This month marks the one year anniversary of the day we had to say good-bye to our loyal companion and “fur baby”. As part of my grieving process, the morning he passed away I sat down and wrote the life lessons I learned from my dog, as I had watched him navigate his life with an autoimmune disease. (And one year later I’m finally able to hit publish on what I wrote that day).
He never spoke a word, yet the way he lived his life, coping with health issues for more than half of his 11 years on earth, taught me lessons that will stay with me forever. I feel these simple reminders are something we all need from time to time. So today, as a tribute to him, and to all our four legged friends who help us cope with the pain and hurdles of life, I’m sharing the lessons he taught me.
First off, I’d like to introduce you to my favourite furry friend. He was a pure bred boston terrier whom we adopted as a pup. He was full of life and loved adventures but could also calm right down and loyally stay by your side when you needed him. We named him Inookie (a popular name in the local language where we live, pronounced In-Nook-ee) and although we’ve had several dogs over our lifetime, he was definitely set apart from the rest with his gentle disposition and heartwarming antics.
Even self proclaimed “non-dog” people fell in love with him and commented on his endearing personality.
He never spoke a word, yet the way he lived his life taught me lessons that will stay with me forever
At 11 years of age, Inookie had been with us through thick and thin. He was my son’s best friend and constant play-mate as they grew up together through his school aged years.
At about 5 years of age, Inookie started having autoimmune health issues. He required a couple of surgeries and then was on medication for the rest of his life. In fact, at one point we were both on prednisone together. (He used to be so hungry we would give him a bowl of ice cubes to keep him satisfied.)
His autoimmune disease impacted his skin, joints, and organs. I felt like he really understood the aches and pains I experienced, as I witnessed him handle something similar. When the weather would change and it was cold and damp, we would both limp around together. We made our way up and down the stairs, very slowly and deliberately one stair at a time, at our own pace.
As I wrestled with my own feelings and acceptance of my Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis, I watched and learned from him as he coped with his autoimmune issues. As he reached the end of his life, I realized 5 very important lessons that he taught me.
Life lesson: #1- Enjoy the little things
Although with his health he had good days and bad days, he seemed to find joy in each day. He seemed to treasure the simple things like taking a nap in the sunshine, cuddling with a family member, or enjoying a tasty treat. No matter how bad his health might have been, he always found a reason for joy (and butt wiggles) each day.
This is such an important lesson for us as autoimmune warriors. We know how to appreciate the good days (that’s easy!) but those hard days are something else. It takes a strong mindset to be able to display gratitude on the hard days….looking deeply into our lives and finding something to be thankful for, despite the pain and challenges our health might be bringing us on that day. By digging deep and having a heart filled with gratitude, though, we find so much joy and inner peace.
Life lesson #2 – Focus on what you CAN do and don’t keep looking back at the things you can NO LONGER do
As Inookie got older and his disease progressed, there were many activities that he loved that he could no longer do. Long walks became short strolls, which later became looking out the window on a car ride. Chasing the ball became rolling it slowly in the house, which later became resting his head on the ball like a pillow.
Although his circumstances progressively changed, he found joy in taking in each moment and enjoying his time exploring the world, even if it had to be modified to accommodate his health.
It’s easy for us to look at all the things our chronic illness has “stolen” from us. It may have taken away dreams we had that we now modestly realize may never happen. It may have taken away hobbies or activities that we no longer have the physical ability to do. But if we focus on all the things we have lost we will never truly enjoy the wonders that are still left in our life to enjoy. In fact, sometimes having to work within our new limitations might open to us a new opportunity or hobby that would have never existed without those limitations first.
Life lesson #3- Say YES often
All it took was pulling out the leash or opening the car door and Inookie was filled with a “spark”. He said YES every time he was able to, when we extended an opportunity for an adventure.
Don’t get me wrong, there were times he said NO to us too. He made it clear that his body wasn’t feeling up to it that day, and he would rigidly sit and no amount of coaxing would get him out the door if he wasn’t feeling up to it.
But more often than not, he said YES. He wanted to make the most of every day and live life to the full, as much as his health would accommodate.
His example inspires me to say YES more often, when I am physically able to do something (even though at first I might not really feel like it). I say YES to making memories with my family, whenever I am able. I say YES more often because I am mindful that my disease is progressive and there may come a time when I cannot say yes and will regret having wasted those opportunities when I could have.
Life lesson #4- Always be gentle and kind
It’s not uncommon for dogs to get aggressive or defensive when they are in pain (and understandably so…they are frightened and hurting) yet with Inookie, he was gentle and kind right down to his last breath.
Despite his pain, he never took it out on those surrounding him. We never doubted his love or affection for us, because he was always willing to give of his love generously, no matter the pain, no matter the circumstance.
I can’t imagine how hard it would have been had he become aggressive towards us. As his family, it was so painful to see him suffer, and we just wanted to be there to assure him of our love and support for him. Had he pushed us away, it would have been “salt on the wound” of the pain we were already experiencing in feeling helpless to his suffering.
Pain can make us do crazy things. Understandably, it can make us respond sharply sometimes to those who love us. It can make us lash out in frustration, although knowing deep down that they are in no way responsible for the cause of our pain.
As hard as it is, I try to remember the lesson he taught me when I’m in intense pain. I remember that the pain I’m experiencing also causes emotional pain to those around me who love me. They hate to see me suffer. They wish they could fix it. And although they may not totally understand the pain I experience (really who can unless you’ve experienced it yourself?) They are there for me because they love me and it’s my job to do my best to always respond in a kind and loving way so they never doubt my affection for them. And when I fail to do that, it’s up to me to apologize afterwards and reassure them of my love.
Life lesson #5 – Just being there is what counts in a friendship
Inookie was always by our side. He never said a word, never fixed my problems or offered any advice. But his presence mattered. Even though he had his own health to contend with and had some bad days, he used the energy he did have to assure us of his love.
His little wet nose would nudge me when he wanted to crawl in closer and snuggle up beside me. He always seemed to know when I needed a hug, or when I needed some space. But regardless of how close or far we were physically, I knew his love and friendship were always within my reach.
Our life’s journey with a chronic illness is no easy ride. Having someone by our side, despite the fact that they can’t fix our problems, and despite the fact that they may not always know what to say, can mean so much.
The old adage “To have a friend, you need to be a friend” rings true, even for those with chronic illness.
In the depths of our suffering it can be easy to forget that others are suffering to, each in their own way. We might feel like we have nothing to give because we don’t have the energy to be out socializing or have the ability to join them in their favourite activities.
But true friendship, as Inookie showed me, is just about being there. It’s knowing you are loved and cared for. And that is something that even those of us suffering with chronic illness can do. When we have the strength, make sure we use some of it to invest in relationships with people we love. We can write a note, make a phone call, or send a text message to say we are thinking of them. Our friendships might look a little different now, as we navigate our pain and symptoms, but never forget the power of our presence. Just being there matters.
His passing has left an emptiness in our hearts, but we will forever treasure the many memories we shared and the lessons he taught us as he embraced life with a heart full of joy and love. It is a constant reminder of what I want to do in my life as well.
Has a four legged friend changed your life? Have they taught you any life lessons? Please feel free to share below!