Sway Love: Turning Grief into Hope and Inspiration

Josh and Sway

By Josh Liddy, for StubbyDog.org

I’m not sure how to begin this article other than to admit that grief has played a significant role in shaping the last four years of my life. That sounds like a sad and depressing thing, but over time you come to realize what it means and to put it in its proper perspective. Before trying to do that – allow me to describe who I loved, how I came to love and who continues to drive a fire under me that will never be extinguished.

Love at First Sight

I found my first pit bull abandoned on a country road back in Ohio in 2001. I’d just graduated from college and was back in my hometown for the summer. As fate would have it she would come very cautiously out of a cornfield at the same time that I was checking my dad’s mailbox. I’ve always loved animals, so it was my first instinct to try and call her over to me. She was very skinny and most likely the dumped runt of somebody’s litter. She was so scared and tried to run away, but then she would reappear. I just stayed at it until she felt comfortable enough to take a chance on me. Once she did, for me at least, it was literal love at first sight.

I’d always had family pets growing up, but this was different because I was 20 years old and essentially on my own. She would represent a step forward as a human being, being my sole responsibility, and I embraced that role with everything I had. My parents had divorced a year earlier, and at the time I was living with my mom. God bless her when she found out that Sway was a pit bull. Mom had a mini-freak out, but it passed within minutes because she knew what was obvious to anyone – that Sway and I had a bond that was pretty special, and she wasn’t going to be a complication to that.

It’s funny because I didn’t even know Sway was a pit bull myself. I didn’t care. I don’t see animals like that, boxed up with a label. It honestly didn’t matter to me at all. But when I went into the local shelter to submit her registration information it was interesting to see the animal control officer trying to fear-monger me into relinquishing the dog. All these rules, all these warnings and stereotypes – and that was the first, of many, experiences with breed discrimination.

Sway would cling to me, and wouldn’t let me out of her view. I remember taking her to a baseball game that me and my friends were playing that first weekend, and she actually stood out in the infield with me the entire time. This became my new “normal,” and everywhere I went for the next eight years, she went with me. This got difficult in 2004 when I decided that I was going to move out to California. I was going to drive all the way out and I didn’t necessarily have a plan, a job or a place to stay. For those reasons alone, I couldn’t bring Sway with me, and so she had to stay behind with my mom until I could figure my new situation out and arrange for a flight for her. On many levels this was one of the hardest things that I ever did, and it was capped off by watching Sway climb up over the back of the couch and watch me through the living room window as I drove away.

Six months later it was time for her plane to touch down. I remember the night perfectly because I had a performance to do at the Key Club, and this was literally my first time ever being on a stage in Los Angeles. You would have thought that I’d have died of nerves from that alone. But I was so nervous about Sway’s flight and everything going perfectly that this song I had to do was the least of my concerns. I zoomed through it off of anticipation alone, and then drove myself to LAX to pick her up at cargo. Seeing Sway being wheeled out to me was definitely one of the most joyful moments of my life. She was here and normality could ensue.

There were all these new things for her like the beach and the numerous dog parks, going to the music studio and hiking up completely new terrain. She was never a fan of the water, but if I ran into the ocean she’d certainly follow me. I’d play football with her at the beach, and she’d chase rebounds when I’d play basketball at the city parks – always staying so close to me and never letting me out of her sight. She’d teach all of my friends and people that came in and out of my life what amazing animals pit bulls were, opening the eyes of many and creating her own little space within so many people’s hearts. What an incredibly loyal and loving soul she always was – my best friend in the whole world.

Fighting for her Life

Both of our lives were altered in 2007 when she started showing signs of extreme weakness and fatigue. After running numerous blood panels it was discovered that her red blood cells were rapidly dropping. In a matter of months I watched her go from an energy-driven pit bull to a frail and fragile being that needed consistent medical support to stay alive. It was discovered that she had a rare and complicated blood disease called autoimmune hemolytic anemia, which is when a patient’s immune system begins destroying its own red blood cells. This became immediately life threatening due to the fact that the red blood cells are what deliver the oxygen to the body.

For the next two years life with her was a series of peaks and valleys. The first four months went downhill so fast that it left everyone reeling. Within a month her red blood cell level had dropped so low that a blood transfusion became necessary. This was the first of eight over the next six weeks.

On top of that there was complication after complication. In Sway’s case, the medications caused very severe side effects that included muscle wasting. Her red blood cell level finally began to at least hold after taking the drastic and alternative measure of adding a human anabolic steroid to her regimen. The cells were holding at 1/3 of a normal dog’s level, but over time Sway had become so used to the lower percent that her body just adjusted. After her initial meds were drastically reduced her body began to partially recover. In combination with the weekly anabolic injection she slowly inched towards an almost entire year of this new normality. At one point prior to cutting her medications she hadn’t been able to stand on her own, and then one day she was up and on her feet. Victories like that would put me over the moon. Eventually she had gained the majority of her weight back, and although her red blood cell count never rose, in time she was back to doing the many things that she loved to do, albeit at a slower and more controlled pace.

During the next many months her body began declining again, and shortly after her blood count followed. After another ultrasound Sway was diagnosed with multiple inoperable shunts on the outside of her liver. This meant that all of her food nutrients and supplements, as well as her medications, were being improperly absorbed and essentially diverted around the liver and into the heart. Since shunted blood was not being detoxified by the liver, it was creating the possibility of toxins circulating through her blood.

Saying Goodbye

Three months later, my 8-year-old, 45-pound pit bull was down to 17 pounds. It seemed as though everywhere we turned it was between a rock and a hard place. Her latest blood panel was showing pancreatitis, on top of the ever-present AIHA and the liver shunts. Her blood count had dropped to 11 percent (normal range 45-50 percent). Fluid therapy for the pancreatitis would dilute the blood even further, and then she would immediately need transfused again. During the last 48 hours she had taken a drastic turn for the worse, and at that point she could barely lift her head.

I had to make the heartbreaking decision to put her down.

It was scheduled for 2 p.m. that day, and I spent every second laying next to her. An hour before it was set to happen, Sway passed away naturally in our bed with me talking to her and giving her kisses. Coincidentally my mom was also in the room, as she was out here for her yearly visit from Ohio. It’s almost as if Sway knew something that everyone else didn’t. It was like my coming to grips with the current reality would align with my mom’s visit, which would align with her taking her last breaths, and naturally.

I remember the last moments vividly, and it’s a surreal thing to have the one you love there with you one second and then literally gone the next. The questions immediately fill your mind and saturate all of your thoughts.

Where did she go? Did she know how much I love her? Will I ever see her again? Did I do everything that I could have done?

Then the regret and the second-guessing tries to take hold, and sometimes it succeeds. I ran so many scenarios through my mind that at times I felt lucky to have survived the mental torment. The permanent separation that happens in those last moments is like being thrown overboard and into the coldest of waters, like a shock to my body and a shock to everything that I knew to be my reality.

The Process of Grieving

The selfish side of me viewed it as “loss,” as my best friend in the world being “taken” away. At the same time, in Sway’s case her blood disease and all that did her harm was also silenced – and in that I tried to celebrate that she was no longer feeling those potential pains or abnormalities. I’m not an overly religious person, but two days after Sway’s passing I was lucky enough to have a moment that happened to me that is incomparable in scope to anything that I’ve experienced before or since. It was one of those things that may happen once or twice in a lifetime, a proof of God moment if you will. It was the single greatest reminder that this is just a temporary separation and not a permanent one, and it was a blessing that leaves me thankful.

With that being said, the immediate aftermath of Sway’s passing was still devastating for me. Even with the prior two plus years slowly preparing me for this possible outcome, it was the most difficult thing that I’ve ever been through. I say “through” because it was/is a process that you have to take part in, the grief, instead of avoiding or suppressing it.

People who read this and automatically then think that my life must not have been hard up to this point, or that I haven’t faced numerous worthy adversities due to the fact that I’d be willing to acknowledge the death of a pet as something most significant, would be mistaken. It’s an impossible task to get someone who clearly hasn’t loved an animal to then understand what it means to deeply and genuinely love an animal. That’s fine, and I will hope that one day someone or something will have as profound of an affect on that person’s life as Sway had on mine. But you can’t let those types of people rush or trivialize the grieving process.

For me, some days my grief was so heavy that it rendered everything else unnoticeable by comparison. As the time passes, be assured that this will lessen – for some slower, for some, faster. But also be prepared to feel many different things, including guilt, when you do begin to feel better. Sometimes I’d get mad at myself for eventually having more better days than bad, almost treating my grief as if it were the only remaining link that I had with Sway. This is completely untrue. Try to keep in mind that you should strive to eventually get to the point of embracing the times when you can be genuinely happy, as that is exactly what your loved one would want for you. This is some advice that I am still learning to take.

What to do with the grief until you actually reach that point? Anything besides bottling it up inside. That is always the least healthy response to anything, especially something like this. Talk to someone. Write or journal your thoughts – even if it’s just for you, as it serves as being therapeutic in nature. Artistic? Work on a project in dedication, or just simply try something totally new and dedicate your effort to the life that your loved one lived. Just make sure to invest in becoming more emotionally in touch with how you are feeling – be honest with yourself.

Siphon off all of that potentially negative energy and turn it into a positive reaction (be it volunteering, helping another through a donation or raising awareness) – I’d like to think that that’s one of the best ways that you could honor your loved one.

Finding Inspiration

What I did was sign up to do a triathlon. This is something I’d never done and I wanted to see if I could set that goal and then follow through with doing it. Unfortunately my bike chain literally snapped during the event and I was unable to finish – so I signed up to do another one, finished, and then did another one.

I also adopted a new pit bull mix, a little brindle one that I named Neola. When I saw her picture online I knew that it was something that I wanted to do and that I was ready to take that step. Shortly after I adopted another one, Odilia, because I wanted them to have a buddy. This is something I always wanted for Sway but never did; I was always so overprotective and cautious with her. Every now and then I see her in both of them, and their unique personalities have made my life more complete.

To further honor Sway I started going into shelters and photographing all the pit bulls that unfortunately pack each facility. Just being onsite and visiting with them is special enough, but then to have a hand in potentially saving a life – that is a priceless feeling. As I familiarized myself with the realities of this entrenched backward sheltering system, I began to form strong opinions and then to speak out in ways that I never originally intended. I created a website (SwayLove.org) that would not only house my shelter photography, but would also allow me to do video blogs and write articles that were centric to what is going on inside of these facilities.

Pit bulls are being discriminated against at an alarming rate, and not just in the ways that most of us have grown to understand. The shelters themselves are using bad temperament tests and other sideways maneuvers against these animals, as means of justifying their killings. Legislation continues to be thrown around, tweaked and at times shoved down our throats. Media continues to fear-monger and much of the general public continues to be extremely susceptible to being swept up and into an angry mob of hate and ignorance. These are all things that I am now focusing a lot of my energy on, and all in the name of honoring Sway.

Sway continues in many ways to be present in my life – most noticeably through empowering my efforts to help pit bulls, but also in so many other subtle and silent ways that are only known and appreciated by me. That’s the gift – that somehow things live on. Would I give anything to have her back and healthy? Of course, but I’m also OK now, and the thought of her being my biggest supporter is all the fuel that I need. I’m thankful for the time that I got to spend with her and for all of the things that had to happen in order for her to come stumbling out of that cornfield at that exact moment 10 years ago. I’m also grateful for those that now reach out to me and for those opportunities that I will have to reach out to others. The love that Sway and I shared surely helped form whatever strength I needed to deal with her loss. These are the bits of perspective that I spoke about in the first paragraph. Like Tennyson wrote, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

That’s important to grasp I think, knowing that in reality some people just never have that much to lose. Special bonds don’t just come along every day … for some people they may never, or maybe that person just isn’t in a place to even notice them if they did. For this reason alone I am blessed beyond explanation. I certainly still cry when I need my moments, but love healed my grief, and love created the courage to participate in that grief. It’s the one thing that never ends, love – the literal foundation for everything that is good in this world.