The death of our dearest family member– the beloved dog, is something we will all eventually face. It’s a hard, inevitable reality. And when it comes, it takes over like a storm.
The stronger the bond, the harder the grief. Grieving over a dog is tremendously complicated, for it is a process in which this ultimate bond—the sanctity of unconditional love between man and dog has come to an end, or at least, physically so. It is unbearable, wearisome, and harrowing. Yet it’s also a natural and beautiful state of mind, for through grieving, we are bearing, enduring, and surrendering to the loss of what is essential and pure: Love.
Society already tends to be uncomfortable with the concept of death. And so at times, we even feel guilt in the process of grieving over our dog. We might feel that this sensation is unwelcome. That we need to “get over it” expeditiously, move on, straighten up, and be ecstatic with life again. As if this natural feeling will burden others. That it’s unacceptable, and we are spineless and weak for we feel so much pain. Perhaps we feel shame, for the display of this pain exhibits our dependency on our furry counterparts. As we struggle through the acceptance of the loss of what was, we feel like what is—the world that surrounds us anid still remains, does not acquiesce nor validate this ambient sorrow.
For us dog owners, caretaking is a daily ritual. Not only is it a daily ritual, it is a part of who we are. The dog is not just a dog. He is part of our identity, and proudly so. He is a symbol of what we are, and who we aspire to become. Years together, as the dog strangely acquires our idiosyncrasies, we do the same. Living together, the dog becomes more you, and you become more dog. We learn to see things through the eyes of the dog, smell the world like them, and experience joy and sadness purely, just like a dog. He becomes our limb, and we, their tail. Thus, this great loss shatters our world, and rightfully so.
Take my first dog in my adult life, Riki. He was an 8 year old, dreadlocked mutt that roamed the streets of Denver. When I first met him, he certainly needed a better haircut, but his scavenging skills kept him robust. He was a bad ass. We lived together in peace for 6 years, and eventually, the time came when he was about 14 years old—no one, possibly even he, knew his real age. And when that time came, for quite a while, I stopped breathing—because he stopped breathing.
We are a creature of habit. Riki loved routine as with all dogs. He was taken out for a stroll to check his messages on trees, four times a day. Since we did this daily for six years. That means our ritual was repeated 8760 times. He was fed twice a day. The ritual of scooping his food out, watching him dance, sit politely, then gorge occurred roughly, 4380 times. And what a dance it was. And how comforting that sound. There’s nothing like that festive sound of dogs inhaling food. To me, their enthusiasm about everything; from feeding time, ball toss time, walk time, and snuggle time– their zeal is their earnest display of gratitude. And gratitude, a disposition that we humans, lack, or forget to display. So to us, our dog is a piece of sanity in this crazy world. Every day, they graciously remind us of what matters, and what is truly beautiful.
If we spend an average of 12 years with a dog, double the times I fed Riki or took him out. That’s 17,520 outings, and 8760 breakfast and dinner dances. Of course, it hurts. The things we saw with them in these outings: The butterflies they chased. The battle with the pizza crust on the street. The skateboarder they freaked on, and those volcanic lava you attempted to pick up after they stole the whole ham off the kitchen counter. You watched him sniffspect at least a million butts in his lifetime.
Riki lay next to me whenever I sat. He followed my every move like a shadow. Every step I took, he followed: backwards, forwards, downwards and upwards. Every crumb I dropped, he vacuumed. Dogs are our shadows, our limb. A molecular connection.
So when these rituals suddenly stops, when we no longer hear their foot steps or see the mound of fur sprawled on the floor, when we come home, and the dog does not bounce towards you like we returned from World War II, our world takes a back flip and we land on our head. And damn, it hurts. There is no helmet to shield us from this concussion.
It’s even harder, for dogs are completely dependent on us. We make all the decisions for them, and many are fulfilling and fun. It’s why we choose to live with dogs. From what food they eat, what bed comforts them, what treats they should receive, how much should they exercise, teaching them manners, rules of the cohabitation, choosing their friends, to examining their poop. Their dependence fulfills our innate paternal and maternal instincts as mammalian caretakers.
After years shared together, the bond strengthens to a point where you can read each other’s mind. There comes a time when commands, hand signals, or a leash are not even necessary. He just follows. You just give him a dirty look when he lifts his nose to sniff the turkey on the table. He obeys. He adores you. He understands your energy, better than any human ever could.
Then comes the hard stuff: medical decisions: surgery or not, to treat a medical condition or not to treat, to anesthetize. And lastly, to euthanize.
Quoted bluntly yet compassionately from a Veterinarian whom I respect, the last decision, “Is an absolute mind f***”. Some say you know when the time is right. No. We don’t. It’s an active, deeply cerebral choice.
Although we’ve mastered the art of reading each other’s mind by then, for this one decision, we want to hear a clear voice from the dog. Just one question, and one bark will do. But that doesn’t happen because they trust us, and frankly, they do not assert their position on this very crucial matter. It feels all too easy to second guess our decisions and descend into a pit of guilt, doubt, and uncertainty. No matter how well intentioned, not matter how sound and rational, that final decision never seems comforting. The dog was your oracle, but for this, the answers do not come.
I’ve observed many clients delve into this bittersweet passage. And these decisions, whatever it might be, is always acutely intellectual, philosophical, existential, logical, reasonable, wise, and selfless.
These decisions are powered by our element—the energy of love. The moment we make the decision to let go, something profound happens to us. I am witness to the most graceful side of humanity, and despite my sorrow with the clients, my faith in humanity rekindles. We are fragile, vulnerable and gentle.
There are two things I find utterly stunning. A puppy’s innocent eyes, and a mature dog’s wise eyes. The puppy is ready to give to you. The grown dog has already given. He has fulfilled his purpose to teach us the meaning of love.
When a dog departs, they leave a giant space in our hearts. It’s an empty space that does not need to be filled, for although empty, the space is not barren. That sensation of emptiness is an expansion of our hearts. It’s a sense of knowing which can only be gained from loving unconditionally, without judgment and without return. And so, despite the sorrows that may be, I think that we dog owners are a fortunate bunch. Pain would not be, had we not loved and be loved.
You may feel like many do not understand your pain. They do not, and that’s perfectly fine, for only you and your dog fully fathom the bond you shared. As callous as their words may seem at the time, the intention is good, for they simply want to see you smile again– but they don’t know how. We will never know how, and that’s ok.
And so, as you grieve, give no power to words that seem insensitive, crass, or unkind. No, you do not need to “Get over it”. Don’t bother to bounce back. There is no agenda nor time limit to your lament. I’ll always cry when I think about Riki, and I don’t mind doing it when I am 96. In fact, I plan on it, because he was awesome and I miss him. I’m going to wail and snort every time I see his picture. It is what it is. I embrace and surrender to the transition and pain. I reminisce the joys shared, and yield to the tears.
Life is impermanent. Therefore, beautiful. But love is eternal.
He always walks by you in invisible stride.