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A precious heartache

  • There is a particular heartbreak we open ourselves up to as pet parents
  • This is a relationship where the parent will most likely outlive the child

On 27 June, at 5.25 in the morning, our son Jack breathed his last.

Jack was 8. Or, in canine years, close to 56 (though I have never understood the point of an equivalent age meter that calculates a dog’s life span in human years).

By the look of it, the world continued just as it was. The sun came up slowly like it does every morning. The birds stirred to life. The neighbourhood we live in started awakening—like a slow rising chorus, the notes of which you already know. Another day had begun.

But, for me, the world had changed—irreversibly, irrevocably. Disbelief, followed by moments of unfettered panic, and then deep, abiding desolation, a darkness creeping through the body, turning off the switch wherever it saw light, settling in for a long stay.

Jack was not supposed to go. He had been unwell but all the doctors said he would recover; he had, in fact, returned from his last doctor’s visit a few hours ago, and we were hoping he would settle into sleep, though he was very uncomfortable.

What followed that night, however, were some of the most agonizing moments of my life. Jack started howling—deep, guttural, heart-breaking howls. He was clearly in excruciating pain. He came and lay between my husband and me, hoping for some comfort, looking at us for solace, confused, hurting. I was baffled and frightened, not knowing how to make him feel better.

A few minutes later, he threw up blood, and died.

I saw the life—and the light—go out of my lovely boy’s eyes.

Jack—from Jack Sparrow, because of that one ridiculous, adorable marking over his eye, giving him that rakish pirate look. Jack, who, along with Carlos, his litter mate, sibling and trusted second in command, came to us when he was four months old, and immediately took over the entire house, driving everyone to distraction with his mad, exuberant energy. Jack, who simply had to greet everyone who entered the home with a perfectly timed, gravity-defying jump, in his sole endeavour to kiss the visitor’s nose. Jack, who sat patiently beneath trees while out for a walk, hoping to somehow lure the squirrels to him so that he could play with them (spoiler alert: the squirrels never fell for it). Jack, who, after the day’s activities were done (noses conquered, squirrels chased), went off to sleep on our bed in a wink, like a baby, cuddling, at his most innocent and most adorable self.

Jack was no more.

There is a particular heartache that we open ourselves up to when we sign on to be pet parents. We know, deep down, that this is a relationship where the parent will most likely outlive the child. We know that whatever we do, we cannot fight this most unfair law of nature—dogs have short lives. You know it doesn’t end well. And end it does.

Why then do we do it? Why do we give our hearts so entirely and so freely to these funny, strange, delightful beings? Why do we sign on to be parents to children we will see grow old in front of our eyes, their gait just a bit slower, the muzzle turning white, the zooming run towards the ball becoming a painful limp?

Before Jack, there were others we had loved and lost. Among them was Simba, the love of my life, my best friend, companion and child, my golden boy. When Simba died, I thought the world had literally ended. It took years to get back into the world of the living—compounded by the fact that grieving for a dog is an intensely private and solitary act—in large part also because people around you who are not dog lovers don’t understand what you are going through. They will sympathize, but after a point (usually a couple of days or a week, if you are lucky) they will wonder why you are not “getting over it" or “putting it behind you". These are the times you feel the most isolated, holding your heartbreak close, unable to explain that it is akin to losing a child, albeit not a human one.

Grief has a way of changing you. You will, eventually, emerge into the light again, and you will cope with life—but you will not be unaltered. Something changes permanently.

But what Jack and Simba, and the others before them, have taught me is the sheer power of unfiltered and joyous love, of living each day to the fullest, of not sulking and not brooding, and opening your heart in the purest, most artless ways: enjoying that cookie, chasing that ball, not afraid of making a fool of yourself, and, most important, giving the one you love that exuberant hug and boisterous kiss and never going to bed angry. Every day is a new day, full of wonder and new possibilities, and one mustn’t overcomplicate and overthink things. And one must never stop loving.

As someone said, dogs come into our lives to teach us about love, they depart to teach us about loss.

So would I do it again, knowing that along with the sheer unadulterated joy and companionship only a dog can give, I am opening myself up to the risk of debilitating heartbreak and agonizing loss?

In a heartbeat.

Hemali Sodhi is an independent publishing professional and a dog mother

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