Reflections on the Death of My Dog
I don’t know why I’m writing this now (it's been two or three years). Maybe, because I’ve been in this weird mental place, feeling like there’s something I need to make sense of, but don’t yet understand how to. Maybe, there’s something here that I need to exorcise on some subconscious level. Maybe, it’s simply the desire to help.
When Killer, our 14-year-old pug, first developed mast cell tumors, I thought I would be ready for the grim eventuality. I am not a stranger to death. My brother was killed in a car accident when I was in kindergarten. I lost all my grandparents before high school. My wife lost both her parents during our first two years of marriage. And my father died only a few months previous.
I’m also a Buddhist. You know, like a lot of people, I think Westerns especially, wanting to confront death and wanting to die well when my time comes is part of what drew me to my religion. Right? So I had both experienced death and thought about dying.
I thought this experience meant this would be easier for me to handle. And to some extent, it did help. I think if I’d never experienced the death of any sentient being I loved before Killer died, it would have completely wrecked me. Because there’s this place where intellectual knowledge and real life crash into each other that you cannot prepare for. You can’t. It doesn’t matter how much you read about something. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about something. Or how certain you are that you will react a particular way in a this one situation.
The truth is when you are there in that moment, what you think you know, that purely intellectual knowledge, goes out the window.
“Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” —Mark Twain
I think there’s something particularly sharp about losing a pet—if you’ve ever had a pet, you know firsthand what they give you: dedicated companionship and lasting affection without any judgment. Your pet doesn’t care how much money you have or what you look like or how cranky your day at work has made you. They’re not swayed by how beautiful or ugly you are, how fat or thin you are, or how fit or unhealthy you are, they just love you. And they’re always there with you in the moment – your pet isn’t thinking about the project they need to finish tomorrow, they’re not stewing over that morning exchange with the jerk receptionist, they’re right there and fully present.
…I remember, it was a Sunday. He was not feeling well that day. It was noticeable in his expression and how he carried himself. In the early afternoon, I accompanied him outside. He walked off the porch into the grass to pee and when he squatted he let out this sound that there’s no way to describe really. I mean I can’t even offer it adjectives.
It was pain.
And I heard that sound and right then I broke in two—one part of me totally calm, scooped him up, carried him inside, gave him to Maria, and called the vet; the other part of me had a break-down…
If you allow it, if you open yourself up to the experience of having a pet, this creates a deep and intense bond. It can be even deeper when you have your first pet as an adult. A living thing is now your responsibility in a way it never was before, no matter how much your parents tried to prepare you for responsibility. And other than your spouse or significant other, your pet is also the one living being you will see more than anyone else. Does that make sense?
I think this is all ratcheted up another notch if you go through rough times. And Killer was there through rough times. He was there when we were really poor. He was there when we lived in a bad neighborhood and the night was full of sirens and scary people in hoodies gathered in the parking lot and loud voices argued with each other through the walls and the stripper who lived upstairs was fighting with her latest boyfriend. He was there when I walked to work every day. He was there when my wife was alone and constantly sick on high doses of immuno-suppressants to combat the disease that is robbing her of her sight. And he was there beside me at night, when I sat awake in the dim and in the quiet as my thoughts race and raged, trying to outrun fear.
…When it was time, I carried Killer out to the truck. I climbed in, rolled the seat back as far as it would go while still allowing me to reach the pedals, and sat him in my lap. He felt…exhausted, I guess is the best to put it. The drive into Bloomington felt longer than ever has felt before. Sometimes, Killer’s breathing was normal. Sometimes his breathing was the way he breathed when he was sleeping. And sometimes his breathing was so heavy and labored and I remember thinking, he’s going to fucking die here in the car. Holy fuck, he’s going to fucking die here in the fucking car.
When that raw and torrential panic subsided a little, the mild calm was enough to allow troublesome thoughts to come creeping in: What do I do if he dies in the car? Do I keep driving to the vet? Do I turn around and go home?...
When we were ready for another dog, there was never any question about adopting. And there shouldn’t be one for you. The simplest reason to adopt for anyone can be purely economic. The cost of getting a dog from a shelter or even a breed specific rescue is far less than buying a dog from a pet store or a breeder. And every bit of the money spent is going purely for the cost of an animal’s care, not into someone’s pocket as profit. But for us, I think we both felt we owed Killer for the gift of his presence. The easiest way to acknowledge that bond and to repay that debt for those times he had been there for us—even if he wasn’t necessarily cognizant of it—was to adopt a rescue dog.
…The young vet asked me, if I wanted to be there when he delivered the medicine. I always knew my answer. It was partly selfish—my mind is such that if I left without knowing what Killer went through, it would always wonder, it would always worry, it would always doubt, and eventually the monkey mind would take over and wild thoughts would come and they would all be horrible.
But more than that, it was also the staunch belief that no sentient being should ever die alone. And it was also an obligation. I couldn’t leave him. Look at all he had given me. The friendship. The affection. His presence. I couldn’t repay that by letting him face this transition alone.
“No, I want to stay with him.”
“Do you want to help me get him on the table?”
“No,” I said, “he stays in my lap. Can you do that? Can this happen here on my lap?”
The vet nodded. “Okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to take him into the other room for a minute, just a minute, and I’m going to put a port in his leg to make the injections easier.” …
There are an estimated 140 million to 180 million pets in the United States. Each year, something like 7.6 million animals are given over to shelters and rescues. 2.7 million animals that end up in shelters will be euthanized. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 10 million puppy mills in operation. Dogs in puppy mills are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. And since they are bred purely for profit, there is no concern for potential health issues or serious hereditary conditions. What’s the easiest way for you to have a serious impact on all that suffering and unnecessary death?
Simple—adopt a shelter or rescue pet.
I mean, think about that. Really, really think about that. With very little effort, you radically alter another living being’s life forever and contribute to ending future suffering for others. Puppy mills function for profit. Remove the profit, end puppy mills, end puppy mills and reduce suffering. That’s fucking immense if you acknowledge it. Seriously—fucking immense. Don’t dismiss it as hippy-dippy, sappy whatever. You can completely change a life. And you’ll get something out of it besides a loving companion.
And that’s why organizations like Bluegrass Pug Rescue are always in need of your donations, whether that be money, items, or time.
…When we were alone again. I cried a lot. I remember at one point some other people entered the building for some kind of emergency vet service and I could hear them. And there was a bit there where I was mad. I mean, really fucking angry—like my dog is dying you fucking motherfuckers, why are you even here and talking in normal voices about stupid things?
Thinking about that now—literally right now as I’m writing this—that feels silly to me too. Why do we feel that grief is a private thing? I mean, it’s one of the few things we all do, right? Every single one of us. Different things make us all happy, right? But don’t the same things make us all sad? …
Sometimes, I think, the particulars of our culture—as Westerners living under late-stage capitalism—tend to encourage a certain kind of behavior and way of looking at the world that’s contradictory to our innermost natures. I mean, we are wired for kindness and cooperation. Not only has kindness been proven to be contagious but it has also been scientifically documented to improve your own happiness, your heart health, positively impact your aging process, and improve your relationships.
Kindness and the ability to cooperate are how our ancestors survived in a world where everything was bigger, stronger, faster, and wanted to eat us. To deny that is to deny yourself.
…There in the quiet exam room, in the early morning hours, I chanted the Heart Sutra: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha...
Killer moved from my lap to awkwardly pee in the floor.
When he laid back down in my lap, I prayed that in this moment of transition, his consciousness be free from fear and that his rebirth be a pleasant one.
When the vet came in, I whispered to Killer that he was a good boy.
“There are two shots here,” the vet explained. “This first one is a sedative and the second one is the euthanasia drug.”
The young vet delivered the first shot. Killer sighed, almost contently.
The second shot came. And all was still.
The stillness broke near morning. On the drive home, I stopped at the gas station near our house to buy Maria a pack of cigarettes. I sat in the car, considered smoking one, and stared out the window and watched as dawn filled the dark storm clouds like flimsy Chinese lanterns, lightning jigsawed the sky, and then a loud crack of thunder announced the onset of a heavy, heavy rain...
“It’s like a cloud in the sky. When the cloud is no longer in the sky, it doesn’t mean the cloud has died. The cloud is continued in other forms like rain or snow or ice. So you can recognize your cloud in her new forms. If you are very fond of a beautiful cloud and if your cloud is no longer there, you should not be sad. Your beloved cloud might have become the rain, calling on you, ‘darling, darling, don’t you see me in my new form?’ And then you will not be stuck with grief and despair. Your beloved one continues always. Meditation helps you recognize her continued presence in new forms. And our nature is the nature of no birth and no death…the nature of a cloud also. A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail…or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being. And that is true with your beloved one. She has not died. She is continued in many new forms. And you can look deeply and recognize herself in you and around you.”
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear