The Story Behind “The Suicide Dogs” by Telaina Eriksen

Telaina flowers glasses smallToday’s post is written by Telaina Eriksen. We published her essay “The Suicide Dogs” in our Spring 2017 issue. 

The Suicide Dogs” was one of the most difficult essays I’ve ever written. How do you attempt to sketch a portrait of two beloved people in a minimal number of words, but also talk about the reality (sometimes the horror) of life after them, including the duty of caring for their canine companions who meant so much to them? And, how to do all of this without sounding like a Hallmark card, or sounding so dark no one will ever want to read anything you’ve written ever again?

I worked on the essay in fits and starts. I sent it to writer friends, whose opinions I trust. I struggled with writing about Lorin, who was not my relative, and how much of her story to tell. This is always an inherent question in creative nonfiction. How much of this story is yours to tell? How much is someone else’s? What are the ethics in writing about those who have died, and their families who survive them? A couple of writer friends told me the title might be a bit much, a slap in the face before the reader even started reading. But this was one of those titles that came to me at the very start of the essay, and whenever I thought about the essay I knew it was called “The Suicide Dogs,” and I knew it couldn’t be called anything else.

I am still processing a great deal of guilt and grief from both my sister’s and Lorin’s suicides. How could I have not known? Did I choose not to know, because not knowing is easier and then I could just go along with my own life, without owning any of their pain? This has been a constant struggle in my life, and I feel my writing reflects this struggle. I was raised under Catholic social justice teaching—we are here to serve. But also as a 49-year-old woman, I also know we cannot simply become martyrs, constantly sacrificing ourselves to others’ needs and pains. This balance of caring for loved ones and caring for self is a question and a series of checks and balances for me every day.

Since “The Suicide Dogs” was published I’ve been thanked by several people for writing in a real way about the suicide of a loved one. Even now, in 2017, people don’t know how to answer when someone asks them how a relative or friend died if that person committed suicide. When we are honest and vocal about mental illness and don’t other it—both Lorin and Tonya, as with many people with depression or bipolar disorder, were productive, caring members of their families and of society—maybe there would be fewer suicides, and maybe those who are left behind after suicides would also be able to get the help that they need to deal with its aftermath.

I know I channel my guilt and grief into caring for the dogs. They have better healthcare than many people in the world. Since the time I wrote this, Clement has needed not one but two ACL surgeries on his back legs. The surgeries were expensive and aftercare time-consuming, but he came through them well. Clement currently has something wrong with his neck and/or spine and I am taking him to a neurologist in Ann Arbor tomorrow to see if his pain can be managed better and what, specifically, might be wrong (current theories—severely herniated disc or cancer). Clement is a larger dog and he is old—at least 10 and maybe even 11. Sprite is 13. I know what faces me in the next couple of years, and with Clement perhaps even sooner. I hope I will have the courage to do what is right for both dogs when the time comes. Lorin and Tonya both experienced so much pain and suffering in their lives, I know they wouldn’t want their dogs to linger in suffering that serves no purpose.

About the Author

Telaina Morse Eriksen is the author of Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child (Mango Publishing, April 2017). Her essays have been featured in Under the SunThe Manifest-StationpoemmemoirstoryRole Reboot, and many other online and in-print publications. She is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and lives in East Lansing Michigan with her husband, two children, and their two dogs, Sprite and Clement.

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