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All dogs go to heaven
March 20, 2012 - Betsy Bethel
Our dog, Ben Roethlisdogger, had a rough last year. He had a bum back leg and bad hips that caused him to walk sideways and have trouble both getting up and lying down. He didn't know where he was most of the time, had no control over when he went to the bathroom and was mostly blind and deaf.
But up until the last week or two of his life, he still sought out affection, tried to chase the cat through the house, and bounded — as best he could — across the yard when one of us pulled in the drive. We gave him pain medicine, carried him up and down the porch steps, diapered him and took care of him like we were a doggy hospice.
About three weeks ago, it became painfully obvious that our golden boy was just plain miserable. He still had an appetite, but he no longer seemed to care if we paid any attention to him. He wore himself out trying to get around the house. Being outside didn't even cheer him up. He never cried out in pain, but he was clearly not happy. He had reached the maximum dose of his pain medication. It was time to let go.
Our almost-6-year-old daughter had a love/not-love relationship with Ben. (Hate is much too strong a word.) Like a pesky brother, Ben tromped on the Playmobil zoo Emma had set up in a corner of the living room until we finally blocked it off. Of course, he didn't do it on purpose — he didn't know or care it was there. He stepped on her toes, tripped her, etc. — all unintentionally. She knew he was old and unwell. But she had not yet cultivated any compassion.
In our house, death has not been a taboo subject. Emma's grandmother, who is 81 and lives with us, has casually discussed it with her many times over the past few years in an attempt to buffer the blow when her time comes — which may not be for years, of course, but I think it's a healthy conversation to have. We also have made sure in the past few months that Emma knew Ben was not long for this world.
Two days before Ben's appointment to be put down, I gently told her Ben was going to the vet to get a shot that would "make him never wake up." I wasn't surprised but kind of disappointed that she was matter-of-fact about the whole thing. She came up with the term "death shot" and wanted to know if he would go to heaven. I said, "Of course!" There was a pause, and then she asked, "But how can he, if he can't talk to God?" I told her God has a special relationship with pets and a special place for them in heaven. (This was no time for a theological discussion.)
Emma's attitude about Ben's upcoming death soon began to take on a cavalier tone. When leaving the house once, she said, "Soon, we won't have to say goodbye to Ben 'cause he won't be here!" Another time, she said, "Well, at least when Ben dies, I don't have to worry about him messing up my zoo anymore!"
I realized this was her way of processing, but it was hard not to feel hurt by her attitude about our beloved pet. I think it was especially hard for my husband Dave, who was closest of all to Ben.
The time finally came, and before Dave and I took Ben to the vet, we asked Emma if she wanted to say goodbye or give him a kiss. I was actually afraid she would say no. She finally looked up from her video game and said, "Are you taking him for the death shot? (We nodded.) Then yes, I want to give him TEN THOUSAND kisses!" She came over, knelt down and kissed him on the nose. Then she went nose-to-nose with him, looked him in the eyes and whispered something — I'm assuming it was "I love you" or "Goodbye."
That opened the floodgates for Dave and me both. She does care, we thought.
But then she pulled the choke chain on our way out the door, calling out: "Are you bringing him back? Can I see him dead? I've never seen anything dead before!"
Dear Lord, is this child completely incapable of compassion? I think I said, "I don't know, Emma; we'll see." I gulped down the hurt and chalked her comments up to her unquenchable curiosity.
When the deed was done and our boy was at peace, we brought him home, enclosed in a cadaver bag and wrapped in an old blanket. Dave spent a good hour and a half digging a grave in the backyard while I went to the store to buy some comfort food and drinks, and a bunch of flowers to put on the body before covering him up. Emma asked to see the body and we said no, he was all wrapped up, and that was the end of that.
Emma was still making light of the situation, and I was beginning to worry that Dave, who was feeling the dog's loss more than anyone, would begin to resent her behavior.
She chit-chatted to him about who-knows-what while he dug for awhile, and then she gathered clovers to put on the grave. She and I made a cross out of dead wood from one of our trees.
When Dave lowered the blanketed bundle into the grave, Emma expressed concern about the blanket. Didn't we want to keep it? Why were we burying it? She started to whine that she liked that blanket. I wanted to muzzle her.
Grandma and I then said some nice words about Ben as large snowflakes started to fall. Dave remarked how Ben loved snow. It was true. He absolutely loved to romp in it. We all cried, except Emma. I got out my bagpipes and played Amazing Grace. Then Dave started to cover the grave. Emma said she wanted to help. I acquiesced, although I felt it would be better if Dave were left alone. She started moving the dirt around with a small shovel. It was cold, so Grandma and I went back inside.
The next thing I knew, I heard Emma crying. I looked out the kitchen window and saw her hugging her dad. I went on the back porch and yelled, "What's the matter? Did she get hurt?"
Dave shook his head. He called back to me: "It finally hit her."
A flood of relief and heartache burst through my chest as Emma came stumbling across the yard to me, crying big fat tears and saying: "I want Benny. I want my Benny back!" Her curiosity finally took a back seat to grief.
I realized how much I had been needing to comfort my daughter but she hadn't seemed to need comforting. As she hung on my neck and I rocked her and patted her and murmured words of love and solace, I closed my eyes and felt all was right with the world. My daughter is not a cold-hearted creature. Nor is she denying the finality of Ben's death. She is sad. She is crying. She understands. It sounds counterintuitive, even cruel if taken out of context, but I was so thankful that my daughter was experiencing this pain. And, oh Lord how I was grateful that her first experience with death was a pet and not a person.
She cried for about 5 minutes and then we talked about how Ben was romping around from cloud to cloud in the sky, chasing cats and having a good old time. I brought out some old photo albums showing a younger, vibrant Ben. I told her he was THAT Ben again.
Emma's period of grief was brief. Like kids do, she bounced back fast. She began asking for a new puppy immediately. We told her it would have to wait awhile, not even attempting to explain that Mommy and Daddy's hurt needed to heal a bit more before we bring another heartbeat into the house ...
Not wanting to think about how much more painful it will be for Emma when the next doggie leaves us to romp in the clouds.
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Ben Roethlisdogger taking a snooze on the porch, Memorial Day weekend 2010.