Some days are just tough.
Monday was like that for my niece and her family. It was the day they had to say good-bye to their nine-year old Sheltie, Gus. Gus has been fighting bladder cancer for a while. I’d seen him Friday night. After not being able to get up without help that afternoon, that evening he showed off for a family dinner, pushing a door open on his own, spinning around in his “tornado” trick. I could see how the short display of playfulness exhausted him, and his family could see it too. He was suffering. They made the heart wrenching decision to euthanize him.
Gus was the “practice child” for my niece and her new husband. He was selected with an eye towards being a playmate for the two-legged children to come. “We chose a Sheltie,” my niece said, “because they are such good family dogs and so good with children.”
And indeed he was. He accepted the transition from only child to big brother not only without complaint but with a sense of responsibility. He was a working dog and he had to take care of his “herd.” His greatest frustration was when his people wouldn’t stay herded in one room. People coming and going out the door drove him to distraction.
He patiently suffered all the indignities that three small children can visit upon a dog. But he also learned that these little creatures weren’t without their rewards. He quickly learned to station himself beneath high chairs in order to catch falling food.
My niece asked me about whether or not her oldest, now six, should go along on Monday. He wanted to be there. I told her yes – he could pet Gus and say his good-byes. I reminded her that it’s part of the gifts that our pets give to us. For many of us, the loss of a pet was a our first experience of grief. Her son lost his great-grandfather last year when my father died, but he hadn’t lived with “Grandaddy Joe Haymes” (as he called him) day in and day out like he had with Gus.
When I was an Associate Minister of a church I had someone come from hospice to do a grief seminar for our grade schoolers. Some of the adults didn’t know why we were doing it for children but the kids knew more about loss than adults realized. Some of them had lost grandparents. One was moving away, so they were losing the closeness of friends. Several had lost pets. (Nearly all of them had lost goldfish, which led one little boy to comment, “I think goldfish are pretty much a waste of time and money.”) They knew about grief.
Our animals give us a chance to practice our grieving, to begin to make that foreign country a little less foreign. We learn how much it hurts to lose someone we love, even a four-legged someone. We learn how much space an absence can occupy. We learn that rituals and remembrances do not keep our hearts from breaking but make the breaking a little more bearable. And hopefully we learn that, for all of the pain, we can keep loving and opening those hearts.
Gus was a hard-working dog, right up to the end.
Good boy, Gus.