Opinion

On men, women and the universal heartbreak of saying goodbye to our pets

The unconditional and absolute affection offered by pets is written on the faces of those who have lost them

A dog and a human looking at a sunset

Image: Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

I spent the last week or so watching grown men cry. I hadn’t tried to, it just worked out that way. I’ve been putting in a lot of time at the vet again. A lump had grown on the tail of Toastie, my springer. The only way to treat it was to cut it off – the lump, I mean. It was a straightforward operation, but the recovery is long, and the dressings need a lot of changing. So, initially I had to get him back into the vet’s regularly so they could dress the wound. 

And it was there, as Toastie was being tended to and I sat waiting, that I started to notice the men crying. I couldn’t understand why at first. There’d be a strange hush in the reception area, a few more closed doors than you’d normally expect. Then, a door opens, a man walks quickly out to the car park, he’ll look down or heavenbound and suck in great big gasps of air. Then, he’ll walk back in, stand still, his eyes burning red rings, a torn tissue clutched hard in his hand like a holy picture. Each man paced a little but was mostly going nowhere.

The first time I was confused. By the second I wished there was something I could say or some way I could avoid intruding in this private grief. They were there to see their pets put down. 

We want to hear from dog-lovers across the country about what your dog means to you. Get in touch and tell us more. The best responses will be featured in the magazine.

My daughter sent me a meme a while ago, or perhaps something from TikTok; you may have seen it. It was a middle-aged man, very simply, doting on his dog. That’s all. And the line on the video said there is no greater love than that from a man for the dog he initially told the family he didn’t want.  

There I was watching these men of mixed background and class, all getting on a bit in years, and I thought of that video and I avoided catching their eye, as they avoided catching anybody else’s. It wasn’t just dogs that were being put to sleep, but it was mostly dogs. If you need a clear rendering of why pets mean so much to people, well, there it is, in all its heartbreak. I also noticed that on the desk as you come in the vet’s door there was a fake candle. I hadn’t paid it any attention previously. A note beside it asked for respectful hush as when it was lit, it meant a pet was being put down. Somebody was saying goodbye. 

In that moment, it was the women who became the anchor. As the men, unmoored, drifted, their wives and partners (and it was just men and women together I saw), who, though clearly feeling broken themselves, comforted the men and spoke to the receptionists and settled the bills and whatever were the next steps. 

There were snatches of conversations about ashes and it being sudden, the normal shorthand of death. And the receptionists, all women too, were amazing. They seemed to find the right tone, knowing also that a phone call could come at any moment for the next of these terrible events. 

There is no great insight to all this. I wasn’t suddenly visited by a wisdom that would make it better. But I think that tonight there will be men crying in rooms across Britain unable to quite articulate why, or why that ball of fur that had been such a companion and presence carried so much.

Was it the unconditional and absolute affection the dog brought? Was it because they became the silent, non-judgemental holders of the thoughts in your head? There may be partners trying to bring it out, but that might not immediately come because the tunnel will look long. Women are clearly better in dark moments. They reach out, but men tend to close in. 

The lump on Toastie’s tail was tested for cancer. It came back all clear.  

Toastie
Toastie

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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