I’ve always been the pet undertaker in my family, well, for as long as I can remember anyway. My brother and I had plenty of pets growing up. Other than cats, I think we had pretty much all of the usual suspects at some point. I loved having them, from choosing them to caring for them. And it was always me who had to dispose of them when the inevitable happened, as my mum and brother couldn’t bring themselves to do it, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to as I knew it would affect them more than me.
It’s not that I didn’t care when they died, or love them when they were alive. It’s just that animals die, they don’t live particularly long, relative to us, and when dead, there’s not much to be done except give them their final resting place. Of course, my family knew this as well as I, they’re smart like that. But I shed the least tears on each occasion. So I’d dig the graves, wrap the bodies and lay them to rest.
This has continued into my adult life. I distinctly recall my mum’s rabbit dying a few years ago, and just waiting for the Husband to get home to take care of Boo, so that I could go and bury him for Mum, as I hated the thought of her having to do it herself. She had dug his little grave when I got there, but couldn’t quite bring herself to pop him in and cover him over, so there I was in the dark, a torch clasped precariously between my legs to shed a little light on the task (that’s not easy to do whilst shovelling!). I was sad, but he’d had a good long life and was gone.
But then things felt a little different this week. My mum’s dog, possibly the most energetic and healthy dog I’ve ever known, became unwell, and within the week had declined so dramatically that she had to be put down at the weekend. It knocked us all for six, so unexpected. Truth be told, although our hound is 3 years younger than she was, I’d always imagined he’d go first, as he has more problems with his health and is rather old man and sloth-like already. I was saddened by her passing, but as always, my rational, perhaps cold, side kicked in. She’d had a fabulous life and dogs die. At 12, it was younger than I’d thought she’d be, but still a good life for a dog. But for all my rational, undertaking ways, I never underestimate the pain caused by a pet’s passing, and I absolutely understand the grief that accompanies it. They’re part of the family, and in my mum’s case, her sole companion at home. This one hurt, and still hurts, because I can’t take the pain away from my mum. I can’t fix this one for her.
For reasons that I’m not sure I can articulate, I feel everything more keenly since becoming a mother. People’s distress affects me more than it ever has done. I’m not just grieving for the dog, I’m worrying about my mum, about how my children are handling their first bereavement and the questions that it’s raising from Boo about death. This one’s been tough.
It’s just going to get tougher, too, isn’t it? The next closest pet death we’ll have is our own Harry. The kids mightn’t take that one well. I won’t take that one well. But I guess it prepares them for life, facing the reality of mortality in this way. And I can only hope that as they grow, they are the pet undertakers and not the ones who carry with them the most pain. As I suspect next time round, that’ll be me.