Coping with the death our dog – as a family

Last week, we lost Dempsey, our almost-12-year-old Golden Retriever, midway through our family vacation. Dempsey started with us on our spring-break road trip—from Vermont to North Carolina, to visit my husband’s parents. He never made it home. With Jon and I each holding one of his paws, petting his head, Dempsey passed peacefully on the floor of a vet’s office in Calabash, after spending a good morning with us on the beach.

As we’ve been sharing the news, nearly everyone has asked: How are the boys? Almost 5 and almost 7, they seem to be fine. But dealing with the death of a pet looks very different when you’re 5, versus when you’re 7, versus when you’re 38 or 39. And, as a parent, it’s your job to support the grieving of everyone in the group.

Confronting the reality that our dog was going to die. And soon.  

We didn’t have much time to process Dempsey’s imminent death. Yes, he had all sorts of benign bumps but he seemed totally fine. That is, until it became clear that he was totally not fine. It was our second day on vacation, and we’d spent the day in DC. When we returned to my uncle’s, we learned that Demps hadn’t moved all day. At first, we blamed arthritis and the previous evening’s “puppy” play; hours later, he still wasn’t eating or drinking and hadn’t gotten up. Something was very wrong.

I put the kids to bed, and Jon took Demps to a nearby emergency vet clinic. He returned two hours later, with the worst possible report: Dempsey had a huge mass on his spleen, which likely had ruptured. And would continue to do so. We had two options: euthanize or a try a high-risk surgery that might buy him three to six months.

After lots of talking (with each other, with the emergency vet, with our vet back home) we decided against the surgery. We’d try to take Dempsey to the beach one last time—if it seemed he could make the six-hour trip. We’d visit him at the clinic and then decide. I worried what this uncertainty would do to the kids. Then we realized: with death, the only certainty is that it’s going to happen. We never know when.

Preparing the kids

That next morning, we explained that Digs was very, very sick and would die very soon—in a couple of days, maybe even that day. Julian, 7,  was visibly upset so I pulled him into the next room. I showed him the X-rays, pointing out how the tumor, larger even than Dempsey’s stomach, was pushing against his organs, bleeding into the inside of his body. This seemed to make it very real for him. He cried and asked when Dempsey was going to die. “I don’t know,” I told him. “Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.” “I will miss him when he dies,” Jules told me. “Me too.”

Kai, 5, just keep repeating a single question—casually, almost cheerfully:  “Is Dempsey going to die?” Grieving ourselves, Jon and I found it difficult to keep answering that question again and again but we did our best to answer it directly, over and over. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

Embracing the “extra” time

At the clinic, Demps appeared stable enough to chance taking him along with us to Calabash. I was conflicted: what if a severe rupture occurred in the car? On the highway? With the kids? The vet encouraged us to go for it, sending us with pain medications to last a few days and the numbers of a few emergency clinics along the way.

The boys processed the fact that Dempsey was leaving with us in their own ways. “We get extra time with Dempsey,” Kai kept repeating, his tone upbeat. “But we’ll miss him when he dies,” Jules would add somberly every time. Jon and I were just trying to stay present, to soak up every moment. We snapped our last full-family selfie with Digs outside of a McDonald’s somewhere in North Carolina.

Saying our goodbyes

We made it to Jon’s parents, who welcomed us all with relief. Dempsey laid down on the cold floor in the sunroom, refusing food. By the next morning, he could barely could lift his head. Today was the day. We called the vet in Calabash, gave Demps his pain meds and asked the boys—in the next room playing LEGOs—to come in and say goodbye. Still in their pajamas, they approached awkwardly, sat next to him on the floor and embraced him from either side. I snapped a photo. Jules smiled grimly. Kai kissed Demps, then ran back to his LEGOs, shouting, “Good-bye, Demps!” over his shoulder. His nonchalance was unexpected, but I trusted he was handling this in a way that was best for his young brain. Jon and I left for the beach with Digs.

By the time we arrived, Dempsey had perked up considerably. He walked pretty easily, on his leash, along the shoreline. We took a video (which I still haven’t had the courage to watch). We sat on the sand, the three of us, Jon and I looking into Dempsey’s soft brown eyes. After an hour near the water, we left to get him an ice cream at the beach shop. It was 9:30 a.m. Jon came out with two scoops of vanilla in a cup. “Shouldn’t we be eating ice cream with him?” I asked. Jon agreed, went back in and came out with two more cups. We sat on a bench dedicated to someone’s deceased relative on a landscaped island in the middle of parking lot near the pier. It was the first time we finished our ice cream before Dempsey did. We had to spoon feed him. But he ate it.

We drove to the vet. Sat in the parking lot. Decided we weren’t ready. Jon looked up dog-friendly parks on his phone. We GPS-ed to a wooded trail, lined by azaleas just over the border in South Carolina and walked a little more—where we came to meet Coach. He was a bait shop owner who also drove a school bus. A textbook extravert. So friendly. When Demps plopped to the ground on the path, Coach asked how old he was. “Almost twelve.” Coach near-shouted, “That’s ancient in dog years—what a lucky guy!” We’d told him nothing about the significance of our walk. At that point, I was ready. So was Jon. We were meant to meet this Coach guy.

Coping with the loss, family-style

Jon and I adopted Dempsey right after we bought our house—before marriage, before kids. He was our first child, our best buddy/most easy-going roommate and, finally, our beloved elderly relative for whom we just had to make the hardest decision. A compounded loss, to say the least. And when it was all over, we didn’t know quite what to do. Until we did.

Jon and I looked for the nearest bar and ended up at a smoky place with mirrored windows—essentially a bowling alley with no lanes. We each ordered a Corona and a shot of Tennessee whiskey (Dempsey was born there), which arrived in small plastic cups. We slammed them back in honor of the “Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived.” We cried and we laughed. No one gave us a second glance. It was a great place to be at a really shitty time.

Back at home, with the boys and colored pencils, we started a list of all of the reasons Dempsey was so great, a la The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (by Judith Viorst). I’ve read this book—about a young boy who recounts all the good things about his cat after it dies—many times to my kids because I love how it honors the the range of beliefs people have about death. Our family spans the spectrum. My in-laws shared a poem with the boys called Rainbow Bridge (a beautiful place “just this side of Heaven” where people meet up with their deceased pets when they die). I wouldn’t have thought to share this story but it seemed to be a great source of comfort to Kai. So we went with it.

Honoring the memories

Kai’s still a bit fixated on Rainbow Bridge. Yesterday, when I showed him a photo I’d taken at his brother’s baseball game, he brought it up again. “That’s a good picture, Mom. Don’t forget to show it to Dempsey when you die. Are you excited to be on Rainbow Bridge?” What I wanted to say was this: Do you even KNOW what Rainbow Bridge means? But of course he doesn’t—he’s looking to us to help him make sense of this all. And so I simply said, “It sounds like a really nice place” and decided it was time to pull out the Barney book again.

Last week, Julian told me not to think about Dempsey because “you shouldn’t think about sad things.” After we talked about keeping the happy memories, he requested a party to celebrate Dempsey’s life. “With cupcakes that look like Dempsey.” I think we’ll shoot for August 5, his would-be birthday.

As for me, I keep expecting to hear Dempsey’s nails against the wood floor, to meet his greeting at the door. I’m working through a bit of guilt—for not taking him on daily walks after the kids were born, for taking his ever-loving presence for granted. Still, I’m mostly grateful for how it all went down last week: Demps made it to the ocean, he experienced minimal pain. We got to say goodbye, surrounded by the support of our families. I’m pretty sure that all of this is hitting Jon a bit harder: Demps was his bud, often the only sane being in a home often exploding with emotions.

“You always knew what you were getting with Demps,” Jon had told me at the dive bar in South Carolina. So true: Dempsey was always happy to see you, ready to lift you up at the end of a shitty day. As for the rest of us in this family—well, sometimes it feels like we’re just a bunch of cohabiting humans tumbling over each other’s struggles. But we can make that better.

“I promise I’ll always say hi every time you walk in the door,” I’d told Jon, laughing. And crying. And meaning it.

Coping with the death of a family dog