Our fiercely smart and impossibly sweet golden retriever, McGyver, lost his short battle with cancer 21 months ago. In the days leading up to his passing I left his side only when I could no longer fend off the sobs I’d been holding back. “Goldens are stoic” our vet had warned and, because of this, I cried for the courage to face the unthinkable behind closed doors. I didn’t want McGyver to see me cry. I wanted him to know we – my husband Scott and I – were strong and resilient; that he could go and we’d be okay. It took eight days to convince him before he relaxed into permanent slumber.
Healing from the hurt has been a long road paved with such physical yearning I thought joy would never return. I admit to spending countless hours contemplating what I might do or trade for one last kiss on his nose: A deal with the devil that could end my longing. I also became obsessed with understanding the pain caused by the loss of our canine companion; endlessly Googling for reassurance I was not alone in my suffering.
Not surprising there are plenty of articles offering advice and two in particular stood out – one champions getting a dog and the other sings the praises of grief.
In June 2017 Men’s Journal ran a piece titled “Life’s Just Better with a Dog” and writer Bronwen Dickey served up a solid case – nine good reasons – as to the “why;” starting with a history lesson on the human/dog relationship. It’s not new. Humans and dogs have relied on each other for thousands of years. Dickey muses, “Were it not for the protection and partnership dogs provided us, civilization might not have been possible.” It’s a bit heady, but I agree. The rest of her list seems spot on, too.
They help you chill. Yes, coming home to McGyver’s wagging tail (it could clear a coffee table) calmed me.
One might save your life. He likely saved mine numerous times. McGyver loved to run the trails with me and, on occasion, refused to go deeper into the woods. In every instance, he’d bite his leash, turn me around, and lead us both back to the safety of the house or car. I didn’t know what it was he sensed on the path ahead–a mountain lion, a bear, a person–but I never questioned his judgment.
You can find the right dog for you. He was the dog for us and we were the humans for him. This I know.
You’ll feel more understood. He knew sharing my morning banana with him, even though it annoyed me, was the right thing to do.
You can bring out your Dog’s inner dog. He was a Golden Retriever through and through. He only wanted to do right by us and when his impulsiveness got the better of him, he was the first to confess. The cat’s food bowl empty? He’d sit quietly, not making eye contact sorry his tummy hurt and that he’d disappointed us.
You’re more active. We were; exactly three miles a day more active.
They’re ready when you are. He was up for anything: hiking, the hardware store (treats come from red vest pockets), and even the office (celebrities were known to roam there).
Dogs are the last true social connector. Adults and kids were drawn to McGyver: people like Joe, an elderly neighbor, became part of our extended family because of McGyver.
The second article that caught my eye was a 2012 summary of a study by Scientists with the department of Psychological and Qualitative Foundations at the University of Iowa. Their findings suggest we grow and demonstrate enduring, positive change as a direct result of a painful experience.
The Scientists had made a connection between a “traumatic, life-changing event,” including bereavement, and a positive result, such as new possibilities or better relationships. In fact, in the face of “deep grief,” participants felt “a lift” as their empathy and perceptions changed. Perhaps the old adage I’m better for it is true.
The stretch of time after McGyver died is fuzzy. The sadness was all consuming and left a dark stain on the days, weeks, and months that followed. I keep a small bundle of his fur below an 8×10 image of him. His smell still lingers and when I close my eyes and bury my nose in the feathery tuft, he feels near.
The lessons McGyver taught me are also present: I live more in the moment than I ever have. I am a better wife, friend, and stranger. Despite the overwhelming grief his passing caused, I am better for caring and falling in reckless love with a puppy named McGyver more than a decade ago.