It was completely unexpected. Well, maybe not completely but certainly not assumed to occur anyway in the near future (to me, that means never!). Though he was(somewhere) over 11 years, sometimes we forget how their “dog years” are never enough. Besides, he was family, strong, loved. But then it happened: Dozer, our black, mastiff-lab with the lovey eyes and cuddling, weighted-paws, soft as a feather but hard as a rock, died.
We didn’t expect it.
We couldn’t prevent it.
We wouldn’t talk about it.
I expected the death of our dog to be different for me than a stereotypical, loved family-member, grief-gripping, loss. Really, he was supposed to just be a dog! An animal. A some-days-you-have-to-get-out-of-my-face-with-your-sloppy-tongue-and-shedding-pet-hair hassle. But we loved him. Dozer was our family protector and child’s best friend. He was our committed companion and most loving ear. He was excited to see each of us, no matter how bad the day was, how horrible we looked or how upset we were at him or the world. He was our relentless cheerleader.
And all of a sudden, he was gone. The dog bowl set still; the water stayed full. His collar hovered quietly and still by the door no longer with the plan to go outside. Rapidly, the vacuum became the advocate for our food messes rather than his salivating excitement. As my husband and I cuddled our tearful son while telling him about how Dozer was now eating bones in Heaven I realized a few things about animals and loss.
Grief, even for animals, is a real deal.
Sometimes pets are closer than even family. They hear our secrets and keep them silent. They often see us in our most vulnerable states, and yet they stay and love us unconditionally. It’s never the same without them. I remember wondering if there was something we should have done different for him. We questioned if it could have been prevented. Anger flustered our home as we reflected on his nuisance such as grabbing a whole roast off the oven and hogging our bed each night. Flashes of hope that maybe he’d wake up from his “sleep” would sweep by my thoughts before the darkness would show again. I’d pretend that I could even give him more treats, more love, more toys if he’d pull through. But when my phone rang, and the vet was there, I knew it couldn’t happen. They wanted to know how we wanted to bury him. I wanted to just say “we don’t want to!” But, he was hurting. Dozer was old. He’d lived a good, fulfilling life. He deserved a pain-free freedom. We deserved to grieve.
2. Pets bring out the best in us.
Stubborn was a light word for Dozer (particularly with food), but outside that, even at 150lbs, he was a wimp. With two cats in the home, Dozer never failed to whimper away from their hissing power and false threats. We had to learn to advocate for him and bring fairness to the room. With him, we were committed to caring for one another. In sickness and in health, we continually had to provide for his needs of food, bathroom, travel, breaks, fun, etc. He relied on us. We mattered—we were valuable—to him. Dozer loved seeing the vet for the treats but the thought of getting his nails clipped left him terrified. We had to nurture him and practice ways to calm and reassure his safety, just as he provided for us.
It was the same as for our son. From the day our son was born, Dozer obtained a natural instinct to protect him from potential risks. Someone came to the door, Dozer was there to see who first. Our child cried, Dozer was there to lay his head (and sometimes heaping body) on his hip to calm him down. Our son didn’t like a food, Dozer had him covered to lick up the mess he made. They had a friendship and bonding of which language cannot extend enough words to. The compassion and love between the two was evident and moving.
Dozer was the best and brought the best out of us.
3. Memories with are pets are powerful
It wasn’t until after his death that I realized how much the quality of his life and investment in our family impacted me. All of a sudden, the photos, the videos, the memories held the most weight in our new, reformed relationship with him.
All of a sudden,
-I wanted to see the torn up toys rather than throw them away. They symbolized fun and play.
-The empty, engulfing my space, dog bed was suddenly a valuable element in our room.
-Dog hairs glossing over the carpet shined in the reflection of Dozer laying on his back, arms sprawling out to all four sides. Memories of the dog snores grumbled in my heart.
-The still-half-full, $50 special dog food tub hassle made me giggle. He was worth it.
-And every time I see lightening, I remember how valued we are as caregivers, parents, loved ones. Dozer was afraid of storms. He was quick to turn to me and my husband as his protectors in the storm.
Memories, reminders and photos of Dozer bring sadness but also so much joy. Even if only for the period of life that we deem too short, he colored our hearts with such love and joy, it makes every moment worth it. Until we meet again, Dozer, enjoy those endless squirrels you get to chase in Heaven, pee on every fire hydrant you see, and dig into every juicy bone you come across. You’re love empowered us to discover, we’ve got things covered here.