How a death in the family affected our family dogs

I know how it affected me when Jim died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010, but I had to guess at how it affected our two Brittany dogs at the time.

Sassy was 4 and Bullet had just turned 2. Both were very close to Jim because he had been retired for a couple years and was home with them. Bullet definitely belonged to Jim, and was destined to be Jim’s hunting dog. Jim had raised him from an 8-week-old puppy and they were constant companions. Jim and Bullet even watched television together.

The dogs went everywhere with Jim, traveling in the comfort of the pickup truck while Jim did various errands. The only time they stayed home was when it was too hot or bitterly cold.

Jim loved to take the dogs in the truck with him. Here he is returning from errands with Sassy. Bullet wasn't born yet.

Jim loved to take the dogs in the truck with him. Here he is returning from errands with Sassy. Bullet wasn’t born yet.

One of my favorite stories about Jim and Bullet has to do with CDs. Jim liked to listen to his music CDs when he was doing errands. He would take the dogs with him and while he was in the store, the dogs would wait in his pickup truck.

Jim began to find chewed up CDs when he returned to his truck.

Puzzled, because he didn’t think he had left any out where they would be easily accessible, he finally figured out that Bullet — a budding engineer who liked to know how things worked — was pushing the eject button on the CD player and grabbing the CD, then chewing it.

We had a good laugh about trying to be smarter than our dogs, and Jim, feeling kind of foolish because it took him a few CDs to catch on, was more careful about where he left his music.

Jim didn’t travel with us much for the dog sports we participated in, but he was so proud of his dogs’ accomplishments. He didn’t care what their placement was; he just wanted to know if they had fun and, in the case of the dog shows, if Bullet was bringing home a ribbon. He never asked what color it was or what it meant; he just wanted to know Bullet had earned one. That was enough.

I think the dogs were more in tune with Jim’s illness than he and I were. They wanted to be close to him, and increasingly so as he became more ill.

I took them to the hospital to visit with him during one of his longer stays when doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong.

I brought the dogs one at a time into a reception area just off the elevator. Sassy, although very happy to see Jim, was a nervous wreck. She tends to be sensitive to human suffering and it was sensory overload for her. Bullet, always stable and calm, went to Jim and parked himself between Jim’s legs as if to say, “There you are.” And he was content.

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Bullet (left), Sassy and Jim loved being together. Here they are all on one of the benches in the camper in 2009.

 

When Jim went to the hospital for the last time, the dogs acted anxious as I traveled between hospital and home, staying home long enough to let them out or feed them but having no energy to deal with them beyond the basic necessities. I slept at home, and the dogs plastered themselves to me when we went to bed.

Things were spiraling downward so fast. I knew they were upset, but could not explain anything to them. I had no answers myself.

When Jim died, I knew I had to arrange for the dogs to have closure too. I’d had experience with this before. My Brittany dog Rosie, who died before we got Sassy, had been very close to my father. When Daddy was living out his end days in the veteran’s home, I would bring Rosie in to see him. Rosie would carefully climb into bed and stretch along my father’s body. They both seemed to take comfort in that time together.

When my father died, I asked Jim to bring Rosie in. I sat next to the bed where my father’s body lay. Rosie, recognizing him, wagged her tail, but when she started to get into bed with him, she smelled death and would have nothing to do with his body. The person she loved was no longer there. The matter-of-factness in her body language was fascinating to me.

Remembering that experience, I arranged with the funeral home for Sassy and Bullet to attend the visiting hours during the wake. During the family-only time, I picked up each dog in turn and carried it to Jim’s open casket. Each dog showed the same initial joy at visual recognition, a sniff and then a desire to leave. It was the same matter-of-fact reaction I had seen in Rosie.

Sassy and Bullet knew where Jim was and would not have to look for him. Death had stolen him from us.

The dogs stayed in the lobby of the funeral home during the visiting hours as people came and went. My friend Denyse, who had bathed them and prepared them for company, took care of them for me. She also helped me with them at the cemetery.

I like to think letting the dogs be part of the process helped them move on more easily. I wish it had done the same for me, but it helped me to know they were nearby.

As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize our pets, applying human emotions to them that may or may not be accurate. But I do know from experience that animals grieve. Sassy and Bullet never looked for Jim because they knew where he was, but they liked to be near his scent, taking comfort in it. They moped around for a few days.

I had expected that, and I thought they were reacting to my grief too.

Sassy (in Jim's lap) and Bullet with jim. He loved his dogs.

Sassy (in Jim’s lap) and Bullet with jim. He loved his dogs.

Five months later, I was at a dog show with Bullet. One of the vendors was an animal communicator. We didn’t know each other, but for the small fee, I thought it would be interesting to see what she had to say about my dogs. I asked the communicator questions to ask the dogs and she would give me their responses.

Let me say up front that I tend to be a skeptic about these things, and I’m not sure how it fits in with my Christian beliefs, but I came away from that experience changed somehow. Turns out Sassy and Bullet had a lot to say.

Bullet thought I should switch bedrooms and proceeded to describe the attributes of the bedroom he thought I should occupy. The communicator would have no way of knowing the details of my house that Bullet accurately described.

Sassy told the communicator her favorite vegetable was green beans, which I knew but had not told the communicator, but she didn’t like the canned ones I had been serving her. She wanted the frozen, french style green beans. I use green beans to help fill her up and keep her waistline trim.

The dogs said a whole lot more too, but my primary concern was how they were coping with Jim’s death. They told the communicator that they were fine, that Jim was still with them and that they couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk to him. They also found it upsetting that I didn’t talk to them about him either.

After the bedroom and the green beans, I took their message to heart. I had become quite anxious about how they were coping and this offered me relief from this particular self-imposed burden.

If nothing else, talking out loud to the dogs or to the thin air about the love of my life and the power of my grief and many mundane things in between seemed to be therapeutic for all of us, and I sensed peace in my dogs again.

My own will be a longer time coming.

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.