May 13, 2010

walking through the loss of a family pet - extended version

His name was “C.K.” and I buried him last week.

For 15 years, he was my family’s dog, friend, household protector, and pet peeve. (If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know exactly what I mean.)

C.K. is short for “Clark Kent,” although many people assumed it meant we had a weird fascination with Calvin Klein perfume. My wife said I could give him this name since I’ve always been a Superman fan (and she’d never name our future kids “Lois” or “Clark”).

It all started 15 years ago when I headed out of our small house and kissed my bride goodbye. Standing on our mini-porch, we saw a little puppy actively sniffing around the property we lived on. My wife knew exactly where this was heading.

“We can’t.”

“But honey,” I said, “we haven’t even talked about it. Look, I know the ladies are coming over in a few minutes for lunch, so how about if he’s still here when I get back then we’ll talk about keeping him?”

“Argh, fine,” she said, heading in.

Double-checking she wasn’t looking out the window, I fed the dog. “Ironically,” he was still there when I came home. I lifted him up, put his face side-by-side with mine, and knocked on our door.

“Can we keep him?” I asked, flashing my brown eyes and his at my wife. She never had a chance to resist.

That first month was a challenge, for not only did C.K. arrive full of burrs and dirt but also had a codependency we hadn’t planned on. At night we tried putting him in our laundry room and kitchen, but his constant whining and scratching exhausted us to let him sleep on our bedroom floor.

There was also the hurdle of his desire to chew on everything. We once came home to find our backroom entirely full of paper products from our wedding that he’d shredded. In another home, the mail came through a slot on our door and C.K. would rip it out of the mailman’s hands, making bite marks that made bill paying quite humorous. Wherever we lived, we had to replace carpet… and in one home, an actual door that he ate his way through.

We couldn’t cage him either. Once when we tried we came home to find that he was walking around the house, and yet the cage was still intact. Granted, there was a handful of hair from where he’d forced his forty-pound medium-sized body through the two-inch gap between the bars.

Then again, this was life with our superdog and we were used to it. He was quirky, but he wasn’t aggressive. When my sons were born, C.K. did the usual sniffing and somehow knew and took on his role was to not be the “baby” of the household but to look out for them like he had us. Still, he enjoyed playtime, be it “let’s chase the squirrel” to “hey, give me my sock back.” Whenever we’d play family hide-and-seek, C.K. always give my position away.

Five years ago we had to temporarily move in with my wife’s parents. Unfortunately, C.K. couldn’t come with and it was difficult for us all. He became a symbol of hope for when life would feel “normal” again. After 11 months apart, we were all tears when we picked him up from a kind caretaker.

Speaking of which, our dog moved with my wife and I as many times as we did.  Just as our lives needed to adjust to new relationships and surroundings, he rolled with the new sights and smells as well.  Over the years we tried to make it easy on him... often buying vehicles that he'd have a special spot to ride in.  Before kids, we even bought two station wagons for this very purpose.

And then there were those moments when our boys made C.K. "their dog."  We eased them into this through play, but then they gradually took on the responsibilities of  feeding him and giving him water.  It's weird to see your kids take on ownership of something you originally committed to, but that's part of a household legacy, isn't it?  When C.K. wanted to get into my bedroom at night, he'd thump his head against the door.  If it happened to be closed, we'd hear him thump his head against the boys' doors.

I can still hear the thump.

And I still expect him to come down the stairs with me when I head into my basement office.

Or pick up the food I happened to drop on the kitchen floor.

And this year... we won't be buying him the traditional Flintstoned-sized bone that he can barely lift.

About a year ago we noticed that C.K. had lost his hearing and the spring in his step was fading. The vet told us it would get bad, so I went out and dug a hole on a friend’s property, preparing for the worst. It turned out My boys prayed for him every day, and God did give us an extra year with my “puppy.” And then  last week when he exhibited symptoms that revealed it was going to end soon and badly.

Many of you may face a similar situation, so here are the steps we took, right or wrong:

  • We determined not to react. This last year was hard, as not only did C.K. became more codependent but he didn’t realize how loud his natural noises had become. He also struggled with natural body functions, from horrible gas to random urination. My wife and I resolved, though, to not end it because it was inconvenient, modeling commitment to our kids.

  • We called our veterinarian. While I was alarmed by what I saw, I knew I needed to talk with my vet into order to speak to my kids with credibility.

  • We sat down as a family. I began with, “We know C.K. has been really sick a long time. God gave us an extra year with him, but I spoke with C.K.’s doctor and she told me that it’s gotten worse and he is dying. We have the choice to let her help him die without pain, and that’s what mom and I believe we should do.”

  • We dialogued honestly. My 9-year old wanted to know what would happen, and my 6-year old wanted to know if we’d see him in heaven. We took each aside and gave them simple, true answers that matched their questions without “over-answering” them.

  • We used technology. I gave the boys a digital camera and camcorder to record a “last day” with C.K. The memories they made will last a lifetime.

  • We kept the appointment. As I pulled out of the driveway with our dog, I heard my boys cry out in a way I hope I never hear again. As tempting as it was to turn around, I took our dog to the vet while my wife comforted the boys at home. Everyone wept hard, including me.

  • We had back-up. I knew I’d be an emotional wreck so I had a good friend help me transport and bury our dog. I also can’t say enough good things about our vet, Dr Janine Pepin. She created a warm environment for a hard moment, took paw prints of our dog for my boys to keep, and even sent flowers that arrived at our home within an hour of it all happening.

  • We followed-up personally. I purchased flat stones for our family to decorate – a large headstone and four medium-sized squares. We decorated them with personal thoughts, and later placed them by his grave.

  • We didn’t move on. Many people have asked if we plan to get another pet, but we haven’t. It’s easy in our world to “replace” our hurt with something new, but clogging up a hole doesn’t help it to heal.
I know some people will disagree with our decisions, thinking we either waited too long or should’ve let our dog die naturally and painfully. I’ve learned, though, that many adults tell their psychologists that their first defining experience with death was the loss of a pet. Those who experienced a tragic chaos of an animal crying out and dying seem to fear death; others talk about the difficult-but-controlled circumstances they went through in putting an animal down and how it helped them recognize the role death currently plays in our world.

One day it won’t, though. That’s incredible news for those of us who embrace God’s promise that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Revelation 21:4)

In the meantime, the Bible isn’t clear on if our pets are in heaven, although it does hint at the presence of animals. My boys hope that one day we’ll see our dog again, and I think my wife and I yearn for that, too.

But it doesn't say... no matter what my heart wants it to say.  Many animal lovers speak about this with positive conviction, but the truth is that at best we just have a good guess. So I'll toss my guess in that direction, too.

All I know is his name was “C.K.” and I buried him last week.


Annalisa said...

I'm so, so sad for your loss.

Death seems so devastatingly wrong, so unnatural, like a mistake. Which isn't surprising, really. The eternity within us rebels against something so final.

I don't know if there are pets or animals in heaven, but I tell kids (and myself) that God knows what we need, and if we need pets, or animals in general, then they'll be there.

I'm hoping that maybe they'll be redeemed (not in a having-a-soul-needing-to-be-saved kinda way, but in a part-of-a-fallen-creation kinda way) beyond our imaginings, and they'll become like the talking animals in Narnia (I hope, I hope!).

I can't imagine how something that is SO alive, and so filled with personality and character can just cease. Where do they go? I find it interesting (and hopeful) that death did not exist when animals were first created, so there must have been some thought of a 'foreverness', at least initially... I hope.

Again, so, so sorry about C.K.

Cindy Lee Woods said...

I'm sorry for your family's loss. Losing a pet who is really another member of the family is always so sad and difficult. Praying for the Lord to keep comforting you and the family.

Mary Rohleder said...

I'm curious if you ever decided to get another dog? I sit here with tears streaming down my face from my own similar story from last summer (15 year old dog, 4 boys to say goodbye to him). They wanted a new puppy right away but I told them I needed some time to grieve and to not "replace" Dusty. We told them we'd get a new puppy this Spring. I think I am ready for that, but want to be sure this new puppy isn't a replacement. I still miss Dusty too. I think I hear his collar and the floor underneath the table is definitely not as clean!! Amazing how they become your constant companion!

Tony Myles said...

Mary -

Sorry to hear about your end of things, too. We went for about a year without a dog, and then my wife began bringing up the question of it we would have another. I was indifferent - truly not for nor against the idea. We tried one dog for a few days via a foster animal agency, but he was too big and energetic for us. It felt like we weren't going to do much more after that.

But my wife kept looking at websites... and eventually saw one she thought would work for us. We tried him out, too - by that point we had added a little girl to our family, and she called him by his name. So we felt stuck. :)

Honestly, I like him... but never wanted to try to replace our last dog. So this new one is more of just that - a new dog. He's found a place in my heart, but could never replace my other one. I've seen that in my older son, too - he had more of a connection with the last dog as "his dog." My younger son sees the new dog perhaps more as "his dog."