The Void…

Our kids had grown up and moved out. Chuck, Booboo and I had settled into a comfortable routine…now that it was just the three of us. Rather than being “the family dog,” Booboo had become our companion. We spent a good amount of time just hanging out with him.

Booboo was getting older, 11 or 12 years old, and I realized that his time with us would wrap up in the not-too-distant future. I was concerned about how our family would handle his death. Actually, I was concerned about how our kids would handle his death…for us! I decided I’d better nip this in the bud. Do a bit of preventive communication. I made it clear that no matter how sad we were when Booboo died, do not, under any circumstances, get us another puppy to cheer us up.

Well in advance of Booboo’s death, Chuck and I were planning to be pet-free…once Booboo was gone. As much as we loved him and would miss him, we were ready for a phase of life when traveling, in particular, would be less complicated.

“Are you planning to get another dog?” is a regular question we’ve gotten since Booboo’s death. For Chuck, the answer is a definite “no.” For me, the answer is “not at this time.” Then comes the question, “But what about the void?” It surprised me how many people used the same phrase…the void…and talked about it as if it were a power beyond our control. A black hole that relentlessly pulls at your heart strings, reminding you of what’s been lost, until you give in and refill it.

It didn’t take long for me to encounter the void. The empty space that used to be filled with Booboo’s energy, spirit, and personality…as well as his physical presence. The routines that were so much a part of my day, were now altered or non-existent. Routines like taking Booboo for a walk when I got up in the morning and when I got home from work in the evening…no need to do that anymore. Bringing a ball and his bed to the laundromat, so we could play fetch while we wait for the dryer to finish…no one to play fetch with now. Lying in bed and reaching to pet Booboo, who always cuddled up next to me…it’s just an empty space.

The void. The sudden emptiness that used to be so full of energy…and love. Even when death is long expected, the emptiness feels sudden. Like turning off a light switch that won’t go back on. Even if the bulb has slowly gotten dimmer, one’s eyes have adjusted. When it switches off for good, it’s quick and irreversible.

I can only imagine how difficult the void would be when a loved one’s health is good and death comes unexpectedly. Then you’re going from full light to complete darkness…in an instant. The book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her parents, husband, and two young sons in the 2004 tsunami, tells the story of such loss, and the unbearable emptiness that follows. I read this book shortly after Booboo’s passing. While the intensity of her loss was much greater than ours, I found many similarities in her process of grieving and healing…and particularly her reference to the void.

I can see why people will choose to get a new dog fairly quickly after the death of their previous one. Even though it’s not the same animal as the one you loved and lost, it allows you to keep a similar routine and calm the power of the void. You again have someone to take for a walk, greet you when you come home, and cuddle with in the evenings.

Rather than filling the void, I wanted to understand it and learn to work through it. I didn’t miss having a dog. I missed Booboo. I missed my friend. The dog who converted many self-proclaimed non-dog people to at least liking this dog. The dog who would settle into my arms, and often fall asleep, while I did a variety of activities…such as shopping, conversation, and cooking. The dog who loved to hunt for Easter eggs and get his own presents from under the Christmas tree, leaving all other presents undisturbed. The dog who some people wanted to clone, because they had never met a dog like Booboo and wanted one just like him. (I always discouraged the cloning idea.)

Getting another dog would not be the same. The void would be filled superficially. I would soon have to come to terms with the fact that the new animal is a dog, but not the same dog. And like I said before, I didn’t miss having a dog. I missed Booboo.

The first few months were the hardest. I still expected him to be there. Every routine, every memory caused me to have to lose him over and over again. Coming home and looking for him…no, he’s gone. Waking up in the morning and reaching to pet him…no, he’s dead. Seeing a toy or snack at the store that he would like…no need, he’s no longer with us.

Once the reality of his absence sunk in and many of my routines had been changed, I no longer had to keep reminding myself that he was gone. At that point, my memories of him became a source of comfort, rather than a painful reminder of loss. And the void started to calm.

I am grateful that Booboo came into our lives, and I now delight in the memories of our time together. Everyone I’ve known, and especially those I’ve loved, are deeply a part of me…never to be separated completely. Working through this void has been quite a worthwhile lesson. Getting beyond what’s been lost, to the point of joy and gratitude for what was gained. The lessons learned from Booboo, with him, and because of him will help in all other areas of my life.

The void can be filled or can be worked through and calmed…or some combination of the two. My old routines have been replaced with new ones. Some intentionally altered, like playing solitaire at the laundromat instead of fetch, and others more naturally changed, like being able to stay downtown after work, rather than having to come home first. Life after the void is different, and yet in a new way it’s still good.

Will we get another dog some day? Hard to say for sure. When I’m an old lady, another dog might be a welcome addition. We’ll see. The void has calmed. My memories of Booboo now bring a smile of joy, more often than a tear of sadness. Change is a part of life. Loss is a part of life. But the love stays with you…through it all.

Advertisements

Kevin…

I’ve been avoiding mainstream medicine, as much as possible, for years. I will only go to a doctor, or take a family member to one, when I want to confirm a diagnosis or fix an injury. Most prescriptions that are offered are either declined or left unfilled, unless the doctor can give a compelling reason why their benefits would outweigh their many downsides.

This attitude and approach is the result of repeated disappointment with the medical industry’s ability to prevent or heal disease…something they repeatedly claim they can do. I see doctors as a resource of information, with limited knowledge and a limited viewpoint. Since I read health and medical books for fun, I have a growing foundation of knowledge regarding various conditions and their treatment options. I consider my perspective and opinions to be just as valid to the situation as theirs; and often more so, since I know myself and my family members far better than the doctor ever could.

It rarely takes long in the course of a visit to realize that the doctor doesn’t agree with me on this point…at all. The doctor is the “expert” and I am expected to “comply” with the doctor’s “orders.” Clearly they don’t know me very well. I will be polite during the visit, ask questions, and get his/her opinion…then go home and do additional research about other options, before deciding how best to move forward. I had never met a doctor who showed me an equal level of respect and consideration, where I could actually voice my opinion during the visit…until Kevin.

The family member who needed care was our 14-year-old toy poodle, Booboo. He had a growing list of health issues, yet every vet I had taken him to either didn’t think my concern about his symptoms was anything to worry about, or wanted to run a bunch of expensive and invasive tests that wouldn’t accomplish anything towards improving his health or comfort level. It had been two years since Booboo’s last vet visit, and the only thing accomplished during that visit was the stressing out of our poor old dog.

So here we were. I wasn’t happy with any vet we had seen so far, and yet I needed some insight into the specific problems Booboo was dealing with. An internet search of local vets led me to a new vet in town…Kevin Toman at Mission Animal Hospital. His website showed he embraced nutrition and homeopathy, in addition to mainstream medicine. I have found that any doctor willing to accept homeopathy as a valid form of medicine has loosened the straps of his medical training enough to allow himself to be open to alternatives. This was a good sign. I called his office and made an appointment.

Booboo’s health issues were quite advanced, especially his congestive heart failure. His cataracts, deafness, spinal arthritis, and dental decay all aggravated his declining condition. We accepted that we would not be able to heal most of these diseases, and instead focused on things that might make him more comfortable…until it was clearly time to let him go.

My interaction with Kevin, his wife Diane, and their office staff lasted a total of two months. It was an experience that far surpassed any interaction I have ever had with anyone in the medical community…before or since. When I made my last visit to his office to pick up Booboo’s ashes, Kevin was working alone at the front counter. After we took care of business, I looked at him and asked if he had any idea how unique he was. He paused, and then joked that his wife would probably agree he was unique, but he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

There are several things that made it clear that Kevin sees his role differently than most medical professionals do. He is very open about everything he does. There are windows in his examination rooms and no roof. You can hear everything he’s telling the pet family in the next room, which gives you a feel for his approach to animal care before you even meet him. When he comes in, he drops the “Dr” when introducing himself. He’s just Kevin. This sets a collaborative tone to the visit, rather than an expert/patient hierarchy. He then sits on the floor and listens, really listens, as you tell him about your animal and any concerns you have.

During our visits, information flowed both directions – him getting a feel for Booboo and our relationship with him, and me getting helpful information and answers to questions. If I asked about something he wasn’t familiar with, such as an alternative treatment option, Kevin had no problem accepting the limits of his knowledge and expertise by responding with “I don’t know” …and then qualifying that answer with, “I don’t have any knowledge or experience with that form of treatment, so can’t advise on it.” It was incredibly refreshing, and rare, to find a doctor willing to admit he didn’t know something. Most doctors would give an opinion anyway. Kevin just offered a couple of cautions and left it to me to research more and make the final decision.

My opinion and his differed on a few points, to which he always responded, “We can disagree and still be friends.” That was my absolute favorite thing that he would say. And he meant it. I know that, because it was put to the test during Booboo’s final week with us.

Kevin had prescribed a few medications for Booboo to help stabilize his congestive heart failure and ease the pain of his spinal arthritis. These medications helped Booboo physically, and yet they muddled all traces of his personality. In addition, his appetite had declined significantly, which made it even harder to get him to take his meds on the prescribed schedule without having it turn into a battle of wills.

To give Booboo and me a break, I skipped a dosage on one of his meds. Within a couple of hours, I noticed a slight return of his personality. I then skipped the next one and he came back to us a bit more. It didn’t take long for me to decide to drop more of his meds. After a few days without the drugs, he did a bow-stretch…something he hadn’t done in weeks, and a glimmer of our old, loved friend came back for a bit. Getting that last glimpse of his former self, however brief, was well worth any speeding up of his decline that most likely took place.

At Booboo’s next appointment with Kevin, I told him that Booboo had been off his meds for a week and  explained my reasons for stopping them. This action had caused a worsening of fluid build up in Booboo’s heart, which was a serious backslide of his physical condition. Kevin sat on the floor and visibly struggled with the situation. He looked from his left hand to his right, with one representing his opinion and the other representing mine. He concluded that we were both trying to do what was best for Booboo, but each had different priorities. In the end, Kevin confirmed that Booboo’s condition would continue to decline – with meds or without. We came to a compromise on the medications and I agreed to give Booboo the one he felt was most important.

With any other doctor, I would have been scolded for not following his “orders”… or I would have withheld information about my actions, to avoid having to endure his judgment of my choice. Neither one is helpful to the healing process – whether it’s physical healing we’re striving for or emotional/spiritual healing. The respect Kevin showed towards the needs of our emotional relationship with Booboo, which toward the end overrode Booboo’s physical needs, was something I had never experienced before from anyone in the medical profession. True mutual respect.

Kevin’s final gift to our family, and especially to Booboo, was his willingness to come to our house to do the euthanasia. Booboo was able to spend his last day with us in the comfort of his home, surrounded by the love of his family, until his last breath.

The rest of the medical community needs to get off their high horse and take a lesson. Care of the body, mind, and spirit requires true mutual respect…and an acceptance that the doctor may not agree with the path that needs to be chosen. And that’s okay.

“We can disagree and still be friends.”

Thanks, Kevin.

-Jenne Hiigel

Last Days…

As Booboo approached his fifteenth birthday, his congestive heart failure took a serious turn for the worse. Combining that problem with his blindness, deafness, and advanced spinal arthritis, it became clear that his time with us was wrapping up. If we let his congestive heart failure run its course, his last moments on earth would be spent gasping for breath and dying in a panic. Not an acceptable scenario for someone so deeply loved.

I’d been struggling with this decision for weeks. My biggest fear was the possibility of euthanizing him too soon…before he was ready…before we were ready. I talked to Chuck and our three grown children about their feelings and concerns. We all came to the same conclusion. When the time was right, we would know. If we had any doubts, then it wasn’t time yet.

What we want, and what we know is right, are often two very different things. I wanted to be able to help Booboo get better, but as his health continued to decline and all glimpses of his personality were overwhelmed by his failing body, I soon had to face the fact that it was time to let him go…for his sake, far more than for ours.The rest of the family sadly agreed.

The date and time were set. Our vet, Kevin, agreed to come to our house. This was a true example of Kevin’s complete understanding of the loving bond between humans and their animal companions. I am deeply grateful that he was willing to do the euthanasia at our home, and I know that Booboo was grateful as well.

The night before his last day, we had a picnic dinner with Booboo on our living room floor, while we watched a movie together. It was our last supper with him. A celebration of our time together and the start of our goodbyes. Booboo’s appetite had waned significantly in the past week. It was becoming quite a challenge to get him to eat at all. Our daughter Carolyn, who lived in town, brought cheese and speck for the picnic…which peaked Boo’s interest a bit.

The chosen movie had a picture of a human brain in the shape of a dog on the cover. “Wrong” was about a man desperately searching for his lost dog. It was a very strange movie, yet entirely appropriate for the situation. Booboo cuddled on our laps and snacked with us here and there, as we all basked in the moment.

That night Booboo had trouble sleeping again, due to discomfort from his troubled body. Although I was already pretty exhausted from disrupted sleep during many previous nights, I was able to approach this one differently. As our last night together, I would stay up with him for as long as he needed me. A couple hours later, we were able to settle back down to sleep.

On Booboo’s last day, he was not left alone. I brought him with me to work, so I could take care of a few tasks and then take the rest of the day off. People were surprised when I explained that this was Booboo’s last day. That he would be leaving us at 5pm. But then they looked straight at him, petted him gently, and said their goodbyes. We don’t always get the opportunity to say goodbye. When it happens, it should be appreciated and treasured.

Boo and I walked downtown a bit. Actually, I did the walking. His blindness, deafness, and tendency to walk in compulsive circles made it impossible for him to go on walks anymore. So I carried him. We stopped by one of his favorite parks. I put him in the sand of the volleyball court, which used to trigger an immediate need to dig…but not anymore. He stood there confused. I gently picked him up and we headed home.

For the next couple of hours, Booboo and I lay on the couch together, with him on my chest, sharing the warmth of our love and saying our wordless goodbyes. At about 4pm, Carolyn arrived and took over the Boo cuddling. At 5pm, Chuck got home…and shortly after that Kevin arrived.

The first injection was a general anesthetic to make Booboo unconscious. As the drug took effect, we held him close and showered him with our love. Booboo was then laid next to me on the couch, and Kevin gave him the final injection to shut down his poor, tired body. A few minutes later he was gone. His spirit released. No longer in pain.

Chuck sent a text to our out-of-town kids that said, “Hey, hey, Booboo! Let’s go get us some pic-a-nic baskets.” Booboo was now free to do just that.

-Jenne Hiigel