On battling the monsters of grief and trauma after a sudden death
Warning: Contains a brief but explicit description of an animal’s death.
Our dog Trip died a little over two weeks ago, and I’ve barely been able to write a word about it. I’m a writer, so I know that’s not a good sign. I’m trying. I just have to keep trying.
I miss him in this deep, aching way that—despite all the loss I’ve known in my life, even in this last year—feels so raw and desperate and powerful, like at any moment it could just fling me into some void, and I would go.
There are two parts to this: the grief and the trauma. They’re both familiar creatures. Not quite old friends, but the liberties they take are well-known.
Grief will have its way with you, I always say, and never the other way around. All you can ever do is surrender to its power. Submit to its idiosyncratic timeline, its inconsistent forecast for which days will be tolerably miserable and which will end in you falling to the floor, sobbing, no matter how normal you felt a minute ago.
I keep finding dried, salty smudges around the corner of my eyes, even when I don’t remember crying. The pattern of grief never makes any more sense, and you’re left with so little energy after each dance that you might as well just do whatever it wants until you eventually come out the other side of the storm.
But then there’s trauma, the trickier monster.
Trauma has its way with you, too, though we know scientifically that at least some part of that occupation is a basic sense of self-preservation—in a state of shock, we repress because remembering would be more life-threatening than forgetting. You need to focus on fight-or-flight, not fear or other feelings.
The way trauma changes you, the way it fucks you up, is both more predictable and more elusive. (I know. I’ve been trying to write it out for going on 12 years now.)
Where grief is like a suffocating hug, an embrace so brutal you eventually realize you’re better off letting go, trauma is the worst kind of bogeyman, a long-term shadow. Experiencing a traumatic event changes your brain chemistry, skews your muscle memories, inhabits your body like a virus.
First there is the reliving of it. The story that stays with you even if you never tell another person how it happened. But I have to put it into words; I have to tell everybody, or I can’t begin to move forward.
This is how it happened:
I pulled into the driveway and came into the house and said hello to my wife, Jessica. Trip rushed out into the yard to scamper and pee and grin back at me with that big dumb smile that is especially prevalent among pit bulls. Jessica stood up from the couch and walked over and we were bracketing the door when he ran back up onto the porch.
He seemed to stumble over his own feet. This happened sometimes, normally when he first woke up; he was an aging gentlemen who’d never had full use of all four legs, and we have slick wood floors.
But then he fell onto the threshold of our door, right between our legs. His body seized, quickly but with small movements, and we both got down on our knees, our hands in his fur, trying to figure out what was going on, could he get back up, should we help him back up.
It was so fast. There was the foul smell of his body releasing a tiny mess. His tongue fell out of his mouth. His eyes stayed wide open but went suddenly still. He was so warm, and we couldn’t tell if his heart was beating or not, whether he was moving at all.
Jessica yelled at me to call the vet, so I did, though it took a few tries to dial correctly. “He’s dying,” she yelled into the speakerphone when they answered. “I think he’s died.” I don’t think I said anything except maybe no.
It was her urgency that got us up out of the house fast, into the car. The vet said to come there if we could, so we did. Jessica sat in the back and did CPR. I ran at least one red light. She carried him inside the clinic. It was maybe 15 minutes from when I’d gotten home and Trip brushed past me into the yard. It was too late. It was probably much, much too late.
Trauma is the monster that shows that movie again and again, that makes my throat close up in a tight swallow every time I step in or out of my house or my car or drive down our street. Trauma ushers in the crushing anxiety every time I remember how we couldn’t save him, how we can’t save anybody, how everyone and everything we love is always just a breath from being taken away.
The flip side of love isn’t hate: it’s fear. Fear of losing what you love most.
Then there is the reinterpretation.
The version of that story where it is obviously all your fault, where every decision you made or didn’t make to take care of him for two years was wrong, was hurtful, is what killed him. I can simultaneously tell myself that is completely ridiculous—no dog has ever been loved like ours has been loved; we embraced an epic, embarrassing display of affection; we fussed over every possible change in his body or behavior that might have meant he was sick—and still be stuck wearing the weight of that guilt. Those what ifs. I’m trying to name and acknowledge that guilt so I don’t drown in it. Because I do know—I do—how false it is.
Trauma’s best trick is when it fools you into thinking you had the power to stop yourself from being traumatized, which is basically never, ever true.
Our impossibly kind vet, who sat down on the floor of the exam room and cried with us, said wisely that especially with animals an unexpected death shifts the burden of suffering. From your dog—who went quickly and hopefully with little pain and maybe even some sense of comfort from your hands on his body—to you.
I try to find some comfort in that idea, that we avoided what would have been an impossibly hard and painful period where he grew older and weaker and we struggled to find some balance between extending his life and acknowledging it was not worth living. Of course I would rather feel all of that pain than think of him bearing it. Of course.
He was such a sweet, good dog, and he had such a curiously noble way of cocking his head that we’d barely even officially been granted guardianship over him before we were inventing more elaborate explanations and names. Trip became Lord Trippington. Obviously he could not be the first to hold such an honorable title: Call him Lord Trippington the Third. Of the Trip Harbor Trippingtons, naturally. But he was also such an effusive, almost clingy snuggler—a Cuddles on his mother’s side, then. We quite seriously discussed whether the Trippingtons approved of the Cuddles. But he still had no first name until: George, George, George of the Cuddles. And so Trip had become Lord George Cuddles Trippington III.
We talked to him almost constantly. Sang songs we made up about him. Inquired as to his opinion. Asked if he knew how much we really loved him. (We asked him that a lot.) We often had to yell down the hallway, “Are you talking to me or the dog?” I’d be standing in the front yard carrying on a conversation with Trip about what we’d do while we waited for Jessica to get home and realize my neighbor was watering the yard only a few feet away, politely ignoring me.
This year has already been so filled with sadness, with grief, with fear and confusion about a lot of big and small ways our lives have changed and so quickly. Trip was the one who seemed to know how to handle all that, which makes no sense of course because he was the dog and we were the ones with scary bills and dead friends and real world issues.
But he would crawl on top of you when you were sad, pin you to the couch and hold you down until you stopped trying to fight your way out. And he would stay like that until you’d cried yourself out or he deemed you well enough to go on about your silly human life. He’d stand up, usually with a bruising paw in your stomach or your thigh, and climb down, trusting you were basically functional enough now to take care of yourself and maybe also finally go get him that ice cube to chomp on.
For now, anyway, what Jessica and I have is each other. And I don’t say that lightly. At a moment where it would be so easy to feel so untethered, so easily lost after two years organizing every day around the schedule of making sure our dog was fed and cared for, instead we just turn towards each other, again and again.
She told me I had to write about it, so I am. She said not to be too nice about it, too sanitized, so I’m not. We take turns pointing out the obvious: We will mourn and we will heal and at some point we will be ready when another dog finds us. We both know enough about grief and trauma to know this is true even when none of it feels real.
Neither of us will get lost in the void. We will keep beating back the monsters together.
Shana Naomi Krochmal is a writer and producer who lives in Los Angeles.