What Dogs Teach Us About Living – And Dying

‘I’m so sorry, it’s bad news.’

It was the outcome every dog owner dreads, a call from the vet informing us our beloved Hungarian Vizsla Brody had cancer. The scan Brody had undergone that morning had revealed a large tumour, and quite suddenly, there was nothing left for our eleven-year-old boy but time. As I dissolved into sobs on the other end of the line, the vet gently explained that we should pick Brody up and spoil him for the time he had remaining. It was already clear that time was limited – after a sudden downturn in his health, Brody was losing weight rapidly. Our strong, energetic dog, who only recently had been mistaken for a two-year-old, had apparently transformed into a frail senior overnight.

The tears that fell as we collected Brody from the vet’s surgery would be repeated regularly over the next two weeks, which turned out to be all the time our boy had left to him. During that fortnight, we took Brody on his favourite walks, and enjoyed visits to and from the people he loved most. My husband and I decamped with him to the sofa bed in the kitchen, next to the patio doors leading to the garden. The sense of anticipatory grief was enormous, and my heart felt permanently lodged inside my throat. Small things, like Brody’s disinterest in going out into the brief sunlight of the garden, brought on waves of boundless sorrow. Without me knowing, Brody and I had already shared many ‘last times’ doing the things we loved. We would never again go to our nearest beach, thanks to our coastline being pounded by Storm Babet. Instead, for much of those two weeks, we found shelter in the forest, amongst the gold and russet leaves. We took photos of Brody (whose weight loss meant he was now never without his coat), with each member of our family. A particular favourite is one of Brody with our two teenagers – the three boys who had grown up together at the centre of our lives. Brody sniffed out the forest trails as our sons jogged the paths, giving each other piggy backs. In that first week, what surprised me most of all was how much dying looked like living, but the impression was not to last. As our sons prepared to return to school after the October break, I scrolled my photos, pausing over one in which Brody watches them head off into the distance.

By the end of that week, he seemed to understand he was no longer able to keep up.

The day before school resumed, we walked a regular route past a local farm, and turned to see the end of a rainbow pooling in the bay beneath us. Brody paused for a few moments before he started walking again. Later, on the same walk, we noticed how much slower he was getting, and from that point onwards our outings became much shorter. I was painfully aware of the trajectory we were now following, and at home, I curled up with him, watching the rise and fall of his breath. In the days that followed, I saw rainbows everywhere. Meanwhile, Brody continued to deteriorate, and outside, he kept stopping, looking back, or staring into space. In our kitchen, I murmured in his ear that all the rainbows were waiting for him. He might not have known the meaning, but I know he understood the reassurance in my tone.

A few days later, a friend came to visit, and for the first time in his life, Brody did not get up to offer his usual greeting. I was bereft, and as Brody lay sprawled on the sofa bed, I felt something inside me break. That afternoon, my husband and I took him back to the forest, where we hoped he might drink some water. By now, he could only be persuaded by streams, or the rainwater that basined in the bird bath in our garden outside. At one point on our outing, Brody scraped at the ground between a copse of trees, and then stood staring into the distance. I took his head in my hands and kissed him. When we returned home, a rainbow sat over our house, the vivid colours appearing to leak into the roof.

The next night, all five of us – my husband, our two sons, Brody and I – spent the evening together on the pulled-out sofa. The boys watched TV, and I watched Brody, and the sense of love was palpable in the room. After the kids went to bed, Brody stretched out between me and my husband. I wrapped my arm around his thin body and felt the cool puffs of his breath against my face.

In the morning, I woke with a start, and, as I’d done every day that week, rushed to check that Brody was still breathing. He was, but he was exhausted, having had an unsettled night. Drained and grief-weary myself, I put my hands over my face and cried with a sense of knowing. My husband, whom Brody’s gaze had tracked around our house for years, looked into those warm-brown eyes and found them staring beyond him, immersed in something far away.

Our last, very brief walk, was once again to the forest. Our boy, who was the colour of autumn, had his final moments among the leaves. That night, at home, surrounded by the four people he loved most in the world, Brody’s life ended.

When he went, he took autumn, all its colour and its warmth.

Brody, Hungarian Vizsla, 2012-2023

That night, I was up in the small hours trying to find things that smelled of Brody. Since then, I have been going to bed with his little coat. My husband still takes Brody’s lead, wrapped in his hand, when we go on walks together. Our house feels full of the empty spaces he left behind.

Every now and then I’m hit with the realisation that I’ll never see him again, and I descend into panic. Tears come easily and the passing days only seem to take him further away. Three weeks on from Brody’s death, I have still not emptied the water bowl in the kitchen. When the sun shines, I cry because Brody doesn’t get to enjoy the sunshine. When I drink my morning coffee, I cry because he will never again pad out onto the patio, inviting me to throw the ball. My northern home, usually a place of comfort, has become a constant reminder of his absence. I keep busy, filling the spaces in my routine as best as I am able, but some days I am simply broken, curled up into a ball.

Here, in the open space of Caithness, Brody was able to enjoy a lot of freedom. He had company at home for the whole of his eleven years. We rarely went anywhere without him, and on the few occasions we did, he stayed with family. His death was peaceful, and the last voice he heard was mine, telling him how much he was adored. There are terrible things happening in the world, and my dog’s death was not tragic. My grief is tinged with shame, knowing the enormous losses some people have endured.

And yet, the grief I feel is overwhelming. For over a decade, I’ve been at home, spending more time with Brody than any person in my life. That’s not to imply some sort of hierarchy, or to suggest my loss is more or less than anyone else’s – I don’t think love works that way, and the heart is expansive. But now I must find a way of coping with this strange shift in routine, of making my life anew. Recently, I started a new job, which will take me out of the house more. Though the timing has been hard, the shift in focus might eventually help.

In his book Marley and Me, John Grogan writes that dog owners often remake their pets in death, painting them as perpetually noble characters, free of faults or indiscretions. It’s true that memories of our senior dogs can cloud our judgement, and the heady days of puppyhood and adolescence can seem a distant place. I’m content to admit that Brody had faults, and committed indiscretions. I’ve written at length about his puppyhood, and his adolescence – mostly, a long lesson in humiliation – is something I’m strangely more inclined to talk about now that he is gone. While out with me on his lead, Brody barked at other dogs for much of his life, and occasionally caused trouble where it wasn’t invited. His exuberance with other canines led us to cycle through walking routes, moving on (and often never returning), when some new shame had befallen us with the regular crowd. It was ironic that in his final weeks, we ended up back at the forest, a place we had avoided for years after Brody barked at an unforgiving jogger. Given a proper introduction, Brody would have made amends with unlimited affection. One of the things we enjoyed most about him was his ability to make virtual strangers feel like the most beloved person in the world.

Hungarian Vizsla Puppy Family Dog

At home, Brody was the antithesis of his outside persona, a lounge lover who enjoyed napping the hours away and snuggling under blankets. He was extraordinarily affectionate, offering a constant supply of kisses and adoration, an endless desire to be physically close. As a mother to two relatively easy human sons, Brody, our trickier ‘third child,’ taught me the importance of loving without conditions. He made me more self-aware and empathetic, able to recognise my own weaknesses, and see them reflected in him. In our humiliations, Brody taught me the importance of humility. In his huge capacity for love, he taught me the value of living life with an open heart. In the devotion of his gaze, I knew loyalty and compassion. In his death, I understood how limitless love is. How else could loss summon such overwhelming grief?

Brody died three days after my forty-seventh birthday, a milestone I had not felt inclined to celebrate. The anticipation of his death loomed large on the horizon, and we spent a quiet day cuddling on the couch. My sons, now on the cusp of early adulthood, were at school, both at a stage where they were beginning to pursue outside interests and relationships. Losing Brody coalesced with feelings of loss around motherhood, the shifting sands of care and nurturing, the need for a new unearthing of myself. Brody’s legacy was straightforward: almost eleven and a half years of love given and received, without question.

The more I thought about it, it seemed a pretty wonderful legacy to have.

By the time we got the call to pick up Brody’s remains from the vet’s surgery, autumn had turned to early winter. We had decided on a cremation, which seemed fitting for a dog who loved warmth, and being as close as possible to us indoors. Yet, as I sat with the urn cradled in my lap on the drive home, I felt an unexpected numbness. Collecting Brody’s ashes hadn’t given me the comfort I’d hoped for, and there was disbelief that all that was left of him was in this sealed vessel on my knee.

As the tears began to flow, a huge rainbow appeared out in the bay, following us until we turned the corner into our housing estate. The rainbow was accompanied by an unmistakable feeling of warmth inside my chest. I’m not sure what I believe in, but in that moment, all those rainbows made sense to me. Now, it was as if Brody was telling me he was happy. That he knew he was going home.

In the weeks since Brody’s death, I’ve posted about my grief on social media – until now, the only creative output I have been able to muster. Something that’s struck me about the responses has been the unilateral kindness and understanding I’ve received. Our shared love of pets seems to bring out the best in our shared humanity.

Perhaps the biggest lesson our dogs can teach us is to entrust that humanity to every aspect of our lives.

Dedicated to Brody, aka Greentimbers Franciscus, 2012-2023.

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