My wife and I try not to bring her name up. If we do, we quickly change the subject.
I’ve hidden all pictures of her to avoid triggering memories.
Saying goodbye was one of the hardest days of my life.
And I can’t stop crying as I write this.
When our pets die, they take with them a piece of our hearts that seemingly can’t be replaced, ever. How can we move on without sadness and keep living without a constant sense of loss, when we can’t bear to think about our treasured companions? When the joyful memories are eclipsed by grief?
Here’s how I am coming to terms with the death of the best dog in the world, and how you can begin living with a memory that is joyous, not painful.
Sadie was our family’s first and only dog. She lived to be 19 years old; it was like raising another child to adulthood. She’s in thousands of pictures from our children’s youth: playing in the yard, camping, vacations, holidays, and birthday parties.
She had love for everyone in the family, but my wife, Betsy, was her favorite. Sadie was her constant shadow, changing positions all day long to stay within a ten foot radius.
Sadie was not a low maintenance dog. For all those 19 years, she required two doses of medicine every day – a medicine that we eventually had to get from a compounding pharmacist. Her sensitive digestion combined with longer hair required a lot of washing up, a task that usually fell to me.
Loving, exasperating, attentive, neurotic, sweet, messy. And 19 years was not enough time. Not nearly enough.
How can we learn from painful memories?
Pet deaths linger, painfully, and impact our lives. Many years ago, I read a profile of a woman who was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. It was part of her deliberate attempt to get her life back on track after falling into a downward spiral of grief and depression that was triggered by the death of her dog six years earlier.
At the time, I didn’t understand how this was possible. I grew up on a farm raising livestock, and one thing you experience a lot when raising animals is death. Difficulties at birth, disease, predators and old age take a toll on your livestock and your ability to feel sentimental. Animals are animals – cared for, valued and enjoyed, but they die a lot and that’s just the cost of doing business.
So I read this story about lingering, life changing grief and shook my head. I thought myself immune to feeling anything about a pet that would cause such a sense of loss when they were gone. Wrong.
Sadie was about ten at the time and whether I realized it or not, she had undoubtedly become much more than “livestock” to me.
I need to come to terms with this memory, to move beyond the grief that clouds every thought of her. To be unable to think of this precious part of our lives without a profound sense of loss and sadness is an enormous disservice to Sadie.
She was a dog, with dog thoughts, not human thoughts, so I know this sounds trite and emotional. But I also believe that this is not what she would have wanted for her favorite people.
Life experiences should teach us and guide us onward, not wrap us in tentacles that hinder our forward movement and keep us from growing.
It’s time to learn from my favorite dog and not just miss her.
In the beginning: the exuberant puppy
The book on this breed of dog said to pick the most energetic puppy from the litter, the first one who ran up to you. That was Sadie, and she barely stopped running for the next decade.
From the beginning, she wanted only to be near us day in and day out, so my farm-bred rule of “dogs sleep outside” didn’t sit well with either the dog or my wife. I banished Sadie to the back porch every night, until a bitterly cold winter night softened my attitude. Within a week, she was not only inside but curled up by our bed, where she slept from then on.
A herding breed, she was attentive to every nuance of human gestures and tone of voice. Betsy trained her and Sadie could roam outside the fence without any fear of her ever leaving our property. She’d found her home and never had any desire to leave it, or us.
The pure intentions of dogs and children
Dogs and children have a purity of heart that makes them innocent and unconsciously more virtuous than adults.
When I asked Betsy once what the most rewarding part of her elementary school teaching job was, she replied:
“The innate kindness that children show each other. Unlike adults who have to think it through before showing kindness to each other. 1
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Dogs are so childlike, so selfless… so un-adult.
As with children, we can forgive their misbehavior because we know that it’s never out of intentional ill will or some calculated, ulterior motive. They just let their natural urges get away from them for a bit. It doesn’t hurt that so many of their mishaps are amusing.
I recall Sadie finding a piece of unattended toast. She apparently felt that she had to sneak and eat it outside rather than gobble it down immediately, so she tried to slip by us with it in her mouth, oozing guilt every step of the way.
Mischief, but pure, innocent mischief, like a kid with her hand in a cookie jar. Who can be mad at that?
The early years: the dog days of summer
There is no joy like a city dog in the wild, relishing scents, sights, and sounds that usually only live in her dreams. Sadie loved our favorite family camping spot. I was a tiny jewel of a mountain lake with trails to explore and a dense population of wily, dog-food-stealing blue jays and ground squirrels.
She spent three whole days there one summer excavating inside a bush growing from a rotten stump. She was no longer a puppy but was still open to the wonder of discovery. It reminded me of a young child digging on a beach for shells and colorful pebbles.
Everyday things become beautiful treasures when you have to work hard to get them, when you don’t compare them to what others have, but value them by what they mean to you. Even if they are only grubs and worms.
When dogs and kids part ways
If you get your dog at about the same time you have children, you learn that dog nature and human nature diverges after several years. Hints of the pettiness and self-interest of adulthood begin to surface naturally in your kids. Their unquestioning allegiance to the family unit begins to soften as their world expands.
Dogs don’t feel any need to move on. They stay childlike in their devotion, knowing that they’ve already found their purpose at your side.
The later years: growing closer
Cataracts began to cloud Sadie’s vision and hearing loss muted her barking. The backyard squirrels – never in any great danger – became even safer.
As her senses diminished, she became even more attentive, looking to us always for clues about what her humans might desire. She still had unflagging energy, tripling the distance traveled on any walk as she continually ranged ahead, then checked back before racing off again.
As our children entered their teens, Sadie’s refusal to grow out of her role in our family stood in contrast to our boys’ developing independence. They were becoming young men, while she was still our steadfast, if graying, child.
A never-failing companion
Children break your heart as you empathetically experience the tortuous paths they choose to navigate. They worry you constantly. The inevitable friction that comes from a child growing into an adult challenges your ability to show unconditional love.
Meanwhile, your faithful dog becomes the most dependable member of your family. You begin to understand how badly you need a reliable companion, how comforting it is to know that with your dog, your heart is safe and your love and concern will always be appreciated.
And self-centeredness? That quintessential teenage trait? Completely missing from the soul of your dog.
If your dog was on Facebook, her account it would look a lot like yours because the posts would be all about you: what you had for breakfast, how you looked before leaving the house, the funny way you talked to them. A dog would only show up in her own posts when she did selfies as you hugged her.
Our love continues to deepen even as we begin to notice that age is catching up to them.
The twilight years: slipping away
A long-lived dog has an extended old age, long enough to clearly mark each milestone on the road to an end that we could no longer deny was approaching:
- The last time she launched herself from the back porch in a “welcome home” greeting, walloping her chin on the ground.
- The day she fell down the basement stairs and we had to install a gate to keep her safe.
- The first time she didn’t come when we called and we realized she couldn’t hear us at all.
Friends from our children’s elementary years would stop by and ask unbelievingly, “Is that the SAME dog?!”
Yes. The same dog, a decade and a half later. The same sweet, attentive, pure-of-heart companion whose health was failing, but whose devotion was unflagging and even deepening with age.
Aging with grace
Aging is hard on humans in more ways that just physical.
All too often, as the cares of the world accumulate and disappointments pile onto frustrations, our outlook on life changes for the worse.
Regrets, anger, and the struggle to remain relevant cause a sort of crust to form that suppresses positive attitudes and good intentions. When we add the accumulating aches, pains and illnesses, the result can be a person who is aging into self-centered bitterness. Family, friends, children, and spouses bear the brunt of this painful, slow march to the sunset.
Aging is hard on pets, too, but instead of burdening them with remorse and bitterness, it reveals the core of who they really are. At the center of a dog is unconditional love, and as all the quintessentially “dog” stuff falls away with age – squirrel chasing, ball fetching, bone digging – they are left with only their desire to show their devotion to you.
And their only regret is not being able to jump up and greet you as they once could.
Her last day: “It’s time for you to go.”
Sadie had lived beyond her time. Daily painkillers and anti-inflammatories allowed her to go about her day without much distress, for a time. But she could no longer handle even short walks and her endless pacing at night, claws click clicking on the hardwood floors, revealed her anxiety and difficulty getting comfortable.
There was never a whine or complaint, but we finally had to admit that we were selfishly keeping Sadie alive for us, not for her.
There was never anything unusual on her vet checkups, no apparent condition causing her decline, but I know that her heart had worn out from a lifetime of service. She was giving the last remnant of her strength to us.
On her last day on earth, I knelt by her and stroked the smooth fur on her now-gray muzzle, torn up by despair. I whispered to her over and over again, “I love you, but it’s time to for you to go.”
When you can’t move on
Unable to bear thinking about her, Betsy and I began to remove memories of Sadie from our lives. We stopped talking about her as much as we could, only briefly recalling memories before quickly changing the subject. We put her pictures away. We replaced her favorite blankets and other memory triggers.
We scattered her ashes in her favorite digging spots, leaving the final bits of our beloved dog mixed with the soil and water of our favorite mountain lake.
And the years passed with no healing in sight, two adults with broken hearts and no Sadie to comfort them.
Re-opening the sorrow, healing my heart
It’s time. Not to move on, but to move forward with joyful memories.
Locking away reminders hasn’t worked, so today I start again. Today I’m getting out a picture of our dog and sharing it with the world. I would like you to meet Sadie…
I have fond memories of this day. This photo was taken at a lake where my youngest son had chosen to enhance fish habitat as his Eagle Scout project. He and I made several recon trips for planning. It was a glorious, bright day filled with purpose, and Sadie came along as a chaperone. She was in her element, filled with energy, nose in the wind and carefree.
Believe me, this is still tough, but I’m no longer hiding from these feelings of grief and loss. I’ve suppressed them for a long time, so they are still as raw as the day she died. It’s time to work through them. This picture is also on my bulletin board so her memory is allowed to live and breathe and see the light of day.
It’s a start. And writing about it has helped a lot. But I can do more.
Learning to live like a dog
I don’t just want to remember her, I want to be sure that her life meant something… that some part of my life honors her memory. She set an example that I’m going to strive to follow.
Here were Sadie’s best traits:
- Super attentive listener, hanging on every word while making eye contact
- Checking up on people to be sure everything was going OK
- Unfailingly positive attitude all day long
- Always up for a little adventure
- Extraordinary patience (except with squirrels)
Considering this list, I realize that our dog could have been a candidate for canine sainthood. I can’t step into those shoes (paws?) all at once. Baby steps. For me, it’s time to work on the people-to-people skills contained in the first item.
I have some real difficulties interacting with other people. On the outside, I’ve learned to be engaging and to perform well in public. On the inside, I’m often dreading interaction and screaming for release once it begins. In my role-playing of “good listener,” I will often be formulating my next question to ask rather than listening. The number of questions can turn the conversation into an interrogation and make me seem irritated and impatient.
I know I can do better because I observed exactly how it should be done for 19 years. If you are ever around me and enjoy increased attention and better eye contact, you’ll know who’s inspiring me to be so attentive.
I’ll work on the “unfailingly positive attitude” next. In the meantime, I hope you can find some inspiration to move on, too.
We can, and must, live on
Pets live larger-than-life. Their emotions are always spilling over, exceeding the capacity of their small bodies to contain their joy for living. We are the lucky recipients of that excess life force. Once we get used to it, we can’t imagine living without it.
But it’s not gone when our pets pass on. Every bit of that life force they gave us is still inside, being wasted if we don’t use it to learn and grow. I think that we can only heal our hearts by living in a way that spills over, as well.
It’s what Sadie would want. And it’s what your pet would want, too.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.