Dogs are cruel.
They’re cruel to one another. They fight over food, toys, attention. They’re jealous. They often abandon their own kind when their own kind become weak, frail, old, infirm.
They’re also cruel to humans. They force us to accept life’s hard lessons–lessons they teach with a directness that even the most tactless asshole on the planet couldn’t manage.
Dogs are at their cruelest when they prepare to die. They don’t sugar-coat anything. They force us to take that journey with them, all the way to the end.
What we learn during that process is important, but few of us remember it for long. Distracted by the messiness of life, we forget about the simplicity of death. We have to re-learn it every single time.
* * * * *
Ruffin wasn’t always the best friend, but he was an excellent teacher.
Like all dogs, he forced me to understand. He told me when he was feeling good, when he wasn’t, when he was up for company, when he wanted to be left alone.
And because we lived together for so long–nearly 16 years–we had quite a while to get to know one another. He began separating himself from the rest of us a couple of years ago, which allowed plenty of time for his teachings to sink in.
Will they stick with me? Probably not. If they did, watching someone die would get easier as I got older.
So, I’m taking notes now, in the hope that I’ll remember to read them the next time this happens. And the next. And the next.
8 notes on death, courtesy of Ruffin
- Death is natural and inevitable. It’s the hardest thing that most of us ever come to accept. Death is simply another cycle of life, like birth, puberty, menopause, whatever. You can’t run from it. Approach it with grace and, if possible, joy.
- Death is often a decision. You know this already. You see it all the time, when someone passes away after a major event like a 100th birthday or the death of a spouse. Just as people can choose to die, they can sometimes choose to live (so long as they remember lesson #1 and don’t try to avoid it forever). Ruffin decided to die a couple of years ago. He began separating himself from John, Peter, me, and the other dogs. He didn’t just lie down and end all, but he did start preparing himself and us for the last breath.
- Death shouldn’t be prolonged. Sometimes late in life, there’s hope for a rebound thanks to medicines, exercise, and so on. Ruffin had overcome a host of small illnesses, but last week, something changed. His appetite was gone. He had no energy. He even let me cuddle him, which was a rare thing. It was obvious to all of us that he was making his exit. It would’ve been foolish and cruel to try to prevent him from doing so.
- For the dying, death is easier with company. They say that everyone dies alone. That’s bullshit. Everyone should be fortunate enough to die surrounded by those they know and love.
- For the living, death is easier when it’s ignored. Being with someone at the end of their life is tough. It’s especially easy to abandon responsibility with a pet, to hand her to a vet and say, “You take care of it, I can’t bear to watch.” But while that might make the moment less painful, it won’t make the subsequent lifetime of regret any easier. Believe me, I’ve made that choice, and I can never un-make it. Take the time to say your goodbyes. Let your face be the last one they see as they go.
- Grief is selfish. Only the living grieve. Much of the time, our grief is about instability, about losing something we loved, not about the one who died or the pain they were feeling at the end. Grief is irrational.
- Dwelling on mortality is good, for a while. After someone dies, it’s natural to begin thinking about others you love, about the next inevitable death, to see death everywhere. Live in that headspace a bit, but only a bit. Use it to make yourself softer, and eventually, you’ll begin to…
- Celebrate the luck of life. I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason, I don’t believe that some sentient uber-being is treating us like action figures, making events occur or preventing them from occurring. Life is a complicated mix of chemistry, biology, and physics. It is rare. It is fleeting. Don’t take it for granted. Celebrate the others in your life and the brief time that you have with them. It’s as close to magic as we come on this planet.