A Pilgrimage for a Dog

St. Ignatius mission-- Montana


A few weeks ago I had two thriving dogs—a black lab and a golden retriever.  Both around seven years old.  Both run free in my Montana land.  Both have wagging tails and healthy appetites.  Then I went away for a week to lead a few writing retreats.  When I returned, my black lab was emaciated.  She must have gotten into a gut pile, I figured. The hunters leave the guts behind in the fall and they melt this time of year, back in the woods near where I live and where my dogs play.  Maybe she’d swallowed something rotten that had messed with her system.  But she had zero appetite and that’s odd for her.  “Maybe it’s pancreatitis,” my friend the vet tech suggested.  She’s never sick.  Has the constitution of an ox.  Both of them do.  Well I’m sorry to say that you can tell where this is going.  Cancer.  “Ziggy has final stage cancer,” the vet told me with tears in his eyes.   He also doubles as my son’s baseball coach and is the father of one of his best friends.  “She’s not in a lot of pain now.  But she’s so tired.  I think the right thing to do is put her down.”

When I announced this to my kids, they both got mad before they got sad.  “How can we play with a life?”  “Who are we to decide when a creature dies?”  I couldn’t argue with them.  I agreed.  I called my vet, bawling.  He said that we could wait it out.  But with that waiting, comes quite often loss of dignity.  Urination and defecation in places she would normally be too polite to consider.  Seizures. Organ failure.  He promised that it’s painless.  Calm.  The right thing to do.

So after a few days of enthroning her in the kitchen on her dog bed, the kids lying next to her while she slept and they pretended to do their homework, crying most of the time, I kissed her, and said, “Want to go in the car?”  She came slowly, but surely, wagging her tail, skin and bones and a bloated stomach where the tumor throbbed and ruled…I put her into the car (she couldn’t jump in, though she tried), and drove her to town.  She looked out the window the whole way. I was glad for that.

Inside, we sat in a waiting room where she tried to get into it with another lab, but collapsed supine on her dog bed.  Then we went to the examination room, the same place I’d gotten wellness checks, and discussed ear infections, worms, gotten the cancer diagnosis.  My vet friend described the protocol.  I held her head in my hands.  She lay there, not moving, as if she was already half gone. He inserted the needle in her leg. I said, over and over, “May you journey well, may you journey well, may you journey well…” and suddenly I felt this sharp, nerve twinge in my left hand where it met with her head.  So intense that for a moment, I thought I’d been given the injection– not Ziggy.

It took two seconds.  “She’s gone,” the vet said.  That quick. She was that ready to leave her body.

My yogi friend says that the soul leaves the body from two places—the feet or the head.  You want the latter.  I told him the blast of energy I felt.  He said, “It was her soul.  Good.  It left through her head.”

I took a road trip after that.  Drove to a small mission church about a hundred miles from where I live in Montana, in a town called St. Ignatius.  I cried most of the way down, along the 30 mile long Flathead Lake in the sun, the water sparkling, thinking about souls.  Dog souls.  People souls.  Souls.  And I got to the church.  No one was there.  I went up the steps and opened the tall doors.  No one.  Murals all around.  Light casting across the pews.  Holy week this week, I realized.  Palms on the altar.  

I put in a quarter and lit a candle and knelt and cried.  Didn’t know what to say other than thanks.  To this beautiful vessel of love and light that lay by my feet for at least two written books and many moments of emotional life-wrestling.  Then I sat in a pew, opened the hymnal, found a few hymns that I knew, and sang.  Quiet at first, but I was alone.  So I sang louder.  Loudly. Very very loudly.  Angels and John the Baptist and Jesus and Mary looking down at me.  Dogs barking in the background.

Then I went to a bird sanctuary.  It’s spring.  Holy week even in the world of migration, and maybe especially there.  I sat on a rock in a boggy field at Ninepipes and watched blue herons fly and land.  Fly and land. Fly and land.  Long legs.  Long beak. Such trajectory and grace.  Then I drove home along the other side of Flathead Lake.  “How was it?” my children asked me.  They meant the death.

“Peaceful,” I said.  “Death does not have to be scary.”  I paused and braved the next sentence because when you’ve held an animal while it passes, you feel unafraid.  ”And souls live on.  I’m sure of it.”

Pilgrimage.  Sanctuary.  Souls.  The question is:  can we feel them?  Can we believe in what we can’t see?  Can we receive holy mystery?  I did that day.  And I’d like to keep receiving it.  Ziggy’s gift.

Ninepipes bird sanctuary-- Montana



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20 Responses to A Pilgrimage for a Dog

  1. Alison

    I felt like I was there with you. I’m so sorry. There is nothing like losing a beloved dog, when they are in our lives with absolutely no guile, no back talk, no issues. Just love. Sending you lots of that.

  2. This is beautiful Laura, and very peaceful. It’s so hard to lose a beloved pet, but it seems like you also received a tremendous gift that day too. May you carry this gift with you always. Much love to you.

  3. Sally LaBonte

    Laura, this is a beautiful testimony to your dog. Over the years I have had to say goodbye to a few “best friends” of my own. I swear it never gets easier. Our dogs are a pure example of loving each one of us simply, purely and unconditionally.
    I am convinced that is why their time here on earth is so much shorter than ours. They have already figured it out long before we do. I know Ziggy must have been running through the next phase of what life will be now. Happy and carefree with the sun warming her face and the memory of her loving human family filling her heart.

  4. Joie

    One of the parts about adding a pet to the family is we forget we will most likely outlive them and get to see both the blending of a furry four-legged bundle of love into the fold, and then face the daunting task of being the one who decides to let them go. The story tugged at me as I also felt I was beside you watching all of this unfolding. Best of everything to the entire family as you walk the journey of letting go.

  5. Cindy Pitre


    So sorry for your loss, I know how you feel having done the same for our little cocker spanial….

  6. Laura,I just wanted to say how sorry I feel for the loss of your beloved family friend. We lost our 6 year old Newfie to bone cancer & like you felt the burning tears at the Vet’s with the devastating news. (He went in for a limp that wouldn’t go away) Like a previous comment…losing a 4-legged friend never gets any easier. Thinking of you and your Family.

  7. Mara

    The description of your experiencing the bolt of energy as the life force left reminded me of the law of physics stating that energy can’t be destroyed, it just changes form. Also, of reading Pam Houston’s well written book, Sight Hound, losing her own dog to cancer. Thanks for sharing. I’m always glad to revisit those places I’ve loved and lived in Montana, even if only vicariously, through your photographs and words.

  8. Hi, Laura,

    My heart goes out to you and your family. Thanks for your brave witness, as my family is on the same path, just a few days or weeks behind you. Your story is a wonderful telling of love, priorities, honor, and sorrow.

    I’ve heard that Ziggy may show up in different ways. I hope everyone in the family gets their own visit.

  9. Jan Myhre

    Oh, my dear Laura, my heart and soul wept with you. Memories of our family’s own losses came flooding back and my eyes wept with you as well. One woman stated, “it never gets easier” and that is true. But, for you, it seems the mystery of connection to “the other” was ever present and your compassion for your family and your pet was such a rich blessing. Namaste

    ps: There’s a remarkable story there, maybe even a poem, sweet thing.

  10. Marni

    Lu – I’m so sorry. It’s so sad to lose a beloved pet. You wrote a beautiful tribute. xo

  11. Elise Womack

    I posted this reply to your brother, John, on Facebook. He and I are old friends and classmates from LFHS.
    This, unlike a lot of things on FB, was worth reading. I’m sending a link to it to one of my students. I have them write a personal essay on various topics every month (this month on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, sacred defined by them, in honor of *The Canterbury Tales*) She [my student] also wrote one month about putting down her dog, so this will be a nice share for a number of reasons. Your sister writes well.

  12. JoAnne

    I write this with tears in my eyes, for your loss and how your essay made me relive a similar situation in my life. And yet I adopted again….. Life is so empty without an animal companion by ones side. Thank God the ability to love again doesn’t leave us. When the time is right and you have grieved thoroughly, you will open your heart again, while never forgetting your Ziggy. Have peace.

  13. Veronica Curto

    I have tears in my eyes … For I too have lost my beloved corgi of 15 years and my best friend life line my horse within a month of each other . I had such fear leading up to there impending health crisis .. However I too holding and reassuring them both felt such a sense of peace for them . And peace and love for having had them bless my life . Animals truly are our family .

  14. I’m so very sorry for your loss. There are no words, except he may come back to you one day. With a hug.

  15. Peggy Marciniak

    Laura, that was truly a beautifully written tribute to your beloved pet. I am so sorry that you & your family had to go through that.

    Peggy Marciniak (Jackson’s grandmother)

  16. Poor, sweet Ziggy. Poor, sweet you… And your kiddoes. My Bella is here with me as I sniffle my way through this love story and we’re sending love and light your way. xo

  17. Dear Laura, Thank you for sharing Ziggy, your sorrow, and your tender story. I’ve decided to drive from Reno to your retreat this June. I haven’t checked a map yet but I intend to make my route through St. Ignatius and find that small mission church to light a candle and honor Ziggy along with my departed Heidi and Sparky and Shadow. They are all the best examples of love we’ll probably ever encounter and I know they’re all together romping playfully with God right now. I hold that image and precious memories and smile through grateful tears.

  18. Ziggy was lucky to have you as her family. She loved and was loved. It doesn’t get any better than that.
    Sending you a long hug and tears for your loss.

  19. My book group read (and loved) your book. I came by to read your blog. I actually just watched “Marley and Me” for the first time last weekend and cried my eyes out. Our dogs are so special…love mine to pieces. I think I read that you are a fellow SLU grad…me too. I’m a fledgling writer, thanks for your inspiration!

  20. Jane Eagle

    I have been in this place. Denali was my second dog, and the love of my life. Denali was loved and adored from the moment she was born until she died in my arms of cancer at 13 years. When I could breathe again, I thought about all the dogs who do not have that experience, and so I began rescuing in her honor. Over the past 15 years, I have attended the home deaths of 2 cats and 6 dogs. I almost always have my vet come to my home, so the dogs dies in a peaceful place (unless it is an emergency and cannot wait until the end of the day). I highly recommend this, and any family who wants can be present. I could never leave the room to let my friends die alone. Every death I have participated in has been an honor, and in many ways even more spiritually enlightening than births. Either ALL living beings have a souls or none do. My experiences show me that we are all immortal energy, and love never dies.

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