I parked my car in my friend’s driveway. We were returning from the park that Sunday in November, and Bob, my 3-year-old border collie mix, bounced around the back seat, trying to avoid Suzy, our rambunctious 5-month-old Australian cattle dog, who had a habit of biting his neck and legs.
She exited the car first and, as I got out, she opened a back door. Bob jumped out and raced toward the backyard. Suzy, a blue heeler who had big, pointed ears, a stumped tail and a white face, normally followed Bob. If she didn’t chase him, she was easy to grab, thanks to a seven-foot-long leash.
But we didn’t have the leash that morning. Earlier, when we were in the kitchen getting ready to leave, my girlfriend said the leash was on the third floor. Sensing an imminent departure, the dogs sprinted around us, barking and crashing into furniture. Frustrated, I picked up Suzy and said, “I’ll just carry her. Let’s go.”
I remembered to keep Suzy in my arms getting in and out of the car at the off-leash park, but when we returned to my girlfriend’s house in Pittsburgh’s East End, it had slipped my mind. Without a leash, Suzy zipped past us. But instead of following Bob, she ran into the street.
What happened next - the blur of a black SUV and Suzy’s cry as she died - is seared into our memories.
Grieving the loss of a pet is often as painful as mourning a close friend or relative. But being responsible for and witnessing your pet’s death can add guilt, trauma and shame to the heartbreak. And as we discovered after Suzy died, this emotional toll impedes the grieving process.
I know articulating emotions is important, but part of me falsely believed that not talking about the accident would take my mind off the image of Suzy’s lifeless body and make the pain go away faster.
My upbringing enhanced my reluctance. My dad competed in dogsled races, and our family had a kennel of huskies along the driveway of our six-car garage. A few of our pets died tragically, most notably our wolf, but we never talked about it. The family motto was, “It’s over; move on.” So, whenever my girlfriend brought up Suzy, I had to check my impulse to regurgitate my dad’s response. And then I’d tell the truth: “I replay her getting run over in my head every day.”
Walking past the accident site often triggered a flashback. Ross said this is so common that she’s had clients who moved to escape the bad memories. People also avoid certain roads. “Every single person blames themselves,” said Dani McVety, a veterinarian who co-founded Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, an in-home end-of-life care provider that also hosts pet loss support meetings online. “Whether you had an accident or come home to find that your 15-year-old dog passed away naturally, there’s always guilt.” Owners might blame themselves for not realizing sooner that their pet was sick, she added, or for knowing they were sick but waiting too long to euthanize.
Deciding when to euthanize is fraught. Kristeen McPherson, an accountant I also met through a pet loss group page on Facebook, and her husband euthanized Carly, their 12-year-old golden retriever, after surgery and chemotherapy couldn’t keep the dog’s cancer at bay. McPherson, a 60-year-old, said she feels guilty despite the medical interventions, because, “If it were me, I hope they wouldn’t put me down and just keep trying and trying.”
We learned this lesson, too. A few days after Suzy died, we got another Australian cattle dog because a breeder had an available puppy, and we wanted an immediate shot at redemption. It wasn’t easy. Until we worked through our trauma, playing with the new puppy, who we named Isabelle, made us feel even guiltier about Suzy, and we experienced anxiety while walking her on a busy street or getting her out of the car.
Bob, my border collie mix, probably wishes we had waited longer. Like Suzy, Isabelle is a natural herder and constant nipper.
Maureen Kelly is a columnist, Washington Post