A year ago today, I lost my Boada Bear. My heart dog. There’s still a tightness that creeps up in my chest and that welling behind my eyes poised to leak if I dwell too long in memory. I wrote almost the entirety of this article shortly after he passed in hopes it would help with healing to get it out. I’m convinced it probably did somewhat, along with actually allowing myself to grieve - something I’m not well practiced at - at least the “allowing” part. I decided this morning to post it after my iPhone’s “one year ago today” photos popped up and momentarily stopped my breath. As I settled into what I was feeling, I began looking through the photos from a year ago today and my unexpected pang of sorrow turned into sheer gratefulness. Don’t get me wrong - it still hurts, a lot - but my dog went on his own terms, in my arms, and that in itself was something to be immensely thankful for. I won’t forget that. I’m so happy to have known Boada. Given all of the firsthand experiences of death in so many ways as a veterinary nurse that I’ve been witness to over the years, I’m ever so grateful that his was a fairly peaceful exit.
Everyone grieves differently and this is my personal account of the thoughts and feelings that have transpired from losing Boada. Everyone has their own unique and special relationship with their dogs and every so often, there’s that one, ever-so-exceptional dog that comes along and changes so many things you thought you knew about relationships. That dog was Boada for me. He challenged me in ways no dog ever has. He was incredibly intelligent, calculated, confident, and even stealthy sometimes as a young dog. He was wary of newcomers, slow to trust, but once you were in, you were family. He was my teacher, my friend, my steadfast companion. Our personalities were about as harmonious as two intertwined species could be. He filled a space I didn’t know was empty and now, there’s an empty space that just belongs to him and I don’t expect it to ever be whole. And that’s okay. That’s his spot.
Before he left me, those last few days, I slipped into desperation. I should have gone through the process of cloning him - what was I thinking?! Anticipatory heartache suffocated logic and pragmatism. My emotions stemming from the fact that he was about to be gone forever took over and I heavily guilted myself for being so stupid as to not spend $50,000 to clone him. I knew better than that but it didn’t matter. The bargaining and guilt stages of grief were taking hold.
I was very privileged, in that during his final week of life, I spent almost every single moment with him. I stopped working. I stopped doing everything really and aside from supportive care, or hospice you could say, as my focus was his comfort and not leaving his side. I didn’t feel arrogant in thinking my dog wanted me there 24/7. I knew Boada wanted to be where I was at all times because of his behavior. That brought me a lot of comfort since Boada, though very close with me, still had his own sense of independence. As he faded, he’d draw closer to me. If I left to use the bathroom, he’d wake up and wait to settle back into a nap until I was seated next to him again.
A client gave me a bottle of Champagne a month or so prior to Boada falling victim to his age. Two nights before he left me, I sat with his head in my lap as he slept and I drank the whole bottle while practicing gratuity for the time I had with him and reliving fond memories that we shared. A toast - to an unmatchable mutual companionship. I also reached out that night to the person responsible for the two of us coming together to let her know just how thankful I was for her more than 15 years later. Had anyone else been on emergency at the hospital the night his tiny little scabby 5-week old self had been discarded from a car window on a busy road, I would have never have come to know him. She insisted on not calling animal control to take him - she knew he would have been euthanized. She insisted on keeping him until I came in for my morning shift the next day - she knew I’d scoop him up and take him home. For that, I will always be grateful to her.
Boada died in my arms. It took me 6 months to wash the hoodie I was wearing as I held him during those last few breaths. I wore that hoodie all of the time, sometimes daily because he was still there in some way when I did. I didn’t care that it was “dirty”. I couldn’t bring myself to stop wearing it or to wash him off it. Everyone copes in different ways and I had no problem accepting that I needed this for me.
As he passed came the agonal breathing. It’s horrible. I’ve witnessed it in countless animals dying and even been witness to it in humans as they depart. But watching a creature’s body that you love so whole-heartedly give those final agonal gasps is gut-wrenching. I had forgotten to expect them and as they surfaced I wanted to scream - stop!! Not now! Not with my dog! Reconciling that no creature is exempt from this natural process was so difficult for me - as if Boada deserved a pass. I think what made it so hard was knowing what an unbelievably sturdy beast my creature once was. So impressively strong. Watching the inevitable weakness of aging and death take over was just so unfair. I felt the same watching cancer suck the strength out of my grandfather - a man who was the epitome of mental strength and stability. Life is just as kind in giving as she is cruel in taking. I was so very thankful that I only had to witness a few agonal breaths before they finally came to a forgiving halt. I remind myself that my “go down swinging” dog got to do just that. On his own terms. When he was ready. Without suffering. What a gift that is and I can only hope to have the same choice when it’s my time. If the price is having the difficult memory of a few agonal breaths, I’ll pay it a thousand times over for him.
When Boada’s absence set in, so did the effort required to get out of bed while grieving. It’s so much harder than the effort I normally put into seemingly much more difficult tasks, like a really difficult behavior case that requires creative critical thinking or even getting motivated to work out when I’m tired. The weight of grief makes my body so much heavier - it’s as if my brain believes that my limbs are all of a sudden twice the weight so why move? Just stay here in bed. That’s my brain’s fight/flight response going into protection mode. The brain fog is just a survival mechanism in the midst of emotional trauma. I often try to overrule my own natural responses in my brain, especially as it responds to trauma, but this time, with my Boada, I just gave in and let my brain lead the way.
I go back and forth from no appetite - not wanting to eat at all, but anything that I eat just to give my brain and body some energy, making me feel nauseous - to stress eating as much as I can fit in my face, (also leading to nausea) and then back again. It feels like stress-eating is a step in the right direction at least, because, well, I’m eating, but then the nausea creeps up again coupled with not even enough motivation to open the pantry door. There are so many vicious cycles to grief. The battle between my digestive system and physical strength is merely one of them.
Some days everything seems “okay”. Tolerable. As if healing is coming and it will be a gradual improvement. And then inevitably comes the night. Every damn night. After the kids are in bed and the stillness sets in, I’m left to my own thoughts and memories that were once cherished but now sting and the welling starts in my eyes as my chest tightens and I hold my breath all over again. Memories that I know I’ll be able to cherish again one day, but right now, they just hurt.
One reflection that surfaces repeatedly is how safe I always felt with Boada. I knew without a doubt that he would put himself between danger and me (and my kids) without so much as a thought and it was all instinct. He’d proven it to me on a handful of occasions and it felt good to share the type of relationship with him in which we both shared the feeling of protecting each other with equal fervor.
As his cognitive dysfunction worsened with age, I used to think - he’s not there anymore. I don’t love him any less because of it, but I very much miss his sharp mind and desperately longed to have him back for even just a moment before he would leave me. In the week leading up to his death, to my utter amazement, I very much got that wish, along with a few unexpected others. I don’t know how his mind was so sharp after months of steady decline but I don’t need to understand, I’m just grateful he was there. These are little joys that I cling to amidst the sorrow. Momentary reprieve.
Then there are the little moments that catch me off guard and take my breath for a hot second. The moments I would sometimes take for granted that I don’t know just how much I held on to until they were no longer there. Like being so used to seeing my shadow dog next to me by my chair that glancing down and not seeing him sends me reeling back into a tight chest and feeling the void he left behind. Mornings when I’d wake up feeling as I would as I normally do waking up, but looking to my left where he slept and his absence opening the floodgates for the pain to rush back in. Instead of repeating this every morning, I’ve removed his bed from his spot and I sleep with his soft, furry bed cover next to me as a child would a security blanket. I know that it is temporary but it is soothing and right now, that’s what I need.
The first time I experienced real, true grief from loss, it felt as if there was no end in sight - the pain was just never going to end. After having been through it several times, I at least know it gets better with time and I remind myself of that so that I can give myself the time needed to grieve and therefore heal. Knowing I can’t force that process and that I’m simply stuck here for a while does still, admittedly, frustrate me, but I can at least comprehend the process and come to terms with it. Though I might smile at a joke or feel a moment of peace just sitting in the sun, I eventually fall back into the heaviness and by now I know it’s a long road to simply feeling “normal” again but there’s also familiarity in knowing what that road looks like.
I don’t have the belief system shared by so many that I’ll see him again one day. In heaven, in the afterlife, in the body of another animal that comes my way. It’s a beautiful coping skill for so many that I simply don’t possess. I don’t find solace in the beauty of the “rainbow bridge”. Death is dark. The canvas is pitch black no matter how many colors you paint over top of it. It’s still dark and cold and empty underneath. The only comfort I find in death is in having been there at that very moment when his consciousness left his body. The coping I carry is in this very real, but unmeasurable entity that we’ve yet to be able to label or adequately describe that exists with an event that happens right after death. It’s there for a moment and then it disappears. It’s an unsolved mystery and that mystery feeds my one belief based on evidence of this phenomenon that energy transcends into something else. A small portion of that life form leaves the body and goes somewhere that is still undiscovered. There’s a real energy to that and as a physicist would say, with every inhale in-between sobs, particles of him enter my body and become a physical part of me as well.
There’s a side to me that isn’t sure how many deaths I’m built to withstand in a lifetime and my survivability mechanism pulls me to limit the lives of others I bring in and love to reduce the breakdown in me with each loss. The other side to me knows that the anticipatory grief, the pain of loss, the years to heal, and the voids that add up and remain with me over the years still simply never outweigh the wholeness these relationships fill in me from empty spaces that I didn’t realize existed until I met loved ones like Boada. I relate it to not actually knowing just how deeply you can love a child until you hold your own in your arms.
It is that primal human experience that comes with such a deep connection that allows for the grief to also be so deep. It’s not a curse and it’s not a gift. It’s an exchange. One can only hurt so deeply because they’ve loved so deeply. That’s something special to hold on to. Is it better to not have loved at all, than to have loved and lost so much? My current emotional state would argue that the pain isn’t worth the relationship, the same as it would argue I should have cloned my dog. I know as the dust settles and my emotions balance back out with my brain, I’ll feel differently. I’ll remember, that as the memories bring smiles instead of tears that every single moment with him was so very worth it.
In sorrow and in gratefulness, for my Yoda Boada Bear Brahma Bull.