The day before George died, I sat in my car and sobbed. We knew it was coming, but I hadn’t mentally prepared. In my mind, it was the right thing and we were doing it at the right time, and I could be at peace with everything knowing those truths. But as I pulled up to one of my final 8 a.m. classes, the emotion bubbled from my stomach, up my throat, to my eyes, and I couldn’t stop. My dog, my baby, was leaving; the best friend that I had asked for every day as a child would suddenly not be by my side.
When my dog died, I felt as if a piece of my heart had run away. It was like when George got scared from fireworks that one Fourth of July and dug underneath the fence. That feeling of panic overwhelmed me every time I pulled up the driveway, opened the door, and he wasn’t there to greet me. I can’t speak for all pets, but I imagine it feels the same for everyone. Some people prefer cats over dogs, or horses over rabbits, but every pet is important because each means something to their owners.
George’s ability to walk and run had been deteriorating for awhile. But what had once been slight signs of old age suddenly turned into an inability to live comfortably. It seemed like every time I came home from school for the weekend, a new ailment had taken hold. When that happened, I lived in constant fear. No matter how late I stayed up, I would descend to the laundry room where George slept before I went to sleep myself. I’d softly open the door; if he lifted his head I would tell him goodnight and that I loved him, and if he didn’t, I would say goodnight as I placed my hand on his nose to make sure he was okay. I sat beside him in the laundry room once, when he was having a rough day, and read with my hand placed on his stomach while he dozed. Every time there was a pause in his steady but labored breaths, my heart would seize and my hand would turn rigid until I finally felt his lungs lift once more.
I watched the animal who protected me grow weaker and weaker. We place our strength in our pets because, for better or for worse, they are always with us. They rely on us for comfort and basic needs, but soon they become our constant comfort. They become our rocks before we know what’s happened. But when age or sickness overtake our animals, we are faced with a choice that seems outrageous to consider. It is rare that the life of another is placed in one’s hands. We are not masters of our own fate, but when your pet is dying, suddenly you become the master of theirs.
This is an unspeakable burden that so many pet owners end up carrying. My family had to choose something for the creature that had loved us unconditionally. Even though sometimes I got home late, even though sometimes I didn’t want to take George for a walk, even though he tried to kill a bird once and I couldn’t look him in the eye for a full day, and even though I left for college and I’m not sure he understood why suddenly I was gone. Readers, you may fill in the blanks with your pets’ own demonstrations of unconditional love here.
On George’s last day, we praised and spoiled him. We showered him with the things we wanted to give him daily. We fed him peanut butter and steak and ice cream for dogs and we didn’t allow a moment to pass where he was alone. Our neighbors came over to see him—George was universally loved, no matter how much trouble he got into—and we bathed him with hugs, paw-holds, and love. The few times he got himself up, my body ached as I wondered if we were acting preemptively.
It was the most surreal day I’ve experienced: memories of the beginning and the middle flooded back. When I looked into his foggy, glassed-over eyes, I remembered the dark irises that had stared at us with confusion on the day we took him home. When I pet his legs and saw his atrophied hips, I remembered how he used to sprint around our yard, “spazzing out” as he rounded trees and ran towards us. When he laid his head down on my leg, I remembered how he used to forget his size and step on top of us, settling in our laps whenever he could. Still, no tears came. When a pet owner knows that their animal is going to be put down, a wall goes up until the moment actually happens. When I told people ahead of time—my boss, my roommates, my friends—I did it quickly and allowed for as little emotion as possible. I numbed myself to what would be happening, until that moment when I drove up to class, and my chest compressed, and everything that I’d been ignoring burst forward.
Even after the loss, I didn’t know what amount of emotion was appropriate to share. Once a week had passed, I felt as though bringing it up was dramatic. But I was still driving home every day and not seeing George in the yard. I never stopped thinking about it, and every night I would cry again and dry my tears before the morning. A dog’s presence cannot be replaced. They bring out the best in us because we are forced to take care of them. Losing that presence feels like a loss of purpose and of fulfillment. It is a death incomparable to any other, not because it is easier or harder, but because the nature of one’s relationship with the animal that died is unique to others.
And when that death was something organized, scheduled, and facilitated by us, his family, the power of our choices became clear. No matter how much we didn’t want George to suffer, I still questioned whether or not we made the right decision. I’ve only stopped questioning because enough time has passed to where I know he would have passed naturally regardless.
Our pets love unconditionally. They demonstrate forgiveness better than most of our peers, and they listen more attentively than some of our closest friends. Honoring them should be part of the grieving process, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. A piece of my heart may have run away a few months ago, but since then, I’ve found he’s returned in small ways. He’s come back in the thoughts of him running and playing somewhere else, in the laughter around a story of his youth, and in the grass that used to be his. George was an answer to my prayers, and I can continue to love him, even from afar.