The day this column hits print marks one year since my first and very beloved dog took his last breath.
He was a remarkable dog for many reasons, the most notable his determination. He not only showed me what marvelous company a dog could be but pointed me down a path in life. Thanks to him, improving the lives of dogs — and their people — is my mission.
So it was everyone’s first guess, including my own, that I would be reduced to shambles after his death. But strangely enough, I was OK.
Don’t get me wrong. It was heartbreaking, and I’m still brought to tears even thinking about him. But his passing was, for me, just about the best I could hope for.
I had a good idea of what a good death looked like, and that’s how it happened. He’d had a long and full life, and I had lots of time to see the end coming and prepare. I did everything I could to help him be comfortable and happy. He showed me when it was time, and luckily it was a beautiful day when it happened. I had weeks to convey to him how much he meant to me, to thank him for all he had done. And I was right next to him when he died, the vet helping him along as he lay in the grass at the farm on a spectacular spring day. It wasn’t perfect, but pretty close.
Of course, what’s an ideal passing depends on who you are asking. Everyone has a different idea of what a good death looks like. But it’s certainly worth thinking about so that when the time does come you have an idea of what would be best for you and your beloved friend.
Indeed, our animals can have clear wishes. While I was fortunate to have another dog pass similarly to my first, my calico cat was a different story. A fierce little creature, she was unlikely be pleased to see the vet — or have anyone suggest she was dying, for that matter. When she stopped eating due to cancer at 15, I arranged my life so I could be by her side at all hours. She seemed to appreciate that. After a week of my carrying her to lay out in the autumn sunshine and back inside to lay in bed, she died in my arms. It was, again, just about perfect.
Nonetheless, after letting my cat choose her own time, I felt similarly to when my dogs had died. It’s hard to put into words. Saddened, of course, yet also perhaps content. With few regrets. Perhaps I wasn’t as devastated as I thought I’d be because I’d had enough time before their death to prepare and adjust, and it went as I’d hoped.
The rituals that surround death also play a part in grieving, and here, too, we all have our own. Many people bury their beloved animals, others choose cremation. A friend of mine shared photos of the pyre she built for her dog, a stunningly beautiful creation. Our individual rituals surrounding a death can help immensely during a difficult time.
Of course, having a dog’s passing go smoothly may not happen. You can’t always be lucky. Sometimes our dogs die unexpectedly. Sometimes you aren’t there. I’ve had that happen, too, and find that harder.
Two months after I began fostering a special young dog he was killed out on a walk with someone else. I was understandably a mess. But a couple of aspects kept coming back to me: He died instantly. He did not die alone and scared in a shelter. And right before he left on that walk I had taken a moment to give him my attention and convey to him that I loved him. Isn’t it funny that nearly 15 years later I can still remember that detail? That was my biggest consolation after his death: that he knew he was loved.
Maybe what really helps make a good death is a good life. Ensuring our dogs have a full and rich daily existence and that they know they are loved may be the best way to finding yourself with few regrets, regardless of how they leave us. I do my best to find time every day to do something with my dogs that we really enjoy, to be aware of and appreciate them and to incorporate little daily rituals to convey to them they are loved. So while what a good death looks like is certainly something to think about sometimes, what a good life looks like is something to think about each and every day.
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