Dealing with Decay, Dying, and Death

Death stinks, as does suffering and decay. But it will not always be with us:

The older you get, the more the realities mentioned in my title become so very real. One thing you can count on: as you age, you will start to attend more funerals than weddings. I have known of many folks who were long-time friends or colleagues who are no longer walking on planet earth.

And of course I am feeling various aches and pains, and have been in and out of hospital more in the past few years than the rest of my life. That is the way things are in a fallen world. The entry of sin into the world has had some massive ramifications. Decay, death and dying – along with suffering, broken relationships, and alienation from God – are all part of this.

Two recent events have got me thinking about all this of late. One was seeing part of a documentary on television a few nights ago. I had actually seen parts of it early last year. Indeed, it had such an impact on me then that I penned a whole article on it. I refer to a 2018 documentary on the renowned American blues singer and guitarist, B. B. King (1925-2015).

What had really hit me was his final years, and how at one point he simply could no longer continue, even though he loved performing and that is what he had done for most of his life. As I wrote in that article:

It was indeed an amazing career. But one thing especially stood out for me as I watched the doco. As he got older things like dementia and Alzheimer’s started to take their toll. His last performance was on October 3, 2014 at a blues venue in Chicago.

 

It was a very sad and poignant moment. He was slow in getting out to the stage. When he did make it, he sat on a chair with his guitar on his lap. He sat there for a while, put the guitar pick to the strings, but could go no further. He had forgotten how to play!

 

After a few minutes a band member came over and said words to this effect: ‘It’s over B. B. This is the end. It’s time to go.’ Wow, what a way to finish an incredible career. He would not perform again in public. He continued to decline, and he died in May, 2015. billmuehlenberg.com/2020/01/01/its-not-just-what-you-do-but-who-you-are/

Seeing that again the other night had the same sad impact on me. Indeed, it was perhaps even more of an impact, because of another recent event. I refer to our beloved 15-year-old dog Daisy. She has just taken a turn for the worst. Sure, her eyesight and hearing have both been substantially failing over the last few years.

And for many months now she would stand and bark at us, especially after dinner. But it seems just overnight something new and more ominous has occurred. While she is now lying down and sleeping (finally), things have been quite different for the past 40 hours or so.

We had family members over here on Sunday night and she was basically her normal self. But ever since then she has changed a fair amount. For almost two days now she has hardly sat or laid down. She basically just stands around, and paces around.

She will just stand at the door, hoping to go out. If nothing happens, she starts barking. But when you let her out, she basically just stands there – maybe walking about a little. When you can coax her back in, she goes straight to the back door and repeats the whole process.

I fear she is going to fall over and maybe die from exhaustion and lack of sleep. We took her to the vet who said she does not seem to be in any physical pain. But she said she is getting doggie dementia. Yes, that is a thing. She said there is medicine one can get to try to deal with the dementia. We may need to get that and give it a go.

So it has been a stressful time for all of us – and a rather sleepless time for me as well. And now Daisy is up once again, standing by the front door. Here we go again. I mentioned all this as a prayer point on the social media (not Facebook, which I am still banned from). One gal replied quickly with these words:

So sorry to hear this. We are right there with you. Our little Ellie, aged 17 1/2 is our little dementia dog. She just wanders and wanders, gets caught under furniture and howls and howls in fright. She does not know us or our other dachshund, with whom she used to play and she is wasting away, even though she eats like a horse. It is very sad, but she seems happy and is in no pain and so we do not feel that we have any right to put her down. She is still a blessing. Prayers for peace for you all as you struggle through this time.

It is helpful to know that others are aware of this and dealing with it as well. I told her I would keep her and her dogs in prayer also. It is just so sad to see a dog you knew and loved for so long change so radically. So I am now wondering if soon enough Daisy will no longer recognise us and the other pets in our house.

Oh, and now Daisy has just laid down again, this time on a carpeted bedroom floor. The only times before she would lay down for very short intervals was on a hard wooden floor, near a drafty door. She must be exhausted. It has only been two days so far and I am exhausted! I am not sure who will wear out first: me or Daisy!

Sure, it is worse when human beings go through such deterioration and eventual death, but beloved pets can certainly become such close parts of the family. It is always sad to have to go through their demise. So I have been praying a lot, including this prayer: “Lord, give Daisy grace – and me too.”

Biblical reflections

The biblical understanding of death is a bit complex. On the one hand, suffering, decay and death are not the way God intended things to be. Death is unnatural and associated with sin. One day both will come to an end. What a glorious day that will be.

But on the other hand, the believer can actually relish death, as it means to be away from this sin-soaked world and with the Lord. That is why Paul could say in Philippians 1:22-24: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

While many believers do tire of sin and self and this world and do long to depart and be with the Lord, the main way we should look at death and all that goes with it is with dislike, even disgust. As I see what happened to B. B. King, and is now happening to Daisy, it bothers me, it upsets me.

It makes me long even more for the end of all things, so that tears, suffering, decay and death will be no more. An important picture of the unnaturalness of death and how we really should look at it comes in the life of Christ. I refer to John 11 and the death of Lazarus.

I have written several articles on the emotional life of our Lord, and I have also appealed to an essay by another B. B. – B. B. Warfield, the Princeton Seminary theologian (1851-1921). Let me first share the relevant part of the chapter (John 11:30-38):

Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

 

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

As to how Jesus responded to his friend’s death, and Warfield’s commentary on it, let me quote from a piece I wrote back in 2010. In it I said this:

We don’t often think about Jesus as being an emotional person. Yet he quite clearly was and is. Certain things profoundly moved him and things could produce quite strong reactions in him. Far from being a meek and mild doormat who never let anything move him, he very much displayed a wide range of emotional reactions. Jesus in fact did get outraged at things. Sin and death for example clearly outraged him.

 

We see this many places, especially in the reaction of Jesus to the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:1-44). His death, and the causes of it, greatly troubled Jesus. We read that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” concerning his death (John 11:33; see also v. 38). Yet the English versions can be a bit weak here. The actual Greek offers the sense of “he bristled”.

 

As Craig Keener remarks in his commentary on John, the term here “depicts his emotion in the strongest possible terms: he was ‘moved’ (embrimaomi, 11:33, 38), an unusually strong term, usually denoting anger, agitation, and typically some physical expression accompanying it”.

 

Various commentators prefer to render the term, “To snort with anger like a horse”. As one remarked, “It was used by Greek playwrights to describe stallions before battle, rearing up on their hind legs, pawing at the air and snorting before they charged.”

 

This is something B.B. Warfield wrote about one hundred years ago in his wonderful essay, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” which today can be found as chapter four of The Person and Work of Christ (P&R, 1970). In this penetrating essay he said:

 

“The margin of our Revised Version at John xi. 33, 38, therefore, very properly proposes that we should for ‘groaned’ in these passages, substitute ‘moved with indignation,’ although that phrase too is scarcely strong enough. What John tells us, in point of fact, is that Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus, in a state, not of uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger.” billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/01/jesus-meek-and-mild-or-conquering-king/

Being involved with the decline of our Daisy, I can feel this sense of outrage too – at least to a lesser degree. This is NOT right. Things should not be this way. This is not part of God’s good plans and purposes for us. Sin has screwed up everything, and even animals suffer as a result. As Paul put it in Romans 8:18-23:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

One day we will experience the reality of this verse: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4). And that will include the tears we shed for our much-loved pets.

[2127 words]

17 Replies to “Dealing with Decay, Dying, and Death”

  1. My heart breaks for Daisy and you I have had 4 dogs in my lifetime each time they had to leave was hard. For 3 we had each 10+ years but on 1 unfortunately only 1 year 10 months.

    My first was closest to your situation as she had a brain tumor in the end she didn’t recognize us and when she bumped into a wall she sat down waiting for it to move. She was only about 6 months older than me and so her death hit me the hardest at age 10.

    At least heaven awaits our pets as I’m sure God would bring them there for us to reunite with.

    Not matter who you are and what you have beaten in the past death comes for us all. For now none of us can beat it. But we can overcome it!

  2. The door to heaven opens in different paces but it does open and we see the signs as you have described. Rejoice – for these signs should be embraced. God, it seems, tries to make it uncomfortable for us to stay in this world at the end of our time but when the door does open all previous discomforts disappear just as the pains of a birth disappear the moment the mother sees her new born child.
    Passing from this world into the arms of God can never be a bad thing.

    John Abbott

  3. Dear Bill and hurting family,

    Many of your readers will know your pain – our so very loving and always loyal four legged family members’ life span is way too short!

    I hope the following thoughts may help a little:

    “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” (Tennyson)

    And this special favourite that you will always remember: Spell ‘dog’, and in your case Bill and family, spell Daisy: . . L O V E

  4. Hi Bill. I don’t know if you have seen or written about the series ‘The Chosen’ or not. The production is certainly showing an emotional Jesus in various settings – somewhat refreshing in someways.

  5. Also I remember hearing that DOG is GOD spelled backwards because they are meant to be a reflection of his love for us.

  6. That’s really special, Paul – certainly the love of a dog is a gift from God!

    When my first dog died – I was given her when I was 12 y.o. and we for sure were best friends – I thought I couldn’t go through that pain again. But roll forward a handful of years and the kids wanted a dog. I had recently read that dogs are very good for our health, being such loving and loyal companions and excellent stress reducers (which is probably why there have been very few rescue dogs available since early last year).

    We have subsequently had our hearts broken again when our family dog died a couple of years ago – but we have gone that path again, and life would without question be emptier without ‘man’s best friend’ once again in our lives.

    Getting another lovely dog – they’re all lovely! – can feel disloyal, but doesn’t in any way diminish our love for our best friend/s who very sadly are no longer with us.

    Just some thoughts for you and your family, Bill.

    We keep you in our prayers.

  7. This article forced me to confront something from childhood days. When I was a child I had a cat named Mickey, but when I was 7 years old, Mickey ate a poisoned bait and died in my arms in what appeared to me to be very painful spasms. Since that day I have never had a cat again. I was given another cat at age 12 but remained emotionally distant from him – and gave him little attention, preferring him to be ‘the family pet.’ I then kept guinea pigs for a while in high school when I became interested in genetics, but looking back I realise I chose them because they are much easier to remain emotionally distant from when compared to dogs and cats. I was quite ‘matter of fact’ when they died. Every so often it crosses my mind to adopt another cat, but I have just not been able to bring myself to. Just reading this article helped me to understand that I have been fearful of investing myself in another animal that I know I will have to lose sometime and don’t want to go through that again. Our bonds with our pets are so very strong.

  8. Old dogs lose their sight and hearing but their sense of smell remains I believe. Daisy probably was so excited with your visitors that she thinks they are going to come again or thinks they are coming again. You may have to find an interesting smell for her like a cat smell – my thoughts only as I’m not a vet.
    But I do agree that one of Jesus’ emotions at Lazarus’ death was anger, probably at the devil for deceiving Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden so that death entered the world.

  9. Thanks Lynette. Yes Daisy seems to still have a good sense of smell, and yes, my wife thinks after the whole gang being here Sunday night, then just me here on Monday, she might have had some separation anxiety or something like that. She has done a bit better today, so one day at a time I guess.

  10. For the past 45 years we have always had a dog. Each had its own story, and each owned our hearts and vice-versa. And, we have outlived each one. I fully agree with the comment of an earlier poster that dog is God spelled backwards for a distinct purpose–they DO reflect every characteristic of our great God. I’ve often quipped that I think God has a sense of humor and used dogs as an example–with them He has laid a constant reminder of His goodness right at our feet–literally.

    Folks do their deepest uninterrupted thinking about themselves and their spiritual lives while alone, in the shower, out in the woods, etc. Those thoughts, with clarity, almost always came to me when out walking the dogs all those years. They have been the basis for some great conversations on-on-one, some lively small group discussions with my men’s group, and ultimately I collected those anecdotes of living a godly life as a man and published my second book last year at the ripe young age of 77.

    Yes, dogs are so much more than just animals. They are friends, family, lovers, and above all–a gift from God.

  11. I too am right with you on your anxiety about your dog Bill. Our elderly beautiful tortoiseshell tabby with pointed ears and amber eyes who adopted us, is becoming disorientated and sometimes stands and yowls. Very disturbing! Apart from that she’s her old crafty self! It’s been a privilege knowing her ways and I love the little cat so much I dread her further demise. In solidarity with you on this Bill!

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