Throughout my eight years as a Veterinary Nurse, I saw more than my fair share of dogs, cats, birds, and anything in between, be ushered out of this life into whatever awaits beyond. In countless situations, the masters of their companions would be crippled with tears and grief as their friend passed on. I lost count of how many times people would tell me that the loss of their dog or cat was harder than the loss of their parents, or their friends, or even their siblings. 

I don’t say this to discount the loss of a loved one. I am fortunate to not have lost my parents yet, nor have I lost a sibling or a partner. I haven’t experience that grief, but I have sat with people going through similar losses to know that that kind of mourning is different than that of losing an animal companion. Our dogs and cats are with us for such a short time, their life cycles squashed into a decade or so, with our bodies ageing at a glacial pace compared to their nearly rapid descent. The knowledge that we will outlive our dogs and cats is a hard weight to bear, one that we silently sign up to when we accept them into our lives. 

For many owners, this pain was simply too much to carry forth, and as such, they never had another dog or cat in their lives. For some, this dog was going to be their final animal companion, and that alone was a sadness was a difficult one for me to weather. We are communal creatures, and after all, we seek companionship and the comfort that brings. 

I recall one day where an elderly couple came in with their older chihuahua that had been attacked by a neighbours dog. There was, devastatingly, no saving this poor soul. With much sadness and tears, we eased this little soul of its pain, and helped it along. The neighbour came in moments later, herself grappling with the difficult reality that she was about to lose her companion for an action that she never knew it capable of. This was to be her last dog, the pain he had inflicted caused too much anguish for her to be able to carry.

For the elderly couple, I was worried that they would never welcome another dog into their lives, but the following day they arrived in the clinic with a papillon puppy with them. Their hearts needed that dog sized hole filled immediately. For the neighbour, that hole will remain forever empty. 

For Fisk Sr., that dog shaped hole was too big to fill, with the great unknown of having lost a dog creating a gorge sized divide in his heart. That kind of childhood pain changes someone, morphs across time, echoing into a wound that may never properly heal.

My grandfather was the same for a long period of time, having lost a dog in the early 2000’s, and then subsequently losing my grandmother as a partner. Life alone was difficult, the solitude leading to some difficult discussions about mental health problems and the impact of isolation. While at the clinic, I forced a dog in need of a home onto him (a move which I don’t recommend anyone in the same situation does), and that pup became tethered to him. When she was lost to a car accident, he immediately went out and sought a new companion, of whom also became intimately tethered to his side. 

Death is draped across Dean Spanley, from the loss of a son, to the loss of a wife, to the unmending loss of a dog. It feels fortuitous in a year like 2020 that I would revisit this film, given the swathes of lives taken far too soon around the world due to a pandemic. Additionally so, the impact of public figures taken far too soon has caused further reflection of the weight of death in our lives. From Kobe Bryant, to Mike Noga, to Kelly Preston, to Chadwick Boseman, to Naya Rivera, and unfortunately, many more, the unshakeable weight of death has been a mountain far too high for some of us to conquer. 

I write this with the knowledge that talking about death is a complex and difficult one. We each have our own beliefs, and for those who follow a faith, the relationship with death might be different than those without it. Yet, our relationship with a holy figure cannot compare to the relationship we have with our own family, and it’s there that these discussions of death need to occur. Do you know what your loved ones final wishes are? How they wish to be treated once they are gone? What to do with their belongings? It is a hard conversation to have, especially with someone in their youth, but death can come for us all in unexpected capacities. 

I opened this review stating that I’ve written this review in my mind countless times over the years. I’ve long been apprehensive about rewatching Dean Spanley, as it’s a film that breaks my heart every time. I was fortunate enough to interview Bryan Brown last year, and as the conversation closed, I mentioned to him the importance of this film in my life. I let him know that every time I lose a dog, I watch Dean Spanley, for the comfort it brings, and the words that Sam Neill utters about his death:

One moment you are running along, the next you are no more. 

He thanked me for the comment, stating that he didn’t know that the film would have that kind of impact, but he was grateful that it did. 

Fisk Sr. comments throughout Dean Spanley that at any one time, there are seven great dogs on earth, and that Wags one one of them. For me, in July 2020, I had to say goodbye to my closest companion, my greatest bond, one of the seven great dogs, my wonderful mini schnauzer Henry.

Born on September 11th 2009, he was ten years old. A rapidly growing tumour took hold of his liver and spread through his lymph nodes, stealing him from me before I was ready. While I have two other dogs, Cheese and Max, to keep me company, the pain of losing Henry far sooner than I expected to, thrust me into a depression and grief that I’m only starting to move forward with. 

When we lose someone, we don’t shake the loss, we simply learn to accept it into our lives, appreciating that this pain and sadness may hit us with a torrent of grief whenever it chooses. For me, I am learning to be comfortable with not having Henry in my life, even though my heart is yet to catch up. Watching a film like Dean Spanley helps me gradually progress that comfort and acceptance, although it’s painful nonetheless. 

As masters, or owners, or as I prefer to say, animal companions, we want to know that when our loved one passes on, they do so with no pain and no suffering. As humans, we are afforded the chance to ease any suffering they may have, and part of that ‘ease’ is being given the means of deciding when they need to move on. That in itself is a difficult decision to make, and I know in Henry’s final days I struggled to make the decision. Yet, he let me know when he was ready, just as many other animal companions will.

While I know a film like Dean Spanley isn’t trying to talk about every loss of an animal companion, there is a comfort in experiencing that relationship that Fisk Sr. and Wags-surrogate Dean Spanley have when they are able to meet one more time. We all wish for one more day, one more moment than we’re afforded, and while I’ll never have that chance with Henry, I keep it in my mind that he is always there, ready for me to talk to when I need.

I mourn his passing, just as I’ll mourn the passing of those I’ll lose in the future, and just as my friends and family will mourn me when I’m gone. I hope that for those who have lost someone that your path to acceptance is a warm one, with the support and care of family and friends to guide you along it. If you have an animal companion, then their support and love is grander than they’ll ever know, and in these moments of darkness and despair, it is their presence that helps lift us up in unexpected ways. 

2020 has been a horrid year for us all, with so much unfurling sadness blanketing an already tumultuous time. I know not the way to remove this unease and darkness, but I can reach out through my words and say that the more we hold onto the golden memories, the more those we lose will live in on our hearts and minds. Find that thing that helps ease your mind, and embrace it tightly, hold it and let it carry you through your tears. May we all get out of this time together. 

Director: Toa Fraser

Cast: Sam Neill, Peter O’Toole, Bryan Brown, Jeremy Northam

Writer: Alan Sharp, (based on the novel My Talks with Dean Spanley by Baron Dunsany)

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