What Putting Down My Girlfriend’s Dog Taught Me About Life

It was heartbreaking but strangely life-affirming.

Photo by daniel plan on Unsplash

We got the call first thing in the morning, waking us up.

“She’s not doing well,” my girlfriend’s mom said, “She had a couple seizures last night.”

Mango, my girlfriend’s 15-year-old dog, had been in decline for a while. She had trouble walking and breathed heavily. But, she also had an undeniable zest for life, especially for food and affection.

We knew this was coming. We just didn’t know when.

When my girlfriend hung up the phone, we jumped out of bed, brushed our teeth, and rushed to her parent’s house. We were anxious and didn’t know what to expect when we got there.

My girlfriend’s parents had begun taking care of Mango when my girlfriend had gone traveling for a year. By the time she came back from her travels, Mango had been diagnosed with cancer and had been given six months to live. That was more than two years ago.

At the time, they decided that the best thing for Mango was to keep her in a place that was comfortable and familiar to her. So, my girlfriend’s parent’s house became Mango’s permanent home.

When we arrived, we found Mango lying on the kitchen floor. Her eyes, alert and happy, gazed at us excitedly.

But, she didn’t get up.

My girlfriend’s parents told us that Mango had struggled to get out of bed this morning and then had collapsed several times on her way to the kitchen. That was as far as she made it.

Something was definitely wrong.

An impossible decision

Looking at her, you wouldn’t immediately know that Mango had lost nearly all control over her body. Her head swiveled as she surveyed the scene with a keen interest. When we pet her she would give affectionate licks and seemed to enjoy it.

However, she refused to eat anything except treats. She took those happily, but after a couple of minutes, she started to look uncomfortable. She tried to get up but all her limbs stiffened and she had an odd look in her eyes.

It quickly became clear what her intention was, as she began vomiting the treats she had enjoyed just moments before. Mango had simply wanted to go outside to avoid making a mess.

It suddenly clicked for my girlfriend and me just how dire the situation was. She’d been struggling to eat for weeks and now she couldn’t keep anything down. She’d been having difficulties walking for months and now she couldn’t walk at all.

Eventually, Mango would need to relieve herself. But my girlfriend’s parents were in no position to be carrying this 80-pound dog outside every couple of hours. Besides, even if that could be done, what sort of life would that be for Mango?

There are no easy answers when it comes to prolonging life. Do we do everything humanly possible so that she lives another day? How does the quality of her life enter the equation? Given the option, is it better that the end of her life isn’t filled with suffering?

One thing was certain — at that moment, Mango didn’t seem to be suffering. But how much longer would that last? If she couldn’t eat, things would only get worse.

At first, we were hoping that a vet could come to the house but, being a Sunday, no one was available. There was a silence in the room. You could just feel what was coming next. My girlfriend moved her tearful eyes from Mango to the rest of us, and said, “Let’s take her to the clinic.”

We all knew what this meant.

The long farewell

Since Mango could no longer move on her own, we slid a thick blanket underneath her and the four of us carried her out to the car. She looked quite pleased with the situation. She eyed us happily as we struggled to maneuver her through the house and out the door.

We had put the back seats down so that Mango would be comfortable, but that meant there wasn’t enough room for all of us. My girlfriend’s dad volunteered to be left behind. So, we left him alone to say his goodbyes.

The drive to the clinic was a treat for Mango. She was in good spirits as she tried to peer out the windows. My girlfriend was sitting with her in the back, drinking in what she knew to be some of her last moments with her faithful companion.

When we arrived at the clinic, some of the staff came out to help us carry Mango inside. Once again, Mango seemed thrilled with the ride.

We laid Mango down in a small, dark room. A staff member explained how it would all work. Mango would be given a sedative, then once she had quieted down, an injection would be given that would quickly stop her heart. Mango would feel no pain, she assured us. Finally, she let us know that we would guide the process. They would only proceed when we were ready.

My girlfriend sat on the floor with Mango. Her mom and I sat in chairs against the wall.

Mango showed no outward signs of stress or anxiety. She simply watched us as we tearfully kissed, hugged, and petted her.

When the veterinarian came in, he explained in more detail how the process would work. He assured us that Mango would feel no pain and that in almost all cases the passing is peaceful. He let us know that when we were ready, he would give Mango the sedative. Then, he left.

The vet seemed to genuinely care about Mango’s wellbeing. We were comforted knowing the Mango was in good hands.

By this time, the pile of tissues on the floor had grown to a small mound. Not having grown up with pets, I had never imagined myself in that situation. It was both heartbreaking and beautiful. My girlfriend loved Mango. Mango had been her companion for almost her entire adult life.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the decision to invite the vet back into the room couldn’t have been easy. Us humans naturally try to hold onto what we love for as long as possible. And beginning the process meant letting go of control and setting Mango down a path that had only one outcome.

When the vet returned, he took a bottle of liver treats down from the shelf and held them out for Mango. She happily slurped them up. The vet talked soothingly to her as he maneuvered himself toward her hip, where he would inject the sedative.

My girlfriend tried to distract Mango with more treats but her head still snapped toward her hips as she felt the pinch of the injection. Thankfully, it was brief and she seemed no worse for wear.

The vet told us that it would take about fifteen minutes for the sedative to take effect and left the room.

We all knew this meant that we didn’t have much time left with her. From this point forward, Mango would become more and more sleepy as the drugs did their work.

My girlfriend continued to sit next to Mango, tears streaming down her face.

A vet technician checked on Mango a couple of times, and when it was clear that she hadn’t settled down enough, the vet came back into the room and gave her more of the sedative.

When he left, we knew we were close to the end. The drugs would soon take hold and Mango would drift away into unconsciousness.

But, in typical Mango fashion, she fought off the sleepiness as best as she could, almost like she knew these were her last moments with us. She never liked missing out on the action.

Five minutes later, the vet returned. Mango had laid her head down and her breathing had slowed to a steady rhythm. It was time.

My girlfriend’s mom, who had put on a brave face up to this point finally cracked and burst into tears. My girlfriend simply watched Mango’s face.

It didn’t take long. Less than thirty seconds after the injection my girlfriend noticed that Mango was no longer breathing. The doctor checked for a heartbeat and found none. He wished us well and left the room.

Mango’s final gift

Looking back on this experience, I’ve never had anything like it.

Ending a life is no simple matter. You have fears and doubts about doing it too soon. You feel the anxiety of experiencing that final moment, which you know you are careening toward. You feel the sadness of knowing things will never be the same. You have the anticipation of grief.

As I reflect on the time I spent in that small clinic room, I can’t help but think that Mango has left an indelible mark on my soul. She enjoyed every moment she had, even when she could no longer do something as basic as walk. What she cared about was that the people she loved — her family — were with her.

I’m reminded of our ancient ancestors who must have confronted death regularly. Whether it was death by old age, disease, injury, or something else, they must have felt an uncertainty toward the future that I don’t think many of us today can comprehend.

But, if death was so prevalent for them, we must, as a species, have developed a mechanism to deal with it.

And as I sat there in the clinic, a blubbery mess, I couldn’t help but think how life-affirming the dying process death can be. The closer I came to death, the more beautiful life appeared to be.

Witnessing death, it seemed, gave me permission to live.

Life is a strange and backward thing. In some ways, we feel invincible and untouchable, like our lives will continue to be how they are today indefinitely. Yet, this cannot be. We aren’t guaranteed anything. Not another moment with our dog, child, spouse, or parent. And that’s terrifying, but it’s also reality.

What the death of Mango taught me is that everything ends but that this fact isn’t a problem. Paradoxically, it’s the brevity and uncertainty of life that makes it precious. No moment we experience will ever come again — not in the lifetime of the universe — and that’s what makes it special.

Too many of us realize too late that we have lived life as if we have an endless amount of time and as if things will never change.

Don’t live life like this. It will only fill you with regret.

Instead, live like Mango. Enjoy each moment you have to the fullest, especially with the people you love. You are not guaranteed another.

For Mango.

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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