Gazer's Death: How do we hold death with our companion animals?

I have written here before about my bearded collie Star Gazer. About our marriage of souls. The fierce love and devotion we shared. About his being a teacher. And about his coming back in a new body, his soul co-mingled with Lily, our girl who is now 15 moths old.

All stories of miracles, and of joy. But I have never written about his death.

To choose a date to help your dog die is an impossible task. No matter if it is sudden or lingering death, we humans are often in the hellish and unbearable place of hiring some compassionate vet to give him a fatal shot.

There is no way to choose the right moment. There is no right moment for us in this. It is a moment of terrible loss and grief.

And humans are so deeply unconscious about the huge cultural beliefs we hold about death. Sometimes, humans who are dying are critically shaped by those beliefs, beliefs that they do not know they even hold until they are in their final stage. No matter our spiritual callings, knowledge or beliefs, our cultural container will influence our experiences.

I know the kinder ways to refer to our dogs dying. I helped him pass. I eased his suffering. But, at least for me, calling a vet to make an appointment to end my soul mate's life made me feel like I was killing him. I was killing him. That was the simple (as if death were simple), unvarnished truth.

It was an unreal moment -- impossible to really take in. And when Gazer died, I had done shamanic work for 12 years. Had done a whole lot of work with death. And dying. 

And I had an enormous, unfathomable gift given to me by my first shamanic mentor who, years before Gazer's death, told me Gazer had visited her, said he would be dying in a few years, and that, on the day of his death, I should tell him a breeder's name so his spirit could be born into a new body. He wanted to "work" with me again; our "work" was not finished, he said. 

And I got to see my dog after he died -- a lot. I did not know if I would see him again when he died. He became a shamanic helping spirit for me.  I know people that would really give up a limb or a decade of their own life willingly for such a gift, and I was very conscious that this blessing might be the greatest I could or would ever receive from my shamanic work.

All of this knowledge was an "and" -- not a "but." It did not make the passing of that smile, fur, tail, the end of his precious and unique physical form any easier. Not one bit.

For at least a year before his death, Gazer could not be on my bed at night. His choice. Not mine. He literally could not hold his balance on the mattress, and falling, even on something soft, was so hard for him. He was up and down all night long, needing to go outside at all times because of gastrointestinal distress. He took to sleeping on the hall rug. I bought him a ramp for my bed. He would not use it. I bought him many beds. Of all shapes, size and densities. He glanced at a few, and even though I pointedly put them in the hall, he never slept on one of them. He preferred the plain, old carpet in the long, thin, and dark hall.

Both my husband and I snore, and so we had taken to the European tradition of separate bedrooms for sleep. But on Gazer's last night, we all slept together, and we lifted Gazer up to the bed. We had tried this many times, but this night was entirely different. He immediately lay down and luxuriated, his head in the place it was when we slept together -- always. He'd use my feet as his pillow. I had never thought I would feel that weight again, and so I relished a palpable, and bittersweet joy that night. To this day, I miss that weight at night. I expect I always will.

But grace came into the bedroom as the hours went by, and we all slept through the night uninterrupted and dreamless, deep and content.

Morning came, and I hand fed him cheese and two pain killers so the cheese would not wrack him with pain. This was an hour before the vet came. He was so happy to have that cheese.

Cheese, and other such food treat, had been banished for years. He'd had IBS for almost two years, and we hand fed him twice a day every day. Fresh roasted turkey and mashed potatoes -- the vet’s direction of how we should feed him.

Every day smelled like Thanksgiving in our house for a long, long time. Meal after meal, Don or I hand fed him, and he often ate only because we implored him to.

So the cheese was amazing for him, and I knew that he would not be suffering hours later because of it. He and I lay on the bed. I kissed and stroked him, and our eyes were in constant communion. He had not been content for a long time, but he was content that day. Very quiet, and he was drifting.

When the vet arrived, he came into the bedroom. Gazer lay still, not even lifting his head for the vet. The vet gently examined him, heard his history (IBS and a pinched nerve in his neck -- the pinched nerve became chronic, a condition that he had always recovered from in past years; the horror of these two conditions in tandem was vicious. He needed to have medication for his nerve pain. But the painkillers kicked up pain and explosive diarrhea and pain because of the IBS).

The vet said he thought Gazer was more than ready.

Star Gazer always had his own journey blanket in my shamanic studio, as we had been partners for many years. And so we moved from the bedroom to the shamanic studio. A place he loved. He slowly lay down on his journey blanket -- an act that, at this point, was very hard for him. And then sat up, slowly got up and walked out the sliding glass door to the outside. Don and I went with him. He delicately and clumsily wandered around, sniffing snow and bush, and had a bout of explosive diarrhea -- not unusual for him by that point. When he was ready, we went back inside. 

We had chosen this home vet through reference. He believed in offering a pre-injection to be certain that the final shot would not hurt. He was very kind, and very, very experienced.

I had told Gazer exactly what was going to happen before the vet arrived. Many times. And finally, we were in it -- he was going to die. As he lay on his journey blanket, Don was right next to Gazer and me. Gazer's head was in my hands as I talked to him. The vet was on the other side of Gazer. The first needle went in -- a smaller needle, the one to relax him. The painless pre-injection to soothe him before the final needle.

He screamed and bolted up. He tried to run outside -- falling, stumbling and staggering. Don caught him in a minute. And carried him back in. It was the most horrific moment of our lives. Of all of our lives. I felt like a murderer. I felt like I was betraying him in the worst possible way.

I was trembling as I asked the vet what was going on. He said that in all his years, he had never seen a dog react to that shot. Gazer, like me, has always been a sensitive, and felt things deeply. He had a lot of pain at this point, and that was probably why he so reacted to that small shot, why he screamed and ran.

We waited to let the drug take some effect. He quieted some, but was still agitated. He was both tense and spacey. The vet recommended another shot for pain. We relied on his knowledge, and desperately wanted to make this easier. So we said yes.

But, of course, what I felt was this: I am killing my best friend. I am killing my dog. Brutally. He, who had never hurt a living being, who had loved and taught me much of what I knew about love, was being tortured. And I had hired someone to do it.

Another thought: I have no right to do this. None. He wants to stay. Why should my understanding of his pain and suffering determine what he needs?

All of these thoughts came in a second or two. I was in shock and called louder to my shamanic spirits. Who came in even more powerfully. Gazer himself was a powerful healer who had his own helping spirits. The room was crowded with love. I could hardly feel it.

The vet gave him the second pain shot. Another, smaller howl (now the vet was upset, too -- this had never happened before either, this kind of reaction to the second shot). And then the drugs started to work.

I held his head in my hands. Our faces were close. I told him: I love you with all my heart, and I want you to go. Through our lives, we've seen and worked with Grandfather, and you have a fur blanket near the fire. Now you can go anywhere and I want you to. I want you to explore as you always have -- you have been the leader in walks and all our work. I will see you out there when you think it is right. Please, go. Go everywhere. Mystery is safe. We will be with each other again in new ways.

I was earnest, and knew I was right. My own sense of loss had no place in this moment -- that was for later. I understand that dogs often feel bound to their earthly relations. They can hang around in spirit near their beloveds for decades after their deaths. There are sometimes complex and sometimes simple reasons that this happens -- some, but not all, distressing. No matter what, I was not going to hold him to me through my suffering. I knew I had a job to do -- to hold the container of freedom for him -- and I did it well.

What I wanted for him was to play in the Destiny of his Soul. With other animals in a green pasture I had seen many times -- a place beyond death where animals loved to be. And I knew, because I knew Gazer's shamanic skill, that he would be able to fly to that place or any other place he liked -- on any level in any nonordinary reality world. He was beloved and loved many different spirits. Truly, this reality was his home as much as the Earth.

As I had been told (see previous blogs), this was the time to say, "I know you are coming back and you want to come back as a Bearded Collie. Please go to X breeder when I call you back to me. I will find you there."

When the last needle went in, I was repeating, "I love you" like a mantra. Kissing his face, stroking his head. And then his head went slack. And his eyes were as vacant as two windows in an abandoned house.

Don and I flew into each other’s arms and howled. The pain was unbearable. Then, we knelt by him, sobbing, and I did not say or think the one thing that I knew I would NEVER say or think, the only thing I wanted to say: Please do not leave me. I did not want him to live by my side in spirit, but to explore the ecstasy of his Destiny -- free. That did not mean that he couldn't choose to visit me. It meant that I would not ask him to -- I wanted him to be boundless and to satisfy every whim of his soul. To be love as was his right.

We invited Ariel, our younger dog (who is now 15.5)  to say goodbye. With notable indifference, she looked, sniffed for a second and left, tail just as relaxed as ever. I do not think this was a response to Gazer as unimportant. I believe she understood death as she did life. Moment by moment. Death is natural for animals. They have no belief system about it. This fact is confirmed every time I work with a dying animal. To this day.

I watched as Don and the vet carried Gazer to the car. Another agony. I would have far preferred burying him, but we were renting, knew we'd be moving soon, and could not bury him where we lived. And so we had chosen cremation.  

Two hours later, I was moaning and keening in my bed. Rocking with grief way too big to hold. And, very suddenly, a feeling of ecstasy jolted into my body. Such sheer joy that it was shattering. It stayed for about 10 minutes and then it was gone.

I spent three years in mourning before I called Star Gazer home to me. I do not believe in reincarnation, but in something more mysterious and complex. I do not think our girl Lily is Star Gazer. I believe his soul is merged with hers in ineffable ways I will not comprehend until I am a spirit, too. I see him in her behavior and her kindness. And I see her unique spirit and beauty, too. I know Gazer sent himself -- and Lily -- to us.

Why write this blog? Why review all this and share it? Anybody who has lost a soul mate may only be reminded of the horrific details, and surely, I am not reliving all of this to cause myself -- or you -- pain. 

I am writing it because I work with dying dogs now. And dying cats and other non-human animals. And because of this: I have RARELY meet anyone who did not feel that they either "killed" their dog early or "made him suffer too long." As if death were only a one-minute occurrence.

I received an enormous gift from Gazer when he merged with me after his death. And I misinterpreted it at the time. Or rather did not fully comprehend it.

He was telling me who he was. Yes, that part was obvious, and, as was always his way, he was healing and enormously comforting.

But after working with other dogs in their dying process, I now know another thing. Gazer had a bad hour with his death, but for him, it was only one hour out of our lifetime of joy and love. Dogs do NOT relate to death as we do. For them, it is a process as it is for us, but they accept it as just that. Dying is a part of living. There is no dignity or lack of dignity in dying. There are always in their "dignity" because they are expressing themselves as they die without pity, shame or embarrassment. They do not think explosive diarrhea is embarrassing. Or that a scream is unseemly. They do not judge their mental state as competent or not as they go. They are not thinking, "I am not going to be here forever to love my person." They just are love until their last breath.

They don't take the way they die personally, and they don't try to figure it out. And it sure has NOTHING to do with judging us, and all the ways we try to make it a comfortable and peaceful experience. Or how well we do or do not succeed with our intention. 

Gazer taught me in those ten minutes of ecstasy that his last two hours were just two of 113,880 hours we shared.

Your dog loves you. And he'll love you until he stops breathing. Then he'll love you in a different way. He does not think he is being murdered and he doesn't think anything like "I have lived too long and I am suffering." 

We need to really understand that, as humans, we are culturally phobic about death. I believe animals, like tribal people, know instinctively that their death does not only belong to them -- it belongs to their tribe. It is their unique walk as they leave this world, and they make peace with all parts of the transition instinctively.  They withdraw and they are with their tribe as they die.

As for me, I believe in animal hospice. No, this is not a practice of sending your dog to a different place, but of care taking until death arrives. In many ways, this is what we tried to do for Gazer -- we just finally gave him the needle because he was always wracked with pain. There was no way for him to be comfortable.

As for me, I sure hope that when my time comes -- if I am in such a state -- that someone will give me a shot. And even if the first one hurts, I believe I will be easing into the mystery -- it will probably be the most personal thing I ever do.

I know I will be present. I will be betwixt and between. There is no avoiding it. We are supposed to be. Our last exhale will be as our first inhale -- an unfathomable shift in both body and spirit. If I have the sense and infinite wisdom to die like Gazer, I will know death as a part of life even as I go.

I only hope I am lucky enough to have someone whom I adore holding my head as I leave, hearing only this as I go: I love you, I love you, I love you. And I know Gazer will be there, all a shimmer, waiting to lead the way.