Home Commentary The Way I See It: Saying Good-bye to Lulu

The Way I See It: Saying Good-bye to Lulu

By Nancy Price Graff  

My favorite photograph of my dog was shot this past summer at twilight at our camp. The hills beyond the pond are silhouetted against a blanket of gold light that fades to an indigo sky overhead. Lulu sits at the end of the dock, also in silhouette, a small, soft puddle of black against the light reflecting off the water. I am perhaps 10 yards out, my head, like everything else, in silhouette, nothing more than a black dot above the water’s surface. Lulu is waiting for me to swim in, climb the ladder, and accompany her up the steps to where our dinners await.

One month later we made the heart-wrenching decision to put Lulu down. We had fought her cancer eight months earlier, but when it returned, fighting it again was too much to ask of a 15-and-a-half-year-old dog. She had given us everything she had every day of her life, and now we would have to go on without her. It’s been several months now, and the memory of her sweet love and constant presence still brings me to tears. Our vet said that she thinks losing dogs gets harder as we age. Perhaps we have a hard time separating the reminder of our own looming mortality from our pet’s death. Perhaps it’s just the added pain of suspecting that we don’t have it within us to do it all again.

We have yet to tell our three-year-old granddaughter that Lulu, whom she adored, is dead. When she came to visit in the weeks after Lulu died, she asked where Lulu was. Her father stepped in quickly and just said that “Lulu isn’t here.” Our granddaughter accepted that explanation, and I did too at that moment because I didn’t think that I could talk about Lulu’s death without sobbing, a spectacle that would surely be more traumatizing to my granddaughter than the news that she would never see her friend again. But I think it’s time to tell her now; the big question is what to say.  

Some outstanding children’s book authors have attempted to explain death to young minds and hearts. “Dog Heaven,” by Cynthia Rylant, seemed at first to be the best choice for my granddaughter, that is after I cut out the two pages where the author describes dog angels coming back to earth to check on their living owners. Spies make everyone uneasy. However, as I looked at the illustrations again, I began to wonder why dogs in heaven had children with white wings to play with. Must children die to provide the dogs with playmates? That was a question a smart three year old was sure to ask and one I certainly didn’t want to answer.

In my grief, one of my closest friends sent me a meditation by Ilia Delio on the death of a beloved cat. “Recent questions in ecology and theology have focused on animal life,” she wrote. “Do animals have souls? Do animals go to heaven?” Delio then soft-shoed her way through the theology by simply saying emphatically “that Mango was ensouled. His soul was a core constitutive beingness, a particularity of life that was completely unique, with his own personality and mannerisms. To use the language of [Franciscan philosopher] Duns Scotus, Mango revealed a haecceitas, his own ‘thisness.’”

Reading this, I felt as if a light had come on. Without a doubt, Lulu had thisness. In ways unique to her and unlike the ways of any other dog we have had or any of the many other dogs I have known, Lulu had her own particular ways of being, her own mannerisms, and her own personality. Her unique nature emerged whether she was sprawled on the back of the couch behind me, racing me home from a walk so she could sit on the steps and welcome me, or sitting sentry on the console between the front seats in my car while waiting for me to return from my errands. 

I believe in God, say grace nightly, and pray occasionally, but I have not engaged in any organized religion in more than a decade. I was unsure how to bring God and, perhaps even more problematically, heaven, into this discussion of death with a small child. However, for me, Delio’s definition of thisness is a revelatory way of looking at life, particularly in the animal world. Animals themselves must recognize it. If not for thisness, why do dolphins speak to others in their pod, why do elephants congregate in herds to protect the weakest among them, why do geese choose specific partners with whom to spend their entire lives?  

The idea of thisness comforts me. I will always miss Lulu, and I continue to tear up over her death, but concentrating more on her wonderful thisness than on her absence makes her loss more bearable. If having a soul is predicated on having thisness, Lulu had both, and this is a lesson I feel I can pass on to my granddaughter that might color the way she views the vulnerable natural world around her for the rest of her life.