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Upon The Death of My Dog

We just buried our dog today. It was a difficult thing to do, literally as well as emotionally, since the ground was frozen and hard as a rock. By contrast, he died in his soft bed late the previous afternoon. I held him as he released his last breaths. He looked at me with eyes that seemed almost apologetic, as I tried to assure him that it was alright to let go. Though I’ve never been as much of a “pet person” as many people I know, still it was as though a part of me died along with that faithful companion of the past decade. My grief is still raw, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts with regards to what animals have to teach us The decision to get a dog was mainly to benefit my children, who were still young at that time. I believed that adopting a pet would help teach them the compassion and responsibility that comes with taking care of a living creature. When we arrived at the local shelter on that late summer day, the kids were filled with the excitement of bringing home this black five-month-old hound mix named Jed. (We opted not to change his name, since we all agreed it somehow suited him.) Of course, the kids quickly learned that having a puppy isn’t all cuteness and fun. He had to be fed, walked, trained, and groomed. The water dish had to be monitored, poopy piles picked up from the yard, and all those other little intangibles that go along with caring for a creature that can at times be unpredictable. While there were times when the kids were less than diligent in their dog-care duties, overall there was great value in the lessons they learned about the rewards of caring for a dependent being, as well as the consequences of failing to do so. These are lessons that, God willing, they will be able to apply with their own children one day. Speaking of children, I am reminded of a talk I once heard from a very good priest, who offered a reminder that dogs are meant to be a companion for children – not a substitute for them. In our culture, it seems to be fairly common to use animals in an attempt to fill a void for couples unwilling to have children. But this is perhaps a subject for another discussion. Suffice to say that dogs do, in a unique way, become members of the families into which they are adopted. There is something almost undeniable about the unique relationship between dogs and humans. This is not to reduce the value of other animals, but there seems to be a natural bond between man and canine that runs deep. I am convinced that God willed this to be the case. Aside from the many tasks dogs can be trained to perform, tasks that are beneficial to man, there is an almost unconditional level of loyalty and affection that they inherently possess. If we had a level of devotion and dependency upon God that dogs have for their masters, the world would be in far better shape than it is today. And if we are capable of having such compassion for these creatures, how much more must God love us, who are created in his own likeness and image? Aside from watching my dog die, the hardest part of the experience was having to tell my teenage son what happened when I picked him up from school. In the car, I told him, as gently as I could manage, “Jed died today.” My son’s reflexive reaction was one of denia: “No, he didn’t.” I repeated that it had in fact happened earlier that afternoon. I looked over and saw my son’s eyes clamped shut, trying to hold back the tears that streamed down his face. As just about any parent can attest, there are few things so difficult as seeing one’s child in pain. We would do anything to take it away from them and place it upon ourselves. As I drove the car home, fighting back my own tears, I thought about what Our Blessed Mother must have felt as she gazed upon her son nailed to the cross. Of course, I can not even begin to fathom the depths of pain and sorrow that this woman, spared from the stain of sin though she was, yet had to endure.

Perhaps it was ironic, or maybe even somehow fitting, that we had to bury our beloved companion of ten years on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Even more than receiving ashes upon the forehead, the act of burying a body served as a very real reminder of our mortality. Dogs don’t have immortal souls, though Jed will always live in my fond memories. But we human beings are composite creatures of both body and soul. They will be separated for a time upon our earthly death, and will be again reunited at the end of time as we know it. Laying our dog to rest, sad though it was, fortified my Lenten resolve to make sure my soul is right when it’s my turn to return to the dust.

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