Q: I just had to put my poodle of 14 years to eternal sleep. Coping with having to make that decision has been quite difficult. I read your column every week. Every one is comforting and informative. I am wondering if you can suggest how I can justify playing God when I had to make that decision. My guy had many issues, so I prayed for weeks that God would take my little boy and spare me the pain of deciding. He didn’t. Thank you for your advice and help.
— K from Bellerose
A: I have been in your place of grief and I know your agony. I am still broken by the death of Miles, a brilliant but neurotic Weimaraner our son Max adopted in college and then dumped on our doorstep when he was working in Manhattan and could not provide Miles the room he needed to chase varmints and Fed-Ex delivery guys. Ending a dog’s pain-filled life is the natural but intensely pain-filled consequence of caring for a dog’s love-filled life.
Ten years ago I wrote a column for Newsweek.com in the form of a thank-you letter to Miles’ vet, a fine man and friend named Dr. Alan Coren. Here is a version of it in the hopes that it might bring you some comfort in your time of true grief for a loyal four-legged friend.
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I could not write to you until now to thank you properly and personally for your compassion and care for Miles through his life and up to his last moments when he died on the blanket you had spread out for us in examination room No. 2. Miles’ debilitating renal failure was a death sentence, and thankfully his suffering is now over. As Miles turned cold in my arms and entered a breathless, eternal sleep, I was utterly unprepared for the flood of tears and grief I felt at his death.
I still find myself instinctively moving my feet under my desk expecting to slip them under Miles’ head. I still believe that Miles was less like a dog and more like a person trapped in a dog suit. I bury people and I know that grief at the death of a pet is not the same as grief at the death of a person, but it is still a very real and searing grief. It is still deep and raw and shattering to our admittedly irrational expectations that we will never be separated from those we love.
I tell people I counsel through their grief to try to give thanks for the pain they feel, because the pain is a measure of their love. Buddhists teach that the first Noble Truth is that suffering arises from our attachments to the beings of the world. Unlike Buddhists I do not seek the removal of attachment. I am happy to be a mess of tears now because I was, and my family was, loved by Miles unconditionally and I savor this grief as the way the gift of unconditional love is painfully but properly repaid.
I also understand the embarrassment of pet lovers for the times they are unable to cry for the suffering of people in faraway places with anything like the intensity of their grief for their beloved pets. This is normal and natural and the result of how grief is dulled by distance. I remember what Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote:
“What seems to us more important, more painful and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions.”
I also understand the impatience of those who have never loved an animal with the intense grief of pet lovers. My message to them is, “Love a dog and then you will understand.”
Alan, I know that you help families move through the grief of the death of a pet as often as I help families move through the grief of the death of a person. I know they need my steady soul to make it through the valley of the shadow. I just wanted you to know how much I needed you and how much I love you and thank you. You were a rabbi to a rabbi and you were the steady soul of caring for a very good dog whom I loved more than I ever understood until this sad but healing moment.
God bless you,
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May God comfort you in this time of real loss and true grief.