Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Language of Loss

These last few weeks have been so very hard with Rudy being gone. But sometimes it seems it's the people I speak to the most who make it harder. I wanted to write this blog post, not as a rant, or a means of finger-pointing, but to explain to non-service dog handlers about how it feels after you lose your beloved partner.

If I had a dollar for every person who has asked "Have you guys found a replacement for Rudy yet?" I could retire to France with a dozen dogs. People seem to have no inkling what so ever that this question is offensive and hurtful. I understand the intent behind the question. The person wants to know if we have found a successor to train for Mister Pawpower.

A service dog is not an inanimate object that you can "replace" when it wears out or breaks. It is not that simple. The bond between a person with a disability and his/her SD is something unique and very special. It is different, much, much different than the love you feel for a pet. This dog has been with you more than anybody else has. This dog has stood between you and danger; frequently risking their own lives to ensure the handler's safety. These dogs are, for some, a lifeline to independence.

When an assistance dog partner looses their SD, whether to death or retirement, it is very difficult. The handler experiences a complex set of emotions; everything from sadness to anger, to guilt, to relief in some cases. Each person is different in the way they experience loss. Some folks, like me, find that they do better if they find an appropriate dog to work with as soon as possible. Some people go years between dogs. Some people only have one SD and then never have another because the loss was just too hard and horrible. They don't want to experience such grief again.

There is no "right" or "wrong" time to get a dog. People from the outside looking in, have absolutely no room to judge, nor to comment. It is normal to be curious about a person's feelings regarding another dog. But I'm asking you, please be very careful and aware of the language you use when asking about a possible next dog.

If the handler does decide to get another dog it is never, ever a "replacement." A dog isn't a pair of shoes or a computer. A dog is a life; special and one of a kind. A better way to phrase this question is:
"Are you interested in acquiring a successor dog?"
"Have you thought of getting another dog, or are you not ready?
Acknowledge that the new dog is not the old, is not a "replacement." Also understand that the person might not even know if they want another dog, they may not even be ready to have this discussion yet.

This is ok, it is ok because the choice of acquiring a successor dog or not, is very personal. If the person answers your question, don't judge their answer. I know it's tempting to say something like:
"You might do better with another dog, it might help."
"You may want to wait a while before getting another dog; maybe a dog isn't right for you any more."
It is nobody's place to judge, or to give advice, unless specifically asked by the handler to give it.

You may have experienced pet loss, and may think you are helping the person feel better by comparing your loss of Fluffy your favorite Chihuahua to the loss of the person's service dog. As I said above, pet loss is different than losing a service animal. Not harder, or easier; those aren't my value judgements to make. It is very different and comparing pet dog loss to service dog loss is like comparing apples to socks.

I need to be honest here and say that I'm very much struggling with feelings of anger right now every time someone uses the phrase "replace the dog." I am also frustrated because some of the people who use this phrase are close to me, and Laveau. They were also close to Mister Pawpower and Rudy. How, after seeing a service dog team work in partnership can they turn around and simply use a word like "replace?" It really hurts, and what's more it hurts Mister Pawpower which makes me even more upset because he is already hurting enough.

I would ask people to please think about what they say before they say it. A moment of forethought counts for more than an hour of apologies.


  1. I have nothing to add because you said it all so well. I'm only sad that it's something that has to be said in the first place.


  2. I also don't know what to add, but think that people really need to realize that how someone else deals with loss and grief is not the same as another person. What I am trying to say is, that even if I were to lose my service dog, I still wouldn't know exactly what emotions Mr Pawpower is going through. I hate hearing people say "I know how you feel" because honestly, you don't. No one knows how someone is truly feeling. No one feels the exact same as another.

    I once went to get a reference letter from a professor I had not seen in a year or so and when she saw Phoenix and I come in, she said she was surprised to see that he was still working. I know she didn't mean to be hurtful, but it really did bother me. he was only 8 at the time and actually retired 6 months later, so when I saw her the next time with Cessna, she didn't say anything, but I'm sure her expression said it all. I know you probably didn't need to hear this story, but it just sort of shows how people can be hurtful without meaning to be.

    Hugs to you and Mr Pawpower.

  3. *hugs* The decisions regarding a successor dog must be even harder because Rudy's death was unexpected.