Reflection on the death of a “pet”

Today I posted a photo that came into my facebook feed of a man holding his old beagle on the night before he had to put his dear friend down. It touched something deep in me; I’m still grieving for my old yellow lab, Lucie, who passed several years ago.

For some reason Lucie’s death hit me especially hard. Perhaps it was because she was so guileless; perhaps it was just the time and season of my life. But I have not been able to get another dog since then. It’s entirely possible that I will never have another dog in my life.

But the reason I’m even mentioning this is that it brought to mind one of the reasons I so value the Native way of understanding life. I wrote about it in Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way. I’m printing an excerpt of it here. It is a reflection on my experience with an elderly Dakotah man in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. He had been telling me about how his grandma had been able to talk to the animals and birds, and he was reflecting on how perhaps the animals didn’t hear us anymore. Or perhaps they have just chosen not to speak.

Let’s pick it up there.  This is me speaking, not the Dakotah man:

“When I was a child my parents gave me a little black puppy.
I can remember holding her on my lap in the back of the family car as we drove home, thinking this was the greatest gift – no, the greatest miracle — any boy could ever receive.
I named her Boots because she had white paws. It was a simple name, without cleverness or guile. But it was my name, my choice, and Boots was going to be my dog.
For the next 14 years, “Bootsie,” as we came to call her, was my constant companion. She slept with me, walked with me, waited for me when I returned home from school.
She had a crooked smile and a crooked gait that made her amble almost comically when she came up to me wagging her whole back end after I returned from some adventure from which she had been excluded.
Like every child’s dog, she was the greatest dog in the world.
As I neared the end of high school, Bootsie’s body began to give out. Our nighttime walks became shorter and less frequent. Her step slowed, she developed a limp.
Soon she could only go a few hundred yards.
Bur her loyalty would not let her stay behind.
She would follow as best she could, then she would look up at me with her old grey muzzle and her white cloudy eyes, and would wag her tail gamely, as if in apology.
I would pick her up and carry her, laboring under her weight and feeling the heaving, uneven struggles of her labored breathing.
Eventually the day came, as it always does, when she looked up at me with an expression that said, “I can’t do it any more.” Something was passed between us, and I was called to that moment when a boy must become a man.
The next day I took her into the vet, and with tears streaming down my cheeks, held her tight as she shook and pressed against me while the vet injected the substance into her leg that turned her from my living, breathing closest companion into an inert mass that lay lifeless in my arms.
In that moment, something deep inside me died that would never live again. In a small way, it was the same thing that had died in the old man when we imposed our language and our western way of thinking on him and his people.
It had something to do with faith.
* * *
I was raised to believe that we humans are the apex of creation, made, as my Sunday school classes had taught me, in the image and likeness of God — the only element of creation possessed of an eternal soul.
It was not a deeply-held or well- thought-out conviction, it was just the way I had learned to understand the world.
But as I held my old dog in my arms and watched the light fade from her caring eyes, that conviction drained out of me as surely as the life drained out of her aged, trembling body.
I knew in that moment that I could never again embrace a belief that told me her spiritual presence and worth were inferior to mine. Her heart had been greater, her spirit purer. She had taught me about love, about faithfulness, about steadfastness and gentle caring. Her eyes had held a consciousness and understanding that was equal to mine. No one could tell me she didn’t have a soul.”

It goes on from there. But that’s enough.  If this speaks to you, I hope you will pick up Voices in the Stones.  It speaks to the lessons I have learned from my time among Native people and their ways.  They have much to teach us if we have the ears to hear.

Here’s to the man in the photo and to all of us who have known and loved an animal in that way that has made our world and our hearts a better and softer place.


24 thoughts on “Reflection on the death of a “pet””

  1. Roger Lewis Pfundt

    Kent, thank you. I have believed this all my life. You are a blessing to me and my Cheyenne-Arapaho daughter.

  2. Great truth in these words. I have been blessed by 2 such spirits in my nearly 70 years of life. One raised me, taught me about life, and watched over me through my journey toward adulthood. The other came to me in my mid-century and rescued me from the ravages to my body and soul life had imposed. This one lifted me to levals I previously could not imagine. Her spirit and wisdom soared above any human I’ve met. We walked as partners through 17 years. My heart remains strong with her gifts.

  3. Dear Mr. Nerburn, OK…this brought tears to my eyes, as I had to put a beloved Doggie down last January. Today as I picked up after my present two Goldens, I was thinking about my Branson who passed peacefully. There are some pets that reach way deep into our hearts…Branson did that for me, more than the dog previous to him, slightly more than these two senior lovelies that I adopted from a Rescue. I hope we get to see them again somewhere, somehow. Thanks for your writings. I am still basking in the afterglow of your Trilogy, listening to “Native American Wisdom” on my walks and reading one on the first Indian Medical Doctor Woman, Susan LaFlesche. Dan would cringe at some of what’s in this book…

  4. Diane Steinbrecher

    Yes Kent and your words are beautiful. What I think is missing is that dogs have a contract with their owners for a particular function that their owner needs. When that contact is fulfilled, it is time for them to go and they do. Their spirit comes from their body deep into our heart to feel forever. There is no need to not have another but to realize the new dog will have a different contract with you. And it is very sad when we lose our beloved friend who is here for us. Don’t protect your heart because you lost your friend. Feel the spirit in your heart and let yourself love again.

  5. True thoughts. Deeply appreciated. If I had my druthers, at this stage of life I would choose to live on a dog farm. There may yet be another pooch, who knows?

  6. Thank You Always Kent, for your many gifts of love that open our hearts and minds. It’s why I can forgive you for making this grown man cry over lost furry loved ones. They are a totem spirit, unique in their own way, like us, if we can respect and care for them,. It can help us care for one another, just as we are. God and Goddess Bless You Kent.

    (Please excuse the typos and grammar errors. I’m out in the woods and there’s no screen to see what I’m typing with my fingers too big for a tiny keypad.Just had to thank you for your gifts of live to us. It helps me live my loved ones even more as I’m sure for others.

  7. Thank-you, dear Kent. My animals have taught me, beginning as a child, all about Love. They are such a blessing to us humans, for which our gratitude knows no bounds.
    Voices in the Stones is one of my most favorite books of all time. A true classic. I find myself going back to read it, again and again.

  8. Ah, man, that’s why I read everything you publish. My dear old Catahoula, Toulouse, crossed the bridge a year ago and I still say “g’night buddy” when I give up reading to go to sleep. I know what you meant when you realized you may never “have” another dog. I don’t think I will either. I learned more from Toulouse than I ever learned in school. You don’t get over it, you just get used to it.

  9. As I look at that young man and his beagle, well, it says it all. The love and companionship runs so deep. It is so hard to lose a dog.
    We lost our beloved Labrador, Zorro, on October 14. Kent, I had read your passage many months before. It was difficult, I cried deeply; it summed up what I knew was coming. Zorro had a long decline with kidney disease. We hung on to life and joy and laughter every day, but that last day came just as when you were a boy. I think of life and death differently now. I’ve never thought much of the afterlife, but I certainly hope for the rainbow bridge now. It’s not easy to go on and its not easy to be strong, but the love we feel for our lost companion, does help ease the pain. So does the example our dogs set for us–brave, loyal, and joyful in just living each day. So do your words and the stories you tell, as painful as they sometime are.
    I will read Voices in the Stones tonight.
    Thank you.

  10. beautiful, Kent! You struck a cord. I’m tearing up. Thanks for sharing a bit of the book. I am looking forward to reading it!

  11. over the years I have owned three German Shepherds,or they owned me. Three times I have had to let them go to the Rainbow Bridge, each time my heart was torn apart. when I had to let my last girl, Izzie, go and the vet came to my home and she passed on my living room carpet. I know she is is still there looking at me. Dear me dogs and animals just give us humans so much and the deep feelings of love and loss are still with me

  12. Thank you, Kent. I will now go out to our Indy’s grave on her “bunny trail” and plant a kiss on the little cube of polished granite that serves as her headstone. She’s gone ten years but I will, as always, invite her to walk with me through the grove.

  13. Dear Kent, Nothing will ever replace my black lab, Stella. But there are so many dogs that have nobody to love them. My littleLucy came from the Rosebud. The big dogs would have had her for a snack. Charlie is a shelter dog. She is part shepherd with a film over her eyes/ that prevents her from seeing clearly. She is also terrified of everything. They love me completely as I love them. Stella has part of my soul and always will. But Lucy Lu and Charlie have part of my heart. The heart grows bigger the more you put in it. find one of these dogs that are
    alone and in need of someone to love. You’re never too old (I’m 75) to love.

  14. Beyond touching. This touched my very core. I stare at my 13 year old deaf, blind, arthritic black lab laying at my feet. I am bawling. I cannot bare to lose her. I know her days are numbered before she changes worlds. I cannot find comfort- only anger and deep sadness knowing the inevitability of her loss in my life. I know I have no “right” to keep her here. I am deeply sad for what is. Thank you for stirring our souls once again.

  15. I, too, had a wonderful terrier named Candy, who, at 11 years old, died in my arms from a massive tumor she had for four years. In those days we had no money to vet her, but until that she was very healthy and lived for four years with the tumor and no effects from it. Cats are my main pets now and maybe I will be the first one to mention them here, but I have seen many come and go. The last one was a twenty year old tuxedo named Susan Lucci who lived for 17 of her years in a tended colony at a local fairground. Every year we fed her and made sure she was there after every fair where she would have to hide like the others until the chaos was over. I took her home, finally, an aged cat, with a film over her eyes, but still eating, drinking and trying to live her best life. Although she had aged, she lived another 3 years and, although she’d been in kidney failure, she never missed her box and finally the day came when the infection (stomatitis) in her mouth would no longer let her eat. The last day of her life we sat on the couch together and watched ‘Starman’. Unable to eat, she knew her time was coming. Animals are wise old souls, and their lives are not worthless as I have come to see working in rescue and have seen so many animals just thrown away.

  16. Pam ( Frederick) Wylie

    You touch the heart and soul Kent. I so love your wisdom and way with words. I too have loved and lost a few precious little four legged souls. They are and will always be a part of me. Thank you

  17. I am so thankful I have found you and all of these wonderful thoughts you are sharing! My friend Rev. Furino turned me onto you and I am delighted to now have a list of books I intend to search for and devour. Thank you so much and I look forward to reading many of your works.

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