Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you later.
— Mary Bly
When an animal loved one dies
by Katie BolandIn the summer of 1997, my entire pet family left for heaven. The first to go was nine year old Rosie, the Brittany I had rescued some five years earlier. She had eaten raw sewage when the pipes had backed up and burst, and she was so ill, I had to put her down. I had faced mountainous vet bills her entire life for thyroid, incontinence, allergy and digestive problems. I felt guilty that I had not bonded with her like I had with the others. She was hard to love because she ate poop in the backyard and I couldn't kiss her. She gagged constantly. (Wouldn't you?)
Two days later, my dear 18 year old Siamese, Sasha, had a stroke and his kidneys failed. He was deaf and senile, having spent a good deal of his final year sitting on a (formerly) white chair, shrieking and screeching at the living room wall while vomiting intermittently. He would have died on his own within days, but I saw no reason to prolong his life and made another trip to the vet. As shaken and sad as I was, I consoled myself with the fact he'd had a wonderful, long journey and had not suffered at all. He looked like a kitten in repose.
Less than three months later, it was time to help my cherished and adored Weimaraner, Alex, leave this earth. For two years, his back end had been deteriorating. I had always said that when he was incontinent, that would be it for me. But when he was, I wasn't ready. Sometimes Alex could still stagger outside to relieve himself, but his legs would collapse and he would fall in his poop and I'd have to clean him up. One day after returning from the vet, I placed him gently on the driveway while I locked up the car. I turned to catch him rolling down the hill, looking frightened and helpless. I knew it was time to let this mighty dog, who had been so proud in life, go on. And yet, I wasn't ready to let him go. And he would need my help to leave.
Looking for Answers
I had my own live, call-in talk radio show here in LA at the time, and I did several shows looking for answers on letting go. Not everyone agreed it was time. When I told of Alex's plight, one listener suggested wheeling him around in a wagon. That smacked of selfishness. Would he want to be dragged around like that? This once regal, powerful, incredibly fast dog? My instincts told me no. I kept wishing he'd die on his own. I hated having to decide. Looking back, I am most glad that I was with him; that he died in my daughter's and my arms; that our faces were the last ones he saw. Animals sometimes need our help to leave.
My radio callers had told me to celebrate his impending passing, so we had a farewell party. Our friends all came to bid him Godspeed and we fed him filet mignon. The next day, one of my girlfriends arrived with a Whopper for his last meal. He gobbled it gratefully as I spooned with him on my bed. We took pictures and prayed and sang to him. We lit candles and played my daughter's birth music (my friend calls it "soul-traveling" music) and waited for the vet. Alex started to tremble. The vet was mercifully swift. Alex simply laid his head down in my lap and was gone. I stayed by his side until the people from the crematorium came for his body. Then I broke out the vodka and peanut M&M's.
Alex's ashes are still on my nightstand. I made an altar with candles on the spot where he used to sleep, with his obedience trophies and photos, and the collars from all three animals. It was comforting to think of them all together. But the house was deathly silent.
The pain was sharp and raw. I swore I could hear his tags jingling. I could hear all their tags. I saw wisps of Alex turning a corner. I felt his presence constantly and longed to touch him one last time. We had taken lots of pictures that we framed and placed all over the house. We had made a video. We had even kept some fur when he was shedding that last summer. I used to put my face in that fur, hoping for one last whiff, before all scent of him faded away. I felt gypped because he had lasted only eleven years. He had been the hardest dog to raise: stubborn and willful and really hyper. But he was my Boo Boo. I felt afraid without my watchdog. As a single mom, I had never feared with him around. His menacing looks belied his sweet heart.
People said, "It's only a dog." Well, I lost my youngest brother, Robert, to muscular dystrophy and Alex's loss felt the same. There was no difference. My daughter didn't feel the loss like I did. After awhile, when I would cry, she would become exasperated with me. I had to find other "pet" people, who understood, with whom I could wail. I just needed to talk about my dog. Now my daughter and I reminisce, which I can do mostly without tears, and we regale each other with stories.
Animals teach us many lessons. Their deaths gave me some perspective on the fretting we all do about our shapes. I have realized that the body is only a shell, a container for the soul. If you've ever seen a dead body of any kind, you know it is empty without spirit. Losing an animal makes you spiritual in a hurry. That shift is a great example of pain causing growth. That's why pain is a gift. Our animals continue to give to us even as they cease to live. I also felt that watching me care for the elderly animals, and seeing me make adjustments in our lives as they aged, enriched my daughter immeasurably.
I was so bereft after Alex's death that my therapist gave me a tape called Animal Death, A Spiritual Journey by Penelope Smith, an Animal Specialist. She communicates with animals telepathically, both living and dead, and counsels owners to assist them toward a more ideal relationship with their animals. She also performs grief counseling for those whose animals have left the earth. Now, for some of you, this may seem a bit out there, but if you are wallowing in sorrow and desperate for relief, you may find you are open to things you never before considered.
I wept away my grief to the sound of Smith's soothing voice. Although I was overwhelmed at times, I knew I wasn't stuck; I was moving, however slowly, through the worst of it.