Sunday, August 23, 2009

Final thoughts on dead parents and dead dogs

I've been told I'm a bit oblivious at times - glossing over details and over generalizing a bit. It's a nice way to say that at times, I'm a bit clueless about things, until I live through them. As dumb as it sounds, I'd never understood what a monumental thing losing your parent could be. To a degree, I figured that everyone's parents died eventually and people had been dealing with this for years - how bad could it really be? I learned the hard way just how difficult and life changing this was when my Mom got pancreatic cancer and died. Out of that situation I developed a whole new level of understanding and compassion for what it's like to lose a parent. In hindsight, I went through a similar epiphany over the past few weeks when my dog died. I know it sounds weird to compare the loss of a parent with that of a dog - but bear with me.

I remember a couple of years ago, one of my boss's dog died. I went through the motions of saying how sorry I was, but there was a part of me that was thinking: "Really? It's a dog - come on, time to get over it." I thought the same thing to a degree when our friends dog Guinness died: "You really need to grieve for 40 days and write that many blog posts about a dog? Comon - it's just a dog!"

Fast forward to a few months ago when I started setting the stage for the kids that our dog Riley might not be around forever. She was slowing down and showing signs of wear, but I really hadn't thought the whole thing through myself. About a month ago when my wife and the kids were out of town, Riley got sick and I took her to the vet. As I sat in the room waiting for test results, I imagined having to tell the family when they returned that Riley had died. She didn't, but I didn't know at the time just how close it would be. This is when reality started setting in for me that Riley wouldn't be around forever and it would be a much bigger deal than I had ever imagined.

On Monday when Cathie took Riley in and I got the text message from Cathie "Bad news. Brad (our vet) will call you to explain" reality set in even further. I knew we had a week left, best case, and my wife and our three kids all started dealing with the end with greater intensity as the week drew to a close. I cooked eggs and chicken for the dog, I catered to the dog, we all spent lots of time giving her hugs and the kids grieved in their own way with tears and caring for her.

Here's what I came to understand, and I'm sure this isn't a major revelation to most people who've lost a dog (or a parent for that matter):
Riley was with us for 13 years, from the beginning, involved in virtually everything our family did in some way, shape or form. She was an animal, yes, but she had a personality as distinct as any of our family members. She was connected to each member of my family, and even many of our friends, in a way that transcends the fact that she was a dog. I mean I'd talk to Riley and she understood things. I'm not talking philosophy, but she would show joy, remorse, shame and I swear she'd occasionally roll her eyes at me. That kind of connection made it a whole different deal for me than losing a guinea pig, snake or cat (not to mention that I can't stand most cats and I'm an avid dog person).

If you've never had a dog for this long, or if you hate dogs, or had a mean one - it might not resonate. I know for a fact that there are a ton of people who have lived this and get it in a way that I never did prior to this week. I received more tweets, facebook messages, facebook comments, blog comments, cards, phone calls and e-mails expressing understanding and compassion for what we were going through. It was something that would have seemed like overkill or just surface sentiment in the past - but was huge to me, and something I want to pass on to others going forward as they go through this. I also want to say thanks to the many of you who reached out with kind words to me and my family over the loss of our dog. Your kind words meant a lot.

I've dealt with my share of major events in my life: death of family members, miscarriages, addictions, betrayal by friends, and more. Now I add to that list the death of a dog. I'm not comparing their magnitude. I'm simply comparing the fact that all of these things made me someone more capable of understanding other people's pain and made me more able to love others than I ever could before. Things have all sucked in the midst of them, but I can point to places where I've been able to reach out to people around me and walk with them and find common ground in our wounds. Maybe this is what James was talking about when he said this:
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. - James 1:2-4 (The Message)
The pain, as crazy as it sounds, has been a gift in the end. Don't get me wrong. The event itself was not the gift. The pain that resulted from it and the learnings that came out of it was the gift. It showed the cracks in my life and matured me. Those who know me will be quick to point out that I've got a long ways to go before I can be, as James says, "not deficient in any way".

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