What my dog taught me about being human

The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see. 

Photo by Annie Spratt

The dog days are over

It was one of those days that inspired hope —a harbinger of spring in the form of a warm sunny day at the tail end of a long winter. We went out on what was supposed to be a regular walk, the type that we’d gone on thousands of times. My mind drifted to all the fun things we were going to do this summer. 

But they were not to be. Although we left together, I came back alone. My once simple dreams turned into the impossible.

This was not how I imagined it. I always thought that someday down the road, there would be the inevitable trips to the vet, going back and forth until the day I would have to make the difficult decision of letting you go.

Instead, we didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. One minute you were there and the next you weren’t. You were literally gone in sixty seconds. It never, ever crossed my mind that dogs could have heart attacks.

It was horrifying to watch you slip away from me while I could only look on helplessly as I held you in my arms.

So, this is how it feels to lose something one cannot replace.

A mindful (of) death

“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” — Yogi Berra

Death is a mind-bending concept; I’m still wrapping my head around the idea of gone forever. Unlike the “forevers” people pledge to in weddings, the forever in death is indisputable and non-negotiable. No prenups nor make-ups.

Knowing of my practice in mindfulness and stoicism, one of my good friends asked if my practice has helped me in coping with this loss. Funny he should ask, as I have been wondering myself. After all, I’ve invested thousands of hours in the past few years, cultivating a practice precisely in anticipation of situations like these.

Would my preemptive measures — these laboriously constructed, mental and psychological defensive breakwaters — hold the line?

My rational mind was the first responder. I registered that you were gone and that there was nothing I could do to bring you back; that you have had an amazing life; and the blessing of a quick death without prolonged suffering.

I knew all the right things to think. But knowing what to think didn’t help me with how I felt. As the saying goes, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

As I sat there by the canal holding your limp body that was still warm, surrounded by concerned onlookers but disconnected from them, there were neither tears nor emotions. I felt nothing. Only abject shock that you had been cruelly taken from me. Holding onto the shreds of a union violently ripped apart.

In that space of emptiness, portentous dark clouds gathered in the distance, moving purposefully to obscure the sun. The ocean, docile only a few moments ago, had turned mutinous with the first wall of waves announcing their arrival on the horizon, silhouetted against the fast-fading light.

I steeled myself for impact. Here comes the hurt.

1. On death

‘Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid.’ — Ricky Gervais

Death has been weighing on my mind a lot more in the last few years since I started reading into Stoicism and Buddhism. Both schools share remarkably similar philosophies with an emphasis on the impermanence of life and the transitory nature of existence.

As a reminder to live more fully and not waste time on the trivial, I have been cultivating a practice of keeping death in view. For example, I have designed a set of questions around death and regret which I have been using to help me make better decisions. I also have the Death clock — a plugin that displays roughly how many days I have left to live — installed on my web browser.

It’s easy to wax lyrical about death — on how beautiful it is as life’s great equalizer and how it gives agency and meaning to life. But the truth is, when you died, my world collapsed from beneath me. I fell into the sinkhole, and I kept falling. The only thing I wanted is to have you back. I would gladly trade a year of my life for one more day with you; take three for all I care. 

My clinging onto attachment revealed an important and valuable lesson: Despite all my practice to prepare for my own death, I remained ill-equipped to deal with losing those I care about. 

Alas, my practice has been one-dimensional. Somehow, I’ve completely avoided my fears on this front.

Painful, but how very enlightening.

2. On grieving

“Grief… is a whisper in the world and a clamor within.” — Anna Quindlen

As an amateur griever, it didn’t take long for me to learn that grief is awkward, unfamiliar territory for most people. Why should I be surprised, seeing that most of us tend to avoid the subject of death? In most cultures, it is an issue that is difficult to discuss, much less witness. Often, we may want to express sympathy but do not know how.

In everyone’s defense, most of us simply haven’t had that much practice (thankfully) when it comes to grieving loss. However, it is an experience that we can expect to be acquainted with as we grow older, so it is worth talking about sooner rather than later. 

Being on the other side of the fence gave me a chance to make some interesting observations about what we say and do when faced with these unfamiliar situations. One of the things that stood out was how I noticed that people said the same three things to me over and over again.

First of all, many commented that your fast death was a good thing. They are right — you went quickly and didn’t suffer. I am thankful for that, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I am still reeling from the unexpectedness of it. Thirteen years together, and we didn’t even get to say goodbye. To say that this sucks is an understatement. 

Second, they brought up your age. You were almost thirteen years old (yes, I know how old that is in dog years.) Because you were mostly healthy before, it seems reasonable to expect a couple more years together.

Third (and my favorite), people asking me if I would get another dog. Hahaha.If someone lost a kid or a spouse, I don’t think anyone would think it’s appropriate to ask if they are planning on getting a new one. This one is funny because it feels like a question asked out of panic because they didn’t know what else to say.

I know everyone meant well so I didn’t take it personally — those were comments I would have made myself when I was none the wiser.

Insofar, grieving has taught me two important lessons.

First, it’s unlikely that we can say or do anything that’s going to fix the situation when someone is grappling with a devastating loss. When caught in the inescapable gravitational field of a black hole, resistance is futile. Often, the best thing we can do is to ride it out with them. 

Secondly, we are often taught to treat others as we want to be treated ourselves. Which sounds pretty good until one realizes that when we do this, all we’re doing is projecting onto others our own beliefs, values, and worldview. This is how I like it, so this is how you must like it too.

If our intention is to help the other person feel better, then we have to focus on them and not make it about us. It always begins and ends with their needs at the moment. 

Therefore, it’s more important to treat people how they want to be treated, rather than treating them how we want to be treated.

One of those things in life that cannot be repeated enough.

3. On responding, not reacting.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ― Viktor E. Frankl

My parents were one of the first people I called after it happened. They had been looking forward to seeing you again later this year ever since I brought you to Europe eight years ago. 

Both of them responded very differently upon receiving the news. My mum broke down immediately upon learning what had happened. As we cried together, the distance between us evaporated. We couldn’t have been closer in that moment; it was as if we were physically next to each other. Held together by wordless solidarity.

On the other hand, my dad’s immediate response was that it was good that you didn’t cause me any problems with a drawn-out illness. He was right. But I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.

A few days later, he wrote to me, telling me not to let the incident affect my life and my work. This time, my blood boiled. I was outraged. How could he even suggest this? It had been 3 days, not 3 months!

I was about to lash out at his insensitivity when I caught myself in time to realize that I was about to react with my own brand of insensitivity. The irony felt like salt on an open wound.

I asked myself: Where is this coming from? That simple question reminded me that, without a doubt, he only had good intentions and meant no harm, even though the execution left much to be desired.

Pursuing this line of inquiry, I came to sense the helplessness they must have felt with eight-thousand kilometers divide between us. To have someone we love hurting and not being able to do anything for them — it felt like the same helplessness that snared me when I saw the light fade from behind your eyes.

This was a breakthrough for me. One of those rare, seminal moments that I know will continue to teach me for years to come. 

I sent them a teary voice memo thanking them for their concern and asking them for space and time to grieve because after all, I reminded them gently, I had lost my best friend of thirteen years.

Almost immediately, they responded back with kindness and understanding, confirming my guess that they were simply concerned and wanted me to feel better, and that I’d have all the space I needed to grieve.

Win-win situation. Not for you though. :’(

4. On being yourself

“Be who you are and say what you feel because people who mind don’t matter and people who matter don’t mind.” — Dr. Seuss

Most people think their dog is the best in the world; they are wrong.

In all seriousness, those who have met you would undoubtedly attest to your specialness. You were one of the sweetest dogs I had ever met, but you were also a one-of-a-kind, weird little fellow.

One of my favorite memories of you were those of your anti-social days when you would avoid making any contact. I would try to meet your gaze but you’d avoid it at all cost. I would pull you close, but you’d have none of it and walk away. Which I always found both hilarious and endearing. A perfect expression of what makes you special.

In a way, you were almost more cat than dog. You came to people only when you wanted and you hardly ever clamored for attention. It wasn’t that you were apathetic or unresponsive; you had an affectionate and playful side revealed only to a select lucky few.

The funny thing was that the more detached you were, the more people hankered for your attention. I’ve not met another dog that was as universally appreciated the way you were. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many “not dog people” you won over in a matter of minutes. And you did it without trying. 

As someone with a compulsive need to please others, you taught me over and over that it’s okay to own your weirdness and be yourself — how important it is to be okay with yourself — and that you’ll find those who like you for who you are anyway.

We tend to romanticize the notion of finding ourselves. To embark on great quests into the unknown, to far-flung places to discover who we are. What’s less talked about is the significance of cultivating the courage to be ourselves. To use what we’ve found. 

That’s the hard part — it’s where the real work begins.

Having the curiosity to find ourselves may be important, but it’s even more crucial that we call forth the courage to be ourselves.

5. On love and loyalty

“Even after all this time the Sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” ― Hafiz

The bonds we have with animals are different (and some might say better). Because they can’t speak, they will always take our side of the argument by default and laugh at all our jokes — important prerequisites for any healthy relationship.

Human relationships, on the other hand, are much more volatile and transient. Despite how it may feel in the moment, we are constantly gravitating towards some people and drifting apart from others. Whether by choice or chance, people come and go from our lives.

I was never going to walk away from you (and I know from your diary entries you weren’t planning on leaving me either). Our bond was unshakeable, from the first time I held you as a puppy and all the way till the last moment your soul left your body.

To a lot of people, you were just a dog. To me, you were a living, sentient being that I loved more than anyone or anything else in the whole world, including myself — you just happened to be a dog.

I always thought that you were the one dependent on me, but now I’m beginning to realize the full extent of which I was dependent on you as well.

I don’t have kids but I imagine this is what it feels like to have one. Truth be told, it’s my first experience with this type of transcendental, selfless, and unconditional love.

Wow. How impossibly beautiful. I hope this will be the first of many to come.

6. On ordinary moments

“The most important thing is remembering the most important thing.” — Suzuki Roshi

I always knew there were things I would miss, but what surprised me are the things I didn’t expect to miss — the countless ordinary, everyday moments we shared. Your quirks and idiosyncrasies. All the little things I took for granted.

Dear Bambam,

When I look at your bed you aren’t there anymore.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see isn’t your face, in my face.
When I meditate you aren’t lying by my side anymore. 
When I open the door you don’t rush to greet me anymore.
When I walk on the streets and look to my side, you aren’t there looking back at me anymore.

I miss the sound of your nails pelting across the wooden floor. 
I miss how you would place your head under the nozzle while taking a shower. 
I miss you scurrying across the room, spooked by the sound of your own farts. 
I miss your soft yelps as you slipped into a dream. 
I miss the scent of coconut lingering on your freshly washed, soft silky fur.

Everywhere I go, I see traces of you. You are everywhere, yet nowhere to be found. Instead, there is nothing but the relentless whisper in the wind that you aren’t here anymore.

The extraordinary is masked as ordinary. I wish I had the sagacity to appreciate this more deeply before.

7. On shared experiences.

“Solitude is dangerous. It’s very addictive. It becomes a habit after you realize how peaceful and calm it is. It’s like you don’t want to deal with people anymore because they drain your energy.” — Jim Carrey

Growing up as a full-blown extrovert, being around people came easily and naturally to me. So, imagine my surprise when I began a slow (and painful) transformation into an introvert in my twenties.

For the past eight years, I thought that I had spent a fair bit of time by myself. And I did. However, what I failed to take into account was that I wasn’t completely alone in my solitude; you were there with me for a good chunk of it.

Now that you are not here anymore, I feel truly alone for the first time in a long time.

As someone who enjoys having my own space and solitude, sometimes it’s easy to forget that life is more enjoyable when shared with others. This may sound obvious to extroverts, but introverts will know how draining it can be to be around other people.

A reminder to you card-carrying introverts: just as we shouldn’t place the responsibility of our own happiness in the hands of the others, it is equally unrealistic (and egoistic) to think that we can / have to generate all happiness in life by ourselves.

Besides, the type of joy and happiness that is awakened from a shared experience is vastly different from the kind we experience alone. Ultimately, regardless of what one identifies as — extrovert, introvert, ambivert, or big bird — this is not a finite game but an infinite one.

It’s not either-or; we can have both.

8. On being present

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” — Joseph Campbell

For as long as I can remember, I listened to podcasts whenever I was out on walks with you. I don’t recall when exactly, but around a year ago, I thought that perhaps I didn’t need to be doing something all the time. I could enjoy a walk with you and let that be it. You mean do nothing? Preposterous! 

After reading The Art of Racing in the Rain at the turn of the new year, I was forced to confront something I avoided like the plague — that you were getting on in years. 

And so, I set a daily reminder on my phone to be more present with you. Every day at noon a notification for “Be present with Bambam” would light up my screen. Nice idea, right?

It worked — for about two weeks. Then I got used to the reminder. The more I saw it, the less it affected me. Imperceptibly, I slipped back into my old behavior. 

When it happened, I was plugged into my earphones. I felt a tug on your leash and heard what sounded like a loud yelp, and by the time I turned around, you were already writhing on the ground. 

Those last sixty seconds have been replaying in my head. Perhaps we could have shared one last meaningful moment if I didn’t have my earphones on. 

What haunts me is not that particular moment — it’s the thousands lost in all the walks we took together. Out of reach for good.

Isn’t it absurd? The ridiculous amount of our waking consciousness anywhere but here. Mired in the past; worrying about the future; lost in thoughts. Seemingly awake but entranced in a dream state.

For all its wonders that technology provides, including its omniscient ability to seamlessly teleport us across time and space, there is but one elusive place that remains beyond its reach — here and now.

In the end, a mirage, no matter how spectacularly conjured, is still a mirage. It pales in comparison to the actual thing. A single drop from the real oasis will satisfy our thirst far more effectively than guzzling from a reservoir that’s an illusion. 

Isn’t it ironic? How we seek to feel whole and alive yet we look for it everywhere else but here.

The universe chose a great way to teach me this lesson — by giving me the ultimate Pavlov’s conditioning. 

Talk about dark humor.

The unexpected guilt of living

“What is most personal is most universal.” ― Carl R. Rogers

I knew that I would regret all the things I could have done better, but what I didn’t see coming was the unexpected guilt that arose from living. The feeling that somehow by moving on, I’m dishonoring the loss. It’s a stupid idea. Whoever we’ve lost probably want us to move forward and lead our best possible lives. 

With each passing day, the superficial pain subsides a little more. The waves have retreated and the dark clouds, mostly dispersed. 

When I catch myself remembering, I feel guilty for not thinking about you more. The irony is that I’m doing exactly the same thing as I did when you were alive: not being present in the moment.

The burden was lifted slightly (and unexpectedly) after speaking to a friend’s girlfriend, who recounted how she lost her mum to cancer a few years ago. She told me about the sense of relief she experienced the first weekend after her mum’s passing. How she could be with her friends and have a normal weekend and not have to be in the hospital ward, by the bedside anymore.

Although she did not say this explicitly, it was clear from the sadness in her eyes that her relief came from not having to watch her mum suffer anymore. I was taken by surprise at her honesty, especially because we didn’t know each other that well then. It was an incredible moment of vulnerability that moved me deeply, and one that I will take with me. 

As someone who is comfortable living in a world of ideas, it’s easy to forget how much of what we go through in life, others go through as well. That in the end, in spite of how we may have convinced ourselves, we’re really all in this together.

Bouncing forward

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready… The teacher will disappear.” ― Tao Te Ching

To cope with my grief, I got myself a new dog. I named him “Not-Bambam.” Not-Bambam has got big shoes to fill in.

Not-Bambam, why can’t you be more like Bambam!? Bad dog!

Just kidding — I can barely stop crying when thinking about you, much less entertain the idea of getting another dog. You are irreplaceable.

I’ve been trying to find ways to deal with the void you have left with your abrupt passing. It feels like I’m in a dark room all of a sudden, discombobulated and grasping my way around because I have completely forgotten what it was like to be in the room without light.

As Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” 

Your last gift to me — the labored birth of this piece of writing — has revealed a deeper layer of peace. Traumatic as it was, I’m eternally grateful that I was with you till the end because any other way would have been worse. 

The beauty of endings is that it takes you to the beginning — back to all the things that matter.

Why we should remember the shortness of life. 
Why we should spend time on things and with people we care about. 
Why life is worth living right now, and not in some idealized tomorrow.

Being a better human, above all, is simply learning to love what we have and who we are in this very moment. That’s it. No need to sit atop a mountain in a lotus position for ten years, recite the yoga sutras from heart, or wait till we’re eighty to learn this.

We were all born with this wisdom; somehow we forgot it along the way. It is innate and accessible within each and every one of us. All we have to do is to say yes to it. 

After thirteen years, I finally see what you’ve been trying to show me the entire time…

Life is loving what is, not what it should be. 

Dear Bambam,

Thank you for all the good times. You were a good boy. 
In my heart, we are one. Now and always. 
I will miss you forever…

Love, your human.

Deepest gratitude to Tian Daphne for her invaluable feedback, and to Yllnora Semsedini and Thomas Pagliaro for reading drafts of this.

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