Every morning, when I am first downstairs, I miss her anew. There is a particular kind of nothing in the corner that, until two weeks ago, housed her beanbag nest.
That hollowness matches the echo in my chest. Each morning brings a fresh pang of grief: the dog is still dead, will always be dead.
My wife says that was her first thought on waking for the first week: Moxy is dead. Moxy is dead. When it stopped, she felt worse. This was no longer news; it just was. She felt guilty that we might adjust to Moxy’s absence, that it might feel normal to be without her.
This is the guilt of forgetting.
There is a lot of guilt around the death of a dog. And a lot of awkwardness. For every hot, sharp stab of loss comes another of shame – a sense of self-indulgence. Real tragedies abound. People lose whole families. She was “just a dog”.
There are no rules for measuring grief around the death of a pet. There is no formal leave, no general understanding that performing as a human being becomes more or less impossible for – how long? – days, or weeks?
I’ve long been aware that private sadness is an affront to many people, met with fear of contagion or anger that you’re killing their buzz (“Aren’t you over that yet?”). This seems particularly acute when the cause of your sadness is “just” a pet.
In the days after Moxy died, there were a few people who were in a hurry to move the conversation on. One family member met my wife’s sadness with, “Oh, is that all?”
That said, I’ve been touched this time by how many have understood that a dog becomes part of a family. Nobody’s dog is “just a dog”. That compassion has been a balm. It has helped give me the confidence to experience the grief, rather than shrug it off.
Moxy was the first living creature my wife and I loved together. She was a small Boston terrier: fierce, playful and affectionate.
When we bought her, pre-children, we fulfilled every cliche of the doting doggy parent. Moxy rode around in a basket on the back of our bikes wearing “doggles” (yes, dog-goggle sunglasses to protect her bulbous eyes). We bought her a dog baby-carrier (she hated it). When we left her at a luxury dog resort while we holidayed in San Francisco, we spent the whole month looking at pictures of her. We stopped visiting friends who wouldn’t let us bring her with us.
And then we had children.
This has been a major source of guilt in the past weeks. While, of course, we still loved her, there can be no question the dog was demoted the day we brought our first daughter home. When parenting became all-consuming, having to spare time and care for another dependant often felt too much.
After Moxy died, I thought of all those moments of impatience and frustration, the evenings she was left sulking in the corner because we were too tired or too burgled of affection.
Did she feel loved? Could we have loved her more? I had meant to make those moments up to her. I had thought there would be time.
This is another source of guilt – the inability to explain things to a pet. The love of a dog is pure and simple. How could we explain to Moxy that we still loved her? How could we comfort her during her short but savage illness (a brain tumor) when we couldn’t tell her what was happening? Could she have understood what was going on during that final vet visit – or that last hour we spent as a family in the park so she could feel grass beneath her feet one more time?
The worst part of a dog’s death is the pragmatism it forces on you as a carer. It underlines the divide between human and animal. I loved her, but I still carried her into the vet and lay her on the table. I lay her on the rug that was waiting, that I only realized later was her shroud.
It was a kindness, but it felt brutal. I can’t imagine what it must be like to make those calls on behalf of another human being.
I am familiar with the slowing down that happens in crisis. What struck me about the instant of Moxy’s death was how fast it was. There were no long moments. She didn’t fade away so much as switch off. The vet wrapped her up and we left the room. I held my wife. I held the children.
Parenting is often having every emotion at once without surrendering to any of them.
I was preoccupied in the moment with managing my children’s grief, while feeling overwhelmed by my own. As a journo, I felt like I was having to write and edit at the same time, tenderly reshaping the experience as it happened. Maybe I was wrong to try. Our youngest said she had never seen me cry before. That felt important.
The final gift a dog gives its family is the lesson of loss. The knowledge that a story is not devalued by its ending. All that love still happens. Our kids have been given a knot of complex emotions and, as hard as it has been, it has been extraordinary watching them untangle that knot.
Our eldest, who has a tendency to shut down difficult emotion, has expressed her grief in painting and poetry. Our youngest is learning that raging against the dying of the light does not turn the light back on. I have no doubt both the girls will be better people for the knowing of Moxy – and the losing of her.
For me, losing our dog has been a reminder of the importance of the real, at a time when it feels easy to lose yourself in the virtual. Loss is intensely physical. Memories and stories are solace, but it’s the weight of the warm body that is forever missed; Moxy’s sounds and her smells (some less missed than others). The house feels still, almost stagnant; no longer haunted by her warm footsteps.
I see her in shadows, hear her in sounds and scratches.
The dog is gone. But she is in me. She is woven into the lives of my children.
I am grateful for the lessons she taught us. For her love. For the grief I barely feel entitled to.
Thanks, Moxy. We miss you.