Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Dog: A Life Well Lived?

The pain of losing a wonderful dog is tempered (at least a little) by memories of the delightful doggy moments in his life. A manifesto for giving dogs as much joy as we can. 

Photo of Mischa, a black and white sled dog with brown eyebrow spots, in a field of corn with snow on the ground, looking at the camera
All photos: Kristi Benson

By Kristi Benson PCBC-A, CTC, Special Correspondent

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

A few days ago, we said goodbye to Mischa, the biggest bestest boy, with the most perfect eyebrows ever. A week shy of his 15th birthday, he outlived our expectations by more than a year. But no matter, that: his passing came a week shy of 15 years too soon. 

Two days before our final trip to the vet, he came on his last walk. It was lovely and crisp, and he trundled behind me, always eager for one more treat. He had taken to stumbling and stalling over the last year, not quite in control of his long limbs. But with his characteristically affable nature, he bumbled delightedly after me every afternoon, including that last one; stopping to take in the pile of feathers left behind from some successful fox hunt, drawing in deep breaths, his flews gently flapping, his posture intent. 

As we drove into the vet’s office, we were stopped by a funeral procession coming in the opposite direction. A phalanx of cars, lights flashing, made their way down the highway, excruciatingly slow. Mischa was declining rapidly in the backseat and I grew enraged that we had to pull over; that we had to extend his suffering by even ten minutes. Why is his pain of no concern, while he actually still breathes? Why are the rituals of their grief more important? In some logical part of my brain, I knew that we are all just doing our best, and none of them could have known. But in that moment, in my own anticipatory grief, I wanted to shake my fist at them; scream at them until I was hoarse. I wanted to make them look into my car and see Mischa, prone in the backseat, his laboured breaths echoing over the soft sounds of the wiper blades and car heater. 

Mischa the sled dog in the snow with other dogs. Kristi's foot in a snow shoe is visible, sticking out on the ground, and Mischa is looking to see if she is okay after falling

A funeral procession, of course, made me think about all those human symbols and rituals that we rely upon to process death. We send our dead ones into some afterlife or another with a set of rules and regulations, with words and phrases codified and euphemistic. We talk about glory and deservedness. We talk about a better place, as though that is a truth, as though we alone are outside of the simple facts of life and death in our natural world. We do a lot of talking, us humans. 

But for me, sitting in the passenger seat of my car, full of raging sadness and 15 years too few with Mischa, I had a different question in my mind. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in any kind of an afterlife. I knew that when Mischa passed, that was absolutely it for him. Denied the pleasant suggestion of a lovely doggy afterlife filled with chasing bunnies and thousand-pound portions of organ meats (did I tell you about that time that Mischa broke into a garden shed and ate half a bag of bloodmeal fertilizer? That was a fun call to our vet, I can tell you), all I had, all I could ever have, were questions about how well I provided for Mischa in the almost 15 years we had together. Mischa doesn’t have an afterlife. Mischa, like me, only had his life. And as a being completely in my care, the quality of his life had been mine for the giving, mine for the taking. This is no small burden, is it? This is a burden as heavy as a coffin, as heavy as a car, as heavy as a celestial body. This is a burden so heavy that I felt crushed by it, sitting in the car, pulled over on the side of the highway, as the funeral procession made its way by. 

Mischa the sled dog in a field with other dogs, blue sky and a dark cloud overhead. Mischa looks happy with an open mouth and ears pricked up

On the drive home, after the vet had pressed “end” on his life with kindness and finality, I searched for his name on my Facebook feed. I was delighted to see I had posted about him hundreds of times over his life, and I read many of the posts out loud: the time he brawled with a coyote. The time he broke into the porch and ate a bunch of puppy kibble. The time he broke into the shed and ate a bunch of dog kibble. The time he broke into the garbage and ate a bunch of…you know what? Let’s just agree that he was a master at the canine crime of breaking and entering, and had a well-developed sense of his own gustatory delights. 

There was the time he ate cabbage with odd but hilarious abandon, the time he wore a very cute dog coat, the time he fell asleep on top of the picnic table. There was the time I trained him to jump through my arms (HA!), the time I trained him to back up to the cue “beep beep!”, the time I trained him to be comfy at the vet’s office, the time I trained him to sit in a (large) cardboard box, and…of course, the time I got his weight down to the target weight my vet had set. He…he liked to eat, alright? Him and me both. 

Mischa the sled dog looking very happy, lying on the melting snow with some grass visible, looking at the camera

Scrolling through all the times I had shared his humour and his joy, I felt a dent in my grief, and it hissed out of me like a tire with a leak. He had lived a glorious life. He had freedom, and exhilaration, and so many treats. I gave him skills, and cuddles, and opportunities. And instead of a funeral procession, I will process my grief over his loss in the best way I know how: I will give my other dogs the very best I can offer them. When I go to the TV room and see the fur that we brushed from his coat the day before he died, as he lay with us on the couch…I will try not to fold into myself and retreat into grief. I will try not to turn the material remains of his life into something I hold dear with a reverence approaching idolatry. 

Well…I’ll try, anyways. 

Instead, I will do my best to think fondly of a life well lived; a life full of delight, full of adventure. Goodbye, sweet Mischa. I hope your life was as full of caloric glee as I think it was. In the grand scheme of things, we all have just a few moments on this odd green sphere. I am so glad I could share some of mine with all of yours. 

More by Kristi Benson:

Follow me!