Five years after losing our dog, Omega, I could still give myself a panic attack thinking about it. I was wracked by guilt over how it all went down, and I was haunted by the 24 hours of suffering I witnessed during her last day on earth.
My parents are both psychologists, and I had read about EMDR’s effectiveness in treating trauma. In fact, the creator, Francine Shapiro, went to graduate school where my father was president. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a psychotherapy treatment that helps people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. According to the EMDR Institute: “More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.”
I realize losing a dog doesn’t compare to coming back from a war zone, childhood violence or other things we commonly associate with trauma. But if you’re like me and think of your pets as family, and you find a technique that could help you process their passing, then why not try it?
We adopted our Omega from Pit Bull Rescue San Diego in 2008 at the age of 4. She was, simply put, the best dog ever. She was highly trainable, cuddly, smart, easy going and loved people and other dogs. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, and she ended up passing her Canine Good Citizen test twice and becoming double certified through two different organizations. She visited nursing homes and a children’s home, bringing love and joy to all she met.
In the late winter of 2012, when she was 7 years old, Omega had a seizure. The vet said we could do more testing at thousands of dollars, or we could try her on epilepsy medication. Rocky, our older dog, had ran us nearly $30,000 in veterinary bills, and we didn’t have a lot of money to spare, so we tried the medication. She didn’t have any more seizures.
But in July, I came home from work, and she was bumping into things. She quickly got worse as the evening progressed. She seemed to be losing control of her right side. We took her to the emergency vet, and they said we should take her to our vet and get a specialist referral the next day. The emergency vet thought it was a brain tumor/brain cancer. Omega was paralyzed on one side by that point. I had never heard a dog scream, but I swear to God she screamed and writhed all night long. It was the worse night of my life. She was suffering so badly that we made the decision we should have her put to sleep the next morning.
When I saw our vet, he wanted to do bloodwork. He said if it were his dog, he’d never forgive himself for not doing bloodwork first. This was in part to see if the seizure medication was at too high a level, though he admitted that couldn’t be the full cause of her symptoms. He said he could keep her comfortable until the results were in the next day. He was wrong. She screamed and suffered the entire day, no matter what medication they gave her.
When we picked her up that evening, she was worse than ever. I tried to feed her wet food, and she wanted it, but she had no control of her body, and it went everywhere as she bit her tongue. The night turned into a repeat of the night before, with her screaming and writhing. Around 10, we took her back to the emergency vet and had her put to sleep.
The whole downturn was so sudden and unexpected, and I regretted so many things. I regretted not getting the expensive diagnosis originally so that we would have known if it were cancer/brain tumor; I regretted not doing my research so I would have known that at her age it likely wasn’t epilepsy; and I regretted not sticking to my decision to have her put down that first morning, which could have avoided another day of suffering. I felt I had failed this sweet angel big time. The guilt was overwhelming.
While time helped me think of it less, when I did think of it, it was still awful. That’s when I decided to try EMDR with a trained counselor. (You can read more about the process at emdr.com). The technique includes bilateral stimulation, and for that my counselor used tiny hand-held devices with a small vibration that switches from left to right. The process also involved identifying my upsetting belief about myself—that I had failed her—and what I wanted to believe: that I had done my very best. You go back into the incident repeatedly. Going to the heart of the trauma and spending time processing it in this way helped shift my thinking and move the weight of the trauma.
I can now think of Omega and miss her but without the horrible guilt and pain. This opens my heart to the positive memories and to more fully loving my current rescue dogs. It even helped me to better process my grief when her “brother” Rocky passed away at the grand age of 15 this past summer.
I’ve heard of people who don’t want to get another dog because it’s so hard when they leave us. Dogs bring so much joy to our lives, and I’m glad I found a way to amplify that while letting go of the pain their shorter life spans can bring. I’ve gone on to use EMDR for other traumatic memories. I hope that by sharing my story I can help others on their journey.