Our ca­nines mourn losses, too

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING - Gra­cie Bonds Sta­ples

More than half a cen­tury has passed since my old­est brother drowned try­ing to save our cousin. I was just 9 years old, but I re­mem­ber that time like it was yes­ter­day — not just my mother’s gut-wrench­ing wails when she heard the news but the piti­ful whim­per­ing of his dog Tip­pie as he lay at the side of my brother’s cas­ket.

I was re­minded of both this week when I spot­ted a pho­to­graph of Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s ser­vice dog Sully rest­ing, hope­fully, by the late pres­i­dent’s cof­fin.

The Labrador, named af­ter air­line pilot Ch­es­ley “Sully” Sul­len­berger, who landed a pas­sen­ger jet on the Hud­son River in 2009, was as­signed to the 41st pres­i­dent in June, just months af­ter for­mer first lady Bar­bara Bush died.

The el­der Pres­i­dent Bush had a form of Parkin­son’s dis­ease that caused, among other things, slow movements and dif­fi­culty bal­anc­ing, and to­ward the end of his life, he fre­quently needed a wheel­chair to get around. Sully, trained by Amer­ica’s VetDogs, which places ser­vice dogs and guide dogs with first re­spon­ders, ac­tive-duty ser­vice members and vet­er­ans, helped with that.

One news re­port said he could open doors, pick up items and sum­mon help if needed.

Tip­pie, a Ger­man shep­herd, had been my brother’s trusted friend for as long as I can re­mem­ber. When you saw one of them, you knew the other wasn’t far be­hind.

Af­ter my brother’s death, Tip­pie was never the same. What he couldn’t say, we soon saw in changes to his phys­i­cal body and in his slow­ing gait. Where he once pranced, he moved like a tired old man. His dark brown coat started to shed. The light left his eyes.

I imag­ine the same thing hap­pened to my dog Snug­gles when I left her with friends in the fall of 1990 to move from Sacra­mento to Fort Worth, Texas, where I’d taken my third news­pa­per job. Her stay back in Cal­i­for­nia was to be only tem­po­rary, just until we could get set­tled in a new place.

Then less than a month later, out of the blue, our friends called to say Snug­gles, a wed­ding gift from my hus­band, had passed. She hadn’t been ill. Her vet sur­mised she sim­ply grieved her­self to death. I thought I might die, too.

Un­like Snug­gles, Tip­pie didn’t just lie down one day and die. My grand­mother made the hard de­ci­sion to put him to sleep. Well, that’s what she called it.

See­ing the photo of Sully and re­mem­ber­ing these tragedies in my own life, I was as sad­dened for the re­triever as I was for Bush’s chil­dren and grand­chil­dren over the loss of their dad, our pres­i­dent.

But it wasn’t just that. I was re­mem­ber­ing, too, re­cent re­search by Dr. Toni Miles and Dr. Wil­liam H. Fr­ish­man that sug­gests emo­tional stress can raise the level of the body’s stress hor­mones, blood pres­sure and heart rate, which can lead to death.

“Los­ing a loved one is a ter­ri­ble loss, and emo­tional heartache can cause phys­i­cal prob­lems, too,” said Fr­ish­man, a car­di­ol­o­gist, pro­fes­sor and chair­man of the depart­ment of medicine at New York Med­i­cal Col­lege, and au­thor of “Tri­umph Over Tragedy.”

One day af­ter the death of her daugh­ter Car­rie Fisher in De­cem­ber 2016, Deb­bie Reynolds, the beloved star of “Sin­gin’ in the Rain,” suf­fered a med­i­cal emer­gency and died. Just hours af­ter her son’s funeral in late Oc­to­ber 2017, Sh­eryl Stiles, the mother of a Las Ve­gas po­lice of­fi­cer killed dur­ing the mass shoot­ing at the Route 91 Har­vest Fes­ti­val, suf­fered a heart at­tack and two days later died. And eight months af­ter his beloved Bar­bara passed, Bush did, too.

Both Miles, a Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia pro­fes­sor who re­cently con­cluded an eightyear-long study of the health ef­fects of grief on sur­viv­ing fam­ily and friends, and Fr­ish­man say peo­ple can die of a bro­ken heart. I sus­pect dogs can, too.

Af­ter Bush’s funeral cer­e­monies are over, news re­ports in­di­cated Sully would be join­ing the dog pro­gram at the Wal­ter Reed Na­tional Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bethesda, Md., where he will help wounded vet­er­ans and ser­vice members dur­ing their re­cov­ery.

I hope that’s true. I hope, de­spite the pres­i­dent’s pass­ing, Sully will be OK.

‘Los­ing a loved one is a ter­ri­ble loss, and emo­tional heartache can cause phys­i­cal prob­lems, too.’

Dr. Wil­liam H. Fr­ish­man car­di­ol­o­gist, pro­fes­sor and chair­man of the depart­ment of medicine at New York Med­i­cal Col­lege


Sully, a yellow Labrador ser­vice dog for for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, sits near Bush’s cas­ket as he lies in state at the U.S. Capi­tol on Tues­day in Washington.

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