What I learned from grieving my dog's death

Elianna Lev

My dog Dutchie was a Chihuahua, Blue Heeler mix or a “Blue Chiler” as I’d say at the dog park anytime someone would inquire about her breed.

She was charmingly unusual in personality and looks. Aside from her peculiar but ideal small-medium size, bulging Chihuahua eyes, and blue Merle markings, she possessed a great deal of amusing characteristics.

I discovered her smoker’s bark the first week I got her. While testing out how she did in a game of fetch, I was bemused when she stood in front of me, her four legs erect, when I tossed the ball with a launcher. Instead of chasing it, as most dogs would, she barked in staccato, sounding like she’d gargled with an urn full of ashes.

Dutchie died suddenly on Jan. 31, six years and two weeks after we found each other. We first crossed paths the day I decided I would commit to finding a dog —Jan. 15, 2010. I had recently turned 30 and didn’t see myself having kids any time soon, but wanted a sense of responsibility. I told myself I’d visit a Vancouver animal shelter every Friday until I found a match. The planets were perfectly positioned that overcast day, as I immediately spotted her the moment I stepped into the outdoor kennel area. Minutes earlier, she’d gotten off a truck that had hauled a load of animals from a Chilliwack, B.C., shelter. They had done a major seizure in Boston Bar, a tiny town two hours northeast of Vancouver, and had no space in its facilities. The story I remember being told by staff was that Dutchie’s previous living conditions were “worst than anything you’d seen on that Hoarders show.”

A connection like no other

She didn’t behave like she’d been neglected by her previous owners — though she had bad separation anxiety — and would happily roll onto her back for a belly rub the moment someone crouched down to pet her. It took us about two weeks of sleep-deprived nights to get into a comfortable routine, but once we did, we fell right into each other. Never in my life have I connected with another being in such an easy way. Our dynamic flowed effortlessly.

I revelled in being a dog person. The dog parks I frequented in Vancouver and Toronto led me to making solid friends, getting asked out on dates and even scoring a few writing contracts. I got outside and walked a lot more — up to four times a day, sometimes starting at 5 a.m. After a stranger who stopped us on the street suggested Dutchie would make a good therapy dog, we were assessed and accepted into St. John Ambulance’s therapy dog program in 2011. Once a week, we’d visit patients in the geriatric and psych ward of a local Vancouver hospital. Every visit, I saw first-hand how a dog’s presence had the potential to change someone physically and mentally. Immobilized patients would excitedly jump out of bed when we walked into their room, while those with Alzheimer’s often became flooded with memories of their own pets growing up. I would joke that Dutchie was a Blue Soul Healer — her undeniable effect on people’s spirit was enchanting.

Not alone in this grief

It’s been a week since my dog suddenly became ill and collapsed in my bedroom a few months shy of her 12th birthday. The reality that our time together was capped always lingered in my mind to the point that I’d decided, years ago, I’d be most comfortable putting her down when she was too old to walk. While watching her pass was the first time I’d been confronted with death so directly, I’m grateful I was there until her final moment. I’ve also taken comfort in knowing her passing only played a small, albeit profound, part of her whole existence. Our six years together has been thoroughly documented in a wealth of spirit-lifting memories via photos and videos.

Adjusting to life without Dutchie is an ongoing process. If I have nowhere to be, I sometimes won’t leave my house. (It probably doesn’t help that I work from home.) I’ve avoided walking through the park I used to take her to several times a day, and cry every time I see other dog owner friends in my area and have to break the sad news. I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone in this grief — there are countless people who’ve tried to make sense of the loss of a pet. I’ve been reassured over and over again that it will take time, and when I’m ready, I’ll find a good match again. I feel far from being there, but know it can happen one day when the timing’s just right.

It feels uncanny navigating and rearranging the space in my apartment where Dutchie’s dog bowl and bed used to be. When she was around, I never felt alone, because technically I wasn’t. There was another creature there that could look me in the eyes and respond, usually by wagging her tail. With her there, singing Mariah Carey songs and talking in silly voices automatically boosted my spirit. Now, I feel more alone than ever. I don’t laugh as much as I did when she was by my side — literally. She really didn’t like being apart, even if it meant sitting amongst the wires in the cramped area under my desk.

Rather than spiral into darkness, I’m attempting to channel the memorable characteristics that defined my dog — unflappable, vigilant, and tender. As stifling as it’s been not having her here, I choose to believe our fruitful and hilarious six years together was a result of something bigger than us. She taught me to believe in miracles and that sometimes things are meant to be for the best. One day, when I’m ready for another dog, I look forward to experiencing that connection again. Until then, I can only feel grateful for what we had, which was something truly remarkable.