On Loving And Grieving Our Four-Legged Friends

Why do we continue to do this? Love these animals who will leave us?

“I don’t think we’re going to have Hobbes much longer,” my friend Sheri says over coffee at the kitchen table. In a few hours we are heading to a concert for a day of tailgating and music, but there it is, hanging over her head. The impending death of a friend.

We don’t treat the loss of animals like the loss of people. There’s no bereavement time off from work, no formal memorial service for last respects, and no friends and family checking in months down the road to make sure we’re OK. There’s a chance that the people in our lives who have never owned pets won’t understand at all. Maybe the bereavement of animals is regarded differently because they are in our lives for only 10 or 15 years, and we knew what we signed up for. That doesn’t make it hurt any less.

One of our local humane societies posted a photo of an orange tabby that looked just like Hobbes. It was only a few days after he, as the poem goes, crossed the rainbow bridge. “Too soon,” Sheri said. Hobbes was only two years old. Before he became seriously ill with FIP, Sheri and her partner Kirk had anticipated several years of hauling him around on their shoulders and watching him take sun naps in the window. Now they grieve alongside the other cats, who stare at the empty bed and whine. Animals always know.

So many people seem to be putting their furry friends to rest lately, and the eldest of my two dogs just celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s a scruffy cairn terrier whose presence delights kids at the dog park (“Toto!” they cry). Adults mistake her for a puppy before they notice her cataracts and missing teeth. Muffin is all attitude and boundless energy, but the knowledge that her time is limited rests heavy on my heart. Margaret Renkl acknowledged this “Pain of Loving Old Dogs” earlier this year for the New York Times. “Clark is wagging his tail again and begging to be taken on walks,” she writes of her aging mutt. “But time is still time, and always unfolding.”

I haven’t lived with Muffin, or Earl, my bichon-poodle mix, since I left my hometown three years ago. Luckily, I’m within driving distance of my mom’s house and can see them fairly often. I’ll even occasionally sneak Muffin into my apartment, because her soft woofs as she dreams and her little paws batting at my feet is absolutely worth getting reprimanded by the management. But when I’m not with her, which is most of the time, I dread the call that will come one day. And the thought of doing this again is more than I can bear.

Before Muffin came along, my parents and I had another cairn terrier named Cookie. We went to a small farm in the next county and picked her out easily: the only girl in a litter of boys. There are pictures of gangly 11-year-old me hauling Cookie around in an old crock. In those pictures, her brindle muzzle is spotted black, “like cookie crumbs!” I had gleefully observed while we were thinking about names. Eventually, Cookie shed her crumbs – along with the rest of her wiry puppy coat – and blossomed into a beautiful blonde like her mother, a former show dog aptly named Marilyn Monroe.

Cookie was my constant shadow until I went away to college, when she waited diligently for breaks and weekends. My parents were amazed at how she could recognize the particular hum of my car as soon as I turned onto our street. After nine wonderful years with my soft, warm, fiercely protective companion, Cookie rapidly began to lose weight. She became tired and frail, and a few tests at the vet’s office told us that her kidneys were failing. We kept her comfortable in a pile of blankets at the end of the bed for as long as we could deem humane.

I felt cheated. Nine years was well below the life expectancy for a small terrier, and I was angry that those later years were for other dogs and not mine. My parents and I tried to retrace our steps. Was she doomed from the start because we had gotten her from a breeder? Was her kidney failure connected to the night she climbed onto our kitchen table and licked the chocolate icing off of a cake? Had we not gotten her to the vet in time? We were desperate to solve the puzzle. As if that would give us more years.

We made one last appointment for Cookie on a chilly day in November. I’ll never forget the little cloth wrap around her leg, and the cutout where the injection went. Her paws were so still, not shaking, because she was too weak to be scared. I held her as the needle went in, my mouth moving in her long blonde fur. “We love you, Cookie, we love you, sweet baby girl.” When it was over, the doctor gave us some time alone with her. I sat down on the floor and let out an anguished howl unlike any sound I’ve ever made. My best friend, lifeless on a table in a matter of seconds. She was so weak, the vet said, that he didn’t even have to use all of the serum.

The amount of time certain family members are with us doesn’t make their deaths any less painful, as anyone who grieves a small child or a miscarriage knows too well. Even if Cookie had lived out her full life-expectancy, we would have grieved the extinguishing of her light. Her love, like the love of all pets, succeeded where human relationships came up short. Even in her final days, Cookie never judged me or became cross with me or wasn’t happy to see me. The purity of her love soaked up whatever heartache I brought to it.

So much of the anxiety and grief surrounding aging or deceased pets is carried silently. I try not to worry about when Muffin’s inevitable time comes, and Earl’s after hers, until there is cause for these feelings. Instead, I try to remember the beginnings. The moment my mom dropped Muffin on my chest while I was still sleeping to surprise me, and I woke cooing at her tiny paws and needle-teeth. The first time I saw Earl, a stray at the pound whose white curls were matted into thick knots, and knew we had to save him. Why do we continue to do this? Love these animals who will leave us? I think it is because of these beginnings, which ground the years that follow. The promise of more beginnings for as long as we’re on this earth ourselves.

Photo of Muffin provided by the author.

Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.

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