A couple of weeks ago, my family and I did something I’d been actively anticipating and also dreading: we helped our 14-year-old dog, Ginger Peaches, drop her body.
I chose those words purposefully, reflecting the Eastern bent I’ve acquired through study and practice. Also, putting any creature “down” sounds insulting.
As imagined, letting go of the live-action growth chart that aged along with my children from the time they were puppies was brutally hard. But there were also incredible moments of grace, thanks to some work I did to prepare to face the inevitable.
Death isn’t the bane of midlife existence. It’s actually the greatest teacher.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
Reflecting on mortality and using it to infuse life with meaning and purpose is a practice for the ages. The Stoics used Memento Mori (“remember you must die”), early Buddhists spoke of maraṇasati (“remember death”), while ancient Sufis hung out in graveyards and Mexicans continue to celebrate el Día de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”).
According to Vedanta, there are three operator functions: creation (Brahma), maintenance (Vishnu), and destruction (Shiva). The cycle between the three is continual and inescapable. To avoid suffering and live life fully, you must release your fear of the ultimate unknown — death.
Perhaps easier said than done, especially for modern Westerners. But thinking about death helps us more fully live.
A Good Death
In today’s world, mortality is a tricky subject. Esther Perel, an expert in frank discussions of taboo topics, urges us to invite openness and innovation into the conversation about grief and loss.
“Talking about death is talking about life — hopes, fears, uncertainty, imagination, legacy, connection, responsibility, love.”
With the help of Nurture.co, Perel initiated a conversation during the pandemic with her sons about her spouse’s and her wishes for end-of-life. She found proactive organization as calming and life-affirming, particularly in a chaotic time.
Similarly, I took great comfort reading Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande. His ruminations on what modern medicine misses about the realities of aging and death helped me face the impending loss of not just my pet, but also my parents.
As Perel points out and Gawande’s experience verifies, not being dead is not the same as being alive.
One of the things I worried about most was how I would know it was Ginger’s time. My friends assured me I’d just know, and it was true: her body gave out. Until that time, she was able to do pretty much everything she loved (including eating a steak for breakfast on that final day).
Holding Ginger as the vet euthanized her, I felt the unmistakable presence of joy and appreciation beneath my sadness. For love deeply felt and a life well-lived to the very end.
Dying like a dog, as it turns out, can be a beautiful thing.
What Death Can Teach Us About Life (Esther Perel)
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Amazon Associates)