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Unexpected Goodbye: The Grieving Process

“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

- Rumi

Just when I thought 2021 had finished having its vengeance on me (having lost my Sparta in January and my cat, Echo over the summer), up comes December 29, 2021. I almost made it out without any more tragedies.

And then I got a phone call.

I was out of the country traveling (yeah, I know). The place I board my dogs was trying to contact me. Orion had suffered a seizure, and though they rushed him to the vet, he died upon getting there.

To say it devastated me is an understatement. This is not something I was prepared for. Yes, Orion was older (somewhere between 12-13) and he had a congenital level 3 heart murmur. But he was spry! He still made sure my 70 lb pit bull, Ellis still followed all the rules of house (that Orion imposed). All the animals had a healthy respect for him, including the cats. He still loved to get on the treadmill, and though we didn't do our 10 mile rucking adventures in a few years, he still loved to go on long walks. This was completely unexpected. So now what? I was with my family, with 4 days until we'd get home. What to do?

Well, I Piloted myself. Like I always do. Piloting isn't for dogs, it's my mantra for living. Piloting is the opposite of panicking. Let's break it down.

Step 1: Control yourself

Before I do anything, I ask myself, "Do I have control of myself? Am I angry? Am I flustered, panicked, out of control? Or even just stressed?". If the answer is "yes" to any of these things I take a moment to get myself back on the right path. Sometimes it's only a moment, like when an off-leash dog is charging at me and my dog. Sometimes you have quite a little bit of time to get it together if you need to.

Just make sure you use the entire amount of time allotted to you to get it together.

If I have to do something stressful in an hour, and I've been unsuccessful in trying to calm down for the last half hour, I don't just say, "Screw it", and stop trying. I utilize all the time I've got to control myself to the best of my ability. For me, that entails a mental checklist, staring with physical signs that I'm not in control of myself:

- The Paris Paw (as in Paris Hilton's Chihuahua, aka, The Most Frightened Dog In The World)

If your hands up by your chest, or anywhere other than at your sides or behind your back, you are prepping yourself to choose between your fight or flight response. Sometimes that's necessary, but in this case it wasn't. I received terrible news, but nothing that required such a response as to kick my fight or flight response into high gear. I therefore immediately put my hands into my pockets. Calming your body indeed helps calm your mind (even if it's just a little

- Am I pacing?

I am a very energetic person (apologies to my clients who have had to endure my, uh...enthusiasm first hand). My engine is always on idle, which is fine when I'm psyched about a dog training session that's going really well, or the Browns are in the playoffs (HA!). But as we all know, energy makes more energy. So in some situations, that energy is fine, even beneficial, but in this one, I needed to calm down. I therefore sat down, and focused on not bouncing my leg (another tick I have). There. Outwardly I looked calm. And fooling your body is sometimes a great way to fool your mind.

Mentally, there was even more I could do to help myself. While grief is a very important emotion, sometimes you can't afford to deal with it at the moment. Kinda like a check engine light. While it's best to address the situation immediately, it's okay to put it off for a short while. I needed to mentally compartmentalize the news I'd just heard, so as to address the situation in the best logical way, rather than in the best emotional way. Neither is wrong, but only one was appropriate at the moment.

So did I compartmentalize my grief? Similarly to how I deal with fear. I work with a lot of aggressive dogs. Some with bite histories. Some with food reactivity. And some of these dogs are really big.

Frequently people ask if I'm afraid. Yes, I am. All the time.

Remember, emotions aren't out to get you. They aren't the enemy. They're your ally. Perhaps they can be heard like Cassandra's prophecies, doomed to be true, but never believed. But they are not out to hurt you, but to warn you. To help you accurately gauge what your reaction should be. However, they are NOT designed to rule your life. So let's look at the situation with me vs. aggressive dog.

I'm moving forward with the training, getting to some of the scarier parts. I've done this hundreds of times, so it feels normal to me. I'm cautious but not afraid, but then suddenly

I get walloped with a healthy dose of fear. I don't just ignore it; it's there for a reason. I also don't have the luxury of indulging in it at the moment. So I have a little conversation with it.

Oh, hi Fear!

Mind if I tag along for this ride?

Not at all. But can you let me know why you're here?

Sure! I saw the situation you're about to put yourself into, and I think you need to take another healthy look at what you're about to do. Should you maybe change your mind on what you're doing, or even how you're doing it?

Well, let me take a look.

I look at everything I'm about to do, reassess the situation, and either continue with my original plan, or make the necessary adjustments to stay safe. At this point, I am done with fear, even though fear may not be done with me. Remember, emotions like Google Maps. It will usually get you to the right place, but they are not the Pilot. You are ultimately in charge of your destination.

So, once I'm done with fear, I'm done. But then what do I do if fear isn't done with me? I tell that bitch to take a backseat. She may be along for the ride , but that doesn't mean she gets to sit copilot with me. Sometimes you just have to do things afraid. Or in my case, sad and grieving.

I practice this all day, every day. From when my child tries to talk back to me, to right before I walk into a new client's house. I firmly grasp control of myself and make sure I'm physically and mentally prepared for what I'm about to do.

Now it happens automatically. It takes time and work, but it's worth it.

Step 2: Control the Situation

So back to Orion. I had just learned 20 seconds ago while on a cruise ship that my beloved Orion had just unexpectedly died, and the person on the phone was now asking me what I wanted them to do. A million thoughts were racing through my brain. Images of him on the pack walks with me, how much I trusted him, and he trusted me, how when I was terribly ill once, he stayed in bed with me for 3 days straight, getting up only to go outside, and then right back with me in bed. All of these things flipped instantly through my mind. And they were all useless to me at the moment. Because I needed to handle some things, and dwelling on what had just happened would not help. However, I did need to get better control of the situation.

So rather than proceeding forward while still only barely being able to control myself, I controlled the situation. I told them that I needed a few hours to think about what needed to be done, and that I would be calling them back.

Just because action needs to be taken doesn't mean it needs to be taken immediately, or in a way that's already been prescribed.

The person on the phone had asked me a question. But that didn't mean I needed to give an immediate answer. The woman told me to take all the time I needed, and that she would be there to talk when I called back.

I could tell from how she sounded that she was in shock, and that this was extremely difficult for her as well. Just think how hard it would be to have to summon up the courage to tell someone that their dog died while under your care. No doubt if I got emotional on the phone, she would have followed suit. So while she had obviously controlled herself prior to calling me, it wouldn't have taken much for either of us to lose it, and thereby drawing the other person into that trap as well.

So I simply went back to my stateroom on my cruise, couldn't work my keycard to get in, realized I was on the wrong floor, trying to break into the wrong stateroom. I got orientated again, found my stateroom, and told my husband what had happened. After waiting a bit, we called back and handled the details. We opted not to tell the kids until we got home, the day before we were supposed to pick up the dogs.

Step 3: Answer Questions and Pilot

So in a dog training session with me, I will typically have my clients put something high value on the floor, say a piece of cheese or something, and gently, but firmly Pilot the dog away from the food, thereby answering your dog's question, "Can I have this?" with a simple negation. At this point, my client has already 1. controlled themselves, and 2. controlled the situation prior to placing the cheese on the floor. All that's left for them to do is to starting answering their dog's questions.

But where does that leave me with Orion? He was gone. The only thing left for me to do now is to Pilot, but I had put grief in the backseat because I couldn't deal with it at the moment. However, you can't always deal with an emotion by just summoning it up once you've boxed it up. Now all I had to do was wait.

With my other pets, I actually had to choose when to say goodbye and give them a last kiss before I took them to the rainbow bridge. Orion was different. I had every reason to believe that he would be there when I came back. This was actually a new experience for me, having an animal die unexpectedly. So I just sat back and waited, knowing that something would trigger the grief box to open up, where upon I could properly deal with what I'd packed up.

A couple days went by, and then it happened. An article about the Orion Nebula. Orion, the great hunter, whose image was set in the stars, according to the ancient Greeks. It made me think of the time my own little hunter saved our pet duck from a hawk attack. Or the time he treed a racoon that wandered into our yard. How, as a tiny, 5 lbs skunk-looking dog, he was still Lord of the Pack Walks, meting out his just but firm dominion over errant puppies and young dogs. About how Ellis was now afraid to go outside without him. About how quickly he picked up every trick I taught him, and about how brave he always was.

Oh, hi Grief. I see you're back.

In the end, I've only started to grieve him. It's a process, not a moment. But I'm seeing the humor, too. We've decided to have him cremated and have his ashes spread in his favorite spot: the cat's litter box. After the service, we will all pay homage by peeing on that one flowerbox outside I could never get him to stop peeing on, and then making a donation to a local skunk rescue.

Well, little man, until we meet again, give 'em hell up in heaven.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

614 views2 comments


Kerry I am so sorry for your loss. I enjoy your posts.

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
Jan 11, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much. It’s a hard time for everybody, but I think that having Orion in my life was definitely worth the pain of losing him. I would choose this path again in a heartbeat.

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