I will never get over it.” “I am waiting to be with him.” – depressing. They are beautiful to me. They are testaments to relationships that now exist outside of time. Whatever that means, I don’t know (I sometimes write things I don’t fully understand). But this comforts me.

And so does the sharing of stories. I wrote recently in my blog about how I love to hear Alec’s name, how I like to talk about him, to think about him. I know a large part of the pain of losing a loved one can be the feeling of having to keep it inside. Especially in the case of a companion animal, a bereaved person can be made to feel their grief is not legitimate. This is terrible and compounds the tragedy of loss. Social attitudes are changing, but outside the rarified air of ALDF and my simpatico circle of friends, I know it can be a harsh place out there for people grieving the loss of a dear animal companion. That is why we must share our stories – to give each other hope and strength.

Alec at the park in his cartBecause not everyone feels this way about their companion animals, it is even more important for us to share our stories. Many of us know what it is like not only to open our hearts and truly love a member of another species, but to enact that love with a commitment to the animal and his or her needs (I have personally always found the action part of the verb “love” to be more important than the more passive, feeling part). An animal doesn’t care that you say you love her – show her! Take her for a walk, include her in your life, be HER best friend! At ALDF we often say the law regarding companion animals has not caught up to changing social norms. The notion that animals are mere property is antiquated and has not kept pace with our changing perception of pets as family members. This is true, especially if you hang out in places like the ALDF blog (or in our office)! Yet for every person who mourns the death of a non-human best friend, for every person who turns her life upside down and finances inside out to accommodate a special needs animal or to treat a life-threatening disease, there is another person dumping their erstwhile “family member” at the shelter because they peed in the house, barked too much, shed all over the furniture, or simply required too much time and energy. Sadly, many of these healthy animals, each one as deserving of a loving home as the beloved individual animals in our own lives, will be put to death simply because nobody wanted them.

This shameful killing of former “best friends” happens every day, everywhere, because animals are property and the family member designation is arbitrary, something bestowed upon them by us – and not all of us. We can only hope to form a critical mass eventually, a tipping point where the more mainstream notion is that dogs and cats (and other species we have brought into our homes and made dependent on us) are companions with their own interests and lives – lives that mean everything to them – and not pretty set pieces or ornaments or animated stuffed toys or forgotten shadows on the end of the chain tied up alone in the backyard. The juxtaposition between the cherished relationships described in the comments on my last post and the ways some dogs and cats are (legally) treated is astounding when you really think about it. I believe ALDF and its supporters are at the forefront of a progressive trend. At ALDF we can bring our animal companions to work, we take dog walk breaks, and we are allowed bereavement days when they die – just like a human member of the family. So until not only the law but the rest of society starts to catch up with those of us who truly treat our dogs and cats like cherished friends and family members (not through misguided anthropomorphism but rather a careful consideration of their species-specific needs; to fulfill those needs in a human-centered society is not always easy, but those of us who have truly and respectfully loved an animal find the rewards far outweigh the challenges), we should keep sharing our stories and inspiring one another with our tales of love, commitment, and yes, inevitably loss…but equally inevitable, I hope, will be the post script: learning to love again.

Me and Teagan at the beachA year ago I could not imagine adopting another dog. Yet here I am, head over heels in love with a sweet little one-eyed German shepherd. I’m back in a dog-centric routine, trying every day to make someone happy again…walks, adventures, trips to the park, rides in the car, simple companionship. Teagan is so different from Alec, but she makes me feel close to him because of the joy she has brought back into my life. We have been together three months now. She is amazing and I love her. (To see some pictures of Teagan in her new home with me, you can visit her Facebook page.) I love the idea of adoption as a tribute. All the animals sitting in shelters hoping against a ticking clock that someone chooses them before their time is up would agree. And Teagan’s presence has been so healing to me. Not that I will ever completely heal. Or stop waiting for our miracle. Alec would have been eleven years old next month. Time marches on. But I am hoping he is still with us, with Teagan and me, somewhere outside of time, maybe waiting for me too.

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2 thoughts on “Sharing our Stories

  1. Stefani says:

    I really loved your original post, Nicole, and shared it with lots of folks. I was hoping to hear an update about you and Teagan and am glad you posted.

    As for the comments helping you, please know that your blog helped others. It is really a comfort — although it is true that our grief is of course unique — to read your blog, read the story of you and Alec, and hear the stories of others who also had this kind of deep bond with their pets, and also hear them talk about their feelings of loss.

    Unfortunately we live in a world that often tries to shame us out of our emotions for animals, that considers us weird or aberrant (sp?) for those emotions, and so to read them from someone else is to affirm their value. We need to affirm the lasting value of our special beloved non-human friends.

    Some of my most valued friends are people with whom I have forged a bond from a shared place of what a psychologist would, I guess, call, “complicated grief” over the loss of their pets. For them this complicated grief is associated with the trauma of losing a pet at the hands of someone they entrusted their pets care to. The attendant guilt and the feelings of having failed your loved one pile onto the grief.

    You went through a really long love story with Alec, and the two of you bonded even more during your caretaking of him. Surely as you did therapy with him, helping him to walk, and saw his strength, your depth of feeling for him grew and your respect for him as an individual grew, and he became an even bigger inspiration to you than ever. You probably would have loved and missed him horribly no matter what, but the fight you went through with him made him even dearer to you.

    What you wrote about continuing the relationship with Alec really hit home. I think that is so important. And what you say about not being able to go through his pictures — that hits home too.

    I had to let my Toonces go, 2 years after he survived an insulin overdose given to him by his vets’, left untreated by same vets for 24 hours, resulting in massive brain damage. He fought so hard to survive, and I decided to fight with him. I was so proud of him and inspired by him. He was always wild and strong, and through the massive brain damage, that spirit still shone through. He taught himself how to walk again. He taught himself to eat again with help. He almost learned how to groom again, at least halfway. He really fought and he very much wanted to live. Wanted to be with me. But so much brain was destroyed, and will alone will not regrow that. In the end, in spite of both of our will and commitment, he could not fight his way back to anything near normal. One day he could no longer walk after cluster seizures he suffered from the brain damage which he lived with since the overdose.

    Only other people who so deeply loved their animals and lost them in a tragic way seem to relate to the feelings that come from that. I have talked to a few who do share this experience, and there are some similarities.

    We often could find no joy in activities that used to define us as individuals. I loved music. After his overdose, the remaining two years of his life, and for years after his death (it’s been over 7 years since the overdose and 5 since his death) I really couldn’t listen to music, except to sing to him. I did sing to him, and he responded. Now, since he died, I really have not reclaimed my love of music because it evokes too much emotion in me, opens me up too much. I can finally listen to the radio again after years, but when I do hear love songs, they remind me of him. And often, music just seems trivial.

    I could not throw away or reuse his bed, his supplies, anything. These things had to be put away, until the day I can let go of, or reuse, them. I still have his last bag of sub q fluids.

    In the last month, I dreamed that the man who overdosed him sent a hit squad to kill me. So there is still a lot of trauma around that 7 years later. I guess a lot of the trauma is around the memories of holding him in my arms while he seized, while we were stuck in traffic, trying desperately to get him somewhere where they could help him before he died, watching him convulse, feeling helpless, feeling that I delivered him into the hands of someone who did that to him.

    Last week, I drove to the apartment we lived in when we were most happy, when we were both in our prime. Late at night I walked around the grounds where I used to walk him on a leash. I broke down crying. Five years after his death and 7 years after his overdose. I know now that I can’t expect to someday be “over” it.

    It’s really OK to say that he was the love of my life. And it’s really OK to say that Alec was the love of yours. People who think there is something wrong with that are not people who will ever understand us anyway.

    I know another woman who lost her most beloved cat under tragic circumstances. She used to love gardening and has not been able to find joy in it since. Another like me, has not been able to return to sleeping in her bed or without radio or TV on. We fear our own thoughts.

    I’ve been wanting to do a memorial video for Toonces, but I haven’t been able to yet. I know someone who had to wait till 9 years after the death of a beloved pet to finish a memorial project. It doesn’t mean you are running away or that you will forget. It just means it’s still too raw, and that’s different for everyone.

    It’s just a sad commentary on the lack of value our animal companions have in our society that expressing these things to most people results in wary looks. It’s OK. It’s hard to feel lucky sometimes, but I really do believe we are the lucky ones, to be able to bond with and love non-humans on such a deep level.

    Outside of time — yes, that’s it. That’s what it is. I love that phrase. Exactly what it is.

    Thank you for sharing your love story with Alec. And thank you for giving so much love to Teagan. You and Teagan really deserve each other in the best way; may you help heal each others hearts.

  2. Squillions says:

    I am so deeply moved by this blog entry, I’m not even sure where to begin expressing my gratitude for having found it. I have been a volunteer at a pet loss web site for over seven years now. In that time, I have written countless posts and several poems and essays on the subject of pet loss in general and about my personal journeys of recovering from my own losses. This blog entry sums up most of what I have written over the years, and does it beautifully.

    Thank you for sharing this insightful piece with the world.