The Undiscovered Country

I’ve had to usher a few of my oldest patients into the afterlife in the last two weeks. Some of these pets have been under my care for over 8 years, and in that time, something that I have been having trouble articulating has grown. It’s a feeling that blurs the lines of vet, owner, friend, family…

With an uncanny prescience, or perhaps a bit of cosmic luck, a friend of mine recently penned a letter that beautifully encompasses exactly what I was having trouble saying. He’s graciously allowed me to share that here with you. Thank you, “coldnose.”


Oh, Kuma, I don’t want to be here with you, not like this. I want to be at my desk at work, comfortably focused on my immediate tasks; not here in this train, travelling with my unceasing unbidden thoughts of you. If I can’t work then I want to be reading, or walking; or doing anything at all except for losing myself in this confusion of memories of you. If I think of you at all, I want it to be with unconcerned and lazy fondness: right now you should be sleeping, or watching the dawn and awaiting the start of your day. I want to think of you as vital, gentle, and secure in the knowledge that, one way or another, life goes on. But life has not gone on, and now I travel in the company of your calm and charismatic shade.

You’re gone, I know you’re gone, yet I seem to feel your presence still. Are you out there, somehow? Does some integral trace of you persist and wander, embedded and immersed in a deeper reality as once you immersed yourself in your environment of redwood and strand? Or, this ‘you’ I feel, this ‘you’ that I even now feel compelled to speak to — are you only your evanescent reflection in my memories, a mental model to which my intuitive theory of mind cannot help but ascribe an ongoing independent awareness? Somehow I feel you’re still here, yet I miss you, yet I’m speaking to you now in defiance of time and distance and death itself. Such strange contradictions that our minds are wont to hold.

Strange also, how much you came to mean to me when we actually spent so little of our lives in each others’ company. But you were so remarkable, Kuma. Beautiful you were, yes; as beautiful as any creature I ever met; but also vital, and self-aware and self-assured, possessed of an easy serenity and an apparent intuitive understanding of your right to your place in this world. You were your own creature, invested with more richness and subtlety than I could ever have fathomed, and, to me, you were also something of a lodestone and a symbol for aspects of what I want to be, what I aspire to, what I uphold as the Platonic ideal of a life worth living. I loved you; not like your owner loved you, not like I love my own dog; but enough that something of what you were left its imprint in what I am and what I carry forward in my own existence. I never met anyone quite like you, and I hope I never will again. I don’t want you to be anything but unique: a singular point, never to be repeated in all the unfathomable phase-space of all possible creatures across the tapestry of all possible time. So long as you’re irreplaceable, you are in a tiny sense eternal.

Kuma, you are gone from us. I heard the news in one of those casually brutal ways, from the kind of off-hand comment that goes clean through one’s breast like an intangible bolt, leaving only a numbness that gradually, over hours, transmutes into a puzzled, pleading, stubbornly irrational disbelief. I had unquestioningly thought to see you later this year, to spend time with you, and part of me insists that’s still possible. Another more rational part, gentle and compassionate, reminds me over and over again that I can never see you again, not in this life. Sooner or later that part will win out and I’ll really understand that we’ve lost you, and then I’ll be able to weep. From now and forever more I shall know you only in my memories, and I shall never forget you.

I can feel the tears starting to rise and I think it’s time to mourn you now. And if my fellow travellers wonder why I’m crying in public, they should know that it’s for the best reason that could ever be.

Kuma, 2001-2014 †



Filed under human-animal bond

5 responses to “The Undiscovered Country

  1. Sue and John Foster

    That is beautiful and makes it clear that veterinarians have additional burdens to bear that would not occur to many of us.

  2. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. At the time that a pet’s guardian has to say goodbye, it’s the guardian that needs and deserves to be the focus of our sympathy. I think helps for them to know that we, too, feel this loss. Not in the same way — no one can truly know another’s experience — but similarly and empathetically enough that there is some supportive camaraderie. A burden shared…

  3. Chris Miner

    It isn’t always time that links two spirits. A connection is made. That’s what matters.
    I know you feel the loss of every pet you help along the way on their final passage. Take solace in knowing you put an end to suffering and made the transition peaceful. For that and for the years of care beforehand, we are all grateful. From my own selfish perspective, I am relieved to know that you will be with us to the very end and that we make this journey together.

  4. It’s the together part that makes it ok. Thanks for the kind — and wise — words.

  5. David Hughes

    [postscript: this is all rambling half-developed Thinks and I recognise that I’m mostly elaborating on things you’ve remarked above, and which you’ve certainly had far more cause to reflect on than I have. But I’ll post it anyway because I think it has the bones of a more coherent position which may resonate differently yet harmonise with your own.]

    Since I haven’t died yet, I can’t be objectively sure, but it does seem true that dying is generally harder for those who remain (at least I damn well hope so, and ache for the exceptions). I mean, we don’t mourn and parade and memorialise for their benefit.

    I imagine — I hope — that, for our animals, being euthanised is exactly like the induction of general anaesthesia, except without our human foreknowledge of an end to all things. Some gentle manipulation of a limb, a needle that probably isn’t even felt, a curious progression of cold, a momentary falling sensation and a burgeoning darkness; and then it’s over, with a consummate finality that seems impossible for our conscious minds to fully encompass.

    I try to understand these things in advance (without falling into the Charybdis of brooding on them), so that I’ll have these particular confusions and anguishes out of the way when we assume the burden of making that awful, fateful final choice for Mischa — and not only making it, but the prior, ongoing, and perhaps more portentous decisions that it’s not yet time.

    I’ve heard people say that “you’ll know when it’s time”, when an animal’s life is so marred by pain that they can no longer hope to experience a preponderance of joy. My exceedingly-limited experience of other animal-owners’ accounts is that this is by no means true, and that people are often desperately unsure either before or after the act.

    This is why I disagree with you when you say that we can’t know another’s experience. In a logical sense I acknowledge the truth in it, and we certainly have to acknowledge our own subjectivity and our cultural and personal diversities of viewpoint. But when it comes to the crunch, I think it’s equally important to allow ourselves to cast that caution to the winds to be replaced by simple emotional engagement. Mischa isn’t just a different culture from me, he’s a whole different species and I should never for a moment forget it. But, at the same time there’s such a strong mapping between his behaviours and mine, that it simply makes sense to infer a homomorphic similarity between the innermost qualia of our emotional needs. So it follows that I can infer and anticipate his needs by using my innate sense of emotional empathy. And that sense, and my responses from it, are generally far faster and more effective (and often, I think, more tuned and accurate) than those that proceed from my reasoned assessment of his otherly, canine differentness.

    I think we’re I’m going with this, is: we can’t know another’s psyche, be they animal or human. But, as long as we’re accustomed to the ways in which they’re different from us, we can love and succour and support them better if we allow our emotional selves to engage fully on our similarities.