One day I arrived home from work and called to my sick, sleeping dog: "Sophie! Hey, little girl! How're you feeling?!"
Having waited for me to get home, she lifted her head slightly to acknowledge my voice, laid back down, and died.
This isn't a story about how my heart was broken - although, of course, it was. This is about what transpired in the hours and days that followed Sophie's passing. It's about how our web-centered word helped me learn a crucial lesson and recover from a loss I had once feared I wouldn't be able to bear.
In the moments after my 11-year-old pup passed away, I kissed her head, wrapped her still warm body in an old slipcover, and texted my partner Colin about her death, letting him know I'd call him after I got things sorted out. I knew I couldn't speak on the phone about it without crying, and I didn't want to cry in front of anyone at that moment. Then I placed Sophie's 70-pound body in a large box and kissed her on the top of her muzzle one last time. That's when I wept really hard, the kind of weeping you do when you're a kid, the gasping, shaking, bawling, snot-running-down-your face kind. I took her body to the vet, filled out the paper work, paid the fee for cremation, and left. Then I did what any proper writer and/or Internet narcissist would do: I posted about it on Facebook.
Sophie, who was not a fan of other dogs, loved people and lots of people loved Sophie, so I wrote a short obituary, explaining her likes (sauerkraut and tuna fish) and dislikes (dry dog food, fireworks, postal workers), how I found her in a city pound in Los Angeles, and how she'd followed me all over the country and through multiple relationships. I also posted one of the most adorable pics ever of any dog. (See above) It shows Sophie, her bearded, whiskery face squished between the arms of me and my partner in the front seat of our car. Yes, she seems to have the biggest smile on her face (probably because the seats are pulling her cheeks up). But there is no doubt she is in absolute bliss. She was in a car (which she adored), coming back from a hiking trip in Acadia National Park (mountains, beaches, her fellas, AKA: everything she loves that's not edible.) Objectively, it's one of the great dog photos in existence. Subjectively, in the weeks after her death, it made me smile and cry a little every time I looked at it. Now, it just makes me smile.
What happened next is repeated every moment on the Internet, but it had never happened to me. The photo and story of Sophie went viral(ish) on Facebook, generating about 800 likes and 200 comments in a little over 5 hours. The comments were as expected:
"Big Hugs, Blair -- Soph was the Best"
"I hope Sophie is frolicking with our dear Whitworth Kitty, who passed away a few weeks ago."
"How gracious of her to wait for you to come home. That's love!"
I'd read these and choke up all over again. But soon I was surprised to discover that two friends' dogs died the same week as Sophie, and several others shared about losses within the previous six months. Then I started noticing names I didn't recognize, friends of friends and strangers also "liking" and commenting:
"Crying in Michigan . . . what a special dog you had."
"Much love to you from Australia. [...] I cannot forget Monty who is 6 yrs old. .."
"I don't know you. I received this from my cousin's comment. I am so very sorry for your loss and..."
Twenty-four hours after her death there were over 1200 likes and 580 extremely loving comments. Both my dead dog and my sorrow were getting fan mail:
"That may be the best dog tribute I've ever read - you were blessed to have each other"
"I don't know you but I am sitting here in Michigan with tears in my eyes. I lost my friend Arby several years ago and I am still missing him so much. "
"I know how hard it is to lose a fur child."
Hearing how Sophie's life and death touched both friends and total strangers began to affect how I was processing her loss. It was like I was crowd-sourcing my healing -- our healing.
Then I started seeing posts like, "Marsha, I'm so sorry for your loss" or "Lisa, I didn't even know you had a dog. I'm so sorry." "Tom, as a Marine, you understand: Semper Fi..." Other people had posted my dog's photo and obituary on their walls, and their friends were consoling them (not me) for losing a beautiful pup named Sophie. At first I wanted to write "Hey, that's my dog!" But I didn't, thank God. People shared about their own pet's passing and offered me (or Marsha, Lisa or Tom) techniques for dealing with grief and how Sophie's story opened their heart. It didn't matter that Sophie was my dog. Our love and loss of our pets connected us. And this collective sharing helped Sophie live a bit longer, and it helped me begin healing faster and more deeply than I could have imagined.
But then, after spending a couple of days reading over 700 comments about other people's loss and heartbreak, I started to recognize that I had already developed a sense of peace that a good portion of my co-mourners on Facebook didn't seem to share. Sure I was crushed -- but her death wasn't a surprise -- even before her diagnosis I knew she was going to die someday. That's what dogs do. So when a few of my dead dog's Facebook fans wrote that after several years they still "can't get over" their pet's death, I had the urge to shake them by the shoulders and say, "Damnit, just consider yourself lucky you were able to love something. Now, put down the bottle, get off the Internet, and go enjoy your life. Adopt another dog maybe. Otherwise you're humiliating the memory of your old dog! Your pup didn't waste time lamenting the past; they always were focused on that very next moment of fun or food or belly scratches. Have you learned nothing from your dog?"
When Sophie died, as I said, I wept harder than I had in years. But what seems to have followed isn't a deep depression at having lost her forever. Instead I feel a tear-inducing gratitude that I had 10.5 years with this crazy yellow mutt who, like some mischievous bodhisattva, taught me to embrace the outdoors, love so hard it makes my butt wiggle, cuddle up any chance I get, and always be more enthusiastic when someone arrives home than when they leave. Then the bodhisattva decided it was "mission accomplished" and time to transcend. And she did. What she left was not a hole inside me, but a gentle feeling of "Wow, I was a good companion, and student, and (screw it!) 'dad' to my pup. I will love her forever. She made me a better man." On top of all that, via the story of her life, death, and adorable face, she left this final gift of helping me and so many friends and strangers on Facebook (1,548 likes, 797 comments at last count) know we aren't alone. None of us is alone.
Thanks Mark Zuckerberg, thanks Sophie, thanks Internet.
Arf. Grrrrr. Click.