I dreaded losing my first dog, Jude, and it was every bit as bad as I’d anticipated. He died when he was 12, his kidneys failed after years of treatment for allergies and itchy skin, which we had managed with the care of an excellent vet, and regular sea bathing, says Amanda Nicol.
I missed him terribly and learnt a great deal about grief and loss from his death. When an animal has been such beloved friend and companion, perhaps giving more love over a longer period than has been experienced from a human partner – and especially for people who are single, widowed or live alone – the loss can be profound. Yes, if your dog is old and had a good life it is not a tragedy; the mind may understand this, but the heart grieves nevertheless.
Amanda and Jude, pictured above
It’s not a question of just getting another pet: what you are grieving for is your particular animal and that unique relationship that has formed and matured over time. A new pet is a wonderful beginning of another relationship, but in no way can it replace what you have lost. Like any grief, time is the healer. This experience was the inspiration for my latest novel Dead Pets Society, in which my central character, Mike (Michelle), loses her dog whilst in the middle of writing an eco-thriller.
During the research period for this book I realised what a rich seam pet grief was; many people told me incredibly touching stories about their pets, not just dogs, and the real and sometimes long-lasting effects of their loss. It can be hard to be open and honest about the depth of love for an animal in a society where it is humans who are the top dogs, but I found many people who wanted and needed to talk about their grief. I haven’t actually formed a Dead Pets Society, but it might not be a bad idea!
The idea started life as a short story about a support group, which my character forms for bereaved pet owners, but I soon realised that there was scope to expand the idea. I’d wanted to write about the environmental crises which we’re facing for some time, and had started a novel about one woman’s awakening to green issues through a family drama, but it was too dark and depressing for me. I decided to weave the two themes together, to inject some humour, as well as to explore the idea that if only we could apply the love and care that we have for our pets to the wider world, our planet and ourselves too, we could perhaps begin to think differently and act for change. How would we feel if elephants really did become extinct? Or if polar bears did disappear with the shrinking ice caps?
The book within the book, which Mike is writing, called Offsetters, becomes darker when her son has what may, or may not, be an accident, adding a conspiratorial twist as the truth of the situation is puzzled over. I wanted to reflect the conflicting information that we, the public, receive about our environmental situation. Why is renewable energy not a priority? Why is climate change not being addressed as the critical situation that it is? Why so we allow plastic bags to litter our world and choke our seas? What are the implications of Peak Oil? I know many people are asking the same questions and not getting the answers that we feel we should be getting from our elected leaders. What is going on? Are we, like the dog of Pompeii who couldn’t escape disaster, chained as he was, going down with our masters? Maybe in the end we ourselves could be the dead pets in a society governed by our corporate masters.
I had a dog as a child in Scotland, a crazy Springer Spaniel, who used to eat soap and then blow bubbles. He bit me badly and regrettably, had to be put down. I loved Baboo, pictured below, as I called him, and was greatly upset by this and, rather than it putting me off, wanted another dog from that point onwards. Twenty years later, I remember the excitement when Venus, the chocolate Labrador belonging to the family I worked for at the time, went into labour. I was to have one of the puppies, so it was a very special event for me. After a long night, seven tiny brown bundles had arrived. Venus was a wonderful dog, and used to keep me company in the studio where I worked, restoring paintings. I was recovering from a breakdown and diagnosis of bipolar disorder, for which I had been hospitalised. My first novel, House of Bread, was based on that difficult experience, and that wordless bond with an animal meant a great deal to me during the painful aftermath.
So began a wonderful twelve year relationship with Jude, the most laid-back and happy dog you could ever hope to meet. To say that I loved this animal is an understatement; I don’t know who was more devoted to whom. Walking him twice a day without fail was incredibly healing. I was able to move away from that traumatic time in my early twenties, and realised just how therapeutic a pet can be. I met many people through walking Jude, and although my life was not like that of my character, Rachel, in my second novel Badric’s Island, my relationship with my dog was like hers; an emotional mainstay as life, love and all sorts of dramas played out in my thirties.
The last place I lived in London was a very beautiful, slightly dilapidated artist’s studio, very near Battersea Park – great for Jude. It was desperately romantic, cottage-like, set in an overgrown garden and home to several elderly artists, some of whom had been living there since before I was born. Jude quickly became well known to all of them, my next door neighbours adored him, dollops of organic ice-cream making the feeling absolutely mutual.
He was certainly no saint; once he stole a whole roast chicken from a picnic, and another time, to my horror, a straw boater belonging to a member of a gospel choir, gathered in the park. Food was an obsession, we queued patiently for an audition to be an extra in 101 Dalmatians, a scene of which was being shot on his home turf. Jude failed. He wouldn’t sit and stay, instead making a beeline for the catering wagon. Well, what sort of self-respecting Labrador wouldn’t? He loved a children’s play park too, and would happily climb a slide’s ladder, descending in a seated position with his ears flapping.
When I left London and came to live in Hastings, I think he did miss city life. Urban dogs have a great social life, and walking routines mean that they have a sort of a pack, and in Jude’s case a couple of special friends, namely Zak and Charlie. I felt bad taking him away from them.
But, life by the sea had its compensations, not just the opportunity to swim, which he loved, but a lot of fish and chip scraps to be hoovered up. In his later years he became well known in Hastings Old Town, a frequent visitor of the butcher’s shop, and a couple of tea shops too, into whose kitchens he would stroll, knowing he would get a left-over sandwich, at the very least. He was also a great traveller and we had many adventures, some in my very unreliable VW camper van.
Not long after Jude’s death, and still very upset, I took delivery of Flora, a beautiful 8 week old black Labrador. She was adorable, hard work at first like any puppy, and very different from Jude. Soon after that I met my husband, Steve. She became our baby, which is a very different thing from having a one-on-one relationship, as I’d had with Jude. She adored Steve and the feeling was mutual.
Amanda and Flora, pictured above
A short while after we married, I received a cancer diagnosis. Flora was four then, a fit and athletic girl, our pride and joy. About six months into my long and convoluted cancer journey, she stopped eating and became listless and lethargic. I was desperately worried. As anyone who has had a Labrador knows, a lab who doesn’t want food is unwell. To cut a very long and painful story short, our beautiful girl died of lymphoma in December 2012. We buried Flora next to Jude in my sister’s garden, giving her a proper family funeral. I was inconsolable. It was a very low point in our lives.
On the last day of my radiotherapy treatment, in early January, I got a text from one of my dearest friends saying that, although it might be too soon, there was an 11 month old Greyhound coming over from Ireland on a van that weekend, who needed a home. I knew right then and there that this was my dog. I had been wishing that a dog would just walk into our lives; my energy was low, a puppy would be too much like hard work, and I didn’t feel I had the emotional strength at that time to go to a rescue centre and choose one dog over the others. It seemed like a miracle.
My family were concerned that this was not the right time for me to be getting a new dog; I was pretty weak, and the plan was that I would be having curative surgery fairly soon. Despite everyone’s concern and advice, I knew that I wanted, and needed one. I got my way and when she arrived, I invited the family round for a drink to celebrate ‘the end of my radiotherapy’. I held her in the kitchen until everyone was settled in the front room and let her go. She walked in and after gasps of shock, everyone fell for her and changed their minds about it not being a good idea.
Molly is like some sort of Zen being. Very calm, very gentle, very loving and importantly for me at that time, like a feather on the lead. Off the lead, she is an entirely different creature. The way she runs is something beautiful to witness. It scared me at first, she looked so fragile, but she was built for speed. She loves to career through the waves at low tide, although swimming is not her thing at all. Sea swimming with Flora and Jude was a regular and wonderful part of so many summers, and I do miss that greatly.
Amanda and Molly, pictured above
Molly helped both of us get over the dreadful loss of Flora that winter. When we learnt that my UK cancer treatment had been unsuccessful, after much distress and discussion, I travelled to Mexico, where fantastic integrative treatment and immunotherapies made the inoperable operable. I would have found it very hard to leave Flora or Jude, but Molly is far more pragmatic and happy to love the one she’s with. On my return, once again it was dog walking that helped me regain my strength and fitness, and she brought much needed love and light to some very dark days.
Dogs have featured in my books simply because they feature so large in my life. Dead Pets Society, as well as its eco-themes, is an homage to pets and the roles they play in our lives. There are so many dogs needing homes, and so many humans that could benefit so greatly from their companionship, as far as I’m concerned they should be prescribed! I can’t imagine ever being without one, in fact, if I had my way I’d have lots of them – and I’m working on it.
K9 Magazine says: As someone who recently lost a dog who was a big part of my life and heart, who was also a food stealing Labrador, we really enjoyed the open and honest nature of this book and Amanda's incredible story which led to Dead Pets Society.