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How to cope with the loss of a dog - when I lost my best friend Lucas to canine lymphoma

On July 21st, 2017 I lost my best friend, Lucas. Canine T-cell lymphoma took his life in a very quick four months. It was the most devastating day of my life. I knew losing him was going to be tough but what I went through physically and psychologically was incredibly difficult. The world and universe completely stopped and collapsed for me. I could have never imagined how it would feel to lose him and never see him again. I had an idea but it was nothing like the real thing. Lucas was the most incredible dog you can imagine. He was playful, loving, intelligent, sweet, fun, obedient, and so much more. Physically he was a stud! This is not an exaggeration; since day one, when I first took him out for a walk, until his last week of life, he always received compliments on his beautiful markings. It never got old to hear everyone tell him how beautiful he was. As a dad, I was proud! “He has the most beautiful markings”, “ I have never seen a bull terrier with his markings”, “a tricolor bull terrier, my god!” - those were common compliments. Because I have worked for myself for a long time, he was with me 24/7. I rarely had a day at the office without him and I will never have a day of my life without him in my mind. Lucas gave me the best 11 years and 9 months of my life. Thank you buddy!

Lucas how to cope with the loss of a dog

I am not writing this because I am a crazy dog person. I am writing this because the love I had for Lucas was unmeasurable and when I went through such a painful and horrible event, I didn’t find anything I could read or anyone I could talk to that helped me get through it. I hope I am not insulting anyone by saying that. I was incredibly grateful for all the advice I received and the condolences that came my way - they did help me in my process - but I knew I had to come out of this naturally and without forcing my feelings. I am thankful for the support my family, my girlfriend, my friends and Dr. Greenberg (Lucas’ vet) gave me. Very thankful. I do not intend for this post to help you fully heal (that would be impossible) but instead, I want to share my experience with you with the hope that it will help you in the mourning process. It’s OK to be sad and unhappy for a while. It’s very OK. Don’t let anyone, ever, tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling pain because “it’s just a dog”. That never happened to me, but I did hear from a few people that they had to hear those awful words at one point. If you do, ignore them.

The news of Lucas’ cancer came to me while on vacation with my girlfriend on the island of San Andres in Colombia. We had just arrived and had rented a small scooter to go around the island. We didn’t stop anywhere along the way but instead enjoyed the beautiful crystalline blue and teal waters and tropical breeze. Before getting on the scooter, we decided we would do the same trip the day after but stopping everywhere along the way. It took us about 1 hour and 30 minutes to complete the ride. We were both ecstatic. It’s such a beautiful place. After returning the bike, we stopped at a restaurant to have some local food. It was then when Natalie, my good friend and Lucas’ sitter, called. I answered with a bit of hesitation because getting a call from her was unusual. Natalie was great at texting updates and sending beautiful images of Lucas, but she wasn’t someone who called regularly. I quickly realized I had picked up the worst phone call of my life. Very quickly she told me that Lucas had very enlarged lymph nodes in several places in his body and that he was drinking a lot of water. He also had thrown up a few times in the last 6 hours. She had taken Lucas to Dr. Greenberg’s practice, Animal Care Clinic in San Luis Obispo, California (our home) and without confirming Lymphoma completely, she mentioned it was a very high probability that this was his diagnosis. My heart dropped to the floor immediately, and we decide to leave the island immediately and return to California at once. After flight delays and an unfortunate missed connection at the Bogotá airport, we finally were back in San Luis Obispo in two days. 

When I first saw Lucas he seemed to be himself with the exception that he was drinking water excessively. Coupled with his enlarged lymph nodes, it was a clear sign of lymphoma. It was incredibly difficult for me to see him like this. The lymph nodes were the size of very large marbles. Needless to say, once we were back this painful process had begun. My world was turned upside down.

After researching canine lymphoma obsessively, I decided that chemotherapy was a path I wanted to take with Lucas. I never wanted him to suffer and even though every dog’s reaction to treatment was different, there was a lot of hope for remission according to everything I read and heard and a very low chance of him suffering or getting sick from treatment. To make a very long story short, I quickly started his treatment following the Madison Wisconsin Protocol. Historically, under the MWP about 50% of all dogs survive 12 months from the start of therapy. It was very hard to drop him off at the vet the first day of treatment but I had a lot of hope and I was very anxious to see results quickly. The morning after his treatment, his lymph nodes were practically gone and Lucas stopped his vomiting. I was ecstatic and some life had returned to me. Although deep inside I knew this was a temporary fix. Contrary to all the research though, I still thought Lucas was going to be the exception . . . the survivor.

Unfortunately, there came a point when treatments stopped working. We tried everything we could in San Luis Obispo until we finally had to have Lucas under the treatment and watch of a specialist. In what ended up being the last month of his life, I decided to get a place in Los Angeles 10 minutes away from his oncologist. I wanted them to try everything available in the market for this terrible disease. They did and for the most part, Lucas did very well with his treatments. I felt that as his cancer progressed every day was a new “normal” for me. I could tell he had been losing his appetite little by little and I had to begin using diapers for his uncontrollable bowel movements. I also noted a significant change in his energy level. He still walked and he still played but he was much weaker than in the past. Before he was diagnosed with canine lymphoma, Lucas was already starting to slow down a bit and I had discontinued his “unleashed” trips to the beach and the dog park, because I noted he was getting very sore after them. His energy level was much lower.

Two days before I lost Lucas, we were going for a walk and during the second ball throw/fetch, he grabbed the ball in his mouth and as soon as he did, he fainted. I don’t need to relive that episode again in my mind but we quickly rushed him to the ER. He came back from being unconscious in about 40 seconds and I carried him to the car while running in my effort to get him help and attention as soon as possible. The next day, at night, Lucas had another fainting episode, this time at home. He was quicker to gain consciousness but was not himself after this time. I tried everything I could to make him feel better and decided I would take him to bed and have him rest and sleep. Throughout the night he couldn’t sleep well. He was tossing and turning and his breathing was at times heavier and faster than normal. At 4:30 am approximately I decided to take him to the ER again. His gums were a bit pale and I was extremely worried. He was there for about 4 hours. The ER vet stabilized him but when I asked to see him he seemed lost and almost as if he was looking for something he couldn’t find. I felt terrible. There was nothing I could do that would make him feel better. I hugged him, kissed him, walked him a bit, but he was just not able to be fully calm. I sat down with his oncologist and she mentioned that his white blood cell count had been increasing but his red blood cell count was decreasing. It was her opinion that the cancer had gotten into his spine. A blood transfusion was suggested but the risks involved were not something I was willing to put him through. The oncologist also mentioned that the blood transfusion would be a temporary fix and that at this point Lucas would just continue to be sicker and sicker every day. There was nothing else that could be done at this point and I had to make the most difficult decision of my entire life. When I first found out about him having canine lymphoma, I decided that one thing was clear to me (outside of the complete mind haze I was always in during this), I would never, ever, allow Lucas to suffer in any way. That morning, on July 21st, 2017, I said goodbye to my best friend. My best companion. My buddy. My hero. My son, Lucas. He was all this and more and he will be a part of me until my last day on earth.

I still have to share with you how to cope with the loss of your best friend. Well, I wish there was a set formula for this that worked. As you can imagine, there isn't. The things that helped me were:

1. Time. The passing of time has made the punch in the face get subtler. It still hurts and it always will, but letting time pass and do its thing is certainly very helpful.

2. Putting away toys and other reminders (leave his/her pictures out). In the first week I made a big effort in collecting all of Lucas's toys and organizing them nicely in a box that I now have in my garage. I put everything away with a lot of love and made sure it was somewhere where I couldn't see it every day. It's not that I was trying to avoid the pain and the coping process, it's just that I wanted it to be a bit easier/softer on me. This has been very helpful and when I do see his box of toys I now smile and think about how silly he was when he played with them. He was absolutely obsessed with tennis balls and his favorite ball is in that box now and someday it will be enjoyed by another pup. That brings me to my next point.

3. I heard this over and over and over again: "you just need to get another dog as soon as possible, trust me, it will make things so much better". Although I really appreciated that suggestion, there couldn't have been a worst suggestion for me. The bond I had with Lucas was incredibly special, and when he passed away I wanted absolutely nothing to do with having another dog, nothing. As I am writing this, it has been five months since his death and I still do not feel like I am ready. I probably won't be ready for a long time. Maybe years. Don't feel bad if someone gives you a guilt trip about all the dogs that are in need of adoption - you can help them in many other ways. One thing that might work for you is to help with fostering a dog who needs a home. For me, it has been very helpful to give love and scratches to dogs when I run into them in town. It feels very good to release that dog-love energy you have inside and share it with the fortunate pups who are alive!

4. Travel if you can. Some will say this is running away from your pain or your morning. For me it was one of the very helpful things that has made things a bit easier. When Lucas passed I almost immediately hopped on a plane and went to Seattle and Portland and I tried to entertain myself while there with anything I could. Coming back home after the trip was not easy but it helped me some, and after your best friend passes, anything and I mean anything helps.

5. One of the most helpful ways in which I have been able to feel a little less depressed has been to always, as much as possible, repeat the thought in my mind that I gave Lucas the VERY best life any dog could have had. I treated him like the king that he was. He always had the most incredible avalanche of love 24/7, the best food, the best beds, the best toys, the most incredible playtime sessions, and the absolute best healthcare! Lucas's veterinary doctor, Dr. Greenberg from Animal Care Clinic in San Luis Obispo, sent me a text message I still have and which has been instrumental to my coping process. It said: 

"You have given Lucas every chance possible to beat this cancer. And he's been an amazing patient. But this cancer has a mind of it's own, that won't allow us to beat it. When the time comes you should be at peace with your decision that it's time to say goodbye because you have done everything possible to make Lucas happy and healthy. He's lucky to have had you by his side through this journey".

To this day, I read that over and over and I continue to tell myself that I did everything I could for Lucas. Everything. I cannot thank Dr. Greenberg enough for all she did for Lucas and for sending such a thoughtful note to me. It has been instrumental in my recovery.

Always remember, you did everything you could for your friend. Don't ever forget that.

If you every need someone to talk, please contact us at any time, really, any time, either by email of by our chat window on the bottom right hand corner of our page and we will be there for you no matter what.


The Canine Lymphoma Foundation

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