He sees me through the tall window and comes over, pressing against it. I slip to the floor and lean in, too. But the glass between us holds and it is cold. I cannot touch him. He was solid once, and warm. I wake. It is 27 days since I had him killed.
I was 26 years old when a dog entered my life, 38 when he left, which means that for most of the 15 years I then lived in Australia, he was there. Time split—the hours carrying me away from when I had him, and deeper toward not having him. I felt a hostile country anew in the realisation that he had kept it at bay. I had been seen without condition.
Before we decided to let him go, the vets found: rapid atrial fibrillation, mitrial and tricuspid valve disease, peritoneal effusion, impending pulmonary oedema, risk of myocardial failure. His heart was pumping way too fast but not effectively. Fluid was building up as a result; he was drowning from the inside. He lost not just his appetite for food.
I learned that there is a name for grief that is not seen as grief by those around you. In the moment I was telling friends that I had found my dog inert in the courtyard, that he might have to be euthanased, one of them saw something amusing out the cafe window. That moment got caught in my desolation, leading me to fight what I was feeling only to become more entangled in it. I relive the scene: her face turned away in distraction, the chuckle under her breath. He is just a dog.
But in the months that followed he would slip through the veil between wakefulness and sleep. I finally send a message to my sister-in-law in the middle of the night, hoping that as a psychologist she would have insight into why I felt like I was drowning. She identified it as disenfranchised grief. ‘Western society is bad as it is in dealing with things like death and grief,’ she said. ‘It makes losing an animal feel worse because it is acknowledged even less.’
There is no compassionate or bereavement leave for when an animal in your life dies, nor are there culturally sanctioned rituals around it. People remark, often gently, that one can get another dog. It has the effect of depersonalising the object of grief, at a time when their absence feels very personal.
The philosopher Raimond Gaita, reflecting on his ageing dog Gypsy, wrote about the individuality that we attach to humans, and how this renders them irreplaceable in our attachments. So too do certain animals have a hold on us: ‘Because they participate in our lives and lay claim to our loyalty and affection, we bestow on them, in an attenuated way, the kind of individuality which in its full form is unique to human beings.’
It evokes the conversation between the fox and the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s celebrated novella. ‘If you tame me, then we shall need each other,’ the fox tells the prince. ‘To me, you will be unique in all the world.’ The fox will know the prince’s step, drawn out of the burrow by his voice rather than driven to it. The field of wheat that had signified nothing would instead call to mind golden hair. In the original French, the word for tame is apprivoiser, derived from the Latin privatus. In the perfect passive participle, it means bereaved or deprived, and also freed or released.
My dog drew me to the sun and the creek, to the scent of river red gums, head tilted at birds and frogs. I absorbed the sense of something old, out where the Marpeang-bulluk clan tread next to water. It seemed that I could breathe outside time, away from things always waiting to be done. He would sprint ahead, ever ahead, stopping only to check whether I wanted him back. I always want him back. He returned at the sound of his name until the morning he didn’t. I came to understand how being bound and being liberated can be simultaneous states of relationship, of being.
There are those who say that pets are family. I understood what people meant when they uttered it to me in consolation. Perhaps it is the closest language we have for their place in our lives. It never sat so evenly with me. He was not my child; children do not look at you the same. I’m not sure you could even call dogs friends, though their sense of the present can lend permission to be ourselves, which is what better friends do.
Too often I was made sharply aware that the dog whom I called ‘mine’ was a creature apart in every way, and that we experienced the world simultaneously but at parallel. Perhaps this is what Gaita means when he refers to the recognition of the ‘independent reality’ of others as a condition of real love.
It sounds quaint in such a world as this, but Australians must be in want of that love or revel in something like it. One in every five of us lives with a dog.
This shared space has shifted over the life of the continent. The dingo, which is arguably still more wolf than dog, is believed to have been brought by Asian seafarers between 3,500 to 5000 years ago. British dogs feature prominently in settlement histories: weaponised against Indigenous peoples; used for herding sheep and driving cattle; and as protection against bushrangers and on the gold fields. Droving dogs were bred with dingoes to produce the hardy Australian cattle dog. Greyhounds are still bred for gambling upon. The history of dogs in Australia is a history of how we have compromised them.
Today pet ownership cuts across demographic lines in urban, suburban and regional areas. Recent changes to tenancy laws in Victoria put the onus on landlords to refuse a request from a renter to keep a pet. The language around reform framed pet ownership as a right, but it is the subtext that makes the case.
No one has a ‘right’ to keep animals. What we might have a right to is opportunity for unconditional love, drawn uniquely from bonds with animals. Dogs are primed for it. In 2015 Japanese researchers found that the hormone oxytocin (associated with the mutual gaze in mother-infant bonding) is also present in dog-human bonding and may have been pivotal to co-evolution. Being the more likely caretakers and food keepers, women might have been the first to domesticate the dog in the hunter-gatherer period.
The relationship of mutual benefit between humans and dogs is often writ in terms of work: no other animal has proven adaptable. Hunters, fisherfolk and farmers over millennia have left us with more than 300 breeds suited for different contexts.
Dogs have long been trained to assist people who are vision-impaired. More recently they are being trained to detect seizures from neurological and respiratory conditions, to hasten medical responses. They detect bombs and drugs. As studies more firmly establish the positive effects of dog ownership on well-being and mental health, they are also being deployed for therapy in aged care, schools and hospitals.
For all the affection—and utility—associated with dogs, we seem far less equipped when it comes to their mortality. When the Netflix documentary series Dogs was released, the company tweeted reassurance in all-caps that ‘no dogs die in any episode’.
I collected his ashes in a nondescript tin, his name on a sticker label. No one offered names of counsellors or suggested I might need one and that that would be okay. I received the annual notice for his registration from the local council, which meant I had to make that call. The kennel was dismantled without ceremony after an empty year. Everything after his death seemed to contradict the size of the space he took up in my life.
This contradiction lies at the heart of disenfranchised grief. The facets of bereavement over an animal are the same as for the human beloved: not just sadness (the primary association for grief) but guilt, regret, longing and loneliness. Guilt can be especially sharp for those who had to make the decision to euthanase.
Yet overt and covert cues can relegate this grief as secondary or absurd. David Foote, a former veterinarian who now specialises in bereavement counselling, says that while veterinary training now recognises the need to support human clients, that is not the case more broadly. He has found at his practice that the need for counselling over the loss of an animal cuts across class, occupation and ethnicity.
He has seen acute examples where an animal companion dies in the same period that a human relative dies, with grief for the animal being met with disapproval by the family. ‘What happens is that they’re not given permission to grieve or express that grief, so they shut it down and repress it,’ he says. ‘Repressing it doesn’t work; it has to come out somewhere. That lack of permission to grieve is quite harmful, really.’ Foote often hears clients say that losing an animal is the hardest thing they have ever had to deal with. It is what it is.
He describes grief as ‘a maelstrom that rises and falls’. I am hearing this two years after my dog died. I thought at some point I would stop feeling so bereft. The model that still prevails in the public mind is the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, intended as a theory for terminally ill patients but (mis)adapted for grievers.
Our language around loss absorbs other problematic ideas: closure, ‘letting go’, ‘moving on’. These are models of trajectory in which distress is something from which to recover, to leave behind. I held onto my grief because it was real in places where my dog had been rendered un-real. I became afraid that if I stopped grieving it would be as if he had never been here.
‘In grief nothing stays put’, the novelist CS Lewis once wrote. It made me wonder about other kinds of loss for which mourning is seen as indulgent or misplaced. We lose things and people all the time. We lose ourselves. Both Lewis and Joan Didion wrote luminously about their grief but in ways that did not seem to offer much to me, other than the sharing of symptoms.
Who is allowed to grieve, for whom or what and how long? What happens when hierarchies of hurt are internalised – when certain kinds of pain seem to meet more validation than others? How does grief sit within supremacist societies, or the economies in which we must we keep it together, always functioning, or else? How do you keep being an adult when you have been abruptly reduced to a child?
Disenfranchised grief raises all sorts of questions about the character of grief itself and why onlooker responses can fall so short. Grief slows time, almost suspending it in the aftermath of loss, while also compressing our sense of it, as death forces us to contemplate that things end.
Time becomes both inert and cyclic. Lewis again: ‘How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realised my loss till this moment”? The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again’.
In other words, grief fits poorly not only with western sense of linear time but also with a capitalist framework in which the passage of time is measured exclusively as money. We send the bereaved to work after loss when time has slipped from its axis.
Death and grief are only barely accommodated in modern secular societies where they are regarded as departures from order. ‘Life goes on’ is often invoked, an impulse to minimise loss and assert control. Because ultimately, we fear what someone in distress might ask of us and how much they might drag productivity. Grief is a waste of money; that is one of the ways we know how far removed economic mindsets can be from the humane.
To deny someone their grief is to deny that they had loved. Beyond needing validation, we need help when we are struggling—and it is normal and natural to struggle after loss. Yet as David Foote points out: ‘People don’t know what to do with someone who’s really distressed. They want to shift them out of their pain.’ Perhaps this impulse for order is understandable in the face of chaos. It aids the onlooker, but not the bereaved.
How is one meant to reach for order—which is familiarity—when the reference points have changed or become unclear? Rather the task in grief seems to be a reconstruction of meaning, unique for each person. It is reapportioning weights for equilibrium. It is work that requires time.
In the few sessions I had with a therapist, I would sometimes struggle with her interest in my relationship with my mum, the friendships that broke before and after my dog died. Perhaps this was necessary work, though I wonder whether it ended up pathologising something that was in the range of normal. The initial work can feel like cataloguing all the different ways you are broken. I did not end up finishing this work with her.
I took a six-day silent retreat the following year, and when the older woman to whom I had been given to speak for an hour each day said, ‘I want to know more about the dog,’ it felt like permission to grieve, and so finally to love.
Fatima Measham is a Melbourne writer. She tweets as @foomeister.