redtaperoadtrip2011

When Lucky died: A grief observed, on social media

June 30, 2011 at 1:00 PM ET

He always insisted on nudging against me while we drove.
Bob Sullivan / msnbc.com /
Lucky

GOLDEN, Colo. — There's a reason the expression goes "You look like your dog just died." Losing a dog is a sadness so profound that it's useless to explain to anyone who hasn't been through it.

In fact, finding others who understand is probably the only way to get through it. This story will explain how this devoted skeptic of social media found it to be a great source of comfort during my time of great need.

Many of you know that last year I traveled America with my golden retriever, sniffing out scams and ripoffs as part of "Bob and Lucky's Hidden Fee Tour of America." (There was even a theme song.) Naturally, Lucky stole the show, getting on national TV twiceand appearing live on local TV in several towns along the way from Washington to Seattle. His pawprint was far more popular than my signature at every book signing. We made hundreds of friends in dozens of newsrooms, bookstores, hotels and rest stops along the way. He spent nearly all of those 3,000 miles with his head nudged onto my right shoulder, leaving drool stains on the right arm of every shirt I had brought for the trip.

We were all set to make the same trip this summer, but Lucky decided to go on a longer road trip instead, taking the expressway to dog Heaven on June 11. He was roughly 10 years old — he was a rescue, and he landed in my life eight years ago — and the calendar said I should be ready for this. I was not. He acted like a puppy until the day he died. Right to his last afternoon, every muscle of his oversize body was desperate to say hello to every man, woman and squirrel we encountered. So it was a complete shock when he died of heart trouble — an enlarged heart, to no surprise — during one horrible night at the vet a few weeks ago.

I am writing this piece in Golden, Colo. — that’s an accident, but a good one. Lucky sure would have liked it here: My hotel is crawling with dogs.  

* * *

Comparing personal tragedies is a game you should never play, and I would never dare say my sadness is equal to that of anyone who's lost a job, a home or a child. I will say simply that in losing Lucky this month, my sorrow is complete. When I finally got home to my family about 5 a.m. that awful night, I lay in bed wide awake and could feel every cell of my body hurt. I can still feel that as I type now. No one, nowhere, will ever love me like Lucky did. He was typically food-obsessed, scarfing every meal in seconds, but there was one time he wouldn't eat — if I were rushing in the morning and threw food in his bowl on my way out the door. On those occasions, when I came home after work, I would find his food still in the bowl. In the morning, he'd followed me to the door, laid down and waited there for me all day. The second I opened the door, he'd say a quick hello, and then the poor starved animal would run to eat his breakfast at 6 p.m. He just couldn't eat without me. Now, I feel the same way.

This kind of loss leaves you searching for answers, and in the sleepless nights that followed I spent a lot of time fruitlessly reading about enlarged hearts, alternatively looking for an explanation that might calm my racing analytical mind or an excuse to blame myself for the ailment to distract my aching heart. 

You probably know the ending to that trip. I found no answers. But I did find a lot of places to share. For all its faults, the Internet is very good at sharing. In particular, for all the scary things about social media — Facebook's consistent abuse of privacy and the Twitterverse’s self-absorption — I found these tools indispensible in my grief.

Sharing makes nothing better. It doesn't replace a wet nose, a joyful face, the endless presence of love that follows you everywhere. But still, sharing eases pain.

* * *

Of course, there’s nothing new about online grieving. People have been finding new and sometimes strange ways to express loss and mourning since the arrival of the Internet. Virtual wakes appeared almost as soon as Web pages did. 

Among the newest forms of digital mourning: following someone on Twitter who has recently died. Ryan Dunn, a TV personality made famous through the TV and movie franchise Jackass, had 30,000 followers before he died in an automobile crash June 22. Now, he has 145,000 after a surge of followers arrived when the news hit. Why would someone follow a recently deceased person? The urge to connect, and the Internet’s ability to deliver it, sometimes both seem to be stronger than even mortality itself.

Online mourning raises sticky issues. You might have noticed not all Web users maintain a sense of decorum or class. Posting a page describing your grief opens you up to hurtful sarcasm, or worse. For that reason, Facebook now offers a “memorial” state for accounts of the deceased that blocks strangers from making posts.

Still, the urge to virtually eulogize — even among strangers — is strong, as evidenced by the success of a relatively new site named 1000Memories.com, which makes it easy for loved ones to create a memorial page for the deceased. It promises to never allow advertising or to charge a subscription fee. Bring your Kleenex if you click.

* * *

As in "real” life, mourning the loss of a pet doesn’t get quite the same regard as mourning the loss of a person, and perhaps it shouldn’t. You can’t tell me that right now, however.

When Lucky first died, I spent a lot of time reading Web sites that offer advice on surviving the loss of a beloved pet. There's many places offering tips on how to cope. I suspect some would find them helpful. I did not. The sheer amount of people discussing the problem helped me hang on to my sanity, however. A couple of the better sites are here and here.

There are also a number of sites that allow grieving pet owners to post memorials of their lost dogs, with pictures and paragraphs that serve as online odes to the beloved pets. Some of these post advertisements; some promise not to. I chose not to put Lucky on any of these sites, but reading through the stories there, I found,  helped a little. Misery loves company. Here’s a few:

http://www.dogquotations.com/write-a-memorial.html

http://www.critters.com/

http://www.ilovedmypet.com/

http://www.pets-memories.com/

http://www.petsremembrance.com/

But using the Internet as part of the mourning process, rather than just a source of information, was much more effective, I learned. Plus, I was facing an immediate problem. Lucky was a social butterfly and had hundreds of close friends. And I'd already promised readers another Red Tape road trip with Lucky as the mascot for my blog. How would I tell everyone?

When someone you love dies, there is always the complicated and painful affair of telling others about the tragedy. The conversations often force you relive the horrible moments, when people naturally ask questions like "How did it happen?" No one knows what to say, and you, as the recipient of the kindness, always sense that and spend your energy trying to make sympathizers feel better instead of saving your strength for you.

When a dog dies, less sensitive non-dog-owners will inevitably ask a dumb question like "So, are you going to get another dog now?" as if you were trading in a used car. Others will just breeze past the sadness with a trite "He had a good life," and change the subject.

It all begins to feel like piling on, and sometimes you just can't face all that pain at once.

Facebook turned out to be a powerful friend in this dilemma.  I wrote a simple status update that explained the basics and created a photo album for Lucky. I was able to tell most of my friends and family at once. It was the most effective way I could avoid telling and re-telling the story hundreds of times. As is custom now, I changed my Facebook avatar picture to an image of Lucky, which signals to Facebook users that something might be wrong. I did the same with my professional Facebook page, letting readers know that he wouldn’t make my coming trip for the saddest of reasons; I called attention to the notice by Tweeting it. 

I was surprised that pressing "share" on Facebook turned out to be another one of those painful goodbye moments, like packing up his dog toys or placing his dog collar around my car's rear-view mirror. I knew it would set off another chain reaction of sadness, but I was committed to getting that part over with as soon as I could.

I expected to cry again.  I didn't expect the incredible outpouring of love that came flying through the Internet during the next 48 hours. There is just something about losing a dog, and either you know about it or you don't. I heard from hundreds of people who did, strangers who expressed deep sympathy and then sent me their own tales about their beloved pets who'd passed away. One woman I heard from was even named Sullivan and had lost her dog named Lucky.

The notes I got from friends touched my heart even more. Many confessed to secretly giving treats to my dog when I wasn’t watching (I was very strict) or reminded me of long-forgotten sweet moments. I won't tire you with stories of how special Lucky was. Your dog is just as special, no doubt. But Lucky lived an amazing life and brought not just joy but healing everywhere he went.  Indulge me this one tale:

A friend and co-worker told me a secret I'd never heard that was seven years old. She'd lost a baby to a rare childhood illness, and would often seek out Lucky when the depths of her sadness were unbearable. "Things just seemed better" after playing with him, she said. "He just seemed to get people, intuit what they needed and purely, simply offered love."

My dog was able to comfort a woman grieving the loss of her baby, and I never even knew about it. Oh, did that make me cry. Every time I re-read her note, I cry.

But somehow, things seemed better. All these kind thoughts, these memories, these well-wishes — they felt as important as food and water to me during this time.

I think this point is particularly important for men, who in are society are neither well equipped to give nor to receive this kind of emotional outpouring in public. I was able to privately read these notes over and over when I needed to, particularly when a wave of sadness came, and somehow, it did make things better. I was in awe of how much good Lucky did in his short life.

None of this has made hotel rooms less lonely as I make my way across country now. I miss the way Lucky would charge into each new room, taking complete inventory of the place with his nose and then try to beat me to the toilet bowl. His breathing at night —even his snoring — was more powerful than any sleeping pill. It’s so strange not having to wake up early and run outside to search for just the right patch of grass so Lucky can  do his business.

Sharing things on social networks is hardly foolproof. Despite how it seems, not everyone reads Facebook every day. Plenty of readers and sources I've encountered on this road trip have still asked me why Lucky wasn't with me. Then they felt bad, and I felt bad. 

But Facebook and Twitter saved me hundreds of these dreadful encounters and eased my pain. For me, it was the perfect tool for tastefully sharing bad news and for facing grief head on. Social media 1, social media critic 0.

 I know I will get another dog someday, probably sooner than seems right now. As another friend put it, "another fellow will just wander up to your campfire when the time is right." But that's not until I get over the irrational anger I feel every time I see a healthy dog running, jumping and wagging his tail. I'm going to be sad for a while, and that's how this is supposed to work. For now, I will hope and pray that whatever family has my future rescue pet today is taking good care of him and that whatever the reason they will eventually put him up for adoption, the pain of separation will not be too great for them or him. 

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