Today I went with a friend to help him say goodbye to his dog. Nine years ago we went and picked him up at the airport, he was just a puppy then, and so curious and cute. I was the first one to meet him and would be one of the last to say goodbye. He wasn't my dog, but there was a time that I lived with them and felt as though he was mine, and throughout the years I have loved him as though he was. And today when he took his last doggy breath... I felt an ache so deeply, it took me by surprise.
As a hospice nurse, I have seen so many last breaths I can't even count them anymore. I have held over a thousand hands, and I have hugged, comforted, and cried with hundreds of people who said goodbye to someone they love. But holding the paw of a dog who is about to die, is different... it almost feels like there is a part of our human heart that is saved especially for the love of an animal, and it is so unique that when we lose them, when we have to say goodbye to them, the pain from this loss is different, perhaps sometimes even deeper than the loss we experience from losing humans.
We sat outside with Max while we waited for the vet to come and inject the medications that would end his life, which would also end his pain and I kept saying to him, "you will soon be able to run and play, and you will never feel pain again," which comforted me, because I knew without any doubt, that when he crossed over the rainbow bridge it truly would be to go to a place where all fur babies find eternal happiness.
As I held his paw in my hand, I couldn't help but wonder if he derived any comfort from it. I wanted him to somehow know that I was there, and that he felt human touch until he took his last breath, knowing that he was not alone and that he was loved... so deeply loved. I felt this need to be strong and brave, so I held back my tears, but that was difficult too because it felt like a twelve-car pile up in my eyes and the tears were pushing so hard to come out that it hurt.
After the medications were injected, the vet announced that he had died, which I didn't quite agree with, so I continued holding his paw as if waiting until I felt sure. The vet went inside to get some people to come help lift him into the van, and my friend went to get the van to bring it closer, so I was there alone with Max, his paw remained in my hand. And as I sat there alone with him, I watched as he took a deep breath, which I then thought might be his last... but he took another, and I watched as his tongue drooped out of his mouth and his face relaxed and he made a sigh... I whispered, "goodbye Max." and I knew then, that he had died... my hand still holding his paw.
The team of vets lifted the gurney and they pushed him toward the van. As I walked behind them, it reminded me of all of the times I have followed a body to the car that would be taking them away, because I wanted to make sure they didn't go alone. I felt this same way with Max. We loaded him into the van so he could be taken home to be buried with his other furry friends who had passed away before him, and I watched as they drove away. I walked back to my car, I got inside, and the floodgates opened... tears fell uncontrollably down my face. I felt a combination of deep grief and comforted relief and I stayed there a bit, allowing myself to feel.
The love for animals is different than the love for humans... I think it is because with most animals, the ones that become our pets, and a part of our families, the love is so transparent and authentic and honest. We never worry about our pets judging us, or lying to us, or cheating on us or abandoning us for someone better. When they make a commitment, it is for life. They ask for very little and yet give so easily and unconditionally. They know when we need them the most and are somehow magically at our side when we are sick or sad, not saying a word, they are simply present in a way that humans cannot always provide.
"A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he'll give you his." John Grogan
With every human I am honored to sit with at the end of their life, I always walk away with lessons about life and love and the same has happened today as we said goodbye to Max. I kept thinking to myself that the world would be a better place if we could all love as unconditionally as a dog. Today as I said goodbye to Max, I asked him to find Jack and Titten, two pets I said goodbye to years ago, and tell them I said hello. I still ache a little inside from losing them. Our love for our fur babies never ends, and the grief we feel when we have to say goodbye is deep and painful and we never forget.
"Death ends a life, not a relationship." - Jack Lemmon