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Walking Through the Death of a Family Pet

ck09His name was “C.K.” and I buried him myself.

For 15 years, he was my family’s dog, friend, household protector, and pet peeve.

(If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know exactly what I mean.)

C.K. is short for “Clark Kent,” although many people assumed we were inspired by Calvin Klein perfume. My wife allowed me to name him this name since I’ve always been a Superman fan (and she’d never name our kids “Lois” or “Clark”).

It all began a year after we were married when I noticed a little puppy actively sniffing around our house. My wife watched me watch him. She knew exactly where this was heading. “No.”

“But honey,” I said, “we haven’t even talked about it. How about if he’s still here after I run errands we’ll talk about keeping him?”

“Argh, fine,” she conceded.

The moment she wasn’t looking, I fed the dog. Ironically… he was still there when I came home. I held him up with his face next to mine and knocked on the door. “Can we keep him?” I asked. She never had a chance to resist.

Those first 24 hours were a challenge, for not only did C.K. arrive full of burrs and dirt but also had a codependency we hadn’t planned on. At night we tried putting him in our laundry room and kitchen, but his constant whining and scratching exhausted us to let him sleep on our bedroom floor. ck11We later discovered his desire to chew on everything, including shredding a roomful of paper products from our wedding.

In one home C.K. would rip mail it out of the mailman’s hands as it came through a slot in our door, making bite marks that made bill paying quite humorous. Wherever we lived, we had to replace carpet… and in one home, an actual door that he ate his way through.

He wouldn’t be caged, either. Every time we tried we’d come home to find him walking around the house. The cage would be intact, usually with a handful of hair between the two-inch gap that he’d forced his forty-pound medium-sized body through. This was life with our superdog, and we became used to it. He was quirky, but never aggressive.

C.K. sniffed each of my kids out when they were born and looked out for them like he had us. Over time he became their dog, from playing games like “chase the squirrel” or “give me my sock” to them taking care of his food, water and basic needs. ck8It's weird to see your kids take on ownership of something you originally committed to, but that's part of a household legacy, isn't it?

When C.K. wanted to get into my bedroom at night, he'd thump his head against the door. If it was closed, he’d thump his head against the boys' doors.

Even now... I can still hear the thump.

For a season of our lives, my family had to temporarily move in with my wife’s parents. Unfortunately, C.K. couldn’t come with and it was difficult for us all. He became a symbol of hope for when life would feel “normal” again. After 11 months apart, we were all tears when we picked him up from a kind caretaker. ck3

He was with us for a few more years after that. Eventually he began losing his hearing and the spring in his step. The vet told us it would get bad, so I reluctantly went out and dug a hole on a friend’s property, preparing for the worst. My boys prayed for him every day, and God gave us an extra year with him. Finally, we saw symptoms that revealed it was going to end quickly and badly. Right or wrong, my wife and I developed a strategy:

  • We determined not to react. As C.K.’s body deteriorated, he also struggled with horrible gas and random urination. My wife and I resolved to care for him, modeling to our kids what unconditional love and commitment looks like.
  • We called our veterinarian. While I was alarmed by what I saw, I kept checking in with C.K.’s doctor to know when it was time to speak to my kids with credibility.
  • We sat down as a family. I said, “We know C.K. has been really sick a long time. God gave us an extra year with him from when his doctor told us he was really sick. But I spoke with C.K.’s doctor again and she told me that it’s gotten worse... and he is dying. I'm sorry for the honesty of that, but we can go through this together. She is even able to help him die without pain, and it would give us a chance to say goodbye to him instead of us coming home one day and being surprised. Mom and I think this is a good option for us.”
  • We dialogued honestly. My 9-year old wanted to know what would happen, and my 6-year old wanted to know if we’d see C.K. in heaven. We gave them simple, true answers that matched their questions without “over-answering” them.
  • We used technology. I gave the boys a digital camera and camcorder to record a “last day” with their dog. The memories they made will last a lifetime.
  • We kept the appointment. I wept as I pulled out of the driveway with our dog, witnessing my boys cry out from our house in a way I hope I never hear again. As tempting as it was to turn around, I kept driving... and took our dog to the vet while my wife comforted the kids.
  • We had back-up. I knew I’d be an emotional wreck so I had a good friend help me transport and bury our dog. Our vet also created a warm environment for my last moments with C.K., even taking paw prints of his feet for my boys to keep. She also sent flowers that arrived at our home within that very hour.
  • We followed-up personally. I purchased flat stones for our family to decorate – a large headstone and four medium-sized squares. We decorated them with personal thoughts, and later placed them by his grave.
  • We didn’t move on. Many people asked if we would get another pet right away. It’s easy in our world to “replace” our hurt with something new, but clogging up a hole doesn’t help it to heal.

ck6Maybe you disagree with our approach. Still, I’ve learned that adults commonly tell psychologists that their first defining experience with death was the loss of a pet. Some can even remember finding a random animal and trying to see if spending time with it for even a day will save it. Those who experienced a tragic chaos of an animal crying out and dying seem to fear death; others talk about the difficult-but-controlled circumstances they went through in putting an animal down and how it helped them recognize the role death currently plays in our world.

One day it won’t, though. That’s incredible news for those of us who embrace God’s promise that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Revelation 21:4) Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t promise that our pets are in heaven, although it does hint at the presence of animals. My boys hope that there is enough wiggle room there to believe that one day we’ll see our dog again. I think my wife and I yearn for that, too, despite knowing that it's more likely that animals are just with us for a season.

Often, a season that defines all the other seasons.

All I know is his name was “C.K.” and I buried him myself. Can you relate?

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