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Gus: five days later


A friend from my men’s group asked if I’d gone through the Five Stages of Grief during Gus’s ordeal. He was referring, of course, to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous postulates of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, in that order. I didn’t really think about Kubler-Ross during the five agonizing weeks during which Gus’s approaching death consumed me. But now that I look at the Five Stages, I don’t think they accurately reflect my experiences.

I suppose “denial” as the first stage is correct. When the vet first said she thought Gus had cancer, I didn’t believe it. I thought that he had somehow injured his gum, maybe through chewing on a bone, and that the kibble I was feeding him continued to irritate the wound and prevent it from healing. So, yes, that would be “denial,” although it strikes me as essentially human to hope that a diagnosis of cancer is incorrect. When, eventually, I came to accept the vet’s diagnosis following a tissue sample that confirmed osteosarcoma, I don’t think I ever felt “anger.” I didn’t shake my fist at the heavens and denounce the gods that had imposed this awful sentence on Gus and me. Who or what was there to be “angry” at?

Then there’s “bargaining.” I had to Google this to figure out what Kubler-Ross meant. Wikipedia explains bargaining this way: “the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. Examples include the terminally ill person who ‘negotiates with God’ to attend a daughter’s wedding, an attempt to bargain for more time to live in exchange for a reformed lifestyle or a phrase such as ‘If I could trade their life for mine’”.

I don’t think I went through that either. I certainly never “negotiated with God,” since I don’t really believe in a God with whom negotiating is possible. I definitely didn’t consider “reforming my lifestyle.” I don’t even know what that means; in any case, my “lifestyle” clearly had nothing to do with Gus getting cancer. I did occasionally put my lips on the tumor that was bulging out from the left side of his snout and think, “If I could take this tumor into myself and away from you, Gus, I would do it.” But even as I thought those words, I realized the futility of it all, and I also realized—a little abashedly—that I didn’t truly want to get Gus’s cancer after all.

Of “depression” there certainly was, and is, a great deal. I have been utterly wrecked by Gus’s illness and death. “Depression” isn’t even the right word for it: traumatized, shocked beyond belief, devastated, paralyzed, exhausted are more accurate. The low point was Tuesday afternoon and evening, after Gus was dead. The tears flowed nonstop. I’ve never been suicidal, but life didn’t seem worth living without my dog. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday weren’t much better. On Saturday, I could for the first time see the possibility of normalcy returning, or at least something approaching normalcy.

Finally, in Kubler-Ross’s list, there is “acceptance.” I’m not sure what that means. I mean, obviously we all have to accept the inevitable. It is wet outside because it’s pouring. I have no choice but to accept that reality. I accepted Gus’s diagnosis as soon as the test results came back. I accepted the fact that he was dying, and rapidly. Naturally, an irrational part of me always hoped for a miracle: the tumor would shrink, or it would stabilize in such a way that Gus could have many more months of enjoyable life. But even as that part of me fantasized away, a stronger part of me knew that the fantasy was just that. I operated on dual planes for more than a month. But I never doubted that Gus was very sick and was going to die in a matter of weeks.

So what does “acceptance” mean? It has to mean more than intellectual acceptance. I think it means emotional acceptance: I accept the fact, not only that Gus is dead and not coming back, but that there may be some goodness that emerges from this wreckage. How “goodness” can come from something so awful isn’t readily clear to me. There are many sayings about the positive effects of suffering: we become better for it, it leads to wisdom, etc. Ira Gershwin, of all people (who, with his brother George, wrote many of the songs in the Great American Songbook), is said to have remarked, “Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.” It may be odd to hear Gershwin, a Jew, talk about “baptism” but what he meant, I think, is similar to what the minerals coke, iron ore and limestone go through in a blast furnace to produce steel. There is a forging in fire that makes the end product stronger, more durable and, yes, more useful. When I think of my reactions to Gus’s death in those terms (however inchoate they care), I can foresee the possibility of becoming a better human being as the result of the sacrifice of the being who was closer to me than anyone else in the world. If not a better human being in the sense of turning into some kind of Mother Theresa, then at least seeing more deeply, feeling more acutely, being more patient.

So here I am, approaching the first full week of life without Gus. His death was obviously overwhelming, but I’ve also been overwhelmed by the number of people expressing their sympathy, who told their own stories of pet deaths with articulation and vast emotion. All that feedback was very, very helpful to me in my hour of need. I tried to “like” every Facebook comment and to respond in as many cases as I could, even if it was just a simple, heartfelt “thank you.” That people would take the time out to write to me makes me very grateful.

Meanwhile, I look around at Gus’s favorite places in my house—the big chair where he loved to lounge, his bed, and for that matter my own bed, which Gus always shared with me—and I’m still shocked that he’s not there. I suppose a part of me always will be. He seems so close, just a breath away, his doggie spirit infusing my home which was just as much his home. So close, and yet gone, forever and ever. It’s a cliché, but Gus made my life immeasurably better, and even though the pain of his passing is often unendurable, I am so glad we came into each other’s lives.

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