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Life Arts

A Dog's Death

By       Message Lynn Johnson     Permalink
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He shakes his head a lot and gets nosebleeds. His ears bother him with, the vet explains, an ear infection common to Pit Bulls.

His ear problems are treated but the nosebleeds continue.

The vet finds a mass in his nose. It is an aggressive cancer, growing rapidly and spreading. Rex is now in pain. He wheezes when he breathes. He is in more and more pain. His old habit of wincing when your hand reaches out to pet him returns.

Last night we visited him. His breathing was labored, but he struggled to his feet and sits by me. He leans solidly against my leg, and I gently stroked his throat. His morphine doesn't stop all the pain, but he asks, "Do you love me? Do you know I love you?"

This morning I got the news that he was gone.


Social psychologists identify two somewhat opposite mindsets, prevention and promotion. The focus of a prevention mindset is to keep bad things from happening. A promotion mindset, to the contrary, aims at creating more of something.

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A prevention mindset is helpful in many situations. Flying an airplane, for example, has a lot of prevention tasks: checking to see there is oil in the engine, the flaps work, the ailerons function, the elevator works. Is there actual gas in the tanks? Don't trust the gauge! Look and see! Lindberg once said, "Flying, like the sea, is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of the least inattention or error." The wise pilot checks everything. Prevention keeps the wise pilot alive.

Prevention argues against adopting dogs, and especially an unknown dog from an abusive background. It isn't worth the risk.

The promotion mindset is great for inventing and creating. "Done is better than perfect" is the cry of the promotion-minded person. Let's try it and see. The promotion mindset embraces risk. Adopt a strange dog? Well, if you were a dog who had been beaten, would you want a loving and adventurous family to adopt you? Maybe the Golden Rule is promotion-focused.

Today there will be a funeral. Should my son have adopted Rex? His death has saddened the whole family. We have exposed ourselves to a risk, and the risk was real. Rex left the family all too soon. How can we explain his absence to Ruby? Amy is heart-broken. What can we say?

We say that life is worth the risk. We say that without loss, love can mean nothing, for with the experience of love, one risks all. We say that we embrace the grief because we first embraced love.

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We say that we are a promotion-focused family, running risks of love and life and adventure and learning, and suffering and then running those risks again. And again.

Embrace life and love, and know, with all the certainty we can know anything in this uncertain life, that there will be risk, there will be pain, there will be terrible loss.

My son has coached Amy to say, when she is in pain, "It will pass quickly." Pain always does. Long after the pain of today has passed, our hikes with Rex, our adventures, and even our frustrating games of fetch will remain in our minds. Pain will pass quickly, and we will always have the memory of Rex, uncertain about the strangers, putting himself between them and his sister.

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Lynn Johnson has been a practicing psychologist for the past thirty-five years. He is author of five published books and numerous professional articles. In spite of being a mental health provider, he is married to his first wife, and they have (more...)

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