About three years ago, we welcomed our first dog into our family – Bella.
Sadly, a few weeks ago, we had to let her go.
I had been resistant to getting a dog despite my husband’s and kid’s desire for a family dog. We had a chance to dog-sit Bella a couple times for our friends and loved her.
I told my husband, “Well, if we had a dog like Bella, then maybe we could get one.”
Then, one day, our friends told us that they were going to have to find another home for Bella and my ears perked up and I started thinking….hmmmm.
Long story short, one day, for Father’s Day, we brought Bella to our house and surprised everyone – especially my husband – when we told them she was ours to keep if we wanted. It didn’t take long for everyone to say, “Yes!”
Bella was about seven, we weren’t for sure, and so it was the perfect way to introduce our family to dog ownership. She was trained, wasn’t quite as energetic as a puppy but loved to play with all of us, even the toddler at the time, and she was used to being an outdoor dog – my main requirement.
We all grew to love Bella and, in the beginning, everyone did a good job helping to give her attention and care. Like most new things, the excitement wore down over time and she had a few bad habits we didn’t appreciate (chewing on kids’ toys, peeing in the house if we weren’t constantly watching her, eating her…nevermind that’s too gross.) Nevertheless, we all still loved having her, including me.
She was a good friend for me especially last year in the dream-like daze of intense grief. Sometimes I’d go outside and just sit on the back steps. She’d come up to me, tail wagging, and set her snout on my knee and beg me to stroke her. As I stroked her soft fur, it brought us both comfort. The repetitive action and the soothing texture calmed my mind and soothed my sorrowful heart. My Dad loved Bella so, in a way, I felt connected with him during those moments.
Whenever I was feeling frustrated and angry with myself or because of behavioral difficulties with the kids, I’d go out and throw the ball around with Bella or run around the yard with her – providing her needed exercise and entertainment and me a positive release of my emotions.
Admittedly, she was so laid back it was easy to take her for granted. One evening, after being gone for the day, we came back and I noticed her stomach area was suddenly very enlarged, which was unusual since she was always on the skinnier side of an average lab.
The next day, I noticed it even more and I remember sitting out on the back porch and rubbing her tummy like she loved so much. I gently pressed on it and could tell it was very hard and it made her uncomfortable, though she didn’t whimper or show any other obvious signs of pain.
However, there was something….familiar. I had felt this feeling before. The feeling of knowing, somehow, that death is close. I stroked her fur and scratched behind her ears and felt a foreboding sadness for her, and our family. Later that day, I went out to throw the ball around with her and noticed she didn’t seem interested. She’d run and get it and then slowly trudge back. With the last toss, she trotted over to get it but then dropped it back in the grass and sulked back to her favorite spot to lay down in the sun, as if she was saying, “I want to…but I just can’t anymore.”
The next morning, I brought her to the vet to see if we could figure out what was ailing her. After poking around and examining her, she determined the cause of her abdominal swelling was pretty serious.
“Possibly liver disease…or a cancerous tumor…,” I heard the vet gently explain.
I knew where the conversation headed and, to my surprise, I started tearing up as memories of sitting in a doctor’s office listening to the doctor briefly explain my Dad’s diagnosis suddenly flooded my mind.
Lung cancer….mutation….stage IV….incurable….
I looked at sweet Bella, peacefully ignorant to the meaning of our conversation, and felt pity and shame. She had probably been in pain for a little while now but, being the sweet mild-tempered dog that she was, just didn’t show it until now. I knew we could choose to go all out and try to “cure” her illness. I also knew this would be highly expensive and, as the vet agreed, had a low chance of success. In the end, I left the clinic with Bella and a day’s worth of pain medicine for her.
That evening, my husband and I sat down with all the kids and Bella in our family room and shared what the vet told us about Bella. (another familiar scene) We gently explained why exploratory surgery or medicine most likely could not help her. Our oldest picked up on what the other option would be and cried out, “No, not that, we can’t do that to her!”
The younger boys picked up on her emotions and pretty soon everyone had tears in their eyes. Gently, slowly, calmly, we explained that we needed to think of Bella and her pain. There was a lot of confusion and questions.
“But, I thought we weren’t supposed to kill?” Our oldest son, so practically and black-and-white minded, couldn’t quite understand how this could be ok.
“We all love Bella,” I said, “and we don’t want her to die….but we also don’t want her to be in so much pain. We can’t keep her alive for us and make her continue living a life of pain.”
They took these words in and it was the same oldest son, who usually struggles with showing empathy, who was the first to say, “I think we should do option two. So she isn’t in pain anymore.”
My heart swelled and broke all at once in that moment. My son grasped the reality of the situation and was able to appreciate what Bella really needed.
That night, we let Bella sleep in our daughter’s room, since she was struggling the most with the decision and because we didn’t want Bella to sleep on her own that night. Despite the pain medicine we’d given her, Bella was very restless. She wouldn’t sit or lay down in her bed no matter what we tried. In the morning, our daughter said Bella never went to sleep and kept pacing around the room. Through that night, our daughter’s reluctance over having to let her go turned to a sorrowful acceptance. She had seen how much pain Bella was in and knew it wouldn’t be right to prolong her life just because we wanted to keep her with us longer.
We let the kids each have time to say tearful and quiet goodbyes to Bella before leaving for school, knowing she’d be gone when they came home. My husband and I brought her to the vet together and they kindly showed us into a room. The vet gently and compassionately explained the procedure and let us know we were welcome to stay for however long or little we wanted. We said we’d probably only stay for the first part – the Valium that puts her into a relaxed state before the final injection.
We had a few more moments alone with Bella while they prepared the medications. Though still in obvious pain, Bella stood alert by the door, her ears perked up listening to the sounds of other dogs or cats and people there for regular check-ups. It struck me, how she stood in front of me then with no idea what awaited. In that moment, I felt a conflicted sorrow.
Is this ok? To purposefully end her life instead of letting her die naturally?
I tried again to get her to sit but she wouldn’t, her abdominal pain too intense now. She looked up at me with kind and loyal eyes, and I stroked her back and rubbed her ears like she loved so much. In that moment, looking at her, I felt a great sense of gratitude.
“Thank you, Bella, for being such a good dog for our family. ”
The door opened and the vet and her assistant came in. They laid a white towel on the floor and had Bella stand on it. Gently, slowly, with soothing words, the vet injected the Valium in. Within seconds, Bella let out a low groan, as if she was saying, “Ahh…that feels good.” Then, she sat down – the first time she’d done that since the day before – and then her legs gave in and her body melted down to the floor as my husband and I gently stroked her. The vet explained that she was now in a deep sleep.
I felt happy for her, relieved of her pain and finally able to sleep after the past restless nights. This was the point we had decided earlier that we’d leave but now that we were there, we couldn’t leave, we wanted to stay with her until the end.
The vet quietly injected the final medication. We stayed with her as her body went limp, her eyes closed, and her chest stopped swelling in and out. I wiped my eyes filled with tears I couldn’t contain. In those moments, my body was with Bella in the vet’s office but my mind was back in the hospital room watching the same process happen to my dad’s body a little over a year ago.
I felt like a hole in time opened up in that hospital room, all other noises outside vanished and a warm glow of light vignetted us. The seas of time parted and swirled around us, the whirlpool of eternity spiraled in, gently pulling and guiding my dad’s soul through the “birth canal” of death into new life. Once his soul passed through, his heart deafeningly silent and his chest formidably motionless, the whirlpool lifted out, the warm glow of light faded, and the seas of time crashed down around us again, pushing us down into the intense pain of shock and grief.
The nurse came back in the room and put her stethoscope on his still chest. I asked, “Is it done?” She nodded and gently confirmed, “yes.”
Back in the vet’s office, the vet put her stethoscope to Bella’s chest, paused, then quietly confirmed, “She’s gone, at rest and in no more pain now.”
We nodded our heads and let out long sighs. Slowly I wiped my tears, we offered our final thank you’s and gave Bella one last stroke goodbye. Then, we stood up, opened the door, and walked back into the world of time.
We drove back home in silence, both of us struck again by the jarring finality of death and surprised by our grief. After all, she was “just a dog”. But…she had been our dog. And, in the way only animals can, she loved us and we loved her. We hated that we had to do that, wishing she could have gotten better on her own, but accepting that, for her sake and not ours, we had to let her go.
I hated that my dad got sick, that he had to leave us so soon before we had barely begun to process his out-of-the-blue diagnoses. In the 24 hours I spent with him in the hospital, I saw his pain and his incredible discomfort. The more we tried to save him, the further away he sank. Through a torturous night, I began to see the reality of his prognosis. By the morning, I knew we’d need to let him go, for his sake even if not for ours.
And so it is, with life and death:
The Lord giveth…and the Lord taketh. (Job 1:21)
He blesses us with the gift and joy of life….and then, after a time, He retrieves life – His beloved creatures – back into Himself where we ultimately belong.
Thank you, Lord for the gift of Bella. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of my Dad. Take them into you, and bless our mourning hearts with your loving and comforting mercy.