”I lived my best life, gave thousands of kisses, but my body was hurting. All I knew to do to let my humans know was to snarl at them, and when that didn’t do the trick, I bit one of them. That got their attention.” — Mac Steen
Having survived the holiday season with a little wrapping paper and my very favorite gift bags around the tree (it’s required they not leave the house), I’ve come back to where I was not so many days ago. SAD.
I was sad when the show “Monk” ended. I was sadder when the girl almost lost the guy in the Hallmark Christmas movie (I don’t watch those intentionally). This was more than that. Our pet, who was a dog, actually a Jackshund (combination Dachshund and Jack Russell) is no longer with us. And after 13 years of a lot of togetherness, my heart is more than sad. It is SAD.
We lose pets, and we lose people. Mac might have been “only” a dog, but he knew that to get people to understand your pain, sometimes, you have to take drastic measures. I wonder, though, how many times you and I and so many others have felt the need to “bite” to get someone’s attention when we’ve been hurting.
This article isn’t about Mac, though he certainly helped spur me to write it. This is about the way we knew Mac was tired and hurting and most likely dealing with some doggy dementia and how it translates to our human lives.
We are all living our best lives, giving thousands of kisses (or hugs and smiles), and then there comes a point when many people need a way to let others know they are hurting. It’s not so easy for most folks, which is why those who are hurting need others in their life to see the hurt, to validate their feelings of pain.
We humans aren’t the best at dealing with others when we discover they have a “diagnosis.” Whether it is dementia, cancer, depression, or any other number of issues or diseases, we tend to back away at a time our caring and empathy are most needed. Our fear of dealing with the uncomfortable helps no one.
If you’ve ever been in pain, physical or mental, you know how difficult it can be to tell others about it. This is a good time for us to do better on both sides of that coin.
If you are the one hurting, physically or emotionally, experts have a few suggestions (their words):
• Talk about it. One of the best ways to let people know that you are hurting is to tell them. This can be difficult, especially if you’re not used to expressing your emotions or if you’re worried about how others will react. But it’s important to remember that most people are willing to listen and offer support when they know that someone they care about is hurting.
• Write it down. If you find it difficult to express your emotions out loud, you might find it easier to write down how you’re feeling. This can be a letter, a journal entry, or even a social media post. Writing can be a therapeutic way to process your emotions and can also be a way to let others know that you’re struggling.
• Use nonverbal cues. Sometimes, it can be difficult to put your emotions into words. In these cases, nonverbal cues can be an effective way to let others know that you’re hurting. This might include avoiding eye contact, crossing your arms, or looking down.
The rest of us need to be ready with our response to friends or family members who are hurting. It isn’t just physical ailments people are struggling to handle. People are hurting inside. Maybe they’ve lost their dog or their spouse or their child. Maybe they are trying to figure out how to pay their bills.
Pay attention. Watch for nonverbal cues, written above, for signs something is wrong. When someone is brave enough to post on social media that something is going on, pay attention. Most people are not attention seekers in these cases but are looking for anyone to see their pain.
Reach out and listen. If they haven’t opened up on their own but you sense something isn’t right, reach out to them, ask them, and then take time to listen to their response.
Keep the focus on them. Don’t try to use your experiences as a way to minimize what they are feeling. Instead of saying, “Yeah, I know how you feel because I had that happen one time,” try asking them how they are feeling, what it feels like to them to experience this loss. It’s so tempting to share our own similar experiences, but people need to feel heard and validated for their own present pain.
Offer concrete help. I’ll admit, I’m the worst about saying, “What could I do to help?” The professionals say not to do that. Offer something concrete, such as, “I’m going to drop off something for dinner. If you want to talk, I’m glad to, but I’m also happy to leave it on your porch.” When we tell people to let us know what they need, it can overwhelm them. They might not know what they need in that moment.
We had 13 years with our sweet dog, Mac. We made the very painful decision to put him to sleep after a hard year of uncertainty with his behavior that resulted in his biting me recently. I was shocked that he would do that, even though he had been snarling at us when we tried touching or moving him at night.
But he was our dog, a part of our family, and the thought of not having him with us had apparently been more painful than the fear of being bitten. Until I was bitten. He had no other way to let us know our help just wasn’t enough.
We will be forever grateful for the love shown to Mac and to us by Dr. Matt Lane at Aberlea Veterinary Life Planning. It was as good an experience as we could hope for, short of a miracle to let Mac live without pain.
Pets and people matter, and when they cannot find the words to share their pain, we need to be ready to pay attention to the cues they show us.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at email@example.com.