A Lesson in Holiday Joy from My Old Dog by Sharon Castellanos

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Cleo. Photo © Sharon Castellanos

Writer Sharon Castellanos is the San Francisco-based publisher of Grouchy Puppy, a site devoted to celebrating and exploring the animal-human bond, and inspired by Cleo, her adopted Husky-Shepherd mix. You can read more about Grouchy Puppy and an interview with Sharon in a recent blog post. Cleo passed away in September, but her legacy — encapsulated in the Grouchy Puppy motto "Give Fearlessly, Influence Positively" — continues.

During this time of year I usually would get melancholy about the knowledge that my parents are nearing the end of their lives. I’d mope about wishing they were younger, healthier, and that we had more time together. I’d feel bad for the aches and pains they managed, and that I was powerless to ease the aging process for them. This year, however, after returning from visiting my 82-year-old mother in Arizona, instead of moping around feeling sad, I have a new outlook thanks to my old dog Cleo.

Cleo. Photo © Sharon Castellanos
Don’t be sad, laugh

Once upon a time, this is when I’d be feeling the blues. We’re in the midst of the holiday season and start of another year, and that meant one step closer to one of my parents passing away. But this year it’s different. Having just experienced the final moments with my beloved old dog, I can see this stage differently, and I’m so glad. It’s funny, strange, how I can be both sad and glad at the same time. I miss my dog Cleo, but I’m shaking my head right now because this year she gave me this wonderful new perspective on my parents.
What is amazing right now is that the painful experience of letting my beloved old dog go recently has eased my fears about letting my parents go. Cleo is again positively influencing my life in a unique and unexpected way. Instead of feeling blue over her absence, I’m laughing about how my big old dog got me to see the positive. I’m looking at her picture and chuckling instead of weeping. With fresh eyes, I see now that growing old is part of life, everyone’s life, man or dog.

Experience that counts
Going through Cleo’s end of life in our home was an experience that truly brought close how beautiful the moment can be. I can see how worthwhile it is to not let our fears stop us from remaining close and present with those we love. It would have been easy for anyone to let anticipatory grief overwhelm them at this juncture. You are facing the loss of your beloved companion. You've had dozens, if not millions, of experiences together that you will never have again with this wonderful animal. But I feel that by using the very instinct that told you this dog was the one, thereby bringing them into your life, you can push away the fear. You can focus on the now, and the need to put your best friend's well-being first, to be their guide as their body leaves this life.

The experience of staying in the moment for Cleo's sake, and only Cleo's sake, will always stay with me, and I imagine will come back to me when I need it again in the future. Thanks to my beloved old dog, I’m more aware now that the time I have with my parents is worth enjoying. Rather than avoiding fearful thoughts of their passing, I’m staying in the moment longer, laughing with them about the past and present.
The gift from experiencing my senior dog’s passing is the joy I’m having this season with my older parents. I laughed and teased my mother recently more than ever before, and I have Cleo to thank. During my visit with her in Arizona, I was able to embrace my mother and tell her all the ways I appreciated her, and for once I think she believed me. She knew how much I loved Cleo, and the experience of letting her go had been difficult on me. When she asked, “Will you get another dog?” I surprised myself when I answered without hesitation, “Yes!” I told my mother how the experience of having my own dog for the first time, adopting an adult dog, and eventually helping her go on ahead, changed my world. I told her how the experience made me a better person, and that Cleo’s positive influence continued to shape my life. How could I not want to dive into that pool again and experience life with a dog, especially an old dog?

Cleo. Photo © Sharon Castellanos
The good, the bad, the funny
Today I’m heading out to visit my father before his birthday. Rather than get distracted by my worries over what toll his diabetes has taken on his body, I’m focused on the moment. I channel Cleo, and her ability to give fearlessly to us, in the face of her diabetes. She didn’t let that define her. She showed me that if I was smart I’d spend less time worrying about losing her and more on enjoying her company. Senior dogs are natural therapists and teachers for a reason.

Thanks to Cleo, I’m excited about my visit with my father. I hope to find the funny where we least expect it. Using her example, we’ll focus on the good rather than the bad. I plan to look my father in the eye and tell him that it’s okay. I know he’s trying hard to manage the aging process like the big bad policeman of old but it’s difficult. He loved Cleo so I plan to bring her into our visit as a spirit guide, and as a bridge. Senior dogs are good at showing us how to move through life with grace and humor.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m really glad I don’t have a crystal ball. Imagine, from all that I’ve experienced so far, what will happen next?

And the best part is knowing I have Cleo in my back pocket, on my shoulder and in my heart, no matter what the future holds. How can you not love a senior dog?

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.
About the Contributor: Sharon Castellanos is a writer and consultant living in San Francisco. She is the founder and publisher of Grouchy Puppy, a website and series of social media channels dedicated to celebrating how the human-animal bond is demonstrated by dogs and those who love them. Inspired by her heart dog Cleo, she is passionate about elevating the conversation about senior dogs and dog adoption. You can find her frequently online engaging with the many dog lovers that make up the Grouchy Puppy community.