Roy Rogers once said, “If there are no dogs in heaven then when I die I want to go where they went.” Truer words have never been spoken. Love and loss are the very foundational stones of our human heart. Bereavement can and does come in a myriad of forms be it the loss of a person or relationship, a job and most recently in our case, a dog. We had to put down our fur baby Brownie who suddenly developed cancer. As with a person, we suffered the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of grief. Shock and denial were our first reactions as he had been his normal perky, squirrel chasing, cat tormenting, bird barking at, belly-rub loving and bacon eating self just the week before.
Anger ensued as my wife and I bickered about what to do with the vet’s diagnosis. We bargained very little as treatment options are limited, and though dogs feel and love far more unconditionally than a human being ever could dogs do not understand the purpose in pain and agony.
Depression and acceptance are still part of our household. We miss this little guy, and I am so unused to being able to stretch my legs out on the couch as one side was for 7 years HIS spot. God help you if you encroached upon HIS spot on the couch!!
So why is losing a pet like Brownie so painful for us humans? Why is it so painful for me? A fifty-year old man with three graduate degrees, to let go of my wonderful dog? Hell, I did not even cry at my mom’s funeral but when my dogs die I cry like a toddler. The pit in my stomach is always beyond description.
Dogs have been a part of human history for some 30,000 years as our evolutions have been symbiotic and co-dependent. Dogs and humans have needed each other for survival, emotional support, friendship and protection. In The Twilight Zone episode titled “The Hunt,” an old man named Hyder Simpson, played by Arthur Hunnicutt, an Arkansas native famously known for his authentic rural roles, drowns along with his dog Rip. A righteous man, Simpson is suspicious of what is billed as heaven as the gatekeeper (ostensibly St. Peter) refuses entry to his dog Rip who is barking at the gatekeeper. Another famous quip rings true in this episode: “If your dog doesn’t trust someone, you probably shouldn’t either.” Simpson defers to his dog’s unease, refuses “heaven” and leaves with Rip only to find the real heaven. Rip saves him from an eternity in hell.
I feel the loss of our dogs is so painful because they are much more humane then human beings. They love unconditionally, and really reflect an innocent goodness that we as a species long ago abdicated. They are sources of healing, allowing us to project our hurts, both new and old, decades old, onto them. Dogs reflect back to us what we know is lacking in ourselves, and what we wish we had. Dogs are a safe place, an emotional and existential sanctuary of safety and acceptance without prejudice or judgement. So when we lose a dog we have rescued and raised, we feel not only sadness, but often isolation and insecurity as that safe place is no longer.
A sign hangs on our vet Dr. Alisa Volpe’s office in Wylie that is so true: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”
Rest in peace Brownie. And thank you dear friend! I can only dream to have a heart as pure as yours.