July 26, 2023

Lessons From Our Dog’s Death

On my birthday, I took our Boxer, Dustin, to the vet because he had a bad cough that had persisted for a day. He hadn’t slept the night before, wandering the house rather aimlessly. This was not in any way keeping with his usual sleep habits that we had grown accustomed to over the past 10 years.

We live in the desert, and our first thought was Valley Fever, a common illness among dogs. I left Dustin at the vet for his exam, and when I went back to pick him up, the look on the vet’s face said it all: something was terribly wrong.

His chest cavity was filled with 400 milliliters of fluid. Worse still, there were spots on his lungs that were indicative of cancer. The doctor said that it would not be inappropriate to ask him to put Dustin to sleep.

I couldn’t. Not without talking with my husband first. The vet told me that he could drain the fluid so he would be comfortable, and then we would need to see a veterinary oncologist immediately.

Thankfully, the oncologist that had cared for our previous Boxer was able to see Dustin the next day. She examined Dustin and told us that the cancer had metastasized, and that the prognosis was not good. We decided to move forward with chemotherapy. The best-case scenario was a few more months to a year, and we decided that it was worth the expense to have whatever additional time we could with our special boy.

But it was not to be. 10 days after he was diagnosed, we made the agonizing decision to let him go, as we could not allow him to suffer any longer. The chemotherapy simply could not get ahead of the cancer.

We created a small altar with the photo and the urn of Dixie, his predecessor, and adorned it with medals of the saints. I placed my Rosary there along with a vial of Holy Water from Our Lady’s home in Ephesus and lit a candle.

A vet who specializes in euthanasia made space for us in his calendar and came to our home so Dustin could die in a familiar environment surrounded by love. True to form, Dustin rallied as soon as he saw strangers enter the house, because he always believed that anyone coming into our home was a decent person and worthy of love. He showered the vet and his assistant with kisses, and for a moment, we had the great good fortune to glimpse the pup we had known for the past decade.

Dustin was sitting up, and we held his sweet face in our hands as the vet administered the first injection, sedating him. We gently lowered Dustin down on his bed as the sedative took effect. I blessed him with Holy Water as my husband whispered in his ear over and over “we love you.” We looked up at the vet to let him know it was time, and with that, he gave him the second injection, ending his life on earth.

As I reflect on this deeply emotional experience, here’s what I’m left with:

  • We gave Dustin the gift of our total presence. The apocalypse could have happened outside our door during that time, and nothing would have changed. We were 100 percent focused on him and only him.
  • Kindness is the most underestimated value in our culture. The vet and his assistant who came to our home gave us the gift of kindness from the time we called them on the phone until we carried Dustin’s body to the van. Kindness gets written off by some as “weakness” but the strength that it took to hold space for us in that moment was incalculable.
  • We truly never know the day or the time when we or those whom we love will be departing this world. Dustin had been in for a checkup only 30 days before his diagnosis, and the X-Rays were completely clear.

How can we use these points to help us as leaders in our church communities? We need to lead by example:

  • We need to be fully present to everyone with whom we interact. That person sitting across from us in a meeting is the very image of God whose time on earth is unknown. We need to do a better job acting like we understand this fact. Being present is as much a gift to ourselves as it is to the other.
  • We need to live the virtue of kindness going forward. If we do so, we will transform the world.
  • Life is precious and it is fleeting. We need to live every day as if it is our last, fully using every gift with which God has blessed us. That is the most powerful way to give thanks for what we have received.