Rethinking life and death

Posted April 05 2019

“Oh God, I think I’ve broke my bloody arm” – although the decided kink in my forearm should have removed any qualms over the use of the word “think”. I was nine years old and had just fallen from my pony, and in doing so felt pain, real pain, for the first time in my life. In the weeks that followed, a plaster-cast restricted both my movement and thoughts of living a long and pain-free life. It was a watershed moment. Up until that point in my life, my strict Catholic upbringing had caused me to believe that God had placed a little bubble over me as he had done all his special children, one that would protect me from pain and suffering, ensuring I would have a long and happy life. Indeed, I wanted to live at least until 100 and in doing so I would get a cake, my picture in the paper and a telegram from the Queen.

Now, almost 50 years on and over half-way to that lofty goal, the thought of all three no longer has the same lure – cake I can get at any time; I’ve had my fair share of pictures in the paper; and perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a little bit of republican in me after all. With that passage of time too has come many an opportunity to further ponder life. And death. And I can say with great confidence that few things give you greater clarity into life and death than sitting at the helm of a not-for-profit sanctuary for rescued farmed animals.

As someone whose life has constantly been intertwined with that of my beloved animals, one of the many things youth tossed my way was the fact the lives of my animal friends were never destined to be as long as mine, despite how much I wished them to be so and despite the very best of love and veterinary care that could be provided. I recall with great sadness the passing of my dear sweet Lexie Good Doggie as he lay cradled in my arms and my love, his life slipping slowly away as the lethal green dream coursed its way through his weary veins. I couldn’t hold back the tears, heartache or the thought that surely there was something more that could be done – it shouldn’t end like this. I recall wanting to demand the vet stop, “let’s wait another day”, “let’s try another drug”, “let’s try something else” – anything that would abdicate me from the responsibility of being the one to make that deathly call. Anything that would circumvent the regret I had for not spending more time with my canine pal, anything that would placate the thoughts of my failure to my friend. I often think now that the latter is an overarching reason many people hold off euthanasia for a much-loved companion animal, which sadly only prolongs the suffering. I now draw comfort from the fact that one cannot call it too soon; however, one can most certainly call it too late, appreciating all the while that we all arrive differently at this point.

It’s tragically ironic that the decision to end the life of a companion animal pains us so, yet daily the lives of countless “other” animals, with no less capacity to experience the world and all of her magic, does not raise a blimp on our ethical radar.

Their deaths are an unquestioned consequence of our living. Desensitised has society become to the suffering, anguish and pain, both physical and emotional, society has bestowed upon the animals we have labelled “food” and “fibre”. We have discounted their worth so much that their lives barely matter beyond a cursory glance or piece of watered-down legislation (and one that is heavily weighted towards our living, not theirs). Few will mourn their death or celebrate their life. But in knowing them, in really knowing them, it changes not only their lives but ours as well.

I recall with great discomfort the unbearable pain I endured when a tooth root died deep in my gum – pain like I had never encountered before and pain that nothing could rein in – pain that I would never wish upon anyone despite their most evil intent. Guiding me through that night was the bitter-sweet knowledge that come morning, a dentist would be able to extricate from me both the tooth and that hellish pain, although every second lasted an eternity. The experience left me with a new-found appreciation of just what pain and suffering mean.

Whilst life is indeed precious, something to be celebrated, treasured, honoured and respected regardless of who the holder of the life is, in equal measure, it must be one that is worth living. Bearing witness to, and responsibility for the passing of so many animals over the years has imparted many things, not the least that death is not the worst option, particularly for an animal trapped in a pain-ravaged body with no relief on the horizon or never likely to be. And for animals who live overwhelmingly in the moment, when those moments hold so few positive or joyous experiences, the duty then shifts to caregivers to make empathetic decisions on the animal’s behalf, however hard that is for our hearts to bear.

Whilst the passing of every animal I have had the privilege of serving always sends a dagger into the piece of my heart they have claimed, it too brings a sense of calm that I now arrive at sooner. Acknowledging that it is a moment in time, one which lasts for just that moment; it exists in just that moment and it is then claimed by history; it is gone – the pain, the suffering are no more.

This does not mean death does not move me: it does, it undeniably does. But what happens next I now know is of my choosing.

I can choose to live in the wake of grief, heartache, unfairness, and all that is bad in the world, or I can choose to leave the pain behind, in the past where it belongs, for it can no longer touch me or the animal again.

This does not mean that grief will not visit me when I least expect it (or sometimes do). What it does mean is that it will not strangle my desire to continue to make the world a kinder place for animals nor bitter my spirit to soldier on and keep making those tough calls. I’ll honour the knowledge gleaned from past experiences with all those beautiful dear souls who have gone before – experiences which nourish my soul, not punish it. They serve as a constant reminder that in a world where we humans hunger for the meaning of life, it is there for the taking in the joy a lamb experiences from gambolling for the sheer hell of it, for the ecstasy a pig finds in wallowing in the mud like there is no tomorrow, the sense of wonder a cow has as she stares off into the sunset and the bliss a chicken feels as she drinks in the sun’s rays on a autumnal day. And whilst I know the darkness of death will continue to shadow my life, it will not block out the light or frivolity shone by those animals, in all their glorious forms, who have come into it. And, most importantly, I now know too that the quality of one’s life is not measured by its length, but rather its content. It is for this reason I have chosen to rethink life and death and live a life where my daily choices do not involve the unnecessary death of animals.