5 things I learnt from my dog

And how they helped me cope with grief.
Xmun, the mixed-breed terrier – 95 per cent cuteness, 5 per cent pure mischief.

Three months and 15 days ago my 17-year-old dog Xmun – a rescue terrier, bit of this, bit of that, bit of everything – passed away, and life will never be the same. I know what you’re thinking. Seventeen years! You’ve no right to be down about it, woman. It’s almost double the time most humans get to spend with their doggos.

You’re right, of course. But you’re also wrong. No matter how many times you tell yourself you’re ready, the truth is you never are. And the longer you’ve shared your life with a dog, the harder it is to accept saying goodbye.

So no, it wasn’t a particularly great start to 2023. But I’m not here to bum everyone out. On the contrary, it is time to celebrate Sir Xmun, and to acknowledge his amazing life in hope that this may offer some comfort to anyone who has just lost their pet.

The bad news is, the pain doesn’t go away. But it does get better, becoming more like a dull niggle in the distance than a heavy stone living rent-free in your chest. Truth is, though he may not have been the sharpest knife in the toolbox, I did learn a lot about life from Xmun. And everything I learnt, somehow helped me and gave me solace when I was struggling to cope with his loss. In honour of the best boy ever, here are the five things I learned from my dog, and how I used them to help me process my grief.

5. Perfection is overrated – Now, Xmun was the best boy ever. He was good-natured, he was fluffy as hell, he absolutely adored us and we, him. He owned the perfect combo of looks and heart. This is not to say that he didn’t mess up pretty regularly. 

My favourite ‘guilty as sin’ anecdote involves an open fridge door and a still semi-frozen chicken breast that had been minding its own business on the lower tray. It only took a few seconds of distraction, during which I left the fridge door hanging open, for the chicken to be whisked away in a move that’d have made Arsenio Lupin proud.

Let’s be clear here – this was a doggo that would never touch any food unless it was expressly offered to him. Unlike Shanna, my previous equally-lovable mutt who once memorably swiped a stranger’s ftira from his hand, Xmun exercised incredible self-control. Except this one time, when a piece of poultry got the better of his good intentions. 

The semi-scared, semi-defiant expression on his snout was too hilarious. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to scold him. Retrieving the chicken so that we could avoid a bad case of food poisoning proved to be a job, though. 

Like I said, Xmun was the best boy ever but he wasn’t perfect. I was reminded of this when I was trying to ‘be brave’ (don’t you just hate that phrase?) about saying goodbye to him. I’d been doing rather well, too, until I spotted his favourite brand of tuna on the supermarket shelf and had a meltdown. Part of me was mortified and wanted to run away. But perfection is overrated, right? I put on my shades and continued shopping. Xmun would’ve stood there defiantly, and so did I.

4. The good things are always worth clinging to – No-one appreciated this better than The Xmun, whose unique personality earned him the definitive article in front of his name,  and who had achieved Jedi level in terms of cling. He had his favourite spot on the bed (the exact spot where I rested my head) and on the sofa (the exact spot where I rested my butt). And damn did he manage to cling to them.

Bedtime was an entire ritual. I’d walk into the bedroom and find him snoozing where I should be. I’d move him to the other end of the bed, where he stayed put for all of five minutes. After which he casually sauntered in the direction of my face and plonked himself right next to me. It would only take a few seconds for him to start discreetly nudging me away from ‘his’ spot. 

What I learnt from all this, apart from the fact that it’s useless resisting 15 kilos worth of muscle and fur, is that clinging is good. When Xmun passed I went into a frenzy of hiding anything that reminded me of him, but this phase didn’t last long. I was soon looking up old photos, and finding any excuse to talk about him. I’d have given everything to find him nudging me off the bed again, but failing that I was going to gift myself the memories. At first, every thought of Xmun produced what felt like a stone lodged in my stomach. Eventually, the stone softened into a pebble. Still tender, but much improved with comforting thoughts and even a teary-eyed giggle or two.

3. Being bold makes you feel more alive – And Xmun was the king of boldness. Most of it was probably because he wasn’t the smartest pooch around, so he invariably based most of his bold actions on the fact that he didn’t quite appreciate the consequences. But let’s not split fur, hey. 

Xmun was a ‘jumper’, by which I mean he’d happily jump off the bed and land on arthritic paws, even though he had perfectly serviceable doggy stairs placed right next to His Royal Highness’s preferred spot on the bed. But why be sedate, when you could be bold? He followed this philosophy till the very end, refusing to act like the geriatric mutt that he was.

I tend to be more sedate than bold, but with Xmun’s passing this changed – at least as far as my grieving process was concerned. The first time I lost a pet, a number of people gave me the reaction – oh well, it was just a dog. My knee jerk reaction to this was to smash things, preferably on their heads. But, of course, I didn’t. 

This time round I was ready to make anyone who was less than sympathetic feel like crap on toast. It was the most heart-warming feeling when I realised I wouldn’t need to. Which either means that people have become a lot more sensitive, or that I am now surrounded by a better class of people.

2. Failing is okay – I mean, sure Xmun was bold. But, nine times out of 10, he failed to conclude whichever adventure he embarked upon. For example, he’d happily and repeatedly walk into the ‘dead end’ adjacent to the sofa area and then not manage to figure a way back out. 

Undeterred, he’d try to jump his way over the back of the sofa – not the smartest decision for an elderly pooch. When that invariably failed, he’d sit down patiently and send out a distress signal (one short whine) at regular intervals until someone showed up to rescue him. 

My biggest pain during Xmun’s last months was that his pancreas and kidneys kept failing, despite following a diet plan that’d have made any chemist proud. Despite all the love and prayers. Despite following our lovely vet’s instructions to the letter. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, success just isn’t on the cards. At first, I blamed myself and wondered if there was anything more I could have done. Eventually I started to accept that maybe I wasn’t to blame, and it was just nature taking its course.

1.Make the best of a crappy situation – There came a time when the three kilometre treks were no longer an option. A terrier-mix, Xmun was used to being super-energetic. If it were up to him, life would be one long, never-ending walk. When arthritis hit, suddenly he could only cope with very short walks. The initial confusion didn’t last long and Xmun discovered that two, daily 30-minute strolls could be equally pleasing. 

Same happened when he could no longer eat his favourite milk bones – it didn’t take him too long to discover a fondness for the low-fat and disgustingly-stinky fish skin biscuits. Whenever life slapped him in the face, Xmun bounced back with gusto.

His passing was like a massive black cloud that refused to be dislodged. But eventually, I took a leaf out of Xmun’s book and started to make the best of a crappy situation. He was no longer with us, but hey he didn’t have to endure long periods of discomfort and managed to enjoy life almost to the last. It doesn’t make me miss him any less, but it makes the pain easier to bear.

Xmun gave us years of love, laughter, biscuit crumbs all over our favourite rugs, satisfied sighs and belly rubs, disgruntled grunts and tremendously happy moments. If you’re struggling to cope with the loss of a pet, know that it’s not just you and that it’s okay to ask for help.

Heartfelt thanks to Dr Martin Debattista at the Blue Cross Clinic, who managed to extend Xmun’s stay with us while ensuring his last few years were full and healthy. 

For other Pink magazine features check out this exhibition that celebrates the life of Coco Chanel, or this controversial opinion about skorts.

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