As I write, I hear the sound of our old dog snoring. It's a gentle, quiet snore, not disturbing whatsoever, but tonight it stands out more than ever because I know Rosco is dying.
We're all dying, yes. And with old age, most likely we get closer to leaving our body.
Rosco is old for a dog. The lumps on his sides, which weren't found to be cancerous on his last vet visit, seem to have grown in recent weeks. He is moving much slower than he did last month. Something has shifted.
Not only am I certain he knows there is big change in the air with our family venturing to Sweden for a year beginning sometime this summer, but I am certain that he also hears me and "knows" what I'm saying when I talk with him, whether I speak out loud or not. I tell him we are going, though he already knows that. I tell him that I see he is in pain, and that if he feels ready to die, we are willing to hold him as he passes. I tell him that if he isn't ready to die quite yet, he can live with my dad and get lots of petting and treats. But Rosco knows all that. He feels it. Dogs are energetically very in tune -- in ways the majority of adult humans cannot relate to.
I tell him I am listening. I ask him to show me signs. I've held a dog as she died before, and Lusa was my soulmate. I'm willing, honored and ready to do it again. It's up to him.
If he's ready to go after being brought from an abusive home to the animal shelter as a 1-year-old puppy, and then being adopted by my husband and spending 14 good years in his care -- then I accept that.
Having seen how miserable end-of-life can be when close relatives aren't ready to let go, and someone is in pain and wants to go themselves... I want to be loving, and let go.
But how does he want to die?
I don't mean medically. I mean, if we really were to show love for him... if we really were to care deeply about how he spends his last days... if we considered it important to support our loyal, affectionate, protective, playful friend by assisting him to leave his body in a state of mind that is truly peaceful...
What would that look like?
How can we help him to pass, feeling loved?
What does dignity look like in dying?
Do we take him to the beach one day, let him run in the waves and then bring him home where a vet comes by with an end-of-life injection? And we hold his body close, petting his fur gently as his heart stops beating, telling him, "You're a good boy Rosco..." just as I've done dozens of times during his seizures?
Do we feed him raw meat and take a family walk the hour before?
Do we all sit and pet him, tell him we love him together, or should it be just his dad?
What we do not want to do is let him suffer in pain for any longer than he needs to. It's just so hard to tell sometimes with dogs, stoic as they can be with revealing their pain. We want to let him go when he is ready. Really, for us that feels like love.
Half of me writes this article to process this sad reality, myself. By stating in writing that we want to support Rosco to pass when he's ready, maybe that means we'll get a clearer message somehow.
The other half writes because I'm not afraid to talk about death, and to wonder how I'd prefer to die and to ask...
How do you want to die?
Have you thought about it? Perhaps you know how you don't want to die: in horrible pain, or in terrible fear, or all tied up with tubes in a hospital bed.
Most of us have no control over how we die; we're not going to take our own lives prematurely. But we do get to dream. To be in conversation with the great mystery of the future, and all that is unfolding. To lend light to the wanting, to give name to the joy.
When you take your last breaths, do you want:
I'd like to live another 50 years or so, and watch our daughter grow up and blow my mind with her brilliance, courage, playfulness, passion and grace. I'd like another Queensland Heeler puppy to care for its entire life. I want to live to see my husband living his art and joy for work. I want to live at least as long as my parents, so I can care for them with my whole heart, as a duty of honor. At least as long as it takes for our daughter to choose to have children, or not, so that I can play with my grandchildren...
And when I leave this body, I want:
That's what dignity in dying looks like for me. That's what dignity in dying might look like for Rosco. What does dignity in dying look like for you?
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, a mother, freelance consultant and eternal fan of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. This deeply personal blog and our recorded talks and workshops are devoted to one of her great passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.