The dementia journey is fraught with loss. At every turn, your loved one is fading away which causes its own sort of slow dying process in your heart as a caregiver. Your emotional state is tied to their wellbeing; each step of their decline takes a part of your heart with it. Mentally and physically they are disappearing, while still in plain view. Emotionally your heart kind of does the same. It still pumps, but the pain of the loss is more acute because you feel more alone with every beat. This is your daily bread. It is a bitter consumption, each bite bringing more sorrow as the known outcome approaches. Yet the unknown, between now and then, is a torture. Navigating these emotional upheavals while still trying to have a ‘normal’ life is the daily challenge. Add to this burden any other kind of loss and there is a compounding effect. Loss on top of loss.
This week Oreo, Mom and Dad’s dog, died. She was a sweet girl and lived for close to 20 years. She was the baby of their twilight years. Before Mom’s dementia progressed, she told Dad to mix Oreo’s ashes with hers. She was that special of a dog. Mom loved Oreo like no dog before her. She had framed pictures mixed in with those of the grandchildren.
Since she moved to memory care, Dad has faithfully taken Oreo to see Mom. She can no longer go out, so he brings the dog to her. Over time, she has gone from asking about Oreo, to asking about the dog, to not mentioning her at all. Yet, her face would light up every time Oreo entered. It was hard for Dad to leave because she didn’t want Oreo to leave, but again, over time, she has been less and less able to focus on the dog. Most recently, when Oreo came for her weekly visits Mom lost interest in just a few minutes. Still, to see Mom’s eyes light up for even just a moment was worth the effort it took.
This week Oreo stopped eating. A stay at the vet’s office for a few days resulted in a heart failure diagnosis. She came home with meds to try to clear the fluid from her lungs, to buy some more time. She crawled under the bed curled up and wouldn’t come out. Not to eat. Not to be petted. Not for anything. Dad couldn’t stand seeing her struggle to breathe and so the decision was made. Back to the vet she went for the last time. It crushed Dad, but she isn’t suffering any more.
Mom doesn’t know. She likely will never even ask about Oreo. She doesn’t remember. If she has a moment where she is coherent enough to inquire, we will say Oreo is being groomed. While that moment is not likely to come, we are all prepared just in case.
The hard part about this loss for Dad is that Mom isn’t there to share it. To help ease the pain of it. So, in losing Oreo, he has lost yet another part of Mom. Her empathy. Her compassion. Their shared burdens. We, of course, are all there to support him, but it isn’t the same thing. Oreo wasn’t our childhood pet. She was a sweet dog who was one of the good ones. But we never lived with her. Whereas, Mom loved her deeply, as only a pet mom can.
In one way it is a good thing she doesn’t remember, because she would be devastated. In her childlike mind, it would be something that would undo her. It is best she doesn’t remember. However, for Dad, that puts the grief squarely on his shoulders in addition to the other hardship he carries. He holds his grief and hers. She can no longer share the load, which has to be one of the hardest parts of this disease. He cries tears for two. No shared sorrow or joy. No shared memories. The few she has are fading and each day, she is a little more lost.
The good news is even though she doesn’t share those emotions with him, she still lights up when Dad walks in the room. He is her music. Her bright spot. She engages with him more than anyone else and while that in itself can be a burden, it is also a blessing that she still seems to know him. She is in her own world and he is still a part of it. For that we are grateful. We will always be grateful.
Oreo was a wonderful dog. A part of the family. She will be missed. She sure loved Mom and Dad well. A therapy dog, to bring them joy when all the kids and grandkids were busy with life. She brightened up their home like the sunshine she was. Nearly 20 years of sunshine. A life well lived! RIP Oreo. Thank you for taking such good care of Mom and Dad.