In 2006, I was given a male Chihuahua puppy as a gift from my then-boyfriend. The dog was tiny and had no training, I was also young and had no training, and together, he and I forged a friendship that would be one of the pillars of my support system as I ventured into my life as a college grad, building a career and a life for herself.
Fast forward 15 years and my then-boyfriend has become my now husband, we have two children of our own, the life we began in California is being lived out in Florida, and our beloved pup has reached the end of his life, having just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
From the beginning, we vowed to honor his right to live a fruitful existence, but with vision problems, poor hearing, hip dysplasia, and skin issues (thanks, Florida bugs), this news from the vet sealed the deal for us. It was time to let go, but knowing that and doing that require different types of energy. It’s a different form of consciousness that carries one through the unpleasant action of saying goodbye to someone or something they really don’t want to let go of.
We decided to enjoy some final memories with our friend as a family. The day after getting the news from the vet, he lounged in our yard peacefully, we fed him all his favorite foods, and we each took turns giving him lots of cuddles and kisses and warmth. My husband contacted the vet the following morning while our kids were at school and (gently) drug me out of bed so that we could go back together.
The entire time I was getting ready, I had to keep telling myself, “Go do the thing. You have to do the thing.” The car ride to the vet was surreal; they ushered us into a private room almost immediately, and soon after, a vet tech explained how the procedure would work. He’d be sedated first, then euthanized, and we could watch some, none, or all of the process – the decision was entirely ours and they would honor it. We opted to watch through his sedation, and let the vet take him back to complete the rest. Everyone has different preferences around this, and our choice was what we felt we could handle. Before they came to sedate him, they left us alone to have some time with him, and it’s these moments I will always reflect on happily through tears. For the first time in a long time, it was just the three of us. It was the same as how we began with no other pets in sight, no children present. The developments of the last 15 years made me forget the way we were.
We took turns holding him and talking to him. We took our masks off so he could lick our faces. We stayed bravely pleasant for him even though the impending end was breaking us up internally. Then sedation time came. They gave him a prick and told us to notify them when he was fully under. He faded slowly over the next few minutes, and we watched and held him together for them. It was just the three of us, until it was just the two of us. He wasn’t technically dead yet, but sedation made him a shell of what we knew him to be. This would be our goodbye.
Though he faded quietly and peacefully, our grief was the opposite. We were visibly distraught. My husband’s eyes were red and his face was wet. I’d only seen him cry a handful of times before this, but he was unmistakably moved. I cried out. We cried out. Our grief was audible to anyone nearby. We were not secretive or reserved in this. The level of our pain and discomfort matched our dog’s level of peace and quiet in those moments. It was a lot like passing through to the other side of the mirror together or getting a peek at the underside of the horizon. But we stood in it together. We held each other up, we were honest in our expression, and we didn’t run from the painful thing we had to do. We grew closer through this experience, and that was the last way I expected to benefit from bidding our beloved dog farewell.
But it makes perfect sense, too. My spouse and I have stood at the precipice of so many beginnings together – buying our first house, seeing each other off on the first day of a new job, discovering we were pregnant and welcoming our children together both times, and moving to a different state and starting over together. It was surreal for us to stand at the finish line together, witnessing the finality of a life’s conclusion together, but the human experience includes both. It includes times of joy and times of sadness. It includes birth and death. It includes all of the other stuff in between. Life is not just one thing, it is all of the things. And we moved through this hard thing together.
We’re forever changed through saying goodbye, but perhaps that was the last gift our pup had to give to us. His death has been the catalyst for so much growth for our family, in a way that only death can be. There was no equivalent event to shake us in such a way and wake us up to all that we still have, despite mourning what we’ve lost. Life takes and it grants, it can be joyful and it can be painful, and a 4 lbs Chihuahua has taught me that the best way to approach it all is honestly and fully.