Losing a pet, or any loved one, is never easy. When my dog Sophia died last year, she was 15 years old. She had grown up with me; she had been by my side through pretty much every major milestone in my life.
When she died, it felt like my insides had been hollowed out, both because I was losing a best friend, and because it meant that one of the last links to my childhood was gone.
Losing Sophia was the first real loss I'd ever experienced, and it made me feel scared and powerless in the face of the passing of time.
I remember sitting on my patio last October 2, the day after we put Sophia to sleep. I was drinking tea, watching the steam rise up out of my ceramic mug and disappear, noticing an endless stream of wispy clouds float through the sky above me.
In that moment, I remember realizing a profound and painful truth about life: It ends. Of course, I have always known this in words, but I had never known it in feeling.
I remember when we first got Sophia, when I was in first grade.
“Girls, wait here, okay?” my mom said. “Your grandparents just got here and they brought something for you.”
My sisters and I sat on the beige carpet of the living room, totally unsure of what to expect. All of a sudden, a tiny black ball of fur came running into the room, followed by our grandma and grandpa.
We squealed with laughter as the puppy came bounding towards us, jumping over our legs and nipping at our fingers with her tiny teeth. After sitting in the car for the five-hour trip from Upstate New York, the little dog wanted to run around.
My mom beamed at us from the corner of the room.
“What should we name her?” I exclaimed, trying to gather the dog in my arms. She leapt away, full of that tireless energy that only puppies have. “What do you girls think of the name Sophia?” my mom ventured.
Sophia was a grey toy poodle, though at the time she was still so young that most of her fur was jet black. The fur around her little brown eyes and face had begun to turn grey, as had her big fluffy ears. She had a small black nose that she would nuzzle into the palm of your hand when you pet her.
Unlike most poodles, she was not tall and elegant, but rather, a bit short and stocky, with a chubby belly and short little legs. We absolutely adored her. That afternoon in the living room, we welcomed the sixth member of the family into the house.
Sophia fit right in with our family and would never be far from my sisters and I. When we were younger, we would spend most of our time outdoors, especially during the summer. The backyard was always full of the sounds of our laughter and Sophia’s barking.
When I came home the night of October 1, I walked into that same living room to an entirely different scene. My mom and dad were sitting on the couch with Sophia nestled in her fleece bed between them.
She looked so tiny, curled up in a ball. My mom said she hadn’t really eaten in weeks. She could hardly walk anymore and was mostly blind at this point. Right now she was asleep, snoring lightly. She looked different: older, sicker, weaker.
I sat down on the floor and pet her little head, seeing if she would acknowledge me. She continued sleeping, her breathing irregular. Tears welled in my eyes behind my glasses. My sisters came down and sat on either side of me, one of them gently holding Sophia’s tiny paw.
“Should we go tonight or tomorrow?” my mom asked. “To the vet,” she clarified. A long pause followed. “Tonight,” I finally said. “Sophia’s in pain. Look at her, she’s not a happy dog anymore.”
We sat there in the living room, all six of us, for a while longer before deciding it was time to go. The car ride was quiet, as we drove through darkened back roads to the vet a few towns over.
It felt strange, driving through the night like that, knowing what was ahead. We arrived, and my mom, tears streaming down her face, carried Sophia into the lobby on her little pink fleece bed.
As we stood in the waiting room, Sophia began to stir. She even stood up and began to whine. My sisters and I looked at each other with alarm. “Should we bring her outside?” My mom tried to pet her gently and settle her down, but she continued to move around in an agitated manner.
“I guess we should.” My mom gathered tiny Sophia in her arms, and we all followed her back out the door, into the cold October night. She set Sophia down in the dry grass, but as soon as she was out of my mom’s arms, she stumbled over herself and fell. My mom reached to support her.
This would be the last time Sophia saw the outside world, the last time she felt the breeze and smelled the grass. I’m sure in her delirious state she didn’t know this, and was only dimly aware of anything happening around her.
In this moment, I was so angry. I was angry at the way life ends, not only for Sophia, but for everyone. You live this whole life, full of so many moments of joy and of hurt, full of memories and people and dreams, and at the end, it’s only darkness, a dim awareness. Why?
I looked around me, noticing the dead grass beneath my feet, the leaves on the trees above me turning to brown crisp. For a second, however, through the mass of dying leaves above my head, I could have sworn I saw a shooting star swoop gracefully across the cold, dark sky.
“You’re doing the right thing,” the vet said to us as we stood in the exam room moments later. I remember he had kind, caring eyes, and because of this, I trusted him.
Tears streaked my face as I tried to keep my composure. I thought for a moment about leaving the room, fearing that I would faint. The fluorescent lights seemed suddenly brighter, more intense.
My vision got all blotchy and black. It felt like a knot was rising in my throat, and my arms got all tingly. Perhaps sensing my impending panic, my dad put his hand reassuringly on my shoulder at just the right moment. I noticed tears filling his eyes, too, and for only the second time in my entire life, I saw my father cry.
My mom held Sophia in her arms as the vet injected her arm. We each said our last goodbyes to the dog that had grown up with us and become as much a part of our home as a fourth sibling.
I saw as her breathing slowed, and her eyes closed. The vet felt her heart with his hand before saying quietly, “She’s gone.”
We walked out of the vet’s office and into the cold night air, my dad carrying Sophia’s now-empty fleece bed. It was a clear October night, and I could see stars dotting the sky.
What got me was thinking of our little dog, alone somewhere out there. But where? Heaven? Do dogs go to heaven too? I’d like to think they do.
For me, at this particular point in my young adult life, losing Sophia was like losing one of the last links to my childhood. As a senior in college, so much was changing so quickly.
Soon, I would graduate from the school that had come to be my home, and I would no longer be surrounded by the friends that had truly come to feel like family.
This moment of darkness and so many others like it remind me that life is so fragile. There’s no way to stop time, or to prevent the people and pets we love from getting old and eventually passing away.
However, just as these knots of sadness in life cause us to slow down and look around for a moment, so, too, do moments of light and joy. It is important not to let the dark moments cloud the light ones.
In this moment, I remember feeling overcome by an almost neurotic desire to stop time in its tracks, to press pause so I can somehow get my bearings, go back and relive all of my light and dark moments, just to know they are still there.
Of course, this is impossible. Just as the steam that rose out of my mug of tea swirled up and disappeared, and just as the wispy clouds continued to float through the October sky, time will keep on passing, disappearing through my fingers like water in an endless current.
I will never again be 8 years old, innocent and carefree, running through my backyard with my sisters and dog at my heels. These moments and so many other moments are gone, and I cannot get them back.
What I will never lose, however, are the precious memories I have cultivated of my family, my dog Sophia, my friends and of the precious and fleeting time I’ve spent with the people I love.
This is what is important, after all, and though life ends and this truth can make us feel scared and vulnerable, it is important not to let fear keep us from living a rich and full life, filled with dreams that scare us and people we love so much it hurts.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It