Tag Archives: Dogs

A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.Lucy and Griffin

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.

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Lessons from Beyond: the Short, Sad Life of a Small Dog

I barely know the woman whose dog I agreed to foster so she could go to inpatient treatment for alcoholism. We have a good friend in common. I already own two dogs. So I impulsively said “yes” when she sent out an SOS e-mail to find a caregiver for Max, her mini-dachshund.

Three weeks later, Max is dead — by my decree — and I am left with an empty dog bed and the uncomfortable reality that doing the right thing is, often, a lonely enterprise.Max the Dog

Pets as playthings

I picked up Max at his suburban townhouse on a bitterly cold Thursday afternoon in February. His owner had been drinking. Bright-eyed and chatty, trying desperately to appear normal, she apologized for the messy living room and the urine stains on the carpet.

I collected Max’s things — a kennel, a tattered leash, a grocery bag full of canned dog food and pricey treats — and wished the owner well. I was eager to get out of there and get Max home.

I didn’t ask her about the peculiarities of mini-dachshunds. I didn’t know, for example, that they’re not supposed to climb stairs or jump on and off furniture, something my own robust dogs do routinely. All she told me was that Max hated the cold and that he loved to snuggle under blankets, contradicting the Wikipedia site that pronounced the breed “very active” and thus requiring “frequent walks.”

An inveterate exerciser, I envisioned getting this dog on the right path.

Only 5 or 6, Max had a swaying, tentative gait that suggested he was uneasy — or unfamiliar — with a simple walk. He laid in his bed for hours and seemed to be composed of what my son dubbed “flab and bones.” In fact, the slipped disc that paralyzed him, seemingly overnight, “is often caused by obesity,” the Wikipedia site says.

The pads of his feet were as pink as a baby’s bottom. When we’d lift him outside to pee — before the rear-end paralysis took away that function, too — Max would stand in the snow, frozen in place. I attached a leash to his collar once and he refused to move.

I reached the owner at her treatment facility in California prior to putting Max down, and she told me Max had been “horribly abused” when she rescued him at 4 years old. I didn’t want the details — visions of hind-end kicks have haunted me since I had the dog killed last Thursday — but I ask myself whether overfeeding and inactivity don’t constitute some form of abuse as well.

Bred to be hunters of small animals such as badgers and rats, dachshunds require muscle strength to support their long spines. But in an era when “sedentary” seems to define the human condition, dachshunds have become house dogs, playthings — dressed up in silly sweaters for their owners’ amusement.

“Loved for his long round body and cute stumpy legs,” one website reads, the dachshund nevertheless must be nurtured with fish oil and exercise and specific handling in order to remain healthy.

Maybe we need to enlarge the definition of animal cruelty: Is it only hitting? Starvation? Chaining a pet in a cold, dark basement? Or is it also ignorance and benign neglect?

Life’s lessons

Ultimately, Max’s death will matter only to the woman who adopted him and never got to say goodbye. But I’d like his life to stand for something. Maybe one day, the monsters who made his early years hell will reflect on their actions and feel regret. Maybe his owner will find the strength to stay sober because she’ll want to foster another dog

Maybe I’ll find the courage, finally, to do more than wring my hands and actually volunteer on behalf of abused and abandoned animals.

Unlike giving birth — which is painful, traumatic and yet joyous — witnessing death is just hard and mysterious, and very sad.

It’s my 98-year-old father-in-law thrashing in a hospital bed, hours before he died of pneumonia in the facility where he once was chief of staff. It’s my sons’ godmother, my sister-in-law, lying in a hospice and progressively losing the ability to talk or breathe.

And it’s Max, quietly curling up to die — not “going to sleep,” as we like to tell ourselves to sidestep the moral quandary — only seconds after the vet’s lethal injection. “Bless you,” I told her, “you have a hard job.”

“It’s not all puppies and kittens,” she replied.

A friend who used to work for the Animal Humane Society called to comfort me the next day. She quoted a former colleague who had euthanized many animals: “She told me it was the most important moment for an animal,” my friend said, “and it was her responsibility to give them comfort and dignity.”Countryside logo

My family did that for Max. Dr. Signe Wass of Countryside Animal Hospital did that for Max. And in her own way, his owner did that for Max, too. She rescued him, and loved him the best she could.