Gladin: Animals’ passing prepares us for those of others

Feb. 23, 2013 @ 07:58 AM

My friend Holli learned that her aged pony, Dyna, who lives across the state, was having some health issues.  Understandably, Holli was upset, but the vet came and thinks that Dyna will be fine for now.  I told Holli that Dyna had given her a chance to practice for her death, which will, of course, come eventually.

Our old pony, Dixie, gave me plenty of opportunities to practice for her death.  She lived so long that she could not hear and barely see.  But even in her addled antiquity she banged the gate when it was time for her evening meal.  When she was not there one late afternoon, I suspected the worst and tiptoed down the hill to find her.

And there she was, prone on the ground looking rather deflated, but peaceful.  I felt grateful for no apparent signs of struggle as I edged my way closer.  Then, almost imperceptibly, Dixie’s ear twitched.  I closed the distance between us with purposeful strides and yelled down at her (because she was deaf), “Dixie?”

Her head shot up and her eyes were fogged this day with the mist of lingering pony dreams.  She seemed embarrassed for having missed her chance at annoying me at the gate.  Dixie’s eventual death (years later) was not peaceful, and I was grateful for the opportunity to practice her passing a few times before the real event took place.

Possibly my first experience with death was with a white cat named Speedy.  Though I was probably not reading yet, the vet spoke directly to me and spelled out the name of her disease.  I remember feeling sad in a dimly lit examining room, and my father’s presence softened that first experience of loss.

Years later I wanted to shield our daughters from the inevitable death of a lamb that had just been born on our farm.  Their curiosity was great, and I realized that they would likely imagine a picture far worse than the actual scene of a little white lamb nestled limply in the sweet hay.  So they knelt down and offered him the love and understanding that children communicate so effortlessly.  It occurred to me that we don’t have to explain death (or sex, for that matter) as much to children who grow up with animals.

Having now experienced numerous births and deaths, I am struck that each event, even when fully expected and prepared for, is startling.  I sat with my mother for her long passing, but had gone home to shower when the end came.  I remember the “Oh!” that escaped from my lips when they called.  I’ve watched injured or sick animals die at the end of the needle we’ve placed to spare them pain, but have never failed to gasp when the last life leaves them.

When we’ve had the opportunity to live closely to the cycles of birth and death, be they in the plant or animal kingdom, this passing from realm to realm is understood and accepted at some level far beyond general cognition.  We don’t know where all this life-as-we-know-it comes from, or where it goes eventually, but from our animal friends we learn that the coming and going is natural and good.  That startled feeling can be a mixture of holiness and delight…even when the lights are going out on life.

A veterinarian tells the story of a 6-year-old boy who, upon losing his old dog, surmised that, “people are put here so that they can learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?  Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long.”

Because they don’t stay around as long, animals prepare us for their own passing as well as for those of others we love.  An animal’s purpose is beyond its role in human life, but by witnessing their deaths, we can gain confidence to be present to other deaths, including our own, and thus to live our lives more fully.

Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may email her at or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.