November 14, 2016

How my Dog Saved me from Killing Myself.

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The Worst Day of My Life and Why I Almost Killed Myself Two Years Later.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” ~ C.S. Lewis

It was the evening of December 11, 2014. I was working what seemed like innumerable back-to-back 12-hour shifts as a registered nurse in the emergency room in my new city. My mother had taken ill while on vacation in Las Vegas, but my Dad said she was doing better and would be discharged from the hospital that week. He told me that I did not need to come.

At 3:00 a.m. the next morning I awoke to an unsettling phone call from my mother’s best friend in my tiny home town. She simply said she had “a bad feeling” and “it is time for you to go.” She had not spoken to my father, but she’d had a dream about my mom. That was enough for me. I called a friend to watch my dog and was on a flight two hours later.

I took a cab straight to the hospital and still had my overnight bag with me when I arrived at my mom’s hospital room door. I immediately realized she was in terrible trouble. She was bleeding internally and it was the worst that I’d seen in my short four years of nursing. She was delirious, not herself and obviously unstable.

From that moment on, my memory is a bit of a blur.

Having been an intensive care nurse, I demanded an intensive care consult. I took her blood pressure and started an IV myself. From this point on, I was her nurse before her daughter and was hellbent on saving her life.

Nothing happened quickly enough and it felt like I was under water and could not move or breathe.

Moments after arriving in the intensive care unit, my mom, the woman I most looked up to and who’d loved me unconditionally, stopped breathing and I was the first to check for a pulse that was not there.

After what seemed like an eternity, but must have only been a few seconds, the staff in the ICU leapt in to action and started CPR on my mom. They ushered me out of the room and I felt completely helpless. I tried my best to explain to my dad what they were doing and called my brother who was still in Canada. They were able to stabilize her after an hour, but she never regained consciousness. We removed her from life support three agonizing days later.

December 12th was the worst day of my life.

What followed was the difficult task of transporting her remains internationally and getting my brother and father back to Canada in one piece, which took one week. I do not wish this task on anyone. By now it was Christmas. Christmas in Las Vegas. It was garish and surreal to see all the happy families and people having fun, all the while knowing my life would never be the same.

I will never go back to Las Vegas.

After the funeral, I went back to work. Although I still worked occasionally in the ICU, I could not go back there. The glass doors, the sounds and even the smells would take me right back to my mom’s bedside and I feared I would not be able to take care of a critically ill patient in that state. I white-knuckled the huge responsibility of nursing in emergency, which was hard enough. I even remember arguing with a doctor about resuscitating a terminal cancer patient as we did not know her wishes. I’d just been through the experience of removing my mother from life support and did not want to put another family through that.

I tried with all my might to maintain my relationships with my boyfriend and my friends. I thought having a hard time was normal. I had many moments when I would suddenly choke up and was not able to breathe. I had trouble sleeping and terrible dreams. I was stressed-out at work. I started drinking more. I thought this must all be normal. It would also be normal for me to want to work through Christmas the next year. It was even normal that my dad announced he was getting married a short one and a half years after my mom’s death.

Finally, after watching my dad marry someone else and two years of trying my best to be “normal,” something inside me cracked open. I felt abandoned but even more so, unwanted. My brother had his wife and her family.

Dad had his new wife, but who did I have?

What use was I?

They’d be better off without me.

For the record, I’d never before entertained the thought of suicide. I’d taken care of patients who’d attempted suicide and had friends who’d killed themselves. I remember not understanding what could ever be so bad that they felt they had no other option.

I was about to find out.

After my father’s wedding I could not just go home and return to my life. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or act happy or normal. I had no energy for it.

I went out to my uncle’s cabin, in a heavily wooded park. I was in such a dark place that I couldn’t see any way out. There was a repeating loop of thoughts in my head: “I’m not good enough. No one wants me. I am broken. I am useless. It is my fault Mom is dead. I could kill myself and it would all be over.”

I had a plan and no visible life-line. I was tired. I wanted my pain to end. I did not want to bother my friends or family. My boyfriend had told me he did not like my negativity.

What could I do?

Thankfully, after a week and on one particularly dark night, I woke up.

In truth, I thought about my dog.

What would happen to him? Who would take care of him? He would never understand. I couldn’t do that to him.

My dog saved my life that night.

I stepped back and saw the bigger picture of my depression. I knew I wasn’t doing well and I needed to do something to change what was happening to me.

I no longer tried to be normal. I told one friend and then another and another. I started talking about my feelings rather than bottling them up inside. It got easier the more I talked. I saw a grief counsellor, more talking. She had me start writing a journal about my thoughts and feelings. “Get it all out and then close the book,” she said. Most importantly, though, I started being nicer to myself. I realized that I was gritting my teeth and clenching my fists to withstand what I thought I needed to do as person. I let that go.

I was not perfect. I was going to make mistakes. I needed to be gentle with how I judge myself. That was how I started. One proverbial foot in front of the other.

It was a process and I had to work every day to take care of myself and build a new foundation out of the ashes. This included learning to meditate, which was way overdue.

I still have bad days, but I let myself off the hook.

I spend time outside with my dog, treat myself to a favorite snack or take a bath.

I am learning to knit. It is nice to concentrate on making something and let the heavy stuff melt away for a while. I end up with a cozy scarf or blanket too.

I have found comfort in reading books and watching movies that let me know I am not alone in the loss of a loved one.

Here are two of my favorites:

The Shack. by Wm. Paul Young is a book about a man who’s lost his daughter. He questions his belief in a God who could let such a horrible thing happen. He goes to a deserted shack in the woods (sound familiar?) to have a conversation with God. It’s inspiring.

Wild. (2014) on Netflix now. This movie is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. She tells the story of surviving her mother’s death, becoming self-destructive and finding herself on an 1,100 mile solo hike. I felt like I was right there with her. Her arduous hike is a good metaphor for the journey to return to life after a tragedy, like the one I went though.

I love my job as a nurse. I also volunteer with the local food bank. It is definitely rewarding to help others who are in need and feel like I am being of benefit.

It is important to think of ourselves as well as others.

If I don’t take care of myself, how can I help anyone else?

Learning about the concept of maitri has been transformative.

Looking back, I think that if I’d sought support for my grief earlier, I may not have gotten to the point of contemplating suicide. If I’d talked to my friends and family, I believe they could’ve helped me get the resources I needed.

I did not have to bear that burden alone.

If you or a loved one are struggling, don’t try to do it all on your own.

Tell someone. Tell them how you are feeling. You are not alone. There is a reason we are all here.

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. There are people who understand and want to help you. I am one of them.

Additional Resources: 

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

National Sucicide Prevention Hotline.

Coping With the Loss of a Loved One.



This is the Best Response I’ve ever Heard about How to Process Grief.


Author: Erin Spencer

Image: flickr/Shannon Kringen

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

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