Grief for a Faithful Shepherd


Here is a revision of another early post on this blog. I journaled this a few years ago right after the death of our dog. Writing it down helped me to realize the difference between grief and depression. At times, early steps to recovery can be taken in the midst of pain.

Today we lost Maggie, our aussie who showed us what shepherding was all about. She was four months shy of 15, what’s that – about 75 in human time? 15 years with a daily companion who constantly watched over us. Unlike any dog we’d ever had, she tracked our moods carefully, responded closely to what we might be doing and instantly herded any stranger into a narrow range of movement. She never looked more splendid than when sitting grandly in the sun at a strategic point where she could oversee all the access points of potential intruders.

Over the past year she had been steadily losing her mobility – we’ve been carrying her up and downstairs for a few months, and during the last week she wasn’t even able to stand to relieve herself. Tammy, the vet, and one of her assistants arrived at 2:15 in the afternoon, both dressed in their dark blue pajama work clothes. I had been digging Maggie’s grave for the past few hours, a grim business in 100 degree weather, hacking with pick and shovel through the glinting clay hardpan to shape a deep home for her. I was drenched in sweat. L had been trying to occupy herself by mending a pair of jeans she can’t even fit into. We were both frayed. We took Tammy and her helper across the small courtyard, to the Taos sofa under the porch roof. Lying there, our attentive shepherd was panting uncomfortably.

Maggie yelped in pain every few seconds. She was covered with flies, attracted to the remains of bloody diarrhea that had been oozing out of her since this morning. The flies were a terrible insult, and I kept trying to brush them off. Tammy explained that she generally injects in one of the hind legs so we can hold the dog’s upper body and comfort her at the end. She acknowledged how sad this was but said it was wonderful that we had this option instead of letting the animals suffer, as humans
do. I knew what that meant. My mother had spent two dreadful years going crazy, losing most functions, yet stubbornly holding on to the most miserable and totally dependent existence. So we had decided on this quicker ending. Tammy claimed it was just like anesthesia, the dog would simply go to sleep, and then she said, as I was brushing flies off Maggie’s beautiful tri-merle coat, “I’m starting to inject now.” I watched her pushing the syringe piston and the fluid leaving the tube.

Maggie suddenly looked up in a strange way, her head turned slightly, and breath escaped slowly. “What you’re seeing is a neural reaction – her heart has stopped beating, and the lungs are releasing the air.” Maggie’s eyes turned up, her tongue rolled out, limp and blue against one side of her mouth.

No, wait! That’s not like falling asleep – it’s so fast – too fast. One instant and she’s gone! I was expecting to ease her along, but bang, it’s over. I felt like I was reaching out in the dark for something to hold onto, my arms tense not knowing where to go, but then I felt them relaxing, as I realized there’s nothing to reach for but this lifeless beautiful dog, now with a contorted face. I straightened her out on the sofa, as I choked up, tears welling in my eyes, L making strange sounds like laughter, but I knew she was crying too. Tammy said something about the bill, and L said she’d take care of it in the morning. I kept staring at Maggie, brushing the damned flies, stroking her face in a useless attempt to get her eyes closed. I felt Tammy’s hand gently stroke my back, but quickly pulling off for fear of intruding, and I half-turned and grunted a thanks, not trusting myself to shape the words fully.

L and I sat with Maggie for a while, eyes running gently but steadily, saying a word or two about what a great and faithful member of the family she had been, the dog our kids had grown up with, the best dog we’d ever had. I cried for real as I put her down on the stained quilt we would bury her in, then stood back as L carefully wrapped her body up in its folds. Despite all the weight Maggie had lost in her illness, she was never heavier in my arms than now, as I lifted this bundle and held her so very close.

We walked to the rear of the shed where my neat straight-sided ditch awaited her. It was hard to get down to my knees and lower her in without falling over on her or dropping her the last bit, but finally she was a pink bundle in the grave. Neither one of us could say much, but we shoveled the dirt over her fast, damn fast. Then we lugged five heavy tree stump sections to cover the spot so no animals would try to dig her up. When L walked around the corner to get something – I don’t remember what – my eyes filled up again. What a loss – she had gone so fast! I couldn’t get over the tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, rapidly turning blue. L was back in a moment, and we made sure all the stumps were in place. I got the tools back in the garage, and we walked inside, holding each other, covered with sweat, the tears mixed in.

Damn, that was only two and a half hours ago. It’s a long sad evening now.

Whatever depression I’ve been feeling, this is so different, just honest grief. And believe me, I’m getting the feeling out for once instead of bottling it up. That’s what I’ve usually done, shoving an intense emotion into some lost place where it joins a hundred other pushed down feelings. This is a rare time when I can grasp the difference between depression’s endless grieving and this grief that is so deep now but will in time come to its natural end.

Has an event like this eventually helped you with the healing process?


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8 Responses to “Grief for a Faithful Shepherd”

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  1. John D says:

    kbm – I’ve often had that delayed grief reaction – it can suddenly burst out at some unrelated incident. But whenever it comes, that’s such a relief to me. If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan work with dogs – really with their owners – you know he sees them in need of the security of leadership – just as they do in packs. But the approach emphasizes purely their canine nature – which, of course, is the reality. But people form deeper attachments – and like you I felt we were living with a loving and attentive being.

    Thanks so much for coming by – John

  2. John D says:

    Melinda – Thank you – I’m glad the point about grief and depression struck a chord. That was such an important realization for me at that moment. It really started the changes of recovery that I’m still going through. I share your impatience with people who can’t see the difference between true depression and situational responses. You describe that very well. As I feel about many bloggers, it would be great support to be able to sit down and talk.

    My best, – John

  3. John D says:

    Marissa – Witnessing the sudden death of a loved one has got to be the most shocking thing of all. You put me in mind of Joan Didion’s book about grieving over the death of her husband as she was preparing dinner and he was about to sit with her. I did not witness the death of either parent, but I did see them when they were close to the end. That’s bad enough – they are no longer the same people.

    Thanks so much for coming by! – John

  4. John D says:

    Svasti – Thanks for that touching story. It’s so true that the loss of a pet you’ve lived with for so long is such a blow. Also true is that it can seem a bit silly or self-indulgent, especially when you see someone broken up about a pet’s death. In the midst of all the craziness of the world, how could this be such a big thing. But it is. That’s all there is to it.

    My best to you – John

  5. When we had to put my dog to sleep, I was so relieved that she was no longer suffering. That feeling overrode any grief I felt at the time. Over the months, as I missed her, the grief began to make itself known. After over a year, I’m still grieving. It’s a tough situation when you lived with such a loving being for over a decade. I know she was a dog physically, but in reality I look at her as a loving being.

  6. Melinda says:


    My heart went out to you when I read this post–and it also reminded me of the terribly difficult times in my own life when I have lost a loved pet (and I have lost several that were so dear to me).

    I think you raised a great point about the difference between grief and depression–I think many people tend to confuse depression with their own feelings of sadness or grief. It is so hard for people who have never experienced true depression to understand it. I think most people tend to consider the times in their lives when they have felt situational sadness (such as losing a loved one, a job, or a relationship), when depression is so very different. When we lose a loved one, we can understand WHY we feel sad–and I know when I was truly depressed–I was sad but also confused and angry because I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way.

    Thanks, as always, for a thinker.


  7. Marissa says:

    Wow, John. That was amazing. I’ve never gone through grief like that over a pet but I can’t imagine seeing your pet pass away like that.

    My mother saw my father having a stroke before he died. She saw his eyes open wide as he struggled to gasp for air. On the way to the hospital, he was pronounced dead.

    I hope I don’t have to endure such an experience. I couldn’t take it. I’d go batty.

  8. Svasti says:

    Hi John, what a beautiful – if sad – piece of writing.

    Pets play such a wonderful role in our lives. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through the last few years if it weren’t for my beautiful kitteh, Cleopatra.

    Maybe four years ago or a little less, our last family pet had to be put down. She was the mummy cat of a mummy & daughter pair we’d had for years. Mishka (the mum) was a Chocolate Burmese & Tasha (the daughter) was a Blue Burmese. Gorgeous pair and they were inseperable.

    Tasha went first about three years before Mishka. That was hard… she had some form of cancer and jaundice. I was living in Sydney and found out when I was on a ski trip, which felt quite ludicrous.

    But then Mishka went when I’d moved back to my home town. She had some sort of fit, and then her eyes went all cloudy. Mum called me at work to tell me and I lost it. My sister and I headed over to my folks’ place that night – to say goodbye.

    We held her for a while, patted her and… watched her sadly. She was no longer the Mishka we knew.

    Mum and dad took her to the vets. My sister and I stayed behind and cried.

    Mishka was almost 18 when she left us.

    Like all good pets, she was an absolute blessing.

    I’m so glad you were able to take such good care of your Maggie. Sure, it was quick – but at least you were by her side.

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