Sunday, July 30, 2017

Learning & Processing Death

Outside the sun is dappled through the leaves of our oak trees creating shade for a morning that is relatively cool for a late July. It is a beautiful morning. But the beauty is lost somehow as I am digging a hole in which to bury our dog, Chloe, underneath of the large leaf magnolia tree that one of our neighbors had given Benjamin when he was little. This tree has thrived and has the most gorgeous large flowers when in spring bloom.  As I'm digging, Cava comes outside to me. He has been very quiet ever since he woke up and we told him that she had died during the night. Watching me dig, he just stands there, pensive. I stop digging. "You okay?" I ask. He shakes his head. No. I go over to hug him. As I do, I can feel his body sobbing. His tears soak my shirt.

It's going to be a very hard day with a lot of difficult lessons.

It was twelve years ago that we adopted Chloe, who was already two. All Benjamin had ever wanted was a sibling. We got him the next best thing - a dog. She became his constant companion, his partner in crime, and the one he said, "Come on, Chloe, let's go to my room," when he was mad at us and felt that all in the world was against him except his girl Chloe. And, though she loved all of us, there was only one that truly mattered: her "boy." If Benjamin was outside, then she was unhappy and watched and waited at his bedroom window. In her heart, he was her whole world. She was loving, even-tempered and gentle.  

And they did everything together. They were inseparable.

Chloe was more than just a pet to us. She was as much a part of our family as any of us. And there was nothing she waned more than to sit in someones lap and just be loved. 

When Cava first got here, he was drawn to Chloe. That first day, he picked her up and carried her around everywhere.

Of course, as much as he loved "Miss Chlo-yee" as he pronounced her name, he was jealous that she so clearly chose Benjamin over him. We explained why, but explanations do not settle the uncertainty and jealousy of a child who has grown up with nothing and is envious of anything someone else has, especially his older brother, that he doesn't. Over time, as he learned to be gentle with Chloe, we promised to get him his own dog. When we finally did, the dog matched his personality: playful, energetic, and sometimes crazy. Of course, when our family went to pick a dog out, we took Chloe with us to make sure the two got along. 

These two dogs were integral in teaching Cava gentleness, patience, and about love. In the beginning, there were times that it was easier for him to love Chloe than it was one of us. Why? Because she was so gentle and loved unconditionally. And he didn't have to worry about her not understanding his language. She helped soften Cava's heart to being in a family and being loved. 

As the years have passed, she got older and slower. Over this past year, Chloe became frailer and it was clear that she was wearing down. Then, at her last visit to the vet, we were told that a heart valve was leaking and that she probably wouldn't live past two weeks. Upon hearing this, all of us felt crushed. This summer has been very, very hard. 

Both of the boys have struggled in dealing with her decline. Benjamin has never experienced loss and Cava's life has been filled with it. There have been many, many discussions about death and dying and what happens after we die.

Cava, especially, has been trying to process all of this and comprehend something that is difficult for all us to truly understand. Normally, he's not one for long conversations, but over the last week, we have had many that have lasted 30 minutes or more. He is full of questions. Behind them isn't curiosity but a real sense of attempting to grasp the concepts of a soul, heaven, and God. All of these are big theological and spiritual questions. Danelle and I have stopped whatever we were doing, to sit with him, hold him, comfort him and answer as best we can with the limited knowledge we do have. 

Since he struggles with understanding what love is, I have used this as an opportunity to teach him that the pain and sorrow he feels is because he loves Chloe. When we see someone we love, like Chloe, suffering and hurting, we want to relieve that pain because we love them. The hurt is as much a part of love as the joy of when we first got her or Dash. 

It's also given us opportunities to talk about loss and grieving, something both Danelle and I know as she has lost both of her parents and I lost my mother. I got to tell Cava how, when my mom was dying, she had grown fearful. Some of that was from the morphine they were giving her to relieve the pain from cancer, but some of it was a fear of dying and what was to come. God, in His infinite compassion, briefly lifted the veil for her so that she saw the bright blues and greens of heaven. From that moment on, her fear was gone. 

Last night, at around 2 am, Benjamin came into our room. I had woken up just shortly before he did. "What's the matter?" I asked. In tears, he said, "Chloe died." He explained how he heard her, got up and comforted her in her last minutes here on earth. She was with her boy to the end. It was exactly as it should have been. Her, in Benjamin's room, on her bed, with her boy loving her and not in some sterile vet's office on a metal table. God was gracious. This had been our prayer.

But it still hurt all of us deeply.

It's hard. Really hard to say goodbye to those we love so dearly. Our hearts are broken. Tears stream down our cheeks. There will be many more questions to answer and hugs to give, tears to wipe away, but it's important that Danelle and I be present to them and hold their pain. This is an important part of life. Life and death are connected. We have hope, however, that death is not an end but a doorway to another, better life. Chloe is not in pain. Chloe is not suffering.

It is important that the boys see our own tears. Cava told me earlier in the week that he would be "brave" and not cry. I explained to him that true bravery is showing one's emotion and not bottling it up. I let him see me cry and I cried with him as we stood there near where we would bury our beloved dog. Brokenness is, after all, the only way to healing.

So please keep us in your prayers as we go through this difficult time of learning and processing death. It won't be easy, but as we have learned, nothing of value ever is.