Memorializing the Buddha-nature of a departed canine friend. And a therapist gives advice for grieving a pet’s loss.
For many of us, our pets are family. When a pet dies, often the grief is keenly felt. Whisper, the greyhound adopted by writer and massage therapist Alan Davidson, died on September 22. He contributed this essay in memory of Whisper.
Following Davidson’s tribute, therapist David Genac, who provides grief counseling for people who have lost beloved pets as part of his practice, offers some ideas for bereft humans, “Coping with the Loss of a Pet.”
Saturday 9/22/2007—Whisper, my 14-year-old friend and canine-other, died this morning in my hands.
I’m reminded, as I often am when an animal friend dies, of a story told by a small town vet:
Shane, a four-year-old boy, seemed so calm petting the Blue Heeler for the last time. The boy’s parents and the local vet, who’d come by the house to put the cancer-riddled dog “to sleep,” wondered if Shane understood what was going on.
Within a few minutes of the injection, the old dog slipped peacefully away. The little boy seemed to accept his death without difficulty or confusion. They sat together for a while, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.
Shane, who had been listening quietly piped up, “I know why.” Startled, the adults all turned to him.
Shane said, “Everybody is born so that they can learn how to live a good life—like loving everybody and being nice, right?” The four-year-old continued, “Well, animals already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”
Whisper mastered “loving everybody and being nice” long before I met him. He was his namesake—quiet. I can count on two hands the times I heard him bark. But he could give a look that spoke a thousand barks and launched more than one trip to the doghouse for me. He was dignity incarnate, a bit timid, and wise beyond knowing.
“The voice” told me to adopt a greyhound. I get messages sometimes inside my head. Shocked at the directive to adopt a dog (at the time I thought of myself as a cat person), I found myself at Greyhound Pets of America-Houston looking for a retired racer.
I’d already seen several beautiful dogs I liked, when I asked to meet five-year-old Whisper. Out of his cage, he immediately ran lickety-split down the long row of the kennels to throw his lanky black body up to look out a porthole window. A minute later, he turned and ran full speed right at me, launched his front paws to my shoulders, and looked me in the eye. I knew Whisper was a sign from the gods, and that day we became a family.
During our long walks up and down Houston’s classy North and South Boulevards, people stopped to admire his elegant good looks: dark black fur with a blazing white star on his chest, short white socks on his feet, and a soft white tip to his long whip tail. In winter we would tromp through Herman Park, where he strutted his stuff in a black fleece jacket and long black leash.
He was his most handsome when he met a new dog buddy, standing stock still, chest held high, his long ears pointing straight up and his equally long tail arching back and up. He sure could turn heads.
Whisper was soon going to work with me. He would curl up on his bed in the corner of my massage room. Some clients came to see him every bit as much as get their massage. He was so serene, still and quiet. I called him my Buddha dog. Peace just seemed to flow through him. When I was agitated, he would nuzzle me with his cold long snout and remind me to pet him…and to chill.
Whisper’s greatest gift to me was his knack for just being. When I took the time to study him I was impressed at how easy it was for him to be his true self—a dog that walked, ran, pooped, and slept when he wanted to; a friend who showed kindness and care when he wanted to; a being who demanded I tear my focus away from my selfish-self and pay attention to something, anything else—albeit him, usually.
He taught me responsibility—the basic art of doing what needed to be done. Walk him. Feed him. Love him. Even when my ego preferred to indulge my self-absorption, Whisper taught me, “It’s not all about Alan. It’s about all of us, other people, our animal friends, and the sky/earth song around us.”
My first Koan, the Japanese Zen cosmic riddle, asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” My mind will never grasp that answer. But my Big Heart just has to remember Whisper, a master of being his true/unique self, to know, “Yes!” Dogs, as all things, have Buddha nature. Being is being. It’s everywhere I am conscious. Every time I’m being my true self, I’m Whisper. I’m Big Mind. I’m Buddha nature.
Whisper’s legs had gotten shaky and his hips pretty weak these last few years. He had already lived long past the life expectancy for a big dog and a retired racer. I like to think all those years of sleeping at the foot of my massage table, or curled up next to me while we meditated, kept him healthy and whole.
Yesterday he slipped in the kitchen and couldn’t get up. His back legs wouldn’t hold him. We had to carry him outside. He would walk a few tottering steps, stop, and cautiously move on, or fall down…there was no way to know. I spent a lot of the night, and this morning, on the floor with him. I held, petted, and thanked Whisper for all the many gifts of friendship he had given me.
At the vet office, Whisper was his serene self. There was nothing else to be done for him. Leg shaved and the port in place, he rested, alert, head up, ears at attention, eyes wise and knowing, peaceful as a sphinx. I held his long snout in my palms as Dr. Michelle pumped the gentle death into his vein. He gave us each a last look, closed his eyes, and died. Moments later, I let his head rest on the pallet. In death he looked elegant, as always. He had a gorgeous way of curling up, his long body a graceful line, his ears surprisingly still at attention.
Whisper had one more gift for me. I felt the shell I’ve carefully built to protect my Big Heart, breaking open, wide open. As I surrendered to the immensity of our friendship together, I cried. I trusted the pain I felt just as I trusted my opening heart.
He was true and giving up to his very end. Thank you, Whisper, my teacher, my Buddha friend. I smile to think of you chasing rabbits through Elysian Fields, being your happy, care free, true Buddha self.
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COPING WITH THE LOSS OF A PET
In his practice, psychologist David Genac, Ph.D., often works with people who are grieving the loss of a pet. Typically, social norms don’t help individuals cope with that kind of loss, he says.
“We have infrastructures set up for the loss of human beings—funerals, people offering support, people sending cards and flowers. That’s not so for people who have lost animals. That complicates the grieving process. There’s no place for people to deal with that grief. They question themselves and can feel embarrassment.”
Genac, who until recently led a grief-support group offered by the Houston SPCA, strives to educate clients “that the grieving process is normal.”
In working with clients, Genac sometimes counsels the adoption of another pet, depending on the client. “Some people will get another pet right away, others feel they need to heal first before they get another,” he says. “Others feel guilty when they get another pet. I often encourage people to go sooner rather than later and get another pet, because there are so many pets out there that need homes. And pets have such an amazing ability to help in the healing process.”
Friends and family of people who have lost their pets should allow those individuals to grieve, Genac advises. “Just be there. Be there for your friend. Allow grieving to happen rather than try to shut it down or cheer up. With humans, we have funerals that are designed to let you cry and let you grieve. That often isn’t the case with animals.”
The Houston SPCA offers its professionally facilitated pet-loss support group on the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. The group, Genac says, “gives you a safe place to talk about these things and begin the healing.” Details: 713/869-7722, extension 127, www.spcahouston.org. Genac continues to work with clients grieving the loss of a pet in his private practice (713/899-3769, www.davidgenac.com).