Last week as the kids and I arrived at Operation Kindness animal shelter for our weekly hour of volunteer work, I noticed Big Sugar was in a room off the front lobby. Big Sugar is one of our favorite dogs at the shelter. She’s this huge American bulldog mix who has been at the shelter awhile because kidney disease prevents her from being adopted. Big Sugar is easy to walk and quick to love, and she’s never in this front room. We walked over to say hello and as my daughter bent down to hug her slobbery face, I put it all together.
Remnants of hamburger and fries on the floor.
Donut sugar on her nose.
A puddle beside her bed.
And an IV port on her front leg.
I walked a few steps over to the front desk and asked if Big Sugar was being euthanized later in the day. The volunteer nodded, saying she entered renal failure and was experiencing a tremendous amount of discomfort. As we talked I noticed volunteers and full-time staff alike wandering over to her room to express their love, say their good-byes and shower her with treats. I realized in that moment, I had to decide if I was going to share the news with my children.
It didn’t take me long. I chose transparent honesty, even though I knew it would inflict pain.
They acted predictably. My ten-year-old son demanded to know why. Why couldn’t they save her? Why couldn’t she just keep living? Why was death a better option than living with disease? He wasn’t sad, he was furious. I asked him to put his anger into bleaching the dog toys and sent him stomping off to the laundry room.
My eight-year-old daughter literally collapsed. She started crying so hard that I ushered her into the bathroom so she wouldn’t interfere with pending adoptions. When she was ready, we emerged from the bathroom and walked over to Big Sugar. Pailet bent down and gave the dog a hug, a hug which felt entirely different than the one she offered just moments earlier. Pailet lamented that she never baptized Big Sugar, but didn’t feel pressured to do so now. She instead marked her forehead with the sign of a cross and whispered a tender prayer of thanksgiving for her life.
We joined Hill in the laundry room, keeping busy by folding towels and blankets. Hill finished cleaning the dog toys and a staff member put him to work cleaning the glass front doors. Within five minutes, the lead vet tech found me in the laundry room and asked if I could join her in the lobby. It seems that while Hill cleaned the doors, he continued asking all of his questions. The tech thought we should all have a conversation together.
I sat down with my son, this vet tech, and another staff member to talk through Hill’s questions. They answered his medical questions and explained quality of life. I felt it important to remind him of our resurrectional theology, which he didn’t want to hear. He did realize though that as much as we adored Big Sugar, the permanent staff loved her infinitely more. These women were physically distraught, talking to him with quivering voices and looking through teary eyes. He decided to drop it, for the time being at least.
We spent the rest of our afternoon walking dogs and playing with kittens. The whole time, my mind constantly questioning if I made the right decision. The costs of telling them the truth seemed to outweigh any life lessons I hoped they’d learn. I know the shelter staff questioned my decision. One of them mentioned to me that my kids would probably never find out what happened since dogs transition out of the shelter so frequently through adoptions.
The thing is, we’re just not not a family who shies away from big questions and hard conversations. We’re not a family who slyly replaces the floating upside down goldfish with a matching, swimming version. Or a family who spins imagined stories to explain why they practice lockdown drills at school. We are a family who embraces Glennon Doyle’s mantra, “First the pain, then the rising.” We are a family who believes shielding children from pain doesn’t actually protect them. It instead sends them out into the world ill-equipped to handle the heartache, disappointment, and grief that will surely come into their lives.
As we walked our final dog of the afternoon, I reminded the kids that God will be there to welcome Big Sugar into her resurrected life (yes, we are also a family who truly believes all dogs are invited to dine at God’s heavenly banquet). I reminded them that God will also be there with them whenever they are feeling sad, angry, or confused. I won’t shield my children from experiencing pain in this world. I’m trying to teach them that they can experience pain and grow even stronger from it. The grief they felt that afternoon was overwhelming, but hopefully it will contribute to their resiliency.
As we returned from our walk and put the dog in his crate, and my daughter noticed the puppy patio was full of a new litter. With her swollen red eyes, she sought permission to gown up and play with them. She stepped onto the porch and eleven rascally puppies immediately descended upon her.
God was with us, offering comfort during our uncomfortable conversations in the shelter lobby. And God was most certainly with us on that puppy patio when hot breath kisses and puppy teeth nibbles abounded.