Grief is an interesting thing. It's unpredictable. I've learned to let it go, and follow along until it wanes enough that normalcy returns. Not all grief is the same, and I've found my peace in that. I try not to fight it, because you can't, and I let grief do it's thing. It's time for me to buckle up for a bumpy ride.
My first experience with grief was the loss of my GreatGram when I was 13. I beat myself up for several days for not crying. Isn't that what you are supposed to do? I couldn't cry. I was rather numb. Looking back, it was really that I could not comprehend. Until I went to her wake, and saw her laying there. Her makeup was all wrong (they had to cover some discoloration). She was wearing earrings that I had given her, and it finally looked like her when someone tucked some crochet needles in her hands. I collapsed to the floor, a sobbing mess.
I've handled all sorts of loss since I was 13. Family, friends, those that had lived a full life, and those whose life had been cut short. Some that were a relief that a loved one was no longer in pain, and some that were a complete injustice to the entire world. Humans, animals, even the loss of an idea or intended future.
It still doesn't get easy, and sometimes I still just get numb.
We haven't said goodbye to a dog since Nina, in 2015. It was sudden, it wasn't fair, but the universe took her from us. But each and every dog we love, we also know we will lose.
We got Atlas and Goliath in summer of 2007. We had not yet said goodbye to any of our house dogs at the time. We knew that as giant breed dogs, their life span would be shorter, and that as working dogs, it would shorten even more. We figured that at 6, we would need to bring in replacements to train, and that they may only live to be 10. They are about to turn 11 this coming May. Except that Atlas won't make it.
In those 10 years, we have buried 5 dogs (and a 2 cats). Ditka, then Grish, Hobbes many years too soon, Athena and then Nina. Of those dogs, Atlas and Goliath (and Moose, Herc and Loki) are the only ones that have lived their entire lives on the farm. We knew Atlas could never leave. He is a farm dog, through and through.
Every time a dog leaves, the entire dynamic changes. This will be the first time a sibling leaves another behind. We know this will be hard on Goliath, and we don't know how we will respond. He likes to play, all 90 pounds of elderly dog, with some of the other pups (keep in mind, they are all puppies to us!) But he has always had his brother.
Now, these two are very different boys. Goliath was outgoing, the alarm bell for the farm and loves every person he meets. Atlas has never liked strangers, and as he has gotten older, everyone but us are strangers to him. He keeps his distance. But in his prime, he sure kept watch over those sheep (and baby Shannon!).
As a matter of fact, when bringing them home on the longest car ride ever - Larry wanted to name them Atlas and Goliath, but had the names switched. Atlas was the bigger of the two, and Larry wanted to name him Goliath. Except that face - I told Larry to switch the names, as Atlas looked like he already had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He is a great dog, great at being a livestock guardian, and great at being our friend and companion.
Two winters ago, I kept having to find him at night, on really cold nights, whether they like it or not, we do bring all the dogs inside to warm up a bit. On some of those occasions, I had to go trudging through the snow, looking for Atlas. Finding a white dog in the snow, in the dark, is not that fun! His rear legs were not working well, and he'd hunker down in the snow, unable to get up. Sometimes I could help him up, other times I had to carry him in. When spring rolled around, he was better again. The cold was rough on him. We didn't think he'd make it through another winter.
He did, albeit, there were still times we would have to hunt him down and carry him into the house. He had one terrible rear knee, and the other was doing the heavy lifting for him. We put him on pain meds to help, but at his age, surgery was not an option. Just like Grish and Athena, whose hips started to go - as long as they could move, they could stay. Atlas has retired to the back yard, and the garage and no longer romps in the pasture. He has a place in the yard he sleeps most of the day. And we've been watchful. At what point do we slip into the grey area where he is still here, not because he is happy, but because we can't bare to say goodbye? Add on the extra guilt of taking Goliath's brother from him (we've seen how much they both suffer if one is away at the vet).
But last night, it changed. We took all the pups to the vet for their heartworm check up. Atlas hates strangers, and worked himself up into a panic. We brought him home, and he laid in the garage panting and drooling. 12 hours it took for him to stop panting and finally collapse and fall asleep. And he wet himself while he was asleep. This was a first, even with failing rear legs.
From what I can see this morning, it looks like he was unable to get up to go outside last night. I see evidence that Larry had a mess to clean up where he was sleeping in the kitchen last night. Which means the inevitable is here. I need to make that call, and I need to dig a hole. We have many graves around the farm. It's never easy to bury a pup. I do tell people that I will never give up the joy of having a dog to eliminate the pain of saying goodbye. His almost 11 years with us have been amazing. He's had a great life, getting to do what Pyrs are meant to do, taking amazing care of his sheep. I remember a time when I saw him nipping at them and chasing them and I thought "what the heck?" until I saw a coyote on the other side of the fence, and he was moving them all to safety. Just an amazing boy.
I've said goodbye so many times, I have run out of words or how to say it. We usually have a ritual with our old dogs - one last walk, we share a meal and a pint of ice cream before they go. Like Grish, Atlas won't have one last walk. But we can share some ice cream. Like all dogs before him, I know that life will go on without him, although it's hard for me to see that right now. What could life be like without my grumpy old dog? My stoic Atlas, my lion, my serious boy. What will life be like for Goliath, a yin without a yang? Will we be able to console Goliath after he loses his brother? How big of a hole will this leave for us here on the farm?
We love you Atlas. And with love we are able to say goodbye.