Grief Is Not Just For Death

Grief and loss come in a multitude of forms. There is grief due to loss of a loved one but there's also the sense of grief related to illness and the impending demise of a loved one.

When our family pet, our dog Bear had to be put to sleep after ten years with us, it was more emotionally draining than I'd realized. When he was five weeks old he was slated to go to the dog pound since no one wanted him. My children and I went to the private home where he had been born and brought him home with us. I wasn't sure I really wanted another dog, since we had the veterinarian put to sleep our cherished Lab "Pearl" the week before. However, Bear soon became a part of our family, and lived with us for ten years.

This Fall he developed a terribly aggressive, fast growing tumor that despite our best efforts, he chewed at and ultimately broke open in his last day of life. That month before I went back and forth on the idea of agreeing to an operation to remove the tumor. He seemed fine, despite the tumor, but the operation I was afraid would seriously interfere with his quality of life. He would lose his tail, and some of his hind quarter.

When the tumor started to bother him a great deal I decided to go for the operation -- only to have him within the span of twelve hours, go from seeming to be okay to dying. We never got to the operation, and it seems he was fully involved with cancer, even though he looked okay on the outside. He still had a beautiful, shiny, thick husky coat, and yet he was dying from cancer. It's incredible to find how much you've become attached to an animal.

The same week we had Bear euthanized, my girlfriend of seventeen years underwent an operation for endometrial cancer. When she went for pre-testing and blood work the week before, they found swollen lymph glands in her legs. This news made me fearful. Having been down this cancer route before, the deep feeling in the pit of my stomach was there...that unrelenting fear for the worst. I wanted to keep her spirits buoyed up, it wasn't up to me to play doctor or surmise what this might mean -- she had experts to do that. But I called her, took her out to lunch, kept in daily contact, just to talk to her and let her know I cared.

I visited her in the hospital after the operation to remove the tumor, and stayed with her several hours. A few times during that visit we talked realistically about her prognosis, and we cried together because, based on what the doctor's were saying, the news was not good.

Her realistic approach to her cancer brought the tears to my eyes. I began to mourn her loss of mobility and her loss of real quality of life. She told me she doesn't want to linger, and wants it over quick. She knows how my husband's cancer illness went, and she fears lingering toward death.

Sometimes it's a natural reaction not to want to talk about dying and death, but I must, so I can help her just by listening. I feel for her and I feel for myself. Already I feel the loss in my life.

When my girlfriend was released home from the hospital, (too early in my opinion), she came to my house for four days because I knew she would be alone at her house without any help. On the hour long ride home, hooked to a portable oxygen tank for breathing difficulties, she dozed on and off.

My friend was filled with fluid due to ongoing heart problems and also the after affects of the major operation she had undergone. She was incredibly uncomfortable and her color didn't look the best. I began to realize she really needed expert nursing, not a friend who was trying to offer her support.

That first day was incredibly hard for her, and it was very difficult for me also, in an emotional way. Unbidden, having her there brought back to me when my husband was ill. Every movement seemed to jar her incision, which was over twelve inches long and held together by staples. By Friday night she had filled up with even more fluid and I urged her repeatedly to call her doctor. She called the doctor twice on Saturday, and he finally called her after four hours, then instructed her to come to his office on Monday.

Gradually, she began to feel better, but it made me realize once again how caretaking someone is a big responsibility, and takes over all aspects of your life. As much as I cared about her, I felt weak with the responsibility I had undertaken. I wanted her to be well, but I knew also, unless she drastically changes her eating habits and her lifestyle, I fear she will succumb to this disease. There's nothing more I can do for her. Nothing at all, except be her friend and help her in the best way I can, by letting her know I care.

Elaine Williams copyright 2008