If you follow this blog or the FFF Facebook page, you know that we have the most amazing dog EVER. We sometimes refer to him as The Dawg, but really his name is Max.
Let me say from the outset that I did NOT want a dog. We travel. I am naturally spontaneous. I had dogs die when I was young and I don’t want to go through that again. I have enough shit to do, lives to manage, rooms to clean, without a DOG!
A1 did NOT want a dog.
The kids were BEGGING for a dog.
Over time, they chipped away at my resilience until finding a puppy seemed a reasonable, doable thing. A1 tried to convince me, repeatedly, that having a dog was like having a child, that this would be a new family member that we would be stuck with FOR LIFE and that I really had enough on my plate.
HAH!!! He should have known better than to challenge me!
Suddenly, finding the perfect dog seemed like something we HAD to do. In the back of my mind, I knew A1 had some good points, but he was traveling a lot and wouldn’t be very involved, so his vote didn’t count for much and since I had dogs throughout my entire childhood and those dogs didn’t seem at all to get in the way, I thought he might maybe be saying no just to say no.
And I can’t stand that.
I found Max through Petfinder and after some harried conversations with the rescue group (it was nearly impossible to find a cute, young dog that wasn’t taken immediately and I was intent on a particular breed and size), I convinced A1 to drive me to Pennsylvania on a cold, rainy Saturday morning in December. “Let’s just see,” I promised him…”No commitments. It probably won’t work out…You never know what we will find…”.
What we found was the most mangy looking, shaking and absolutely petrified little guy you could imagine. “Boy, you’ve really hit the jackpot, haven’t you? You are gonna be so happy”, A1 whispered to the dog, as it literally tried to slither away, it’s belly to the ground in complete submission and desperate fear.
I wasn’t so sure, to be completely honest. “I hope you don’t fucking have lice or fleas,” may possibly have been my first words, followed by “I just don’t know about this”. Max shivered and curled himself into a tight ball as I spread a towel over my entire self, wrapped him in a blanket and held him all the way back home. From that moment on, I was his savior and he was my steadfast, loyal friend and constant companion.
I found myself astounded to discover that I had an immediately deep and moving love for Max. In so many ways, he was like a human. I don’t mean this in a strange cat-lady way. I mean he truly exhibited needs, desires, emotions, quirks and curiosity of many humans I know. I honestly never expected that. The dogs of my childhood were companions. I played with them. I fed them. I rolled around with them. I shaved my initials in the side of Sampson and rode on top of Harley. But I certainly never looked at Sampson or Bruno or Big Red and thought to myself that they were speaking to me.
I always thought it so interesting, scientifically, or objectively, I mean, that this little animal could communicate myriad levels of emotion and connectivity just with the depth of its eyes, the shape of its mouth, the turn of its head, the droop of its tail.
He expressed need by looking right in your eyes, shame by refusing to look in your eyes, and love by fervent licking. He HAD to lick my hand to say hello or goodnight. And by “had to” I mean-he wouldn’t give up until he had done it, some way or other, somehow.
So. Gross. I DO NOT like licking in any form (well, I mean by children or dogs or llamas or snakes) but that dog just wouldn’t do until he had licked my hand.
Max was a thoroughbred Havanese. This dog is by nature very cuddly, friendly, loving, energetic and loyal. Because of his early life–he had been kept in a cage in the basement since birth, and was 1 1/2 years old when we found him– Max tended to be reticent in new situations.
His favorite place was by my side and he followed me literally everywhere–from the laundry to kayak rides. It wasn’t until about a year into our relationship that he finally let me go to the bathroom by myself. I used to think this was the most disconcerting thing and that he must really love me to stick it out some days, since dogs have such keen noses.
Three weeks ago, just before Christmas and at the very height of his increasing sense of security and safety, Max was hit by a car.
It was a dark colored minivan, speeding through our neighborhood at night. It happened as much of the neighborhood was turned out for an evening of caroling. I saw the car speeding down the road and knew there were little ones on each side of the dark street, passing back and forth. I waved my arms to yell at the driver, turned to make sure no kids were running across the road and heard that horrible sound. Maxi, a dog who lived only to be loved, died in my arms.
The car didn’t even stop.
This post could be a commentary on the nerve of people these days who think no body and no thing matters more than their own lives, their own destination, their own concerns, their own phone.
But it isn’t. This post is really just a reflection on how we handled this horrible situation and is intended to help other families figure out how to best handle the loss of a family member, in this case a rather furry one.
After Max’s death, I googled how to help the kids handle the situation. There wasn’t much to go on other than basic intuition.
Here is what my family did. I hope that our approach and ideas will be helpful for families who may not know how to navigate their child’s first grief or loss.
A1 and I rushed Max to the ER, A1 insisting that he could feel a pulse and me in a dumb haze. The nurse took Max to the back and put us in an exam room. Just moments later the veterinarian on staff came in and nicely but clearly told us Max was dead and asked if we would like to cremate him or to take him home in a coffin. I tell you this because it shocked me and repulsed me. I hadn’t even wrapped my head around the fact that he was dead because I was hoping against all hopes that he was merely unconscious. I could still feel the warmth of his body and the weight of him in my arms. We decided to wrap him in his favorite blanket and take him home.
Our logic was that the kids would want to see him one last time, and that it would be too hard on them to process otherwise. This turned out to be true. Although we didn’t let them see Max’s face, because we didn’t want them to see his eyes, but we did let them pet him his fur (the softness of which they still haven’t stopped talking about). He wasn’t hurt on the outside, and the children really did want to pet and console him, so this worked for us.
Each member of the family said a prayer and a good-bye, and I think this would have been much less real and final if they couldn’t see hi, touch him and speak to him. They probably would have thought I was through with nagging them to walk him or clean up his poop and just fobbed him off on someone else, so I think they needed a final touch.
The Bad News
We wanted to be very calm and we didn’t want to alarm them overmuch. We actually talked about this–the children were still caroling and had no idea what had happened at this point– and we agreed that dramatic parents can create even more anxiety and drama for the children, so we wiped our eyes and put aside our grief. We also wanted to be honest. We took them into the backyard where Maxi lay and told them what happened. #1 immediately grasped the situation before we even said it, and ran away into the house, hysterical. #2 really didn’t get it at first. He started crying, but it seemed forced and I sensed that it would hit him later.
We decided to bury Max in our backyard, our thought being that we could reassure the children that he was close to us. A1 took care of this while I brought the kids inside to try to process the situation.
This may not have been a good idea. #1 couldn’t stand to talk or think about Max, let alone to see his little grave. #2 wouldn’t be alone by himself since Max was dead AND under the ground IN his backyard, and he couldn’t stop thinking (and talking) about the physical affects of death and burial. I think this should be food for thought for any family that has to go through this situation. Each person in my family handled Max’s death so individually, but universally I think that we don’t find having him here to be pleasant.
Both children were very upset, so I let them stay home from school the next day.
I decided my strategy would be to let them fully grieve in whatever way they showed me they needed to, without my stamping it and within the bounds of reason.
#1 retreated into herself. When she came out, she was very angry, saying it wasn’t fair since Max was so young and since we had only had him for a year. She took her anger out on #2, which is understandable but no less frustrating and sad for me to see. This passed, but it took time, hugs, a lot of reminiscing and some discussion on how to handle our thoughts and emotions as we get older.
#2 wouldn’t stop talking about Max, about the person who did it, about him being in the backyard, etc. , which bothered her (and I) even more. I decided they needed some closure, some time with their friends, and a distraction, so I asked them to plan a memorial service.
They had me send a text to their close friends and Max’s admirers, asking them all to come over after school. Max was much loved by everyone, especially our neighborhood kids, who by then had heard about his death and were both upset and nervous about it. Contrary to being scared about a funeral, all but one were anxious to come. Universally, they wanted to tell my kids how sorry they were that it happened, and they wanted to say goodbye. Good friends already….
The kids came up with a program which I thought had some nice details other families may want to consider:
They searched for large pebbles or small rocks that each child could paint in memory of Max. They cleaned the rocks and laid them on a table. When the guests came, they weren’t worried about where Max was and they weren’t talking about gruesome details. They painted. Some children just painted colors, while others drew paw prints, a bone, “GoodBye” or just the word MAX.
After the painting, bossy pants #1 rounded the children up and read out loud a lovely book (The Heaven of Animals) gifted to us by a neighbor who recently lost their dog to old age.
Then each child took their rock and got into a line in front of Maxi’s grave. They said a short bit about what they loved most about Maxi, and placed their rock on a large stump.
After this they signed the book.
Then #1 once again rounded them up, #2 handed out paper cups of sparkling fruit juice, and together they made a couple of toasts to Max. They passed around cookies and by then the other kids were ready to play. I let them run around for as long as they wanted thinking this is just what they needed to take their minds off of what had happened.
- I made a story photobook on Shutterfly that focused on our rescue of Maxi, all the new places we brought him to, how we made him so happy showing him how to play and how much we loved him. I made sure to include pictures that would spark happy memories for the kids and that would hopefully help them focus on the best of times and not the worst. Shutter fly frequently has great sales on books, the program is very intuitive and there are endless options, so making the book took about an hour and it was delivered a week later for about $22.
#2 looks at the book daily and took it in for show and tell. Luckily, he has an amazing teacher who has grasped just how sensitive and emotional he is, and who has really been helpful in hugging him through the sad times.
- I let each child purchase some flower bulbs, which I planted around the stump, they not being willing to dig anywhere near it, but still wanting wherever Max was to be beautiful and full of fairies to protect him.
- Each of the children’s fairies (more on this craze later) wrote them notes that included some funny fact about Max. For example, #1’s fairy wrote about taking a ride on Max’s tail. As Max tried to sniff her and began to run in circles, she clung to his tail in a crazy, wild and super fun rodeo ride. #2’s fairy (His name is Buck) talked about Maxi sniffing in his family’s house, blowing pollen everywhere and upsetting his mother who had to sweep it up. Understandably, the children were comforted by these notes. They are young enough to believe in fairies and to also hold onto something that makes them feel better, no matter how implausible.
- I found several books at the library that were intended to help children deal with the loss of a pet. Universally we found them to be sad, disturbing or downright awful.
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, (by Judith Vorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Day) gifted to us by another neighbor who we love dearly, tells the story of a boy who loses his dog Barney. His friend tells him the dog has gone to heaven, but he insists there is no such place and this did not happen. Then the father tells him that Barney is helping the flowers to grow. Neither of my children took this well, both of them well aware of decomposition and biology and neither ready to even remotely think about their beloved pet literally pushing up daisies.
Love That Dog by Newbury Medalist Sharon Creech, is interesting in that it is poetry but horrible in that it is especially visual:
“because the blue car blue car
splattered with mud
thud thud thud
and kept on going so fast
so many miles to go
and couldn’t even stop
was just here
laying in the road
lying on his side
with his legs bent funny”….
you get the idea. A little too visceral. The librarian recommended it so we got it on audiobook and both children burst out in tears and couldn’t finish it. A really well written book though, if the circumstances were different.
Books we did like include:
Dudley, the Little Terrier That Could by Stephen Green-Armytage, a small book that tells the tale of a little Jack Russell Terrier through photographs that are hysterically funny and heart warming.
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, which simply describes all the wonderful things a dog can do in heaven.
Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas, about a dog who is so old it becomes blind and deaf and so the family decides to let it sleep and then buries it, also in the backyard. My kids said they didn’t like this book because it was too sad but I saw both of them reading it two and three times, so I think that deep inside they could feel a sort of connection to the family and characters.
I Will Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Anyway, this holiday season hasn’t been super fun, but we are getting through it. My latest challenge is letting this kids work through their grief before we consider looking for a new puppy.
Puppy? WTF. At least Maxi came crate trained!!
RIP Maximus, you brought us MAXImum Love!
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