Mikkel Becker's Pugs Bruce and Willy

When our veterinarian delivered the news that Bruce’s cancer was back and that he most likely had only a few days left, I was devastated. But through the sadness and dread, I was aware that I wasn’t dealing merely with my own grief. As a family, we would all be affected by the loss, especially Bruce’s best Pug friend, Willy.

While everyone understood my desire to prepare my 6-year-old daughter, Reagan, for her Pug brother’s death, some family and friends were baffled — even dismissive — of my concern for Willy. But I knew that it was important to think about his feelings and how he would grieve for Bruce.

The Boys

Since puppyhood, we had always referred to Willy and Bruce collectively as “the Pugs” or “the boys.” They did everything together. On walks, they would bump sides every once in a while in a kind of doggy high-five, as if they were reassuring themselves that they were both still right there. Bruce would often add an exuberant lick of Willy’s muzzle before they bounced apart. When they slept, the Pugs didn’t just lie next to one another, they snuggled close together, stuffing themselves into a single dog bed or squeezing into a small corner of the couch — often with Willy sprawling on top of Bruce. The two of them were distinctly different in appearance and personality, but they meshed together in the most complementary fashion. Their friendship was truly unique.

It was no surprise, then, that the change in Bruce’s health appeared to be noticeable to his best doggy friend. The Pugs remained extremely close in those last days, but as Bruce began to fail, they became less physically attached. Willy took extra care around Bruce; rather than licking Bruce’s face when he was excited, Willy would stand calmly next to his buddy, close but not touching him.

At night, Willy opted to lie beside Bruce rather than on top of him when they slept. But as the days went on, the boys had to give up sharing a bed; Bruce required extra space for his aching body, and he was unable to make it through the night without an accident. Willy seemed to understand and readily adjusted to the new routine of bedtime in separate areas. Though it was sad to see these two friends apart, I knew that these small separations were helpful in preparing Willy for the day when Bruce would be gone.

Saying Goodbye

Mikkel Becker's Pugs Bruce and Willy

Bruce’s spirit was fully alive to the very end, but as the days wore on, his body wasn’t able to keep up. When it was time to say goodbye, I loaded Reagan and the Pugs into the car and drove from our home in Seattle to Almost Heaven Ranch, my parent’s home in Idaho. I wanted to give Bruce one last day doing his favorite things in a place that was the closest to doggy heaven he’d ever known.

Bruce had one last exceptional day at Almost Heaven Ranch, doing the things he’d loved since puppyhood: visiting the barn cats and horses, chasing a ball (much more slowly than formerly but with the same dedicated bravado) and joining in a group howl with all the other ranch dogs, adding his oh-so-sweet Pug warble to the cacophony. Like a king, he was treated to feasts of food that went beyond anything his food-crazed Pug heart could dream up.

At the day’s close, Bruce and Willy cuddled close to one another, lying side by side on my training coat. Bruce’s breathing was becoming more and more labored, and we knew the end was near. The mood at Almost Heaven was somber; all seven of our family dogs seemed to sense what was coming.

The Day’s End

I knew Bruce would need Willy there for support at the end, but I also felt that it was important for Willy to be present when Bruce passed away. I was certain that he would find closure in knowing what had happened to his buddy.

Dr. Roland Hall, a veterinarian and a dear family friend, was able to come to the ranch to give Bruce the final grace. (My dad, Dr. Marty Becker, was unfortunately traveling and unable to get home.) When he arrived, Dr. Hall reassured me that I had made the right choice to have Willy present. He told me that he had known many dogs who anxiously wandered their homes for weeks after another pet’s death, uncertain of their companions’ whereabouts.

Reagan held Willy in her arms as we said our goodbyes to Bruce. She told Bruce how much she loved him and held onto his fur with her little hands to pet him in the way he had always loved for her to do. I rested my head on the floor next to Bruce, with his head nestled in my hand, and told him that I understood his body was so tired and that it was OK for him to let go. We thanked him for the love he had given us. I told him to run wild and free with his doggy friends in heaven, knowing every time he looked down on us, we would be thinking of him and that our love for him would continue to grow after he was gone. I told him I couldn’t wait until the day when he would race to greet us at heaven’s gates, because heaven would only be heaven with him there.

Dr. Hall gave Bruce a sedative, and in less than two minutes, he fell into a deep sleep. Willy hid behind me when the last injection was given; he seemed to understand what was happening to his friend. With Bruce’s head lying gently in my hand, I felt his final breath pass through his body and knew his spirit had left us.

As difficult as it was, I knew I needed to ensure that Willy understood that Bruce was gone and that everything was OK. I took Willy in my lap as I sat next to Bruce’s body; rather than trying to get closer to Bruce, as he had always done in the past, Willy took a sniff or two and turned away. Willy’s actions mirrored my own feelings — it was difficult for me to view Bruce’s body, because seeing him there without his spirit inside felt so wrong. As Dr. Hall lifted Bruce, Willy sniffed him one last time and then swiveled his head away, burying his face in my hair as I held him.

A Pug’s Grief

All of the Almost Heaven dogs seemed a little sad that evening, but Willy was without question in a state of mourning. He acted listless and lifeless. Unlike earlier in the day, when he had been playing and running, he now had no energy at all. Reagan and I snuggled with him that night, reassuring him that he wasn’t alone and that we loved him very much.

For the next few days, my grief over Bruce’s passing competed with worry about Willy’s continuing lethargy. He was reluctant to get out of his dog bed or seek social interaction. He didn’t want to play; instead, he would rest quietly beside Reagan or me. He refused to eat, taking only what Reagan and I hand-fed him, and even then it seemed that he ate only as a courtesy to us. I honestly began to wonder if he was suddenly going deaf; instead of attending to everything I did and said, he acted as if he couldn’t even hear me. It was clear to me that he was grieving.

There were little moments of joy though, when Willy would find temporary solace in an activity with us: enjoying a treat by candlelight during a power outage or celebrating his ninth birthday with frosted dog cookies and made-for-dogs Star Wars toys. For the most part though, Willy spent his time snuggled in our laps or in his bed.

Even as Willy mourned, I knew I had made the right choice when including him in Bruce’s death. Not once after Bruce’s passing did he appear to search for him or act as though he was waiting for his return. Willy seemed to understand that Bruce would not be coming back.

Moving On but Never Forgetting

Mikkel Becker and her Pugs, Bruce and Willy

After the first week, Willy began to return to normal. His posture became more alert and happy, and he began to eat without prompting. He slowly regained his excitement about life, expressing his normal zeal for walks, engaging with his canine playmates and smothering his favorite people with affectionate kisses.

Two weeks after Bruce’s passing, we took Willy to see Santa Claus at the Doggy Haven Resort. I’m not sure what it was that cheered his little Pug heart during that outing — perhaps it was giving kisses to Santa or posing for pictures — but somehow, the magic of Christmas settled into his spirit. When we returned home, Willy acted like himself again. He got the “zoomies” and began racing around our living room, play bowing, yipping and zipping past us. I laughed so hard I cried, as he repeatedly galloped toward Reagan and me and then, at the last second, swiveled midair to tear off into another room. Willy hadn’t acted that gleeful since he was a pup. In that moment, I knew that as much as he — and all of us — missed Bruce, there would be joy in our lives again.

In the heartache of losing Bruce, I have learned how profoundly capable dogs are of love. I live in the hope of one day again seeing Bruce, and I know that because of him, my ability to love and have compassion for others has grown immeasurably — and that Willy’s has, too. I am reminded daily of the incredible love Willy and Bruce shared with each other and with our family. Because of their example, I find myself giving thanks, even in my grief, for how richly blessed I am.

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