I’m writing through the pain of grief. My beloved Saffy, loyal canine companion and all-round best friend, died just over a week ago. One steadfast beacon of light in my life for the past twelve years and four months has been extinguished. The intensity of grief losing a dog is comparable to that of a family member or close friend. You have to have owned a dog to understand why, and though my argument is encapsulated in the title of this piece, I will attempt to explain further.
Grief is a period of emotional upheaval and adjustment. It takes a dog no time at all to infiltrate every facet of your life. Losing them is an adjustment like no other: its totality stretches to every room in the house, to every hour of the day, to everyone else in the family.
Wolves are pack animals, fiercely loyal to the individuals they identify as part of their clan. When our ancestors began accidentally domesticating wolves over six millennia ago, they (again accidentally) bred for traits they most admired in their fellow humans. Loyalty, affection, a sense of fun and joy for life: all these most estimable human qualities are distilled to perfection in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. The only factor that isn’t perfect is their comparably short life expectancy.
Saffy was an extraordinary Canis familiaris.
After uncomplainingly living with degenerative cancer for the last three years and seven months of her life, and until a month before her death showing no intention of slowing down, it finally became too much to bear, and Saffy was euthanized by the vet who had cared for her all her life on 20th December 2011. My mother and I were with her. It had been the two of us who adopted her in August 1999 when that extraordinary new chapter of our lives had opened.
On the morning of her death Saffy had an appointment with the vet to see if tripling her medication had proffered some improvement to her condition. Whilst it had initially calmed her symptoms, her health had continued to decline, and my mother and I feared the worst.
In fact, I knew in my heavy heart that the end had arrived, and my mother later confessed to me she had felt the same. We took Saffy through her usual routine that morning: breakfast and a short walk, and she paused to look between us before we bundled her back in the car where she curled up on my lap.
She knew too.
Usually when she was half a mile from the vet’s, as she regularly had been for check-ups throughout her illness, she would know where she was going and tremble uncontrollably. If I wasn’t around my mum would text me: “She’s big trembly Loo.” (Loo was her most standard nickname, and “Saffy Loo” our preferred term of endearment for her.)
There was no trembling that morning. All three of us knew what the vet’s verdict would be. She sat between my legs in the waiting room, still and unprotesting.
When we were called in the vet examined her briefly and stepped back, shaking his head. The decision was effectively taken out of our hands because he declined to treat her any further. There’s an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that goes with a death sentence like that. My instinct was to throw my arms around Saffy and hold her, whilst my mother and I, through fresh tears, agreed. It had to be then, that moment. To have taken her home and come back a few days later in full knowledge of her fate would have been to proffer her false hope, and to prolong her discomfort.
She put up no struggle, and leant her head forward on the table so that I could adopt our familiar routine where I would hold her neck and massage her ears at the same time. And the big brown eyes I had fallen in love with all those years ago locked onto mine and held my gaze, never once wavering, until life was gone and we lay her on her side, our tears spilling freely onto her still warm fur.
As I write, I’m wiping away fresh tears, and my hands are trembling. Perhaps I’ve tried to set down these thoughts too soon, but at the same time I want to commit my thoughts to the page whilst the pain is still raw. It’s a balancing act.
If you think this is maudlin drivel then I’m willing to bet that you have never given up your daily routine to factor in a canine.
Let’s dispense immediately with the individuals who would say of dogs that “they’re only animals” as if this is some kind of knock down argument against faux sentimentality. It’s a profoundly ignorant thing to say. Yes, they’re animals, but so are humans. Since both our species are mammals, we’re very closely related in evolutionary history, and psychologically and emotionally closer since man crafted dogs from wolves. That’s a fact whether you like it or not.
At the time of writing, both my parents and siblings are still living. I have never been unlucky enough to lose a contemporary close friend. The foundations of my life were shaken when my paternal grandmother died on 17th December 1996 after a prolonged, painful bout of bowel cancer. She was the first of my grandparents to die. She was 91. She had a good innings and her time had come. None of that is much consolation to the selfishness of grief. Fifteen years on, I recall the last time I ever saw her, a fortnight before her death, on a dismal winter’s evening in the corner bed of a hospice that smelt of death and faeces, in which some of the patients cried out in pain. Already a diminutive woman, she looked tiny, frail, skeletal; her skin etiolated. We both knew it would be the last time we would see one another, and soon afterwards the morphine was increased to such a level that she was mercifully unaware of everything, except, I believe, the all-pervading pain of cancer.
Of all my grandparents her final moments were the worst, and for such a dignified woman in life, it was a callous form of death. At the time, there was some relief when she died that she was no longer suffering. I was eighteen. The experience changed my view of life and death indelibly. Fifteen years on, I miss her still, and well up talking about her. I don’t recall the dates of death of any of my other three grandparents, and I’m even hazy about the year for two of them. The best that I can say is that I can get the order of their departures right. For two of them I didn’t shed a single tear. If my lack of physical response to their deaths sounds callous then possibly I should tell you that I feel no guilt for having felt virtually nothing.
I’m relating this because it puts into perspective how grief affects individuals, and why some losses are harder to bear than others. I had virtually no relationship with one of my grandparents and a poor one with two others. I had only to make any real adjustment for the loss of my paternal grandmother. Unequivocally, losing Saffy is far harder.
I have until now, apart from to a select few individuals whom I knew would understand, and who knew and loved Saffy (her fan club stretched far and wide), kept my loss private, for the simple reason that people who don’t understand what dogs are don’t understand the bitterness of their loss to their grieving families.
So please don’t tell me you know what I’m going through because you lost your pet goldfish once. And please don’t tell me that the loss of your beloved pet spider you nurtured all those years gives you some idea of my grief. Imagine instead that you have lost your best friend, your constant companion, the focal point of your family, your source of comfort when you’ve been down and the best source of medicine when you’ve been depressed. Imagine not the loss of a creature that lives in a cage in the corner of one room, but the loss of a sentient being who infiltrated every corner of your life, where every room betrays a reminder of them, and where every passing hour involves an unwanted change of habit; where the reminders of your loss fall fast, hard and constant. No little face to wake you in the morning, nor to give you advance warning of visitors (friends as well as foe), no hurried scramble of paws over the carpet and the vinyl, nor adventures outdoors to break up the dull monotony of short winter days.
It hurts so much because the loss is all-pervading. There’s no snuffling presence keeping me company in the night at the foot of my bed, no little face asking for food, or for play, or for affection. No deep threatening bark at her nemeses the paperboy and the postman (both of whom she bit, albeit not mauled) and the squirrels in the garden. She took her duties to guard her family very seriously. Half-whippet, Saffy was always the fastest dog in the neighbourhood. To see her run at full pelt with a loopy grin on her face was never less than to vicariously share in her unalloyed joy. This even extended to when she obeyed her instincts and hunted, chased and killed. The body count totted up beyond our ability to recall from the first year of her time with us. At least a dozen squirrels perished between her jaws, and countless more slower and stupider rabbits.
I felt my world fall apart in May 2008 when Saffy received a bleak diagnosis from her vet. She had cancer: lymphoma to be more precise. In his experience it was a condition that advanced at varying rates, but his prognosis was one year.
From a middle-aged perennially healthy dog that leapt over five-foot fences with ease to one that we faced losing within twelve months was a horrible shock to the whole family. My thirtieth birthday was impending and already I had booked a hotel in the Lake District. Who would I rather celebrate the milestone with than Pip and my beautiful dog?
Any worries I had that she wouldn’t be well enough were extinguished when she excitedly woke me in the early hours the next morning. Leaving Pip sleeping, we ventured into the acres of land at the back of the hotel, disturbing the breakfasts of deer and pheasants, venturing around a deserted pond through early morning mist. After every walk that break she put her front paws over my shoulders (she loved to hug) and pressed her forehead against mine. She was thanking me for her holiday, and for not giving up on her. (This isn’t fanciful: the mutual non-verbal communication that ran between us had a wide vocabulary. My mother used to claim Saffy could “read minds”. I think that overstates the case, but she could certainly read faces with unnerving accuracy. You only had to look at her a certain way and she would know your intention. Without hearing a word she would bark in excitement and leap up and down at me, because the look in my face betrayed the fact that I was about to take her out. I suspect only intelligent dogs are capable of this [our lovely but thick Spaniel certainly wasn’t]).
That holiday I learned my lesson. Yes, she had a nasty diagnosis and a degenerative condition, but I would accept whatever time we had left together and enjoy it as intensely as I could with her. If I’d been given three years and seven months then, I would have taken it gladly. But the clock ticks down for each and every one of us. For three years Saffy defied my mother’s claim that it was her “last Christmas”. She did it with a great zest for life, even as old age and illness collided. I wish I had her spirit; but I began to learn to live life as intensely as Saffy did, and to find adventure with every day. I was always at my best around her.
The neighbour, John, who lives across the road from our parents summed it up nicely when he sympathised with my dad on hearing the news. “She’ll be sorely missed. She was such a little personality in this close. Everybody knew her.” If she was in the front garden, Saffy would always rush to greet John when he came home from work, which touched him no end. If she spied their front door lying open, she’d wander into their house. On one occasion she rushed upstairs and jumped on one of the beds as an unwelcome alarm call. Mostly she found John or his wife and led them into the kitchen where she knew oatcakes were kept. She never left disappointed.
Leaving the oddly quiet house of my parents, we were all in tears. My usual routine of saying goodbye to them in turn, encouraging them not to bicker with one another, and then turning to Saffy and asking her to look after her mum and dad no longer applied. Yet another adjustment had to be made.
“Don’t phone home less now that Saffy’s gone,” my dad said, vocalising what he’d been fearing all week. My first question to either parent in every phone call was to ask after Saffy.
Whilst he could verbalise his most profound concern about the adjustments now forced upon us, I couldn’t do the same. Saffy had been a reason for my dad to get out of the house, when he took her for walks. Any neighbours outdoors would stop what they were doing to fuss Saffy and inevitably start talking to my dad. The annual routine of delivering Christmas cards around a dozen or so houses generally took over an hour for this reason. My dad, not one for enjoying winter at the best of times, has lost his escape ticket. Walking on his own, as he has already discovered, is virtually meaningless without a dog to endow the experience with adventure.
My nephews (aged four and three) will miss Saffy greatly too. Will my mother be renamed from ‘Nana Saffy’? Not too soon I hope.
At the moment my heart feels like it’s been scooped out and replaced with lead. I’m constantly tired and unable to concentrate, except on reading, for any useful length of time.
If you are a fellow dogman (of either sex), you will understand the rawness of the pain and the realness of the grief.
At the same time I’m grateful. I’m so very grateful that on the third visit to a dog’s home I spotted Saffy, depressed and miserable in a dank cell, with a cellmate who bullied her and stole her food. I’m grateful my mum took to her too, and that a fortnight later she came home to live with us. I’m not a big believer in sentimental guff like love at first sight: but setting eyes on Saffy is the closest I’ve known to it. I’m grateful to have spent the vast part of her adult life with Saffy (her puppyhood and younger years, whilst perhaps mercifully opaque to us, were horrific). I’m grateful for every moment I spent with her, and grateful that she so easily formed the superglue that bonded our family together and saw us through some seemingly irreconcilable rifts and tough times. She was a cracking character in her own right, and a joy to know.
She lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved her; in the thousands of photographs; in the painted portraits in the rooms of my parents’ house, and in mine too. Thank you Saffy. I’ll never know another like you, and nor would I wish to. Thank you for choosing us, and for being such a friend to the whole family. It’s oh-so bloody hard to accept you’re gone, but I hope and trust your influence will never leave us.