Three words rocked our world. They weren’t unexpected.
She has cancer.
“It’s in her spleen, stomach, kidneys, and it looks like some spots on her lungs. I’m so sorry.” The ultrasound confirmed our worst fears. My wife and I couldn’t look at each other. The drive home was in heavy silence. We knew the next 24 hours would change everything. What are we going to do? How do we tell our boys? Why did it have to come to this? Again.
Anyone who has never allowed a dog to become a part of the family won’t understand or appreciate the devastation of a terminal diagnosis. Lord knows, it’s just a dog. I mean no disrespect to those who suffered the loss of a loved one or face a terminal diagnosis.
Anne Lamott is one of my favourite writers. Her dog died on October 4th. She wrote, "My beautiful pal passed away yesterday at home. She had (somehow) gotten old. She was the perfect person and had the most beautiful smile. It is the end of the world and I feel that I will never have a moment’s happiness again. You may know the feeling. Sigh."
"The end of the world." Couldn't say it better. This was the third time with the exact same diagnosis. All were Golden Retrievers. They had names - Tammy. Sprite. Silver. Each one had a unique personality. All were love on four legs.
Ironically, when Jocelyn was diagnosed with cancer her despair wasn’t nearly as intense as when three of our dogs were stricken with cancer. We had to put each one down. The drive to the clinic was like walking down death row. Meeting with a vet drove up the anxiety level in each of our dogs and they were never happier than when we left a clinic to go home. Silver had no idea she was not coming out of the clinic alive. A few last moments alone with her in the vet’s treatment room allowed all the memories to flood in. The puppy training, balls to fetch, leashes, cuddling on the floor, the first time leaping into a lake, road trips, dog slobber. Just a few months before Silver's life came to an end, she travelled with us from Edmonton to cottage country in Ontario. It was a family vacation in the truest sense of the word.
The night before Silver’s last day was spent in the living room together. The leather couch was off limits for her except that night. There wasn’t much sleeping. With first light, she got her favourite treats. The struggle to get them down assured us we were making the right decision on her behalf. That didn’t make the decision any easier.
We didn’t get another puppy. That’s not a choice for everyone, but for us we couldn’t and still can’t bring ourselves to face the same outcome. We find our joy in other people’s dogs for now.
When a parent, spouse, child or someone close to us dies, our loss is usually met with sympathy, comfort, and sincere condolences. We are allowed to grieve. We are allowed to cry. We are encouraged to experience our emotions.
But pet owners who have had a terminally ill dog euthanized hear quite a different story. Many will tell you that most people did not understand the depth of their grief. Some even experienced the gross insensitivity of a comment like, “Why don’t you just get another pet?”
We didn’t just lose a pet. We lost unconditional love. Our Goldens gave us emotional responses that were uninhibited by concern for how their expression appeared to others. They did not judge insecurity or imperfection. They were all-accepting in ways few humans can achieve.
In many ways, Jocelyn lost a confidante. Silver allowed Jocelyn to express parts of herself that she never let friends see. During a period of upheaval and trauma, Silver provided Jocelyn with security, stability and comfort. Her neck was a safe place to shed tears.
Our Goldens were gifts from God. Creatures made in the Creator’s image and in many ways, reflective of the unconditional love and grace of God. Don't tell my pastoral superiors, but I believe all dogs go to heaven. We were guarded in talking about pet grief. Now, we share our gratitude for the love we experienced and a listening ear for those going through a similar grief.
How about you? Has your world been rocked by the death of a four-legged family member? Lean into the grief. Reach out for comfort. Bob.firstname.lastname@example.org
I write to grow hope, inspire people to be real, forge an authentic faith in Jesus, and discover their life purpose.
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