many faces of grief
Today I’m sharing our family’s, and more specifically Luke’s, experience with having to say goodbye to a loved one. Grief looks different for Luke than it does for Glenn, Everett and myself and I am sitting here wondering about the different ways our children with special needs grieve when they lose a person or animal they love. A little over a month ago we lost our dog, Sonny. Sonny was our 9 ½ year old golden retriever who was a true lover of life and all it offered and he was our very best friend. Sonny smiled. Seriously, he smiled when he was happy which was pretty much all the time. He was a big lover, would lean in on you and got so much joy from flopping over on his back to get a tummy rub from anyone able and willing. He loved his walks, swims at the lagoon, coming with me to pick up the boys from school, pretty much any time he got in the car he was excited. He traveled with us to
Mammoth, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Tahoe, Carmel and all around the state. He was up with me at the crack of dawn and by my side when I worked in my office or especially when I prepared food in the kitchen. Glenn and Sonny went on long hikes on a regular basis and Everett rolled around with him and took him on neighborhood walks. Luke and Sonny had a very special relationship. Sonny was by far Luke’s best friend. He was and sometimes still is the first person Luke asks for when he wakes up and when I pick him up from school. At home, Luke keeps a close eye on where Sonny is at all times and loved to get toys out of the bin for him to play with over and over again. They played a mean game of tug of war. Luke doesn’t respect personal space and was constantly in Sonny’s face talking to him and giving him kisses and Sonny tolerated this each and every day with an occasional glance and sigh at me or Glenn. He knew Luke needed a little extra help and he did his part to protect and amuse him.
On Friday, May 12th Sonny woke up and had a hard time walking and moving his right front leg. I thought he may have had a stroke but when we brought him to his vet that day we learned he had an aggressive type of cancer that had spread throughout his organs and his spleen was enlarged and at risk of rupturing. That would be extremely painful so after looking at the x-rays, talking with his veterinarian and absolutely melting down in the office, I understood that we had to make the shocking and unthinkable decision to say goodbye.
On Saturday morning, we had a kind and compassionate veterinarian come to our house so that Sonny’s end of life care would be in his home. I slept on the floor with him the night before, we showered him with so much love and rubs, gave him all of his favorite treats, reminisced and balled our eyes out in the hours leading up to saying good-bye. We sat around him and held him and told him over and over again how much we love him. He cried all over again when the vet rang the doorbell and Sonny found the strength to hobble to the door and lie down for one last tummy rub from the man, the very kind man, but the man who was about to euthanize him. Glenn and I balled our eyes out and I watched Everett finally break down when he was gone. I’m sitting here typing and losing it all over again. I miss my Sonny boy so much! “It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Truth!
I’ll never know exactly what’s going on in Luke’s beautiful mind, but his reaction to Sonny’s passing and grief in general appears to be quite different than mine.
We talked to Luke and told him that Sonny was very sick. We told him that it was time for Sonny to go to heaven and that he would not see Sonny in our house again. We would send our kisses up to the sky just like we do for grammy, his grandpas and all our loved ones. He saw that Sonny was struggling that horrible Friday. We explained and showed him what was going to happen. He saw Sonny take his last breath and he came over to give him one last kiss once he was gone. I know that Luke understood what was happening. He’s lost people in his life that he was close to and saw on a very regular basis. But just like in the past, Luke did not cry, he did not give any indication that he was sad or that he would miss Sonny. He said “yes” when we asked him if he would like to be in the room when Sonny passes. He chose to be on his chair, not right next to him like the 3 of us. He watched Glenn, Everett and myself cry and he watched as they wrapped sweet Sonny up in a blanket and carried him out the front door. He accepted it. Luke lives his life in the way I remind myself to live. He lives in the moment, not concerned about the past, not worried about the future and absolutely no regrets. I’d imagine much of this is due to his cognitive impairments and that he is a concrete thinker and the abstract nature of death is a difficult concept for him, but regardless, it’s a blessing! And it’s not a lack of understanding or sadness, it’s how Luke expresses his emotions. I read about how animals know when the end of their life here on earth is approaching. They are not sad or afraid, they merely accept that it is time. In some ways it reminds me of how Luke processes and deals with grief. That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. And there have been times when I’ve wanted him to cry, to feel sad but when I stop and think about it, I realize that this is Luke, this is who he is and this is a beautiful way to live.
We talk about Sonny every day. He doesn’t ask for him much anymore but we share photos and memories and blow him kisses up to the sky. And some days I just want to get in that kids head and understand how you can go from having a loyal, loving, best friend like Sonny right smack dab in the center of your world and when he’s gone, you move on, you accept, you don’t cry or even look the slightest bit sad. How does Luke process any of his emotions? He gets angry, he’s often impatient, his receptive skills are strong but sadness appears to be a mystery.
I know Luke is not alone and I’d love to hear more about how your child grieves. If there is an absence of “appearing” sad, what signs do you look for that your child is grieving? Added stress or anxiety? Other changes in behavior? I often worry that I’m missing something. What helps your child? What helps you, as parents, to understand and deal with your own grief while trying to sort out how everyone else in your family is doing? We can read about grief in people who are on the autism spectrum or who are cognitively impaired or in just about every population but I feel the best information comes from our own experience. What has helped your family? For us, it’s talking about a loved one, sharing memories, crying and laughing together. For me, expressing my emotions helps, and reminding myself that Luke loved Sonny, and although he may not show us that he is sad, he loves, he’s kind and compassionate, he absolutely understands and he accepts change, even the most difficult, most life altering change. That and the beautiful, pure relationship that existed between my boy and his dog brings much joy.