On December 18, 2021, we received the news that our family dog had “weeks” to live. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the news considering that he had a mass on his jaw and he was approaching 16 years old (ancient in dog years) but the news still hit me like a ton of bricks. This past weekend, on February 19, 2022, I made the decision to humanely euthanize him because he wasn’t living his best life anymore.
In the past two months however we didn’t hide this news from my 5-year-old. We didn’t sanitize the idea that his life was coming to an end, and he was dying. She has already lived through two pets passing on us during this pandemic but this one was the worst. He has been my constant companion since 2008 when he was adopted at supposedly 18 months old. I think he was younger based on his behavior, but shelters do the best they can with what they’ve got.
We told the Munchkin at dinner Friday night that we were going to take Ajax to the vet to peacefully and comfortably pass away. She immediately got up from the table and ran to “get his love” and the somber mood started. Saturday was spent with some yelling and a lot of tears as we spent our last day together and I second guessed my decision — did I wait too long? Have I not waited long enough?
There’s never a right answer for the question “is it time?”; just the one you stick with.
As a scientist, I’ve always been the one to tell her exactly as it as the best way I can. Whenever she asks me a question, whether it was about my period, where babies come from, where the food in the grocery store came from, or whatever I’ve always tried to answer her as honestly as possible. I believe in the power of facts and the fact is that living things die. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, doesn’t mean we can’t be sad or upset, but it’s the truth. And this is a truth I didn’t keep from her.
When we had to put our first dog down in May 2020, she did not go to a farm or run away. While it may have been easier in the short term, I think these euphemisms for death make it harder in the long run. Yes, we have learned to cheat death — we can outwit it with medicine and technology but we can’t get away from it forever. The pandemic has shone a light on death and the limits of the human ability to outrun death.
Death used to be a much more matter of fact part of life. People used to have their (un-embalmed) family members sitting in their houses for a few days while family and friends came to pay their respects. Some of the only photographs families had of their loved ones were death portraits. Death used to be a part of life, because in the “ciiiiiirrrrcle of life” (cue dramatic Disney music) it’s supposed to be:
When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life. — Mufasa, “The Lion King” (Disney, 1994)
For the cycle to keep turning, death needs to happen. Death makes way for the mold and the fungus, the bacteria and the worms to do their job and return the organic material back to the cycle.
Knowing and recognizing death is an essential part of the cycle doesn’t make it any easier though. It does make me wish I was the type of parent that could come up with flowery stories to explain away the hard stuff but ultimately, I am left with my facts.
And the facts are that living things die and when we love them it sucks.
But what is grief, if not love persevering? ~Vision, from “WandaVision” (Marvel/Disney, 2021)