Nina Wigglesworth on Pre-Planning

Charles Cowling



Guest post by Kateyanne Unullisi 

I love dogs. God I love dogs.

And now it’s nearly time for a dog I love to die. Nina, my daughter’s dog. The Golden Retriever puppy she got when newlywed in 2001 is now 13-years-old; and though lumpy and halt, she is ever patient and tender with their three young children.

This could go many ways. I could take it on, in the name of sparing the family more pain. I could leave them to it; after all, I have plenty to deal with myself. Or we could use this sad time as guidance for Death in Our Little Family (dogs included). Because really, it’s been our dogs who have already been showing us the way.

Aiko, my Collie mix, mothered little Nina, who, when she understood she wasn’t to bark at every slight thing, rushed through the house in search of socks. Then she whisper-barked into them, wagging her tail so hard she fell over. That’s why we call her Nina Wigglesworth.

Nina and Aiko, best friends, invented the game ‘Soccer Ball,’ then taught the two-leggeds how to play. Here’s the rules: the humans stand in a great circle and all dogs take themselves to the center (which resulted in bringing all the closed off neighbors out of their houses to play). This included Star, the Border Collie, a clever girl who was aces in assist, Pili the Cocker Spaniel, the look-at-me-I’m-so-cute cheerleader type, and other four-legged transients in for a good game of pickup. A human kicked the soccer ball into the center and the dogs squared off, sometimes in teams, sometimes dog eat dog. First one to touch the ball, regardless of species, won. There was no keeping score.

Did you see the part where the neighbors came out of their houses and got to know one another? The dogs did that.

Aiko – teacher friend dog – died last year. I did that. I made the decision that 15 years and a quit hind end was enough to ask of her, called the vet to our home, and lay by her on the floor as she died. May I carry my sorrow with as much grace as she carried her pain.

And now it’s Nina’s turn. The time has come for my daughter to make this decision herself. She says she just wants to wake up and find Nina dead, to which I say, good luck with that. These dogs love us so, they just won’t leave.

My urge is to get all the planning details sorted: vet, babysitter, crematorium. I will do some of it, since Aiko taught me how. But what kind of elder would I be to disallow Nina and my daughter the grace of learning? Taking on too much just gives them feeble lessons in how to handle the logistics of death.

It may not surprise you as much as it does me, but I’m likely to die too, some day. So mine is a death my kids will also need to attend to – and a few others in their lifetimes as well. When we pre-plan our own end-of-life details without taking our (30 or 40 or 50 year old) kids’ hands and walking them into the funeral home-crematorium-cemetery, we have failed them. Big. This is a teachable moment!

Planning ahead – well, some of it makes sense and some of it doesn’t. Don’t pay ahead – show your kids why – and here’s some damn good reasons if you don’t know. Don’t plan to the letter and take that privilege from them. They need to do that when you die and they’ll do it well, because you showed them how.

This is adventure! Wander the cemetery where your finished body will be buried or hike the high cliffs your ashes will be strewn over. Take along the dog. Start talking. Bring them (what the hell, bring the dog too) to meet with a few funeral directors and show them the difference between a good, a bad and a thievishly ugly undertaker. Kick the caskets, run the numbers, then get the hell out of there and head for a cold pint.

After Nina goes, in the spirit of teaching and in gratitude to our dogs, I will pre-plan my death (supposing I will die someday) by giving my daughters a roadmap, but not the exact itinerary. They can and should work that out themselves. I just hope there’s a pack of dogs there playing a good round of Soccer Ball after all is said and done.



16 thoughts on “Nina Wigglesworth on Pre-Planning

  1. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

    The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

    If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Ashley Shepherd

    Our dog Hugo is 11 years of age and is going rather lumpy and recently started to stumble a little, the vet says its the on set of arthritus – its only now that my wife and I have realised that he is getting old!

    We plan to make sure that we enjoy every day with him, which your article has promoted me to think that we should all be living life to the full, every day and not just when we think its our time to go.

    Let’s face it, we are all going to go, we just dont know when!

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Just been listening to a fascinating programme on Radio 4 about dogs. Comment was made about dogs and dog deities (dog-gods) as guides to the after world. The Aztecs God of Death had a dog’s head. Without a dog-guide, you wouldn’t make it to the next world.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Beautiful, Kateyanne.

    I think Aiko, Nina, Carter, Ted, Spooky (my puppy who died at 10 months) all of them look after us, on this side and the other.

    Sitting here crying for the love of dog.

    Dog bless us, one and all.


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Mary Jo Oxrieder

    Kateyanne, awesome piece of heart/writing! Thank you for all of it.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Elizabeth Harris

    Beautifully written dear friend. I remember the day Aiko left us, and it brings tears to know that Nina Wigglesworth is leaving too. I can only hope that she and Aiko find each other in The Great Boneyard.

    Thanks for writing this. Dogs get into us in ways that nothing else can. Their innocence, loyalty, love and devotion has no match. They teach us how to align with the better angels of our nature. We owe them. Big time.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Sue Goodrum

    Tingling all up my arms Kateyanne, what a wonderful eulogy to your Dogs over the years and what a wise and loving mum you are. x

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Wisdom here, thank you Kateyanne. I would extend your view of dogs to other animals as well, at least to some degree. The first funeral my daughter attended was for her guinea pig, in our back garden, and then a cat. There is something particular about the responses of dogs, but it seems in general that much-loved domestic pets show us the way through unconditional love and then grief. I understand people feel similarly about horses. Perhaps all sorts of moral and psychological questions then arise about other species with which we live closely, but for which we have rather more remote and functional feelings!

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Lol Owen

    What is it about the love from, and the loss of, a much loved dog that makes the hardest men weep? I have grieved my dogs more than my family, perhaps because their love has been without a doubt unconditional.
    As I type this the largest, a rottweiller/Staffie cross is sat at my feet and the other, a hairy armadillo looking jack russell cross is on the other sofa and surely, being young dogs, their passing is at least 10 years hence.
    I have taken their predecessors on that last trip to the vet and came out a broken man, and for that reason these will be the last.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    A good read, Kateyenne. Many of us first learnt about death through dying animals, and I like your approach to planning ahead for ourselves.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Dogs teach us so much! I miss mine.

    How do you propose getting your kids on board to talking about death with you? Do you have any ideas or strategies?

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    Kateyanne, you’ve made me cry and it’s only 8 30.
    My own beloved dog Carter is thirteen and beginning to stumble. The part he has played in my life and the life of my children is immeasurable. The comfort offered, the patience given, the joy shared, the humour, yes, of course dogs have a sense of humour, ( though not all of them) will stay with us for ever. I think our relationships with dogs and our ability to cross the species and meet in love is one of the most astonishing and optimistic things about humans.
    Carter and I have a deal. He goes first, and when I am nearing the end, hopefully many years from now, the first thing I will know about it is the feel of his muzzle in my hand, the warmth of his flank against my leg. I look forward to greeting him again with delight and following him. When he was young we would walk together up the river where we lived into the setting sun and he would turn and look back at me with the sun behind him and I would ask the cosmos please let my dying be just like this. Thank you Kateyanne.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      Uncannily ‘on topic’ today Kateyanne! Just listening to BBC radio four 8.22am and they refer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog on the same subject and the overwhelming outpouring of interest he provoked – pet bereavement counsellor on too! Our pets teach us more than responsibility – they teach us more than words, books and any fancy counselling. They teach us about true friendship, unconditional love, sheer joy and tidal grief ….without a single word.
      PS Ru, we all want Carter to be the gatekeeper.

      Charles Cowling
    2. Charles Cowling

      Ah, Carter in his dotage. Aiko, ever the teacher, continued to instruct me in how to care for an elderly beloved friend when she became smelly, secretive and stoic in her pain. Sensible no more, she made extremely bad choices – like going down a steep ravine after a rabbit, without the hind end to come back up – then clung, patiently waiting for me to rappel 60 feet down, tie a rope around her and spend a slow hour inching her up (with the help of a friend above pulling – oh, did I mention in the dark, in the rain?). Then did it again a week later. As much as I had always loved her, her final years showed me that love, when faced with departure and illness, flowered into a massive garden, and blew and spread and grew. I have not had to face this from a human I love, but I have been shown the way. Carter, your friend, may he live as long as he pleases as he continues to teach and meanwhile, to keep away from cliffs.

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling

        @ D — Ha! In the spirit of transparency, let me ‘out’ you as my younger daughter, the one that has fled to London to avoid being hauled through graveyards and crematoriums over here. (Oh, and that you have always wanted to live in England, that too.) My personal strategy is to be plainspoken. I think every family is different, D. In ours, and because your father died when you were little, Death has always been part of our Life. (As it should, in my opinion, as it is the container in which our lives reside.) So there is another strategy: just as in sex education, start talking about body parts, etc. as young as possible (in an appropriate way) so that the adult (not the child) gets an ease around it. So too about Death: start talking and being open about it from the beginning (again, age and info shared must be appropriate), so that the adult (hence the child) becomes easier with it. What do you think? Would you go on a field trip to visit a few funeral homes with me?

        @ Richard — Thank you Richard. I used to be of a mind to plan to the letter, in order to ‘spare’ my kids any hardship. As a funeral celebrant, I’ve come to change my mind. Taking away their ability to plan, to pick music, a poem, or whatever – well, I think it removes their access to processing and owning their grief. Provided of course, they won’t be entirely glad to see me go! 😉 (See ‘D’ above…)

        @ Owen — That’s it, isn’t it Owen? It takes courage beyond understanding to love so deeply and lose so quickly. May your giant dog and your wee one live on and on and on. And when they do die, may the veil be thin enough to visit through.

        @ Gloria — The first heartbreak in our family came at the untimely death of little ‘Sammy the Snake,’ a young garter snake belonging to my then five-year-old eldest daughter. The funeral, the tears as we lay him to rest under the Redbud tree in the garden in his little cookie tin coffin were real, were anguish! Then began the real work of grieving: her weekly exhumations, carefully studying the decomposition process, reburying him, and replaying the funeral. She grew up to become a midwife and often accompanies me to funeral homes as well, still a keen observer of life and death. Sammy the Snake, thank you for your lessons and may you and all the other no-leggeds and four-leggeds and winged-ones rest in peace.

        @ Elizabeth — Yes, the great boneyard. Thank you for being with me the day Aiko died, for adding so much to her grand funeral service, including invoking the spirit of your little Noodles. And as a great cat lover, I know you are with Gloria Mundi in knowing that all the creatures of our world can, given our perspective and heart’s opening, fill us with love.

        @ Ariadne — Spooky! Gone too soon! I am convinced that Aiko informs my path, and is not dead, but alive and well, waiting for me to get there. And yes, Carter as gatekeeper.

        @ Poppy – JimmmmMY! JimmmmmMY!

        Charles Cowling

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