My dog, Archie, died a couple weeks ago. At the time, I tried expressing my grief through a new post, but that was interrupted by my other dog, Kip.
Now that I’ve gotten a little distance from Archie’s death, I finally feel like I can write something about that little sonuvabitch who broke me for several days.
Archie Wasn’t The Best Dog
First off, I want to confront something very specific: Archie wasn’t the best dog.
He barked at the sound of wind — a horrid, high-pitched yip that’d wake me from the heaviest of sleep.
He pissed and shit all over our house from the moment we signed the dotted line on his adoption papers until literally the day he died. The first thing we did after he passed was a load of laundry.
He was territorial of the house and kept our two cats and his brother on edge for the entirety of his life because no one knew when he might suddenly decide the cat was just a little too close.
In short, he established a certain constant of tension and frustration in our house that my wife and I didn’t even realize existed. He was a bundle of nerves and terror that made me want to give up on adopting pets ever again.
And He Was Perfect
Any dog owner who has had a pet pass suddenly will have their own horror stories, often said with a slight chuckle and a wistful look in their eye. Invariably, they’ll all say the same thing, though: “But they were a good dog.”
Archie was perfect. It had nothing to do with his inability to understand he wasn’t allowed to leave poop surprises under my desk or piss all over our bookshelves… it was his personality. Archie wanted nothing more than to snuggle up with my wife or I, tuck his nose under his paws, and sleep in our laps for hours. In the summer, he preferred to do this outside in the sun, his pale little belly turning red from sunburn while he sat in our sweaty laps.
*wipes eyes; composes self; blows nose*
I mentioned in that other article that he helped me through the roughest time of my life a few years back. When I had my mental breakdown, I really should’ve been hospitalized. Nothing was real anymore; there wasn’t any structure to my thoughts or feelings and even the way the wind blew felt strange across my skin. I’ve talked about this in-depth back in “My Bipolar Freakshow”, so I’ll avoid rehashing too much. Suffice to say, I was out on work-supplied disability and flailing weakly for structure.
Little did I know the structure I needed was provided by our pets. My day turned into a series of tasks:
- Get up
- Feed the cats first so they don’t eat the dog food — one can of cat food, split down the middle and mashed up
- Refill dry cat food bowl
- Click bowls together to get cats’ attention
- While cats are distracted with nummies, feed the dogs — one can, split down the middle and mashed up into little bites because Kip barely has any teeth
- Bring bowls to the dogs while calling out: “Breakfast boys!”
- Make sure Archie doesn’t eat everything
- Make coffee
- Yell at Archie for eating from his brother’s bowl
- Make more coffee
- Sit on couch
- Pet Archie after he curls up on my lap
My evening was similar, except as I went to bed, I’d tuck Kip and Archie into their kennel or their bed and whisper, “goodnight little men.”
Even after my medications got setup and the world started making sense again, I maintained this routine (including the “yell at Archie” step). Every morning had this routine so engrained that the first day after Archie died, I called out: “Breakfast boys!”
That night, I tucked Kip in and whispered “goodnight little men…” before I broke down crying for half an hour.
There were several days there just after he passed where I truly worried I was going to lose it again. I hadn’t realized just how much my sanity relied on the structure provided by these pets, specifically the extra attention needed by Archie every goddamn day.
But it did and I almost lost it…
Which brings me to the business end of this article: keeping grief from destroying your mental health progress.
It feels weird even typing that out. I mean, Archie was just a dog, right? It’s not like I lost a child or a parent or spouse… but it doesn’t matter. Grief is personal. It’s illogical. Grief doesn’t give one metric fuck if it was only your hamster, Goliath, who died of obvious congestive heart failure. You loved that hamster. He nibbled cheese from your hand four meals a day and weighed seven soft and cuddly pounds.
No, grief doesn’t care about whether you should feel one way or another and yours is as valid as anyone else’s. There isn’t a finite amount of pain in the world; allow yourself yours.
So, if you’ve propped your mental health up on toothpicks consisting of an elderly pet and a complex routine, what do you do when grief tears your life apart? I won’t claim to have the answer for everyone, but I can at least share what I did to keep from collapsing.
As soon as I realized the surreal feeling flooding my life came from the breakdown of my routine (Kip and the cats are much more laid back), I took a look at my morning and evenings. I examined all the steps I took throughout the day centered around Archie — ugly cried for an hour and a half — and really broke down my day into new steps.
In my case, the pets still needed to be fed, but the process of splitting the cans drove me to the floor as a sobbing mess, so I bought new, single-serving dog food cans. Instead of monitoring the dog food to make sure Kip could eat, I watched the cats to make sure they didn’t finish first and try to eat his food. I made my coffee and actually had time to drink some of it without having to yell at anyone.
In short, I tweaked the routine ever-so-slightly so it removed the pain my grief drove into me on a constant basis.
Once that was done, I really, really considered burying my grief as far down as humanly possible. I thought about deleting the picture of Archie from my phone; of washing everything so his little blonde hairs weren’t on everything.
But I stopped myself. Grief is illogical, but necessary. It’s one of those things that remind me that, as humans, we have a capacity for love and empathy that allows us to do great things in the world.
So, instead of burning my grief with fire, I looked at pictures. I cried more than I’ve ever cried. I shared that grief with my wife, my friends, my mom. Hell, my Twitter feed probably thinks I’m a perpetually sobbing mess now.
But it worked. My friends sent condolences. My mom, cousin, sister, and brother made a surprise visit to give me hugs (they live 90 minutes away), then drove back home. Even strangers on Twitter and here shared in my grief.
And a strange thing happened… when I shared my grief and it resonated with others, the pain lessened. The more I talked about it, the less it hurt, until one day I pulled up a picture of Archie sunbathing and no tears came.
A feeling of warmth came over me, I remembered that day in the sun and the way he refused to come in because he was so happy and, for the first time in a week, no tears flowed.
Instead, I smiled.