There have been some really great books and movies on the relationship between a dog and its people. Meant to tap into our humanity, they fill our heads with heartwarming visuals and storylines that hit home for us all. A typical theme looks like this: Man saves desperate dog from peril (picture pouring rain and an emaciated and shivering creature huddling in a filthy alley) and gives it a home full of love and acceptance (cue the happy family unit, heaps of kibble and table scraps, and plush comfort). Then, at some point in the future, this same dog lands on an opportunity to give back, risking its life to save the man who saved him. We tear up and gulp back our emotions as we think back on the loyal dog of our childhood.
Although effective in Hollywood or on the bestsellers list, the real-life experience is often much different. It may look something like this: You bond with your dog companion when she’s just a puppy. You give her a catchy name—Shadow—and then teach her everything she needs to know to coexist with her human family. She’s quirky with heaps of charming personality and you can’t imagine life without her. The years stack up along with the memories. Her life is chronicled in photos alongside the family: Shadow wearing a funny hat at the 9th birthday party, Shadow struggling to eat a sticky marshmallow by the campsite, Shadow greeting her favorite kid coming home from college, her wagging tail a mere blur in the shot. For every milestone, Shadow is there, with a funny smiling muzzle and that cute lopsided tip of the head, one ear up, one down.
All is well and right with the world for more than a decade. The kids grow up and move away and Shadow becomes accustomed to her quieter life. She starts taking longer naps and isn’t very interested in long walks. She’d rather relax in the shade on the deck than chase squirrels. Her people notice the lack of energy, but she is pretty old, so they put fewer and fewer demands on her. It takes longer and longer to wake her up these days. Her old joints don’t work like they used to. She can no longer jump up onto the bed and sometimes she has trouble getting up off the floor. More and more she can’t remember where she is and (to her horror) there are times when she doesn’t remember to do her business outdoors. Her people are understanding and gentle with her. They know the end is near. If she wants to lay in the shade on the deck all day, it’s okay with them. And so she sleeps. Shadow’s dog dreams become more real than her awake life. She dreams of playing in the grass with the kids and of jumping from rock to rock in the creek. She dreams of jumping high in the air to catch a ball and racing ahead to leap off the launch into the lake. She dreams of chasing squirrels and even nearly catching one.
One day, as she lays dreaming on the deck, Shadow finds a path threading through the trees. It’s cool there and the ground is soft under her paws. The loamy smells are strong in her nose and her ears prick with the myriad sounds of forest creatures. Her senses haven’t been this keen for years. Her joints no longer ache as she follows the path with a lithe gait. She feels keenly aware of what a wonderful gift it is to be wandering in this forest on this perfect day. The sense of freedom is so strong that it prickles her skin. Thus, carried away on the tides of a wonderful dream, Shadow leaves this earthly world.
What happens next? I’ve heard of the passing of a beloved dog as ‘Crossing the Rainbow Bridge’ and it’s a lovely thought. But what hits my sensibilities more—what brings me abundant comfort—is picturing the spirit of a departed dog waking up feeling alive, more alive than imaginable. I picture Shadow taking that forest path to a hilly green place vibrating with invitation and the promise of adventure. I envision tracks to follow, the zig-zag track of a rabbit or the waddle and drag of a porcupine laid heavily on the grass. Every tree is laden with pork chops, ripe for the taking, like low hanging fruit. Over every hill is adventure. In one direction, Shadow can hear the shouts of children with tireless throwing arms and buckets of balls. From another direction, a raucous lake party with wet fur shaking and running jumps into the cool water. There is nothing stopping her from joining in the fun. She is free of aches and pains and limits on her energy. She is free to explore this world. I picture the spirit of Shadow encountering the people she lost—the beloved mailman with a pocketful of biscuits and a friendly pat, the family’s grandmother, who possessed the soft lap where Shadow liked to lay her head to be petted. These people are in this wonderful place to complete the happy picture of comfort and purpose.
If you’ve ever experienced the uniquely painful loss of a beloved dog, you may not have known what to think. You may have felt as if you were drowning in grief. For me, I live on hope and my hopeful soul seeks comfort. In that effort, I offer anyone who needs to hear it my version of what happens next, with the hope that it brings comfort to your aching heart and a smile to your face. After all, your dearly departed and very loved dog would want you to be happy.