This past weekend was a difficult one for my family and me. We made the excruciating decision to put down our 10-year pet Shih-Tzu, Lightning—named after the Pixar star, Lightning McQueen. He had been battling cancer for the last year, which he gave it one heck of a fight for a little 15-pound dog. However, over the last month his health deteriorated rapidly.
I knew it was time when on Friday night, I woke up multiple times to hear him beside my bed whimpering. I interpreted his whimpering two ways. On one hand I knew he was in pain, for he had difficulty shifting positions. On the other, I knew those gentle whimpers communicated to me, it was time…he was ready.
Saturday morning, my wife and I woke up knowing that it would be a rough day. She called the vet to make the arrangements, and all our kids spent some time with Lightning.
Looking back over Saturday, it’s so shocking how Lightning seemed to know that this was his last day. He allowed us all to love on him and say our goodbyes.
Since Saturday I’ve cried and bawled like a baby. On Sunday before church my wife sent me 85 pictures of Lightening, and once again I bawled like a baby.
If you’ve had a pet that you’ve had to put down, you know the grief, the loss, the hurt, and the void you feel.
[Now, for you super spiritual people that want to say, “It’s just a dog…it’s just a pet, get over it! Losing a pet is nothing like losing a human family member or friend.” I agree, the intrinsic value of a human greatly outweighs that of an animal, even if it is a pet. So, just hang in there with me for a moment.]
So, given my proclivity to think deeply and process what I’m going through I figured I would spend some time writing down why I loved Lightning and why I would ball my eyes out over a pet dog—and then see if there was anything I could learn and apply to my life.
As I sat reflecting on why I missed him and why I was grieving his loss, I wrote down the following four things:
- Proximity (or presence)
Each of these elements were ways that I (and my wife, and sometimes our kids) loved Lightning. Thus, thinking about the last 10 years with Lightning, I realized that I missed him because I had deeply loved him.
You see, love isn’t static, but active.
Processing the activity of love, I wrote down four ways I demonstrated love towards Lightning.
Lightning was part of our home.
We always joked around that Lightning was a “clearance” (or sale puppy), as he was the runt of the litter. Yet, he instantly became part of the family. By being part of the Laxton house, he was a regular presence. Wherever we were, Lightning was sure to be there. Whether it was the kitchen looking for scraps, jumping on the couch to snuggle, and hopping up in one’s bed to sleep, Lightning made sure his presence was known.
As I process love towards our family pet, I realize the power of presence and proximity.
When it comes to love, presence and proximity matter.
You know you’ve loved when you miss and grieve one’s presence.
I physically touched Lightning.
Petting is a natural part of having a family dog. In fact, according to veterinarians, touch between a human and a dog can be beneficial and therapeutic for both. Moreover, petting can trigger the release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘trust hormone’ or the ‘cuddle hormone,’ is known to aid in the formation of strong social attachments, particularly between mothers and infants. (http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/the-many-wondrous-things-dogs-can-do-for-human-health).
Lightning loved touch. When he was healthy, he would jump up to whomever was on the couch. After jumping, he would inch his way onto the lap where he could sit all day and let you pet him.
Saturday, when we put Lightning down, I spent my last few moments stroking Lightening’s head. As he breathed his last breaths, I leaned over and kissed his head.
In short, touch is powerful.
Touch creates social bonds.
It’s hard to love without some kind of physical touch.
I cared for Lightning.
Anyone who has ever had a pet, you know it’s a lot of work. You have to house break them—training them to relieve themselves outside (unless their cats and then you have to clean the litter box). When they make a mess, you have to clean up after them. You have to constantly be aware they always have food and water. When they are sick, you care for them.
One of the funniest stories about Lightning happened a few years back when we had family over for the holidays. One of our family members had an adult beverage called a “White Russian” (which I think is a mixture of vodka and milk). Everyone went out of the room, but the family member’s drink was left in the room. When we all came back in the living room, the person went to take a sip of their drink when they realized it looked half empty. No one really knew what happened.
About an hour later, when everyone had left and my wife and I were getting ready to go to bed, we called for Lightning and he literally stumbles to the bottom of the stairs—his legs slipping on the tile. As we watched his limited mobility, we quickly realized who the culprit was who drank the White Russian. We called the vet and they walked us through what our options were. We chose to monitor him from the house. That night, I would wake up every hour and take my party animal downstairs, give him soggy bread, and take him outside. About 24hrs later, he finally sobered up J.
For the last year, as he struggled with cancer in the shoulder, Lightning got the VIP treatment. As I look back on the last 10 years, I realized the power of care.
Caring enlarges one’s capacity to love.
When you care deeply for someone, you’ll grieve greatly when they’re gone.
I had daily exchanges and interactions with Lightning.
I’m not talking about having the ability of Dr. Doolittle—being about to verbally communicate back and forth with animals—but about having some type of exchange or engagement with him. For instance, Lightning wasn’t super talented. He didn’t know how to sit, shake, fetch, or roll over—so he wouldn’t have ever made it on America’s Got Talent. However, he was house-trained, he did come when you called him, and he learned not to chew things, all of which were taught.
In addition, Lightning loved going for walks and rides. You could say, “You want to go for a walk?” or, “You want to go for a ride?” and he would get excited and start jumping up and down.
While this was about the extent of a relationship you could have with Lightening, these exchanges and interactions nevertheless formed a bond.
It is the small exchanges and moments of interactions that overtime form a relational bond.
In closing, this weekend was one emotional rollercoaster. As I processed the passing of our beloved pet—with tearing streaming down my cheeks—I couldn’t help but think of how he taught me to be more intentional in loving people.
We do read in the gospels where humans are more valuable than animals, although God certainly cares for animals (Matt 6). So while we should and do love our pets, we should be even more intentionally at directing love towards our fellow human neighbors.
But as Lightning taught me, to actively love others we must be in close proximity to them—even inviting them into our home and practicing the art of presence. We must be willing to extend some sort of physical touch, be that a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back. We must be willing to show care, kindness, or compassion as we seek to serve them. And last, we must be willing to have those relational moments of exchanges and interactions.
Could it be that Lightning gave me a glimpse of what it means to truly actively love others the way Jesus has loved me? And that just may be a dog’s purpose.