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Loss and Gratitude

Embracing loss through a spirit of gratitude

I recently had to make the difficult decision to euthanize my beloved dog. He was old and his health was failing. My head knew this was the right decision, but every part of me screamed NO!

The night before, I lay with my dog on my chest and tried to get some rest – we had been up all night and several nights before. I could feel his body was tense with pain and his breathing was shallow and rapid, and so I began to focus on my breath. I began to breathe deeply and slowly to bring some calmness to myself. Soon, I could feel that his breathing had steadied and he seem a little calmer. He drifted into a fitful sleep. I lay in the darkness thinking about all the times we had together. I had adopted him when he was ten years old from an abusive situation. That was seven years ago. I found myself smiling in the dark as I recalled him running with his ears flapping; I saw him wandering in the woods and emerging covered in dry leaves.

I felt the weight of his small body on mine and I wondered what life without him would be like. I couldn’t imagine it. My heart was breaking. As an animal lover, with a special place in my heart for old, sick rescue dogs, I had been here before. But I had never been privileged enough to have one of my rescue dogs for this long. This guy had crept into every fiber of my being and the thought of losing him was more than I could imagine.

I lay there, knowing that I would need to make “the big decision” soon. I had done it before and I knew it was time but that didn’t make it easier. I knew the decision would be my final gift, my final act of love to him. But where and how would I find the courage?

He stirred and I laid my hand on his back to comfort him. He seemed to relax and settled down again. It was as if my touch reminded him that he trusted me to take care of him. I could not destroy this trust.  I had to find a way to deal with this. I had to find a way to assign meaning to this.

I had recently read an article about how we can decide how we are going to feel about something. We might not be able to avoid a difficult situation but we could intentionally decide how we are going to feel about it when we found ourselves there. How did I want to feel about this situation and how would my feelings impact my dog?

I knew I was going to be sad – I was already sad at the prospect of what was going to happen. But was there another way to frame my feelings? This dog had given me more than I could have expected, so I certainly felt gratitude! I began to wonder, what if I made the decision to feel gratitude and joy and peace. Would having a spirit of deep gratitude for this tiny dog and what he had brought into my life help me and help him?

I spent the rest of that night replaying memories from the last seven years. I found comfort and strength in these memories but more than anything I felt gratitude and peace. As we spent our final hours together the spirit of gratitude grew and gave me the courage to make the final decision. As he took his last breath, I thanked him for making my life richer and for giving me courage to do the right thing.

In the days that followed, the pain of losing him has been intense, but I have remained focused on gratitude. I marvel at the impact that one small dog has had on me and others. I won’t pretend that I am not sad or that I don’t miss him. I find myself waiting to hear his bark, hearing his nails on the hard wood floor or listening for his gentle snore at night. But by creating space for gratitude, the memories seem sweeter and the pain seems to be lessened.

This spirit of gratitude seems to have allowed me to embrace this loss in a way that helps me to not just cope with the loss but to give meaning to the life and death of one sweet dog. 

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