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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - June 2011

It could be you ....

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor in private practice after 20yrs with Relate, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet as we pass our half-way markers.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column. 



Parting gifts

DigbyThere is a stillness and a different sound to our house. When I go to the kitchen I have noticed an echo that wasn’t there before. Important parts of what makes up our normal surroundings are missing. There is no mat by the door with a water bowl and food dish, no soft bed for our dog to sleep on – no dog.

Recently our companion of more than thirteen years became so ill that we summoned the vet who gave dear Digby an injection that stilled his ailing heart in seconds. We had known for some months that Digby wouldn’t be with us for much longer as his back legs had become very weak and his mobility decreased alarmingly. Although his coat remained luxuriant and silky and his sense of fun was as sharp as ever, arthritis stiffened his joints and he could no longer take the walks he loved. Nor could we leave him with his adoring minder overnight as he had grown more needy of our presence and, sadly, occasionally incontinent. Of late we had been wakened two or three times each night with a bark that summoned us to his side. And yet, when the end came we were just as shocked by it as if we had no inkling. I felt devastated by his loss.

The previous few days had been marked by his increasingly befuddled behaviour and by Sunday night, as I lay next to him on the floor to calm and soothe him to sleep, I felt he might not live through the night. For the first time for 4 months he did not bark and we slept without disturbance. Meanwhile Digby was quietly suffering multiple small TIAs, or strokes, and becoming more confused. It seemed typical of him that he did this silently. Never had he complained with whining or yelping when in pain or fearful. Always he had been a gentle presence in our family, staying perfectly still while a succession of grandchildren explored his soft fluffy coat as though he was their personal cuddly toy, accepting the pinches and prods of tiny fingers and even allowing one of the more recent toddlers to snuggle up and go to sleep on him.

Once he had been gently born away by our vet for the last time we felt at a loss. Our dog minder heard what was happening and arrived with flowers and many consoling words as Digby died. She stayed and made tea for us and kept us chatting about happy times we had shared with him and was kindness itself. I then began a marathon laundry of all Digby’s things and rearranged his area of the kitchen until no-one new would guess he had ever been there. My husband shampooed the kitchen rug, went to shop for small, insignificant items and fetched and carried. I think we both knew we were indulging in classic displacement activities. We were looking for ways to cope with a family bereavement. That afternoon our neighbours invited us to tea and cleverly kept us chatting until way past what would have been doggy teatime. Too drained and sad to cook we went to our local pub to eat and were given a drink on the house by the sympathetic landlord. At the bar we got into conversation with a delightful American couple who dined with us and came back to our house for a nightcap afterwards and are now our newest friends. They entertained us and unwittingly distracted us for long enough to end a deeply sad day. On reflection we had laughed and smiled through half of it.

Looking back on the day now I feel that, as the kindest of dogs, Digby’s parting gift had been to leave us safely in the kindness of those who filled the rest of our day and thus eased our sadness.

There will be many people who grieve for a lost family pet privately and are embarrassed or troubled by the depth of emotion they experience. That sense of loss can often feel as great as losing any family member. Most pets are family members too, so their death is a significant bereavement that needs to be treated accordingly. Their lives have been lived with us through all kinds of other events and changes, happy and painful. We will have usually have photographs of them connecting us with memories of other things and in that way too, they play their part in family life. To feel their loss and to grieve for them is a normal and natural thing.

So now, in very similar ways people have to adjust to the loss of a partner, we have to get used to the different sound of our house and the
stillness which seems to pervade each room. We will have the luxury of sleeping through the night without the need to stumble down to let the dog out – but there again, when we did, we could stand in the back garden at four thirty and hear the most stunning dawn chorus, or at 2am marvel at a clear night and a myriad stars glittering overhead.

Digby leaves an un-fillable hole in our lives but wonderful memories from his arrival right up to his last days. How great a gift is that?!



This marks the memory
Of one who possessed
Beauty without vanity
Character without conceit
Humour without spite
Devotion without reverence
Love without reservation
And all the human virtues, none of the vices.

This is not the flattery of churchyard gravestones;
It is but a just tribute to the memory of Digby,
Our adored Golden Retriever.
Born October 12, 1997



You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.

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