Kate T shares her thoughts on the death of her dog
Three years ago we got a dog. We didn’t do it on purpose, we were tricked into it by our youngest daughter. She begged and begged and begged for a dog and we said ‘no – you won’t walk it, feed it, pay the vet’s bills… so no.’ She said – Yes she would walk it and feed it* but no, clearly, she wouldn’t pay the vet’s bills as she was only fourteen, had no way of earning that kind of money and so the concept was utterly ridiculous! We found a compromise. I said if she could find a dog to dog-sit, in our home, and show that she would walk, and feed and care-for said dog we might – MIGHT – discuss getting a dog. And then the dog fell into our lives.
Rosie the Lurcher was my daughter’s dog-sitting project. She was to come to us for the whole of the six-week summer holidays, she was to be the opportunity for my daughter to demonstrate her dog-worthiness. Rosie was adorable. Lurchers are lazy lumps. They like to spend around 23 hours of our allotted 24-hour day in a horizontal position. This dog was easy. I mean levels of care bordering on neglect worked for this dog. She was gentle, affectionate, sweet and funny. She got so excited at ‘walky’ time that she did a little dance, she had a crazy half hour in the evening when she pelted round the garden barking at real/imaginary foxes, she baked herself in the sun to the point where her tongue lolled so far out of her mouth we thought she may never get it back in again. She became the priority in everyone’s day. The first port-of-call when any of us came home was finding the dog for a tickle. We bloody loved that dog and dreaded the day she would go back to her ‘real’ family. And then, miracle of miracles they, for reasons way to complicated to go into here, couldn’t take her back and said they were going to need to re-home her. We had our dog! Rosie enhanced our family. Even if the kids didn’t like each other much, they were all unified in their love of the dog. Every family event – Christmas, Easter, birthdays – was enhanced by having the dog there. My youngest daughter taught her some manners – she hadn’t learned how not to snatch food before she came to us – and she became the most important member of our family. Everyone’s phone photo gallery is filled with photos of the dog, everyone got framed photos of the dog for Christmas, and my middle daughter even painted me a little portrait of the dog, which I absolutely loved. The dog came with us on visits to the grandmas and even got a mention in our Christmas cards (something I vowed would never happen) I whipped out my phone at any given opportunity to show people pictures of my dog (another thing I vowed would never happen). In short, to our utter embarrassment, we turned into full-blown doggy people.
Rosie had been a rescue who had only been with the people we got her from for 2 years, so the first five years of her life were shrouded in mystery – all we knew was that she was found, tied to a banister, severely malnourished and that she clearly hadn’t had a great start in life. So, with us, she had finally found her place in doggy heaven at the heart of a family that absolutely adored her and, in return, she brought us more joy than we could ever have imagined.
Fast forward to the last two months. Having just completed her third year with us we finally managed to book Rosie in for being spayed. We’d tried before but Covid restrictions had meant the vets were only doing emergency procedures. Whilst she was there, I pointed out to the vet a lump on Rosie’s chest which, it was agreed, should also be removed and sent off for histology. The lump was an aggressive form of cancer. We crossed our fingers that it was all gone and carried on with life – walkies, sniffies, woof-woofs and sleepies. Then, Rosie started to walk more slowly, she started having trouble getting on and off the couch, she seemed uncomfortable and yelped at the lightest touch. A month of investigations followed. During this month she became more and more lame, her right leg swelled up to a worrying size and she stopped being able to go walkies, do woof woofs and even sniffies seemed more bother than they were worth to her. We knew what was coming and braced ourselves.
So, here’s the bit that’s relevant to Coffin Club. I spend a lot of time talking about death, dying and grief. I spend a lot of time talking about time – the time between someone dying and their funeral. I talk a lot about taking ownership. I talk a lot about hanging out with your dead and how healing that can be. I talk – a lot.
Now, I had to talk about something that was no longer abstract, but very important to me and my family – how to do our dog’s death.
When I asked my husband if he’d considered what he’d like to happen after Rosie was put-down he said ‘well, I guess she just gets cremated…’ I then told him I’d like her to come home with us and be buried in the garden, I didn’t want to walk out of the vets without her, I wanted to spend time with her at home, and I wanted her to be in a sunny spot in the garden she loved – but, he’d have to dig the hole! He was fine with that. So, here’s how it went:
Having the dog put down was very very sad. I cried, a lot. But, the actual act itself was not that bad. The vet took the dog to put the cannula in and brought her back to us once that was done. She laid a blanket on the floor and the dog dutifully lay down on it. All the time we were talking to her, stroking her and comforting her, as the tears plopped down on her. As the drug was injected into the cannula Rosie slumped down but didn’t seem distressed or in any pain and she knew we were there with her, she knew she was loved right up to her very last breath.
The vet lent us a little stretcher and a lovely little crocheted blanket to cover her with to take her home (I dropped all these things back straight after we got the dog settled). We placed Rosie in the back of the car and off we went. Driving home with your dead dog in the boot is a bit surreal… but it already felt better than walking away without her.
When we got Rosie home we got a sheet which we wrapped her in, leaving her head sticking out. We laid her on the floor in front of the fireplace – one of her favourite places – lit a couple of candles and placed a flower on her shrouded body. We stroked her head and ears and told her how glad we were to have her home.
And then, I got a cup of peppermint tea and I sat with my dead dog and it was very very lovely. I just sat quietly and looked at her. She seemed so peaceful. Her eyes were open which took a minute to get used to but, once I’d adjusted, I loved sharing this peaceful space with her. I finished my tea and knelt beside her stroking her silky ears, scratching her head and her chin and telling her all she meant to me. I stayed there for a short while longer, just sitting quietly with her and then I told her I was going to get on with my day. Every time I came in from my office I popped into the living room to visit Rosie, stroke her head and ears, tickle her chin and have a little chat with her. My husband, who also happened to be working from home, did the same.
I had asked my three daughters (aged 20, 19 and 17) if they wanted me to phone them after the dog was put down or if they wanted to wait until they got home to hear the news (they were at work, work and college). The oldest said she’d wait (she’d just started a new job and didn’t want to be upset at work) the other two said they’d like to know, so I phoned them at work and college, broke the news and they both had a good old cry over the phone. I then asked them if they’d like me to send them a picture of the dead dog. They both, to my surprise, said yes and they both texted me to say how peaceful the dog looked. We had agreed that we would wait to bury the dog until everyone got home, which would mean in the dark of a winter’s evening and so, as each other them arrived home, I greeted them with a hug and asked if they wanted to spend time with the dog. I explained that she felt cold and solid to the touch but that her chin and ears still felt soft. I also explained that her eyes were open and that they might find that a bit disconcerting until they got used to it.
They each spent a bit of time with the dog on their own – including the oldest daughter’s boyfriend who lay next to the dog and embraced her in a big sobby hug. They all told Rosie the things they needed to tell her and they all said their goodbyes. They all said they were pleased she was there and that they hadn’t just walked into a house with no dog and nowhere to place their grief.
Once we’d all had our personal time with Rosie we all gathered in the living room and we took it in turns to give the dog a kiss goodbye before I finally covered her head ready to take her out into the garden for burial. The girls held a candle each and we processed the short distance to the burial site with my husband and I carrying the dog between us – (they don’t call it a dead weight for nothing!). I took a second to note that she still felt warm underneath and I wondered if her blood had pooled there – but that didn’t seem icky or weird, it just felt like an idle observation.
We placed Rosie in the grave my husband had dug for her and each said what we loved about the dog and how much we would miss her. We shared a few funny stories of her antics and we laughed and cried both at the same time. We then each placed a flower on Rosie’s shrouded body and said our personal goodbyes before we stood and watched as my husband refilled the grave. He then explained to us that he was going to stamp the dirt down as an anti-fox anti-badger precaution and it was a moment of gallows humour as he trampled over the dog’s grave. We hugged each other and the deed was done.
We went back in and ordered a takeaway for our ‘wake’ and continued to talk about the dog and remember stories from the time we’d had with her. It was all very sad but very happy at the same time and it really felt like we’d had the time to say goodbye to her properly and that, in doing everything ourselves, we had been able to provide her with a final act of love.
I know this is not comparable to a human loss but I also know that grief comes in many forms and the loss of a pet is still a deeply profound experience. I feel very lucky to have a car and garden and a burly husband who can dig a hole – as all these practical things made saying goodbye to my dog so much easier. In my grief I had half a professional eye on what we were doing and I can honestly say that having my dead dog home, spending time with her and being able to honour her life in a way that was meaningful to us, was worth its weight in gold.
Are we sad? Yes, of course we are. Every time I go into the living room I expect to hear her tail thumping. She’s not on the couch in my office. She’s not tearing round the garden in the evening. There’s a Rosie-shaped hole in our lives. But do we have any regrets or remorse about the circumstances of her death or the honouring of her life. No, we don’t – and that’s a good, warm, happy feeling.
I’m a very pragmatic atheist so I don’t think Rosie’s in doggy heaven – I think her doggy heaven was right here on earth with us. But, she has been buried in a sunny corner in the garden, which she would have loved. I can see her grave from my office window, so she’s very much still with me and, in the spring, we’ll plant a Rose bush for Rosie – we’ve found a climbing one called Rambling Rosie, what could be more perfect for our Rosie who loved to ramble with us.
*After the initial ‘dog-sitting’ phase, when the dog became the actual family dog, the youngest daughter never took her on another walk or gave her another meal… that’s teenagers for you! (But she did give her a lot of love.)