“I realized that avoiding death, so common in American culture, would not stop it. Instead, taking the time to thoughtfully and actively participate in her transition helped me join her in that state of grace she taught me so much about.”
I haven’t had much experience with death. That may be why I feared Cayenne’s for years, after a vet diagnosed her with liver failure and gave her six months to live … four years ago. She went on to happily and healthfully enjoy her golden years, her liver having repaired itself. In addition to fear, though, the vet’s dire prediction gave me a long time to think about her death. In many ways, that prepared me for it, as did my beloved cattle dog’s graceful acceptance of the natural process of growing old and dying.
She died two weeks ago. Her body was done, after 16 years of living with such boundless zest. In her life, she taught me to feel safe and confident, to be vulnerable and playful, to be patient and listen. I knew her death would also hold valuable lessons.
I had hoped she would choose the time and place and peacefully fall asleep one last time. I told myself I simply could not make that decision for her. But the first thing I learned from her dying is that I, in fact, could. For one of the first times in my life, I knew something in my gut. She told me with her body language and eyes that she was ready to go. She just couldn’t will herself to leave her body. I listened, and I trusted.
Ritual and ceremony surrounding love, celebration, change, and death help us to be fully present and honor those experiences. The ceremony of Cayenne’s death began weeks before. I walked around our land, specifically a small wooded area we call the “spirit garden,” to carefully choose a spot for her grave, one where I could sit for years to come in silence and natural beauty. She often joined me on these wanderings.
I had to start digging—pickaxing actually—before I knew when her time would come; our Texas land is solid limestone in places, and a hole that size would take days of sweaty labor. Sometimes it felt odd to prepare her grave before her death … to watch her walk by that hole in the ground where her body would ultimately lie. But I realized that avoiding death, so common in American culture, would not stop it. Instead, taking the time to thoughtfully and actively participate in her transition helped me join her in that state of grace she taught me so much about.
The day the vet was to come, I sat by her bed and told her what was going to happen. I created a shrine—photographs, candles, an imprint of her paw in clay—in our living room. I brushed her. I held her water bowl to her mouth for one last drink.
When the time was near, we went out to wander that land again. I let her lead the way. When the vet arrived, I cried, even trembled, but I breathed deeply and kept my focus on her. I watched closely as her body responded to the sedative, her breathing changed, and she collapsed peacefully onto my husband and me, sitting there in the dirt. I watched the vet shave her leg, inject the IV, and then the liquid that would stop her heart. I held her as she breathed her last. Her tongue fell out of her mouth and her eyes went cloudy. I did not turn away.
My husband and I lay her on a blanket there under the shade of the cedar trees, bits of sun shining through onto her face. The hours that followed were transformative. With silent understanding, we knew we were right where we wanted to be—sitting in the 100-degree heat with our dead dog. I kept my hands on her for over an hour, smoothing them over every inch of her. I breathed in her fur, her paws that I loved so much. I lay with my head on her chest, no longer moving up and down as I’d watched it do for years, and looked at the sky. I was so terribly sad … and yet, totally at peace.
What was happening transcends words. It was a feeling, a knowing. The kind of knowing we can only experience when we are stripped of distraction, avoidance, and noise. I had never spent time with a dead body. I never thought I would want to. But I now understand how important that was, to witness her transition, to take the time to say a long, patient goodbye.
Just as I’d never sat with a dead body, I’d never buried one. I’d sent my other cherished animals to be cremated. But with her, I realized months earlier I could never hand her body off to someone else to handle. I wanted to experience it all, to honor her life by caring for her body in death. Placing the blanket over her, when I could no longer see her, remains in my memory a more heartbreaking moment than her actual death. Maneuvering her body into a plastic cadaver bag was excruciating, certainly not physically graceful. But I thought of the words my friend wrote in a beautiful song, “that our pain is laced with grace.”
In her grave, I sprinkled the ashes of the dog I’d loved for 13 years before her, placed four feathers and three of her favorite toys above her, and covered it all with dirt. We then began carefully placing stones on top, creating a beautiful, natural monument. Having been in the heat for hours, we went in for a short break. When we returned, we found our cat Stoney lying in the dirt next to her grave. Stoney had loved his long-nosed big sister, his protector. He had walked beside her in her final days as she slowly stumbled around the yard. He lay quietly, very unlike him, and looked at us with unmistakable knowing and sadness in his eyes. He mewed and looked back at the ground. He stayed right there for two hours.
I now sit at her grave every evening. I light a candle next to her photograph every morning. I feel her all over and around our home and in the breeze.
In being fully present, I learned the most important things in this life are those that are not seen, those for which there are no words. I’m a writer. I wrote letters to Cayenne. I had hundreds of “conversations” with her about love and death. I find comfort in putting experiences and feelings to words. But sometimes, I’m reminded that all we really need to know is in the silence. It’s in our breath—our first, and last, and the billions in between. My husband and I did not need words in that hour we sat with Cayenne’s body. Stoney did not need words to know the moment her soul left her body. I have no words for where her soul is now. And yet, I know.
Keep reading: “A Prayer to Comfort Those Passing”