March 30, 2014

Goodbye, Dear Friend

Racetrack Playa, Death ValleyMy best friend, a dog who had been with me for 16 years, recently died in my lap at the vet following an injection of chemicals administered to end his life.

While my parents had dogs while I was growing up, this was my first dog after leaving home. He also had the distinction of being by my side during an unpleasant divorce, providing me with the sort of support during this rough time that only a cherished pet can provide. And while I do remember having family pets die when I was living in my childhood home, this was the first time the responsibility fell solely to me.

Sixteen years is a long time for a dog to live, even a small dog like this one. He had been very healthy up until the last year. But even then, his quality of life was still quite good. He enjoyed eating, playing with his toys, laying next to me with his head in my lap, tugging on a piece of rope, and laying in the sun outside when it wasn't too hot.

This would all change in the span of only 2 days, and I wasn't prepared for how quick the decline was. He stopped eating, had difficulty getting around, and was clearly not his normal self. The vet confirmed what I had feared: widespread organ failure. She was surprised that he hadn't dropped dead already. I suppose he always was too stubborn for that. I was fortunate that the decision to euthanize was about as clear-cut as could be. He might have lasted another day or two but would have been miserable. I owed him more than that.

When my family had euthanized pets while I was growing up, I was never invited to accompany them for the procedure. It only happened once while I was living at home, and I was fairly young at the time. I had never seen it done and had little idea how it worked. I naively assumed the vet would take him away and that would be the end of it. That probably would have been easier in some respects, but that was not to be.

I was given some privacy to say my goodbyes, and this was the moment when the reality begin to fully hit me. The vet then had me hold my dog in my lap while she administered a series of shots. I could feel the change in his body when the initial sedative took effect. When the shot came that stopped his heart, it was so fast and so final. No shudder, no twitching, no dramatic last breath - he was just gone.

This dog was a constant presence in my life for the last 16 years. It still feels strange that he's not here, and I'm sure it will for some time. I miss him.

What Does This Have To Do With Atheism?

No, I am not writing this just to fish for sympathy or to accomplish some therapeutic purpose. I do actually have a relevant point to make here and possibly a couple I'll save for future posts.

I really like this particular vet and have gone to her for several years. She has always impressed me as that perfect combination of competent and compassionate one hopes to find in a vet. And so, perhaps it won't come as too much of a surprise to learn that I was not put off at all when she attempted to console me by suggesting that my dog "was in a better place" or that I might "see him again someday."

Some atheists may bristle at the idea of such false comforts. I thought I might actually be one! But in this moment of pain, I was not. While I do not believe these things any more than you do, I was moved by the vet's compassion. I recognized the positive intent behind what she was saying, and that was what mattered to me. The fact that she cared and that she expressed it meant far more to me than how she chose to express it.

The content of the vet's words - particularly the idea that one's pet is now "in a better place" or that one will someday be reunited with one's pet - is probably comforting to many people. The content did not bring me any comfort, but I suppose it might have if I had believed in such things. I was somewhat surprised that I didn't even feel a fleeting desire to believe. The first thought that went through my head when I heard these words was "No, he's just gone." But I certainly appreciated her kind intent.

This is something I need to remember when I am faced with the sort of Christianspeak that I usually find annoying. If the intent behind the words is genuinely positive, as it often is, maybe the content is less important. Maybe what matters is that the person is trying to communicate something positive and just not doing it very well or doing it in the only way they know.

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