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Judith Acosta Headshot

Why Is Death So Shocking?

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You would think after the supposed millions of years we have been "evolving" or adapting that we would be as surprised by death as we are by eating and elimination. You would think that if it were just another natural process that it would be as shocking as summer following spring, as stunning as another morning coffee. Why do we accept the brittle decay of maple leaves with such ease, yet when it comes to ourselves, to our friends, families, and pets, we are benumbed with grief, baffled by the finality of something that, by all scientific accounts, should be normal?

I have been told by very wise people that I have to make friends with Death. I believe they are right. But I have not yet been able.

Today, at 7:15 a.m., my husband's dog, Bugsy, died after an old-fashioned Western, three-year stand off with cancer. Diagnosed with sarcoma in August 2009, he was given about a month to live. Like the time he got his teeth wrapped around the edge of a flank steak, he took that to the track and just kept going.

This is not an article about what we did to prolong his time with us or give him what we hoped was a beautiful quality of life. We did a lot of things -- raw diet, classical homeopathy, and at the very, very end steroids and antibiotics. We did whatever we could reasonably do without putting him through endless procedures or making him uncomfortable. We didn't spend a lot of money. We didn't go crazy. We took it one day at a time.

Which brings us to the point of this article: We had three years to prepare.

But as we knelt beside him and the doctor delivered the final injection, even though we knew exactly what was going to happen, we could not fathom it. When he took his last breath, we held ours, too. Were we waiting? To see if he would somehow defy the odds yet again? Despite all our knowledge and all the obvious evidence, we could not believe he was gone. We stood looking at his little body and wondered where he went.

How is that?

How can we not believe it? How can I be in shock about Bugsy's death any more than I'm in shock when the sun goes down or a breeze pushes back my hair? How can I say, "I can't believe he's not here!" when I've seen death in full-frontal form with family members, friends and other pets.
But I was in shock. Again.

Maybe it has something to do with the kind of dog he was, with the kind of presence he had, with the way some people said, "He's like a person."

I thought if he had been a person, he would have been a Keystone Cop and he would not have been acting. He was cantankerous, funny, loving, protective, goofy, and he was my husband's guardian angel. He was the dog that saved his life.

It was the night after Christmas. He'd been playing (he's a musician) at a private party. At 4 a.m., he got a call from a friend saying they'd found a dog frozen to the street. He was about four to six weeks old, no more than that. His stepson, Stephen, had been asking for a dog for months, so he went to look at him. When he picked him up, he crawled up his chest. "I thought he was going to lick my face, but he jumped off my shoulder." That was the beginning of a 16-year story of near-death adventures.

He had worms, a heart murmur, a gimpy leg from being frozen or possibly broken early on, he hadn't been weaned and was not socialized. His was a slippery slope from the very beginning and raising him took work and attention, but his crowning achievement was learning how to catch and crack pistachios, eat the meat, and spit out the shell.

A few years passed and my husband suffered through several major disappointments -- "rough times and hard drinking," as he calls it. What saved him was knowing that Bugsy not only loved him, but needed him. He had to stay alive, no matter how he felt, no matter what catastrophe loomed ahead.

"He kept me coming home and he kept me waking up. He stared me down, waiting for me to wake up, some days, but I did, because he was there."

When he was struggling with getting sober, he committed himself to a daily ritual with Bugsy: They would wrestle and play until they were both exhausted. It was his prayer, his meeting, his offering. The saved was now doing the saving.

One day, he had given Bugsy a bath. It was his custom to dry him off with a towel then Bugsy would run through the house. But on this occasion, he jumped out completely wet, shook the suds off on the tile floor, and shot into the kitchen, where he waited behind a wall. Dave ran after him, flew up feet first, landed on his arse -- hard -- and Bugsy poked his head out, smiled (literally), and laughed, "HAH!"

He was a dog's dog, a man's dog, and eventually he became a pack dog and a family dog when he became a part of our larger home life. He was the most adaptable dog I've ever encountered. There were incidents (one in which he was held by the nape of the neck by one of our bigger dogs until he squealed "uncle"), but he found his place and his peace.

When I told my mother about Bugsy's passing, I started crying again. And as soon as I wept, she did, too. In between our sniffing and sobbing, I somehow managed to rail at the universe again, to be shocked again, to wonder again -- how, why, what the heck was all this about, anyway? I told her, "I'm so sick of death."

And she said to me, "You know, that's the problem. You can't stop it. You're not eternal. No one's eternal."

And I remembered what Peter Kreeft had to say about that: Maybe the problem is actually the other way. Maybe we are eternal. Maybe we are continually shocked by death because it represents the antithesis to our highest natures, to our spirits. I may be wrong about that. But if I am, I guess I won't know it anyway. It'll just all be gone and over, nothing. If I'm right, though, I'll be kneeling down with Bugsy behind that wall, waiting to see Dave slide across a sudsy floor and we'll both go, "HAH."

For more by Judith Acosta, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.

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