How Do You Say Goodbye to a Family Pet?
When my family's dog passed away, I was faced with the question of how to talk to my children about sadness and death.
“Somebody was just born,” I answer, smiling.
“Somebody is crying,” she responds.
“Somebody is laughing.”
“Somebody is scared.”
“Somebody is watching the rain.”
“Somebody is working in the sun.”
This is our game. It spontaneously began about two years ago. She usually starts it. It’s something we do privately—our secret way of marveling at the complexity of the world.
I was reminded of our game yesterday as Spriggan, my 15-year-old Australian shepherd lab mix, lay beside my kitchen counter. I was making candles. She was dying.
Spriggan, Spriggy for short, came to me as a puppy a few months after I completed my exams in grad school. She sat beside me every morning as I worked on my dissertation. She was there when I came home from my final defense bearing the title Dr. Hayes. She slept somewhere nearby when I conceived each of my children. She walked five miles with me while I was in labor with Saoirse. She climbed up and down the stairs with me as I worked to strengthen the contractions for Ula’s birth. She stood beside me when I pushed both of my daughters into the world. She laid by my desk every morning when I worked on my writing. She sat outside the processing shed when I cut meat. She swam beside me in the pond to cool off on hot days. She was always by my side in the car between home and the farm.
Spriggan began to fail about two weeks ago. It started on a walk in the woods. I had noticed she was slowing down for some time, but she would always plod along at her own pace. I would frequently have to stop walking so she could catch up. But on that day I waited and waited, but she wasn’t there.
I re-traced my steps down the slope to the stream and found Spriggan lying there, panting heavily. Seeing me, she pushed herself up and followed me home. I made her take a few days off from going on walks. Then, on a day when she seemed especially eager for our daily jaunt, I let her come along. She collapsed again.
“She’s getting ready to go,” I told my husband Bob bravely.
It’s no secret that I’m a dog person. The kids tease me that I love my dogs more than I love them. And Spriggan was more than a companion. She was my shadow. She was part of me. We began inviting other dogs into our home a few years ago in an effort to thwart future sadness. All of them are comforting and joyful, but they are different from Spriggy. I thought I would be OK with our inevitable separation if I had the support of other dogs. What are farms, anyhow, if not a magnification of the circle of life?
One day I wandered down to the stream to think. There, I took some time to cry beside the water about the waning of my friend. I sought comfort from the life of the forest. As I looked around me at the woodland glow, I remembered once more that the magic of a forest is not necessarily in all that is green and lush. It is actually the decay that makes the color stand out—rotten logs surrendering to mushrooms, dead trees harboring bugs, fallen leaves blanketing the forest floor.
As I looked around, Ula’s game rang in my mind. Something is decaying, I thought, something is growing.
Spriggy began collapsing more and more frequently. She didn’t seem to be in pain. We chose to keep her home, to spare her the anxiety of one last trip to the vet. At night, when I took the girls up to bed, she wanted to follow. Bob held her back and slept downstairs to keep her company.
That became our task: to keep her company and make sure she was comfortable. It wasn’t too hard. There was plenty to do around the house. She was able to move enough to follow me to the porch, where she could watch me work in the gardens, and keep an eye on the kids as they played.
I wanted to be by her side. If I tried to leave the kitchen, she struggled to pick up her head to locate me. So I stayed. And in my distress, I made things: candles, salves, soups. I cooked lamb. I boiled fiddleheads. Saoirse and Ula ran and played around us.
But yesterday at dawn, when I went to work in my office, Spriggy struggled to follow me and collapsed in the hall. Bob carried her to the sheepskin beside the kitchen counter. I ate my breakfast on the floor next to her. As the day unfolded, it was clear that she was no longer able to walk.
And then Mom called.
“How are you doing?”
“The kitchen’s a mess.”
“You’re all in there around her?”
“That’s what she needs. Keep it up.”
My kitchen became like the forest, like Ula’s game. Somebody was crying. Somebody was cooking. Somebody was eating. Somebody was talking. Somebody was learning. Somebody was cleaning. Somebody was dying.
Spriggy picked up her head in a sudden jerk. I dropped the measuring cup I was holding and rushed to her.
“It’s time,” I called out to the girls. They came and sat beside me. “It’s okay, Spriggy,” I whispered, tears streaming down my face. “You can go. But wait for me, OK?”
I burrowed my fingers into her fur until I found her beating heart. I kept them there, feeling her pulse, until it stopped. I didn’t beg her to stay. That’s silly.
My home is like the forest. Change is the only constant. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry. I sobbed. I howled. The girls clung to me, more frightened by my sadness than by the loss of the dog.
“Mommy! Spriggy isn’t gone. You said she can come back,” Ula said, grabbing my shoulders. “Remember? Maybe she’ll be a cockatiel! Maybe she’ll be a fish! Say it Mommy!”
She shook me, her voice shrill with panic. Her eyes were wide, and the tears were thick. She took a deep breath, and then said what worried her most, shouting it out so that it slammed against the walls of the kitchen.
“Mommy! Say you'll be happy again!”
I took my hands from Spriggy’s fur and wrapped them around Ula’s balled fists.
“Remember the game?” I whispered quietly. “Where sometimes somebody’s happy and somebody else is sad?”
“Right now, it’s my turn to be sad. And you just have to let me. But that doesn’t mean I’ll never be happy, OK?”
She nodded again, then fell to her knees beside Spriggy’s body and began to pet her. “I’m sorry, Spriggy. I’m sorry I didn’t know how to love you enough!”
There’s no such thing as enough when it comes to love. But that’s a lesson for another day. For now, I’m just somebody sad. Somebody who cries. Somebody who loves. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, I’ll be somebody who laughs.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Shannon writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her newest book is Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled. Learn more at TheRadicalHomemaker.net.