THURSDAY: Bereavement


Copyright is held by the author.

NOBODY RUSHES to give you bereavement leave when your dog dies.

So you have to get creative, have a sympathetic doctor, or use up other types of leave. Who wants to use vacation time to stay at home and cry until you puke?

I guess that would be me.

There’s not a lot of sympathy for someone who loves her dog. I won’t say “like a child,” because some people are offended by the idea that an animal could hold a similar place in my heart as a child would in theirs.

I just don’t want children. As far as my friends are concerned, it’s worse than not wanting a husband.

My friend Marcy is a single, self-employed investment counsellor with two children and she’s working on her third. All of her children have different fathers, none of whom have or ever will become Marcy’s husband. She’s quite Machiavellian about it, and damn proud.

Marcy’s known all her life she wanted children. She first announced it when we were in grade eight. Some of our friends — me included —were barely past the “ew boys” stage and not quite to the boy crazy one. Marcy just skipped the boy issue altogether and declared they were only good for one thing: getting pregnant. It was babies she wanted and lots of them. I was scandalized, but the rest of our friends saw Marcy as some kind of feminist heroine.

I was equally unequivocal when I declared I’d rather have a farm than a family. It was like I sprouted horns. Marcy is my only remaining friend from those days.

The rest of my friends are either happily married or in long-term relationships. They either have children, or are attempting to have them. Sarah has one boy and says she got it right on the first try. Her husband is deliriously happy.

Joanne has two girls and is pregnant again, trying for a boy. She wanted to have one child of each sex to begin with, and can’t seem to give up until she has at least one of each.

Antha’s had two miscarriages so far and wants desperately to have just one child. Her partner Gerry’s stopped trying to comfort her. They’ve done everything: counselling, medical investigation (they are both in sound reproductive condition), artificial insemination, but Antha rejects the idea of adoption.

Antha often stops speaking to me. Usually it comes down to wasting a perfectly good uterus.

“You’re so selfish!” is her typical rant. “It’s a betrayal of everything you are as a woman!”

I usually manage to keep myself from laughing. I know Antha’s the one who feels betrayed, but I’m certainly not going to start having kids for her sake. Besides, I’m sure she’d feel equally betrayed if I suddenly turned into a baby making machine. It occurs to me that she might ask me to be a surrogate for her and Gerry one of these desperate days, but I try not to think about that.

My equanimity in the face of her desperation seems to send her over the edge, and Antha gives me the silent treatment until she needs another childless woman to whom she can complain about our more fecund friends.

Crying over my poor, dead Fenris hasn’t gotten me sympathy or understanding from any of them.

I called Marcy first.

“Oh,” she said, not unkindly, “that’s so sad.”

There was an awkward silence while I listened to her shuffle papers, waited to hear her ask me if there was anything I needed, if she should come over, but it was short-lived. “I’m really sorry, Kat, but I have to get back to work. Was there anything important you needed to talk to me about?”

I didn’t even say goodbye, just hung up the phone and burst into tears.

Sarah wasn’t home.

Then I tried Joanne, but she was in the middle of a baby crisis. She’d just come back from her first ultrasound and the technician couldn’t determine the sex of the fetus.

“Stupid jerk said the baby was “being shy.” Can you believe it? He could be turned around so they can’t see right now. He’s probably not developed enough yet. But what if that’s not it? What if he’s really a she? What’ll I do?”

I don’t think she even heard me when I told her Fenris was dead. After a few genuine, but ineffective attempts to comfort Joanne, I gave up.

I didn’t bother to call Antha.

Fenris wasn’t even five years old. She was finally becoming the dog I’d always wanted. Two weeks before, I’d noticed something off in her gait and took her into the vet, who told me it was probably a low-grade inflammation, and not to worry about it. “Give her some baby aspirin, and that should fix her up.”

Four days later, when I took her into the clinic again, Dr. Smithers declared it was time for emergency surgery; Fen was bleeding internally.

I couldn’t sleep, even after Dr. Smithers called and said Fen was safely in recovery, because he also told me it was cancer that caused the internal bleeding. Hemangiosarcoma to be exact. I had him spell the word. I spent the next three hours on the internet researching. Every site said the same thing: Fenris was doomed. There were a few slender hopes. If the animal was young, if the entire tumour was removed before dissemination, if it was caught early enough, it was possible the cancer might go into temporary remission. Death was, however, certain, and sooner than later.

When I went to pick up my pup, I was assured by Dr. Smithers that he’d done a thorough lavage of the intestines and a splenectomy to ensure that every bit of tumour was removed. A sample was sent for analysis. We wouldn’t know any more for a few days. I was sent home with antibiotics, pain medication, and a pathetic lump of fur that was my beloved pet.

I couldn’t bear to leave Fen alone, so used what precious little sick leave I had so I could be with her. I bought extra chicken breasts and calf’s liver and cooked her meals every night, neglecting to feed myself.

She seemed to rally, but then, in the middle of the night, I felt her tongue on my hand. I’d taken to sleeping on a futon in the living room so I could be beside her dog bed on the floor. I lifted her up onto the futon with me so I could comfort her, but it was no good. Her stomach was swelling up, she was having trouble breathing: she was bleeding inside again.

Dr. Smithers had given me his home phone number in case of emergency, but when I called at six o’clock in the morning, he said it would take him at least an hour to get into the clinic. Fen didn’t have an hour left.

With every breath, her entire body heaved, struggled to get air into lungs ever constricting because of the volume of blood in her belly. Her tongue hung out the side of her mouth. Her eyes were wide and staring.

I couldn’t wait anymore. I bundled Fen onto her dog bed and carried her out to the car. I sped. I didn’t care. My little love was dying. I could hear her breathing getting more laboured, more frantic as I drove. Still I told her it would be okay, to hold on.

By the time I got her out of the car, I knew she was gone.  She’d vomited and shat all over the dog bed. I carried Fen into the clinic, wailing.  I don’t remember what I said.

The technician gave me few moments alone with her but it was no use. Fen was dead. There was nothing left of her in this broken shell. I settled my bill and left before Dr. Smithers arrived. He called me later in the day to tell me the biopsy results were in. The cancer had metastasized, probably spread to the liver. He expressed sympathy I think, but I had no words for him.

By then I was numb from crying, had told work there was a family crisis and asked for a few days unpaid leave.

“I’m sorry Kathleen. You’ll have to use your vacation first… It’s policy.”

So I used it. All of it.

I drank every bottle of wine in the house, puked all of it up again, and didn’t leave my bed for days after. That was when I tried calling my friends.

It’s stupid. I didn’t take it this bad when my mother died two years ago. A car accident and nothing that could be helped. Sudden. I thought I’d borne up well. My father died when I was a child and before I knew enough to mourn. Fen was all I had left.

My world is full of her now. In my dreams, she races through sunlit fields, always away from me, always happy without me. Awake, I run through endless scenarios: what if I’d insisted on more investigation when I first brought Fen to the vet? What if I’d never given her the aspirin? What if Dr. Smithers detected the disease at an earlier stage? What if she’d gone into remission? Then, I go insane.

Somehow I’ve given Fen this cancer. It’s not even about cancer anymore; she gets hit by a car; no, a truck; no, I get hit; we both get hit. A psycho in the neighbourhood stuffs hot dogs with warfarin; I’m the one leaving poisoned food for innocent dogs to eat. She bites someone and has to be “put down.” I watch Fen die in a thousand different ways and then am the cause of her death in a thousand more.

I’m almost out of vacation days and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to return to work.
I try to remember the joy that was Fenris: the smell of puppy breath, her zerbit-perfect, buttery puppy belly, that she was a 40-pound lap dog, that she slept beside me every night and let me hug her until I fell asleep. I try to remember the special bark she greeted me with when I came home from work, as if I caught her off guard and she ran out of air before she ran out of bark, nearly squeaking at the end.

I’m trying to remember that she was here to teach me what love is, unconditional and freely given. That’s what hurts so much; I had that kind of love in my life and never appreciated it.

Someone’s at the door. I feel like such garbage right now, I’m amazed I can even open it.

“Antha?” My vision’s so bleary, I can’t even be sure it’s her.

“Kat. I just heard about Fenris from Marcy.” She has a bag with her; I see a box of tissue poking out the top.

Antha holds out her hands. “You okay?”

I try to tell her I’m fine, to go away, that she shouldn’t comfort me. Instead I confess, “No,” and fall into her arms, weeping.

“I understand,” she says, helping me inside, to the sofa.

My gut twists with shame. I’ll never smirk at one of her wasted-uterus lectures again.


  1. Jazz

    Playing Freud for the moment, does the debilitating anguish she displays after the death of her little dog, Fenris, represent the babies she has vowed not to have….?

  2. Vera

    Love is love whether it comes to us running on two legs or four, we are blessed to have it. I don’t think one is ever a substitute for the other. I thought this was a great story, sensitive and honest.

  3. Melanie Marttila

    It’s not the babies she’d vowed not to have, but delayed or deferred grieving. There’s this thing that happens when a parent dies. You soldier on, keep yourself occupied, put on a good face at the funeral. After, there’s the settling of the estate, the final filing of taxes, the disposition of property, and so forth. Fenris is a surrogate child, but she’s also a surrogate for the family Kat’s lost. There comes a point when you can’t be brave anymore. Then you get what bereavement means, whenever and however it hits.
    Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. Melanie Marttila

    Thanks for leaping to my defense 🙂 And for the share on FB. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  5. JAZZ

    I don’t see any reason for Vera or anyone to come to your defense. My comment was in the form of a question and not a challenge.

  6. Vera

    Jazz, my comment was an answer. I am not a dog lover really, but when my sister’s dog, Pheobe, died I cried hard. I missed her greeting every time I went through their door (loss of love). Melanie says Fenris was a surrogate child and also a surrogate for her lost family, but the decision to remain childless was still coming across as firm in my mind. Not confronting, just explaining myself, and I also didn’t see the above as a defense comment. 🙂 Work should incite discussion.

  7. Bev Bachmann

    Dear, dear Melanie–I hardly know what to say. My heart was breaking as I read your story, so powerfully written — so infinitely familiar. I remember the pain — excruciating, relentless. I honestly don’t believe anyone who hasn’t experienced it can understand the kind of despair that overwhelms one. You are so brave to share this. It really doesn’t matter whether or not a dog is a surrogate child. This is a little “person” you loved and losing anyone you love can tear you to pieces. I wish you well — so, so much.

  8. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Bereavement |

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