The Pleasure in the Pain of Saying Goodbye to a Pet

Dedicated to Margaret Maggi Magnolias May Schiffer, sometimes known as Gullus (for god knows what reason, other than my incredibly strange little brain).


“Sometimes it just gets so tiring having to be strong all the time,” my mom said to me yesterday, as she drove me into the city post-saying goodbye forever to the dog I grew up with. As someone who tries so hard to appear as if I have my shit mostly together, I certainly agreed. I had just spent a solid hour bawling in a way that I haven’t in ages, and it felt equal parts awful and amazing. I’m a big crier, actually—I mean I teared up at Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar speech and cry easily over the blatant theatrics of film. When I’m sad or anxious, the tears can come easily, too; you could say I’m less ashamed of public waterworks than most. But this felt different in that it was uncontrollable and seemed to filter threads of sadness throughout my entire body. It was over something deeply ingrained in what I know as “my life,” rather than a recent and fleeting upset, which is more often the case.

I had managed to ignore the reality of what was coming with my dog (who we’re putting to sleep) for weeks. I knew that the minute I started to actually think about it, it would be totally downhill from there. So it wasn’t until I got in the shower an hour before saying goodbye that the feeling started to hit me, and nostalgic memories began to sting. I pushed my face into the water stream and tried to talk myself through what was about to happen, but it merely opened the floodgates.

There is so much wrapped up in the love one has for an animal, especially when that animal has been by your side since your earliest years, and has endured all the highs and lows of your life thus far with an equanimity that’s rarely found in human beings. Dogs don’t appear to parcel out judgments and are untouched by questions of good versus bad, moral versus immoral. My dog, Maggi, saw each of my family members throughout various struggles, saw us laughing and screaming in equal measure. I’m not a big animal person, generally—I don’t go weak in the knees for every pup and kitten that comes my way, but Mags was a pal from day one, and the first living thing that I fell in love with sans blood relation. Growing up, I would lie on her bed with her, my head on her grumbling belly, and feel comforted by the simple fact of her always being there, amidst juvenile friendship fights, adolescent insecurities, and heartbreak 101. Without asking for the job, she became a vessel for the path I would follow throughout the years, reminding me of all my different phases, some prettier than others.

In a way, I aged out of our communion, which of course now I beat myself up for a bit, though I’m trying not to. While Maggi and Jess had once been the unbeatable duo in the family, the selfishness of my teenage life which melted into early adulthood led her to grow much closer to my mom, who wasn’t out late at night making poor decisions—who hadn’t drastically changed. This increased tenfold when I left for college, and became a visitor in my own house, rather than the central point of its orbit. She adjusted and so did I. I didn’t need her the way I once did, I suppose, but the simple thought of her always being there to come home to was an incomparable comfort. Like my childhood bedroom, seeing her again always brought on a fountain of memories, and a woozy nostalgia for the littler version of myself. Amidst the increasingly stressful environment that comes with age, Maggi was a reminder of the simple goodness to be found and appreciated in life. Corny, perhaps, but undoubtedly true.

So yesterday as I bawled a lot more like baby-me than I have in years, heavily and without any attempts at constraint, I was crying over another simple, but wholly shitty, facet of life. Which is death, the permanent goodbye. It’s a reality we all know so well, but one whose familiarity does not make it easier to swallow. By saying goodbye to Maggi, I felt as if I was saying goodbye to one of the longest and most important phases of my life, the core period of my “growing up.” And while there is more growth to do, and there will certainly be more pals to cry over, that feeling of an ending is what weighed on me most.

I didn’t want to suppress it, and even if to some people it is “just a dog,” my mom’s reminder helped me see that I didn’t always have to. In really letting it all out, I felt strangely connected to my smallest self…reminded of that severely passionate girl who kept her dead goldfish in a jar overnight because she couldn’t let go, and who cried for two long hours over the loss of a parakeet (while my poor best friends sat in silence watching, not knowing what on earth to say). In sending Maggi off, I was gifted with the rare reminder of who I was back then…and who I still obviously am, underneath all the layers of adulthood: the defenses and protections, the ideals and sometimes overwrought conceptions of self.

Crying over Maggi made me want to puke, it wasn’t fun by any means—but it did, in certain moments, feel like a huge relief. It was concrete, not ambiguous like much of what hurts me in the present terrain of adulthood. My dog was leaving forever, and it was awful and sad, and totally worthy of tears. I was getting older, and would keep getting older, and at times, that, too, feels awful and sad, and totally worthy of tears. That was what was going on—not something that required endless exploration or justification, not a situation where I was faced with too many choices or had to wonder if my reaction was acceptable. It was deeply sad and wholly out of my control. That was it, and so I cried.

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