Ralph loses his best friend—Alzheimer’s and grief

Ralph’s beloved 17 year-old lab died last Monday. It was time. But getting Ralph to realize it was time proved a challenge.

For the last eight weeks Zeus had been on a steady decline. When we returned from the family beach vacation in early August, our regular dog sitter admitted she had worried the whole week that Zeus might die on her watch. He had been so much frailer than in the past and was having what she thought were mini-seizures. 

Our vet explained they were not seizures but neurological problems that affected controlling his back legs. Acupuncture would help but not solve the problem. About the same time a gaping wound appeared on Zeus’s hip. It turned out to be a bed sore. The vet, whose own lab had succumbed not that long ago to a similar combination of ailments, warned us that the bed sore was going to be very hard if not impossible to treat, not only because it was an internal infection but because how do you stop a dog from lying down, especially one who can barely stand up. Zeus began weeks of intensive treatment—lasers, oral and topical antibiotics, acupuncture, and a huge bubble bandage that could only be changed by a professional. I was administering his various doses at home and taking Zeus to the vet office several days a week, no small task since he had to be carried into the car. Ralph helped with the lifting but he couldn’t really keep up with the dog-nursing.

At first Zeus seemed to hold his own, more or less. But the hurricane evacuation took its toll. The bandage fell off. The wound festered. The legs gave out. And by the time we returned, Zeus was basically unable to stand without being righted by human hands. 

We did another round of laser/acupuncture/antibiotics/band aids. I could tell Zeus was not getting better, and when the vet warned that if Zeus did not improve this go round we would have to discuss “quality of life” I was ready. In truth, I am not a dog person by nature and my patience was strained. Not to mention that poor Zeus was increasingly incontinent, shedding profusely and smelly.

I reported back the vet’s remarks to Ralph.

“I am not killing my dog.”

“No one is talking about killing.”

“Would you kill me?” 

When I next took Zeus back to the vet, I brought Ralph with me. Covid era vet visits take place in the parking lot. Ralph was chatty with the vet until she said there was no improvement and used the dreaded phrase “quality of life.” Ralph went dead silent. 

“I am not killing my dog,” he repeated once we were back in the car and throughout the evening.

I scheduled another appointment. This time inside the vet’s office for THE TALK. Ralph listened as the vet described how hard it was for him to put his own dog down. Ralph nodded and seemed to hear the vet’s explanation that Zeus was not getting better. 

But as soon as we were alone, Ralph asked, “So is Zeus getting better?”

“No, he is not going to get better.”

“Well, I am not killing my dog.” 

We reached a compromise: We’d revisit the situation in two weeks. That was a Thursday afternoon. 

The process so far had been grueling. I was constantly on edge, expecting Ralph to explode in fury and fear. I also resented that I was caring not only for Ralph but his dog. And I was aware that Ralph saw the parallels between his own infirmities and his dog’s every time he asked “Are you going to kill me?” 

On Friday, Zeus was definitely weaker and even Ralph noticed the way he whimpered at times. By Saturday, Zeus was unable to untwist his back legs. 

Ralph struggled with Zeus, let him lie down and turned to me.  

“Ok, as long as I don’t have to be there.” 

With his blessing, I called the vet and made an appointment for Monday morning. 

For the 36 hours Ralph was as weepy as a man who doesn’t know how to cry can be, frequently wiping the edge of his eye with one finger.

But on Monday he was surprisingly calm when he carried the dog like a child  to the car for his final trip to the vet. Then he went back inside the house as I backed out the driveway. When I got home, alone, he asked for the details. I described Zeus’s calm comfort at the end. 

Since then Ralph occasionally says he can’t get used to Zeus being gone. He asks me if I think we did the right thing. He asks me to remind him “What was wrong with Zeus again?” and “How old was Zeus when he died?” I tell him.

“Oh, you know 17 is very old for a big dog,” he always explains to me then, as if I’m the one who needed convincing. 

And I nod, thankful I gave Ralph the time to come to the choice on his own.  

8 thoughts on “Ralph loses his best friend—Alzheimer’s and grief

  1. My dog (Sheppard/Lab mix) is 16. My mom (with dementia) is his favorite. She loves him too. We’ll come in the door and she’ll immediately ask where he is. She checks on him constantly through the day. I dread the day when he’ll die, however that happens. Will she remember that he died? Will she ask every day where he is? Will the loss of my dog remain fresh every day because she doesn’t remember he died and I’ll have to lie to her that he’s at the groomer or something so I don’t have to re-open the wound in her?
    Thank you for sharing your story. It seems like you handled the whole thing perfectly, though it must have been very hard to see Zeus suffer like that while Ralph made the decision.

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    1. I worried so much about all the concerns you raise here, and I am glad to share that Ralph has not held on to his anxiety/sorrow over Zeus to the degree I anticipated. He asks me to remind him why Zeus died and to retell his last moments quite frequently . But he only very occasionally mentions missing Zeus. He doesn’t seem to hang on to emotions that tightly; his memory looping centers on getting the details, sometimes odd details, just right. Thanks so much for writing.

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  2. Oh, Alice, you handled this so perfectly. Thank you for your example. When our elderly cats start failing, I will think of how you handled this. We signed our Health power of attorneys yesterday and my husband asked that question several times on the drive in. “Are you going to kill me?” “How bad do I get before you kill me?” It’s chilling. Then at the attorney’s office, he was completely rational and signed everything (we’ve had some false starts in the past months). I’m glad that his fearfulness seems to have disappeared today. He doesn’t maintain a sense of his inevitable progression and that’s probably good – unfortunately I have to push certain things like the health POAs through now and then.

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    1. It sounds as if you are handling things extremely well. The POA is crucial. I do think Ralph identified with Zeus’s condition (and my response), and life is so much easier for him as well as me now without that constant added stress. Thanks for writing.

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  3. Thank you for writing about this experience. Our dog is 12 and I nurture him more that I’ve ever nurtured a dog in my life. I’m hoping against hope that he and my husband will decline together and at the same rate which means there won’t be the difficult situation you’ve described but am very sure that’s too much to ask for. I will remember your story.

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