We had to put our 5 year old dachshund down on Friday. I had taken him to the vet for the euthanasia and then brought his body home for the boys to bury. I thought they could use the closure that the burial could provide and I saw it as an opportune time to teach them just a little bit about death and the finality of it. This was a first death experience for each of them and some it I was prepared for and some of it knocked the wind out of me.
While I was at the vet Mark and the boys dug a hole on our property and prepared a space for Shadow’s body. The boys went to karate and then returned knowing that we would have our burial when they got home. Immediately they all wanted to see Shadow. And at first I was apprehensive. I mean his body was stiff, his blue tongue was hanging out, he had urinated on himself and it wasn’t the Shadow that they know and love. It was a empty version of him. I was afraid of exposing them to that and having them get scared. But then I remembered when I was a child and my bunny died. My dad had told me to take him out to the alley and bury him. Well, I kinda did what he asked me to do, except that I left the bunny’s body visible so I could go out and check on him every day and watch the process of death and decay. It fascinated me. Yet I thought there was something truly truly wrong with me that I would enjoy watching this process so I was afraid to tell anyone.
I want my boys to know that there are no topics off limits and to experience every thing they need to experience even if that means they lose a small part of their innocence.
Each boy touched and examined Shadow in a very safe and loving environment where they were free to ask any questions. But then S saw that Shadow’s eyes were open and began to question if he were really dead. “Maybe he’s just sleepy” to which I was able to explain that his heart was no longer beating and our brain requires the heart to pump blood to it. Once our heart and brain stop functioning we cease to exist. Mark closed Shadow’s eyes and that’s when the reality of Shadow being dead sunk in.
What followed this realization was the part that took me by surprise. All four boys began to wail. The deepest kind of wail that comes from far within one’s gut. A wailing that will forever replay in my memory of this event. One that will forever haunt me.
We carried Shadow to his final resting spot, laid him in the hole, gave the boys a few more minutes of screaming and crying out their laments…”I can’t believe he’s dead.” “He was the best dog” “I keep hoping he’s going to wake up” “I already miss seeing him run around” “He was such a good weiner dog” “I am so sad”.
Next we took up our shovels to cover Shadow in dirt and submit him to the earth from which he came. When the dirt first hit Shadow P could hardly contain his pain and asked if I could take him back home. It was just too much for him to visualize. And we respected that. Each boy is unique in what they are able to handle.
The thought of heaven crossed my mind (and shockingly Mark was extremely close to caving and just making up the heaven story) and how great it would be if Shadow really was running around in doggy heaven with lots of good steak (which then means that cow must be in cow hell…sorry random thought), crunchy bones, and lots of friends. That would be a really great story for the boys to buy in to. It would certainly help them cope…temporarily. And it would certainly give us an excuse to avoid the harshness of the reality that death is final. Shadow was but is no longer. As I sat hugging all of them I had thoughts about telling them their Poppy or Daddy died and how painful that would be and how badly I would want to comfort them with the fantasies of a heavenly afterlife. I get it. I get why people need there to be a heaven. It feels good and it lessens the pain until we can really get a grasp on celebrating life. Once we get that grasp and can appreciate the beauty of the life cycle we are given maybe death won’t have such a pull to the fantasmical, cosmical otherworld.
So while it may be a little “harsh” to present reality (although it’s a much less harsh “reality” than their non-christian daddy or mommy burning in hell) I think they will be better people because of it. They will eventually come to accept that we all come from cells and return to the earth as cells. Our life is a gift as well as our death. I wish as much as the next person that death did not have to be final. I want there to be heaven. But unfortunately I see that wish as nothing more than a fairy tale. Instead of looking forward to all the loved ones (people and pets) I’ll reunite with in the afterlife I’m going to choose to enjoy each of these moments that are here and now…guaranteed realities that I have these moments. I’m not willing to risk those moments on the hopes of an eternity.
So while no matter what one believes about the existence of heaven, the pain is real. But the boys are moving forward and becoming interested in the pure science of what Shadow will soon be. They have asked me if in a few weeks “when Shadow is just bones can we dig the bones up and use string to put them together and make a Shadow skeleton for Halloween? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Ummmmmm, yeah, cool. But we are going to leave Shadow right where he is. He is part of the earth now, boys. But maybe we could make a skeleton out of milk jugs?”
“Yeah!!!! That would be awesome!”
We will miss you, Shadow.