Coping with Grief: What A Dog’s Purpose Taught Me About Life

Photo by Joe Lederer from A Dog’s Purpose

Jonathon Hastings, Chief Copy Editor

Friday, February 15 8:30 a.m. I received a text from my brother while preparing for my day.

“[Chester] was taken to the animal hospital because he can’t walk.”

As this had happened before, I didn’t think much of his message. Besides, boxers are more likely to develop issues with arthritis and hip dysplasia than other breeds, and because Chester had trouble walking since he was a little pup, I assumed the usual proceedings: the vet would prescribe an anti-inflammatory, we would expose him to exercise to delay the aging process, and, with luck, the issue would soon decrease in severity.

8:42 a.m. I was walking to class when my brother messaged me again; this time I couldn’t ignore him.

“Ultrasound showed he has a mass on his kidney.

Most likely malignant.

No chance for long term survival.”

“So he’ll probably be put down?”


He’s not leaving this building alive.”

“Will I have time to come and say goodbye?”

“No. He’s bleeding out internally as we speak.”

That day I learned boxers also have higher predispositions to cancer, and 37 minutes later, at 9:19 a.m. I received a notification that the vet put him down.

He was six years old.

I spent the remainder of my day fighting back tears, even as my mom called in irreconcilable grief. I did everything I could to distract myself, but the moment I got back to my room and shut the door behind me, I became the irreconcilable one, completely distraught and defeated. It took me well over three hours to fall asleep that night.

I tried my best not to think about it the next morning onward, but ironically enough, the movie adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose happened to be on Showtime two days after his passing. For those who don’t know, A Dog’s Purpose chronicles the experiences of a dog named Toby searching for his purpose through five reincarnations of life. Though I teared up with each of Toby’s deaths, the sentiment of the story spoke volumes to me and can be summed up in one quote:

“Humans are so much more complex than dogs, with such a broad range of feelings; though there were many times I missed the Yard, for the most part I was now living a far richer life, even though I often didn’t know what was going on.”

It’s funny, humans spend the majority of a dog’s life teaching them objectively simple skills: sit, poop outside, don’t destroy the couch…you get the gist, but rarely do humans consider what they can learn from the behaviors of their canine companions. Take Toby, for example. As a feral pup, Toby learned the importance of staying out of harm’s way; as Bailey, through his relationship with Ethan, he learned love and devotion; as Ellie, he learned how to find, show, and, most importantly, how to save people, both physically and emotionally; as Bear, he learned to combine those lessons for the sake of benefiting others. Other stories about dogs can be seen in a similar light; Marley and Me teaches patience and forgiveness, Timbuktu teaches loyalty until the very end, and Old Yeller teaches the necessity of letting go.

“That’s not to say everyone should just drop everything and start sniffing each other’s butts, but I think there are important lessons to be learned from the lifestyle of a dog.”

This made me think about Chester, whose life seemingly revolved around three essentials: safety, sustenance, and, most importantly, fulfillment. Simpler than man? Yes, but I would contend more enjoyable. That’s not to say everyone should just drop everything and start sniffing each other’s butts, but I think there are important lessons to be learned from the lifestyle of a dog. Here’s a list of a few I thought of:

  • With any new experience, and any new person, approach them with enthusiastic curiosity
  • Think twice before you bite; often a growl or two will suffice
  • Never pass up the opportunity for a joyride
  • If what you desire lies buried, dig until you find it
  • When weather permits, lie with you back in the grass under the shade of a tree
  • A prolonged walk can do wonders, as can naps
  • When someone’s upset, sit by their side in silence
  • The only true type of love is that which is unconditional

Today marks two weeks since his passing, and the pain of losing him still lingers strongly in my memories. It’s tough, especially since his death was so unexpected, but growth can accompany grief with the right mindset, and that’s how I want to move forward. I like to think Chester served his purpose during his six years on Earth, for he didn’t need 80 plus years to understand how to live a good life. Now it’s my turn to learn from his actions, and in doing so, I believe I’ll honor him the best way I can.

RIP Little Buddy

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