It’s been 47 days, 20 hours and 6 seconds, give or take. I had prepared for nearly a year for that moment, and still found myself ill-prepared. That ‘moment’ was when Dakota, my beloved dog, went to heaven. And I’ve learned the only thing worse than coping with her loss is writing about it.
We’ve lost dogs before, each one very different. When our first dog became unexpectedly sick and was gone within a couple of weeks, it tore us apart.
Then there was Durango. We called him our flower child because he loved eating flowers. But after his twelve year old titanium hips wore out, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t let him suffer one more minute. I packed a bag of his favorite flowers, and after he ate that whole bag of flowers he went to sleep. It hurt, but we knew he was at peace.
On the other end of the spectrum, Damen was the only other small dog we’ve had. When his little body wore out, our vet had given us a moment to be alone with him when he started screaming at the top of his lungs. She rushed back in to console us saying that although rare, some dogs can’t handle that feeling of being relaxed. It was downright horrific for us to leave him on that note, but that was classic Damen.
Dakota was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in December 2015 after developing a chronic cough. The vet prescribed miracle drugs, and her cough disappeared within a few days. But then she lost her appetite. I spent hours sitting on the floor with a spoon feeding her until we realized mornings were the worst, and she would eventually eat on her own later in the day.
Within a few weeks the fluid build-up became overwhelming, so we took turns carrying her outside halfway through the night. We’ve seen every rainy, snowy, star-filled, full/crescent/half moon night of the past year, and I treasure every minute of those sleepy-eyed nights holding her tight.
Research shows that dogs survive an average of 10 months after this diagnosis. She came within days of lasting a full year.
I wanted desperately for her to live in our new home, to have memories with her here. Halfway through the renovation I brought her to the house worried the renovation would outlast her.
She found the room where we had stored our furniture and clothes and ran back down the hall to find me. She was so excited as if to say, “Look! I found our things!” I begged her to hang on until we could live here together.
When that day finally arrived, I begged her to make it until Christmas. She always watched intently while I decorated the Christmas tree, and then she’d crawl underneath as if I had decorated the tree just for her. She watched me decorate the tree the day after Thanksgiving, and then she crawled up underneath and took a nap.
My husband had said, it’s just like you to set goals for her. She crossed the finish line though, and I couldn’t ask her to go one step further. She had given me everything, and it was my turn to give back to her.
I think the relationship we have with our pets are as different as the relationships we have with people. Each of our dogs have had different personalities – some reserved and quiet, others boisterous and outgoing. Naturally we respond differently to each one. It stands to reason then that their deaths will also affect us differently.
The sudden illness or accident seems more devastating than the quiet passing. But sometimes a pet has worked their way into the very fabric of our soul, and it’s impossible to describe the void their passing creates.
We found Dakota 12 years ago sitting quietly in a kennel at an animal shelter in Chicago. She was quiet, but not timid. A paper atop her kennel included a Polish name I couldn’t pronounce. It said she was two years old with no behavioral problems. I couldn’t imagine what events had left her in this place, and I knew I couldn’t live another day without her.
One day last summer I had made a quick trip without her when my husband called to say she wasn’t doing well at all. I prayed that all the angels would come down from heaven to escort her home – even though I sincerely hoped it would take them awhile to clear their calendars.
I have struggled with allowing myself to grieve. I kept saying, “She was just a dog.” But she wasn’t just a dog – she was my companion and friend.
Joe Yonan, Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post, wrote about the death of his dog in 2012. He said, “It’s been four months, and yet if somebody asks me about that day, my voice will crack.” I understood completely.
There are few things in my life that can’t be compared to training for a marathon, and this has been no different. It takes time to work up to the point that you can run for hours on end. Some days it hurts more than others, and those long runs can be very lonely. It’s only little by little that you get stronger until eventually the memory of those first few painful weeks fade with time.
Through an unlikely set of events, we discovered another little soul had been brought into this world a few weeks before Cody left, and he has just joined our family.
When Dakota was first diagnosed, I told my husband I didn’t ever want to love a dog that much again – it hurts too much. But it’s not true.
It’s one of the best treasures of life to love that much.