I don’t know how to grieve.
I live in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic ― and I just lost my dog.
The media blasts photos and news reports of devastation ― refrigerated trucks for dead bodies, mass burials at Hart Island, make-shift hospitals to accommodate a continuous flow of critically ill people. Every day there’s more bad news about the pandemic ― more people sick, more people dead. But this doesn’t minimize my loss.
Reluctant to post about my dog’s death on social media, I tell only a few friends. Most are sympathetic while others are insensitive.
“Are you getting a new one?” three friends asked.
“I’ll send you a link for adopting,” my neighbor offered.
When my parents died, I sat shiva, lit candles and said kaddish in the Jewish tradition. The mourning lasted 12 months. There’s no religious observance for a pet’s death.
We named her Cassie when we adopted her from a local rescue center 14 years ago. Steve, my husband, fell in love with her at first sight. Frisky, confident and affectionate, she was a brown-and-white cocker spaniel with huge paws that made her perpetually look like a puppy.
Within a month, she became my dog. We had similar personalities and loved meeting new people. Maybe it was also the tricks I taught her. “Give me paw.” “Stand up and turn around.” “Lie down.” It was a sequence she performed perfectly and then received a biscuit as her reward.
Cassie was certified as a therapy dog and we visited residents at a nursing home. “Her coat’s so soft,” a woman cooed as she and others petted Cassie and shared stories of their own beloved pets.
Five years later, both Cassie and my husband were diagnosed with cancer ― Steve with stage four throat cancer and Cassie with mast cell cancer. Both were treated successfully. Nonetheless, Cassie’s vet warned me, “Be careful ― her immunity is compromised.”
She could no longer act as a therapy dog but otherwise she didn’t slow down one bit. As we walked along the crowded streets of the Upper West Side, passersby often shouted, “She’s so beautiful.”
“Let me show you what Cassie can do,” I’d respond.
They would stop to watch Cassie go through her tricks.
“She’s amazing,” children often told me.
During Steve’s cancer treatment and, a few years later, surgery for an aortic valve replacement that nearly killed him, Cassie and I became even more inseparable. She was my anchor, my sanity, my heart.
Like so many deaths right now, hers was sudden.
Two days before the shelter-at-home order went into effect in New York, Steve announced, “I’m bringing Cassie to the groomer. Who knows when we’ll get another opportunity.”
“Wear a mask. You’re high-risk,” I said as I handed him one that I had grabbed at the emergency room months before when he was treated for pneumonia.
An hour later, the groomer called in a panic to tell us, “We rushed Cassie to the vet. She can’t breathe.”
The vet arranged a canine ambulette to take us to an animal hospital.
“Steve, go home,” I told my husband. “It’s not safe.”
In the ambulette, Cassie went into respiratory failure. The attendant rushed her into the hospital when we finally arrived. A nurse led me to a private room to maintain social distancing. After what seemed like forever, a vet told me, “Cassie’s a little better. We’re running tests. There’s no need to stay. I’ll call.”
I cleaned my hands at the Purell dispenser in the hospital and walked the three miles home because I was too scared to take public transportation.
A few hours later the vet called.
“Her larynx is semi-paralyzed,” she said. “She can’t breathe on her own so we intubated her. She needs a tracheotomy. It’s very unlikely she’d survive the surgery.”
Turning to Steve, I asked frantically, “What should we do?”
His face wet with tears, he replied, “It’s time to say goodbye.”
During our 44 years of marriage, we’ve had other pets and were always there when they died. This time was different.
“We can’t go to the hospital. It’s too risky,” I said, heartbroken.
So Cassie had to die among strangers ― an image that now keeps me up at night.
Often I cry ― huge heaving sobs I can’t control ― but then I stop. I have to do my best to stay strong and healthy. At other times, I feel guilty about how passionately I am feeling this grief and tell myself, She was only a dog. There are so many people dying right now under unthinkable conditions. Don’t their deaths matter more?
People with pets cherish their existence. Even President Franklin Roosevelt sought the comfort of his small black terrier, Fala, as he led the nation through World War II. Fala slept at the foot of Roosevelt’s bed, accompanied him on trips, and was buried next to the president and his wife at their home in Hyde Park.
Our pets’ lives have value ― they matter! ― even though society often trivializes our relationships with them. And though I feel like I’m not supposed to grieve Cassie’s death as intensely or profoundly as I do ― especially during a pandemic when so many other truly awful things are happening ― her life and the loss of it is momentous to me, and maybe more so because of COVID-19.
I miss her deeply. Snuggling against her warm body and stroking her long and silky ears consoled me in the past, and now she’s no longer here to help get me through this strange, terrifying time. I honestly don’t know what to do without her and I feel like I can’t grieve the way I need to because people think it’s foolish or silly or unworthy of this kind of emotion.
Maybe when life reaches a “new normal,” I’ll feel more comfortable sharing my loss and beginning the healing process. I’ll post my favorite photos of Cassie on social media and display them throughout my apartment. And when the flowers are in bloom in Riverside Park, I’ll sprinkle her ashes along the path we walked and cry without shame or guilt.
Ann Gorewitz works as a human resources consultant specializing in employee development and training. She lives with her husband in New York City, where she has over the years completed several triathlons and marathons. Her favorite pastime is jogging and cycling along the Hudson River.
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