I'm Responsible For The Death Of My Sister's Dog. She Won't Talk To Me — What Can I Do?

<span class="copyright">OsakaWayne Studios via Getty Images</span>
OsakaWayne Studios via Getty Images

I have always been fascinated by forgiveness. For something so fundamentally crucial to us flawed humans, understanding it seems daunting — a concept both complicated and nebulous.

I’m also fascinated bySex and the City” (like so many other 40- to 50-somethings, I suspect). The series sometimes foregrounded forgiveness, as did the 2008 “SATC” film, in which both Carrie and Miranda face betrayal by their respective partners. Later in the film, Carrie discovers that Miranda withheld information from her about Big’s betrayal, and she — in current terms — ghosts Miranda. Soon after, Miranda confronts Carrie and begs for forgiveness. Carrie responds, “You badger me to forgive you in three days — and you won’t even consider forgiving Steve for something he did six months ago.” When Miranda protests that it is not the same thing, Carrie counters simply, “It’s forgiveness.” 

But is it that simple? I always assumed so. I’ve also (upon reflection, somewhat self-righteously) prided myself on how freely I forgive, believing that doing so helps the offended as much as the offender. But then, I haven’t been on the side of needing forgiveness until recently, when I became responsible for the death of my sister’s beloved dog.

My sister and her husband live three hours north of me. When they needed to attend a funeral in a city two hours south of me, I offered to watch their dog, Peggy Sue. She was recovering from an injury and needed more care than my sister’s pet sitter could give.

I did not know Peggy Sue well, as she was a relatively recent addition to their family; extremely shy and timid, she rarely interacted with me when I visited. But I have always considered myself a huge dog lover, as well as an experienced dog guardian/sitter. In fact, when my sister and I were teens, we ran an informal neighborhood business, J&J Pet Sitting. And I have been a “dog mom” to multiple dogs in my adulthood, including my current golden retriever, Hudson.

My sister and brother-in-law arrived on a Monday to drop off Peggy Sue. This was the first time that they visited my present home, but I had described my small yard and “see-through” iron fence — the bars of which were strong but vertical, spaced about 4 inches apart. My sister expressed some concerns about the fence, suggesting that I would need to keep her dog on a leash, and I agreed. However, upon arriving at my home, she reversed this advice, as it seemed physically impossible for Peggy Sue to squeeze through the bars. 

I imagine you can guess what happened. About two hours after my sister and her husband departed, I took Peggy Sue, sans leash, into my yard, staying close by her. My neighbor Fernando, walking by, stopped to ask if I had gotten a new dog after the passing, at the ripe old age of 18, of my second dog, Dinah, in April last year. As I began to answer, Peggy Sue shot through the bars of the fence — and was gone. My neighbor and I looked at each other, equally astonished. I felt rooted to the spot, horrified, but quick-acting Fernando took off after my sister’s dog.

To try to defend the seemingly indefensible, I should point out that Dinah, who had been exactly the same size as Peggy Sue, never escaped the yard herself; in fact, none of the dogs I have had or cared for was an “escape artist.” I was unaware at the time that Peggy Sue was, or how desperately she would want to escape and, I assume, find my sister.

The next two hours are a blur to me. I joined Fernando in chasing after Peggy Sue, who was faster and more elusive than I ever could have imagined possible. We saw the little dog run as far as a commuter train station across from my neighborhood, and an expansive parking lot between, before disappearing into an apartment complex to the east. For a time, she kept coming into view, eventually running back into my community and even, multiple times, near my house. But each time she darted away again.

As word — both verbally and through social media — quickly got around my close-knit, very dog-friendly community, kind neighbors helped search, occasionally reporting sightings of her in and around the area, but they were unable to catch her. Crying by that time, I called my brother and sister-in-law, who live a few miles away, to assist in the search. However, as the sun began to set, reports of sightings dissipated and soon ended altogether. My heart sinking, I knew it was time to call my sister, who by that time had arrived at her destination with her husband.

After our difficult conversation, they decided to return to my house, arriving just before midnight. I apologized profusely for what happened, and the next 48 hours were a frantic whirlwind of searching, posting on social media, and contacting shelters and rescues. I made flyers and hand-delivered them to veterinarians in the area, in case someone found Peggy Sue and brought her in to check for her microchip.

When my sister, her husband and I were back at my house, we barely interacted. I sensed that it was best to give them privacy in the guest room downstairs; I was unsure how my sister felt about me and the part I played in this. But as I sat, alone and despondent, in the living room upstairs, her heartbreaking, hysterical crying left no doubt in my mind how she felt about losing her dog. I hated causing her such pain.

By Wednesday morning, with no signs of Peggy Sue, my sister and her husband returned home. I was unsure what the plan moving forward was; we did not speak before they left. I continued to search the area and check social media. Then, late that afternoon, a neighbor messaged me on Discord. He saw what he thought was Peggy Sue’s body on the service road of a nearby highway. He warned me that “it was a very difficult image to see” and that “I would maybe call professionals to identify/recover due to her condition.”

Ignoring his advice, I rushed to the area. If you had told me before that week that I would soon be recovering the body of a dog from a busy road — and then driving it for three hours to deliver it to my grieving sister — I would have told you that I was incapable. But it’s amazing what we discover we can do when we have to.

I will spare you the details of identifying Peggy Sue’s body, of getting it into the back of my SUV, of finding a way to store it until I could leave the next day to take it to my sister. I knew that my only path to possible redemption was returning the body to my sister and giving her closure. So much that week felt out of control, so I turned to controlling the few things I could, as difficult as they were.

When I arrived at my sister’s house, my brother-in-law was outside alone to meet me. He thanked me for bringing the body home — and asked me not to contact them. So I have honored that request.

I have disappeared from my sister’s life, and she from mine. As the weeks turn into months, my hopes of reconciliation — of forgiveness — diminish. But isn’t there a difference between committing an act intentionally and doing something accidentally, as I did? Isn’t the latter worthy of forgiveness? Or, since the tragic result is the same, do I not deserve it?

As I contemplate this possibility, I find myself considering just what forgiveness is, and what we do when it eludes us.

The Mayo Clinic defines “forgiveness” as “an intentional decision to let go of resentment and anger,” adding: “Forgiveness means different things to different people. ... The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you. But working on forgiveness can lessen that act’s grip on you.” But this is entirely from the perspective of the offended. What about the offender, the unforgiven — like me? Could I lessen my act’s grip on me?

A quick search online suggests that a therapist or spiritual adviser would urge anyone seeking forgiveness to review the situation, admit responsibility, apologize, forgive themselves, and have patience. These are things that you can control, and I have done all of them.

Would I have done anything differently? Not in the aftermath of Peggy Sue’s escape — I was careful to ensure that I would have no regrets about my actions then — but before, I sure wish I had erred on the side of caution and kept Peggy Sue on her leash in my yard. But I can no longer control that.

Coincidentally, soon after these events, the Amazon Prime Video series “Expats” dropped. I watched the first episode unaware of the focus of the show. The opening depicts snapshots of a doctor, three pilots and a 12-year-old boy, who are all responsible for accidental but fatal tragedies. The narrator intones: “These stories always focus on the victim. The person responsible for the calamity is never mentioned. ... But I want to know about the perpetrators. I want to know about the people who caused the tragedies. People like me. Are they ever forgiven?” Now I was “people like me.” I cried through the episode.

I worry about how this is affecting other family members, namely my brother, my sister-in-law and especially my elderly father (my mom passed away in 2022) — if they feel caught in the middle. Thankfully we do talk, if not about my sister and the death of her dog, and our relationships seem undamaged.

I think what I have been feeling is akin to grief. I think I have been experiencing some of its classic stages, including denial, anger and depression. I know that due to my culpability, I will not be afforded the kind of sympathy reserved for those not responsible for the cause of their grief. Still, I grieve.

I grieve the loss of that sweet little dog, never again to enjoy my sister’s love and the pleasures of this life. A few well-meaning family members and friends have tried to console me with “it was just a dog” or “dogs are lost/hit by cars all the time.” But that logic fails to work on this dog lover, who as an adult has grieved the deaths of four of her own canine companions, albeit all in relatively old age.

I grieve the loss of my sister, which perhaps I feel all the more keenly with my mom’s recent passing. Not quite “Irish twins” but still only 19 months apart, my sister and I have always had a special bond; besides our parents, one of whom now is gone, no one has known me as long, and she always seemed there to protect me.

An old picture shows the author, right, and her sister.
An old picture shows the author, right, and her sister. "This is one of the first photos ever taken of us together, around 1966," she writes. Courtesy of Judith Sebesta

And I grieve the loss of who I was: someone who felt secure in the knowledge that I had never knowingly caused anyone grief.

One of my favorite phrases is “it is what it is.” And so, unwillingly, I guess I must face the final stage of grief: acceptance. But as the character Red in one of my favorite films, “The Shawshank Redemption,” argues: “Hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things. And good things never die.” I admit that I hope my sister sees this essay and it convinces her to forgive me or, at the very least, reach out to try to begin to repair our broken relationship.

If nothing else, this essay has helped me process what happened and move through the stages of grief. But I also hope that, if others out there reading this have been through something similar and are silently suffering, they might feel less alone because of it.

Judith Sebesta, Ph.D., is a consultant, researcher and writer focused on innovation in higher education. Following a career as a professor of theater, she served as a policy analyst and innovation director at a state higher education agency and several nonprofit organizations. She is an editor of “Women in American Musical Theatre” and the author of “Telling Stories To Save the World: Climate Change in Narrative Film,” the children’s book “Kirby the Kind Dog,” and numerous articles, papers and reports on theater, film and innovation in higher education. She received her Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin and her master’s from Florida State University.

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