Sharing Grief on social media

When Lucky died: A grief observed, on social media

He always insisted on nudg­ing against me while we drove.

Bob Sul­li­van / msnbc.com

Lucky

By Bob Sullivan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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