Laced with grace: Saying goodbye to a beloved dog
Editor’s note: September is pet memorial month, and chances are good that as a reader of stories on our website, you have experienced the gut-wrenching loss of a beloved animal companion. It’s a pain that simply cannot be summed up in words. And yet, that’s exactly what author Ashley Brown accomplishes in her beautifully eloquent collection of essays, 'A Tail of Grace,' encompassing a year-long journey of healing. We hope this excerpt from the collection brings you peace.
I haven’t had much experience with death. That may be why I feared Cayenne’s for years, after a vet diagnosed her liver failure and gave her six months to live. That was four years ago. She went on to enjoy her golden years, her liver having repaired itself. In addition to fear, though, the vet’s dire prediction gave me a long time to prepare for her death, as did my beloved cattle dog’s graceful acceptance of the natural process of growing old and dying.
She died two weeks ago. Her body was done after 16 years of living with such boundless zest. In her life, she taught me to feel safe and confident, to be vulnerable and playful, to be patient and listen. I knew her death would also hold valuable lessons.
I had hoped she would choose the time and place, and peacefully fall asleep one last time. I told myself I simply could not make that decision for her. But the first thing I learned is that I, in fact, could. For one of the first times in my life, I knew something in my gut. She told me — with her eyes and a gentle whimper as I lay on the floor with her one night — that she was ready to go. She just couldn’t will herself to leave her body, to leave me. I listened, and I trusted myself to help her do what she could not.
I’m a big believer in ritual and ceremony as a means of being fully present in the most significant moments and experiences of our lives. The “ceremony” of Cayenne’s death began weeks earlier. I walked around our land, specifically a quiet wooded area we call the “spirit garden,” to choose a spot for her grave, one where I could sit for years to come in silence and natural beauty. She often joined me on these wanderings, and I paid attention to where she liked to be.
I had to start digging (pickaxing actually) before I knew when her time would come. Our Texas land is solid limestone, and a hole that size would take days of sweaty labor. Sometimes it felt unnerving to prepare her grave while she was still alive, to watch her walk by that hole in the ground where her body would ultimately lie. But I realized that avoiding thinking about death, so common in our culture, would not stop it. Instead, taking the time to thoughtfully participate in her transition helped me join her in that state of grace she taught me so much about.
The day the vet was to come, I sat by Cayenne’s bed and read a letter telling her what was going to happen. I created a shrine — photographs, candles, an imprint of her paw in clay — in our living room. I brushed her. I held her water bowl to her mouth for one last drink. When the time was near, we went out to wander that land again. I let her lead the way.
When the vet arrived, I cried, even trembled, but I breathed deeply and kept my focus on Cayenne. I watched closely as her body responded to the sedative, her breathing changed, and she calmly collapsed onto my husband’s lap, where we were sitting side by side in the dirt. I watched the vet shave her leg, place the IV, and then inject the liquid that would stop her heart. I held her as she breathed her last. Her eyes went cloudy. I did not turn away.
We laid her on a blanket there under the shade of the cedar trees, bits of sun shining onto her face. The hours that followed were transformative. With silent understanding, we knew we were right where we wanted to be — sitting in the 100-degree heat with our dog. I kept my hands on her for a very long time, smoothing them over every inch. I breathed in her fur, and her paws that I loved so much. I lay with my head on her chest, no longer moving up and down as I’d watched it do for 16 years, and I looked at the sky. I was so terribly sad, and yet, totally at peace. I had never spent time with a dead body. I never thought I would want to. But I now understand how important that was, to hold space for her transition, to take the time to say a patient goodbye as her energy sparked out into the world around us.
Just as I’d never sat with a dead body, I’d never buried one. I’d sent my other cherished animals to be cremated. But with her, I realized months earlier I wanted to honor her life and our bond by caring for her body in death. Moving the blanket over her, when I could no longer see her, remains in my memory a more heartbreaking moment than her actual death. Placing her body in the grave was excruciating. But I thought of the words my friend wrote in a beautiful song – “that our pain is laced with grace” – and I carried on.
In her grave I sprinkled the ashes of the dog I’d loved before her, placed four feathers and three of her favorite toys above her, and covered it all with dirt. We then began carefully arranging stones on top, creating a lovely natural monument. Having been in the heat for hours, we went inside for a short break. When I returned, I found our cat Stoney lying in the dirt next to her grave. Stoney had loved his long-nosed big sister, his protector. He had walked beside her in her final days, as she slowly stumbled around the yard. Now, he lay quietly (very unlike him) and looked at us with unmistakable knowing and sadness in his eyes. He mewed once and looked back at the ground. He stayed right there for two hours, his front paws on the stones.
I now sit at her grave every evening and sometimes Stoney joins me. I light a candle next to her photograph every morning. I feel her all over and around our home and in the sound of the wind chimes blowing in the breeze above her grave.
In being truly present on that day, I learned the most important things in life are often those we cannot see or explain. I’m a writer. I find comfort in putting experiences and feelings to words. I wrote, and still write, countless letters to Cayenne. But sometimes I’m reminded that all we really need to know is in the silence and the simple miracle of our breath — our first, last, and the billions in between. My husband and I did not need words while we sat with Cayenne’s body. Stoney did not need words to know the moment his friend’s soul left her body. I have no words for, and I can’t see, where that soul is now. And yet, I know.
Addendum: About my year-long journey
Long before Cayenne’s death, I decided I would wait a full year before adopting another dog and give myself the freedom and permission to travel vigorously. This wasn’t just about getting in a car and going somewhere. Rather, I devoted the year to pausing to observe, within and without. I felt I owed it to Cayenne to mindfully absorb all she had to teach me — to slow down and listen to other animals and the natural world, and to consider what it felt like to be in this world without my constant companion.
I often felt lost and lonely, and I had to learn to embrace an abundance of faith in what can’t be seen, knowing I can call on my angel dog whenever I need to. I learned that while I will continue to get lost, I will find my way back home again.
Oh, I didn’t make it a full year before I adopted again. When I went to meet Lacey at a local rescue group, I knew she was the one. Best of all? Cayenne sent me a rainbow the evening before we brought Lacey home, reminding me she’s with me every step of the way.