March 5, 2021. Alameda, CA. As we baby boomers age, it is time for us to equip ourselves to deal with death. We have all experienced death in one form or another–parents and other relatives, friends, associates, famous people….and pets. My wife and I marked the second anniversary of our dear pet Yoko’s death today. It was remarkable to me that on the day of our commemoration, a number of others connected with me, purely coincidentally, with inspirational messages about the deep impacts of deaths, or impending deaths, of pets. I had been planning a post about the remarkable life of our dog, and the painful but necessary decision by us to end her life and her suffering. But that post will await the completion of what became today’s post.
The day of commemoration of Yoko’s death, my friend Wayne began the remarkably timely round-robin on the mortality of canis familiaris by circulating a moving blogpost to me and a gaggle of college friends by Scott Gallaway on the recent death of their 14 year-old Zoe
“Lying on a wicker table, next to a gas station [at the vet’s],” Galloway wrote, “death came for Zoe. When her heart stopped, our other dog was licking Zoe’s ears, and our entire family had hands on her. Our wonderful dog left this earth with everything she had ever wanted. And we are grieving because our love perseveres. Life is so rich.”
I was struck by Gallawy’s powerful linkage of the two deep emotions my wife and I also felt in simultaneity—incredible grief at Yoko’s death and immeasurable thankfulness that she had shared her remarkable life with us.
Triggered by this posting, I responded to the group about our own dance with a pet’s death.
“I arrived home from [a recent gathering with all of you], to find our dear pet Yoko, a 15 year-old Shiba Inu dog, in a final downward spiral. Blind for half her life, she had recently lost most of her hearing, and was by March 2019 in what appeared to be a final dance with life—dementia, if such a disease is apropos to dogs. Imagine—no sight, no hearing, perhaps little sense of smell, and no control of her world. But brave to the end.
“The next day, March 5, 2019, we put Yoko down. In our kitchen, in our arms. The right decision. But we live in its sad aftermath every single day.
“This tragedy pales in some sense, as Scott acknowledges in discussing his dog Zoe’s death, when compared to the millions of human-scale tragedies suffered in the world.
“But isn’t it all of a piece? As the Buddha reminds, all life is connected, all life includes suffering, and all life dies. And all deaths matter. Which makes every life special.”
Another friend, Irwin, also a participant on the email train, responded that he was crushed by the discussion we had begun because he had been watching his 14 year-old English Setter diminish daily with age. “ But she has been a part of my life since she was a puppy… love entails suffering, especially inevitable loss and the vulnerability that comes with it. I am beginning to feel that, beyond just the intellectual processing.”
Yet another friend, Bill, also suffering in advance of the rapidly impending decision to have to put down Bailey, their elderly Shiba
Inu, remarked, “ It is the passing of an age, this unbelievable second chance that the Universe bestowed upon me for no good reason at all.” To Bill, “Bailey is and always will be unconditional love, and whoever gets enough of that? Life is suffering, but that does not mean that we can’t take steps along the way to buffer it.”
And lastly Nathan weighed in about recently losing their 15 year-old dog, Belle. “ I wept for a week…The closest I come to belief in an afterlife is when we lose a dog. I want them to wait for me. Heaven is being reunited with them.”
This 24-hour discussion among close friends of the coincidental deaths of years-long and passionately loving relationships with loyal dogs pointed me to not just the sorrow of loss, but to the even more powerful beauty in life that those deaths can point to. Canis Familiaris may just be a species called dog. But don’t tell me they are of any less worth, or that the lives and deaths are any less meaningful than the lives and deaths of any of us humans. It’s different kind of loss, but not greater or lesser.
I recently read in a column in the New York Times by Professor Crispin Sartwell that lamented the thousands of years we humans have been obsessed with elevating the value of humans over other animals. “The separation of people from, and the superiority of people to, members of other species is a good candidate for the originating idea of Western thought. And a good candidate for the worst.”
The human partners of Zoe, Yoko, Maggie, Bailey and Belle would probably agree not to precisely equate their deaths with death of human loved ones—now brought even closer to home by over half-million American and nearly 3 million worldwide deaths due to Covid. But just because dogs don’t have as large a brain, or opposable thumbs, or (as far as we know) self-consciousness does not make them in any sense inferior to humans, or does not make their deaths any less impactful. We diminish all of life when we place one species (man) over all the others. As I said in my email response to blogger Gallaway’s paean to his dog Zoe, “Isn’t [life] all of a piece? All deaths matter. Which makes every life even more special.”