Dog Love is Love
A couple of days ago, I read an article by a man who had recently lost his dog. He and his wife had made the difficult decision to euthanize their beloved friend.
The author was struggling to explain why the loss was so painful for him and his wife. He didn’t describe the dog or the things they loved to do together or any little quirk in the dog’s personality or anything the dog may have taught him.
Instead, he gave reasons gleaned from studies:
- Dogs and humans have a bond stronger than any other human/animal bond because dogs have been living with humans for over 10,000 years.
- “Dogs provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback.” The reason? “They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to people.”
- Losing a dog can seriously disrupt a human’s daily routine, which can revolve around the needs of their “pets,” especially at the end of the animal’s life.
My immediate, and fairly long-lasting, response was annoyance. Why is it so difficult for some people to recognize love? You feel like absolute hell, like your heart has been ripped out, because your heart has been ripped out. You’ve lost someone you love.
I was further annoyed because, despite the article’s implication, this grief is not confined to the loss of a canine love.
Have you ever been around a woman who has lost her horse? When my Nikos died, my grief was so intense that I wanted to float out of my body to be with him. Now, 16 years later, I still cry when I say, or write, his name.
Two of My Animal Loves
My Nikos gave me “unconditional, uncritical positive feedback.” He also let me know when I screwed up. He was very clear about it. He could be very stern. He was am amazing, gentle, powerful teacher.
My Elika, the beautiful American Eskimo mini who came crashing into my life—my spirit sister, my teacher, the beat of my heart—loved me with such intensity that it sometimes took my breath away. When she died, the void was vast, stretched to the other side of the universe.
I left her bowls on the mat outside the kitchen for over a year, until I moved to another apartment, not because my routine had been shattered, but because my heart had been.
In his pain, the author of the piece wrote that American culture has no rituals for mourning the passing of our dogs, no roadmap for navigating the grief. This truth, a truth that left him resorting to research to ease his pain, eventually banished my annoyance and allowed me to feel compassion for this man.
I thought of Jerry, the elder owner of the barn I was leasing for my horses some years ago, who had come out onto the porch to tell me that his dog had died. I knew how much he loved that dog. When he told me, he started to cry. I quickly moved in to hug him.
He said, shaking his head,” I don’t know why I’m crying. It’s just a dog.”
When my Elika died, I received nearly a hundred kind, supportive, loving messages from my Facebook friends. One incredibly kind woman, Elika’s dog walker, called me every night for a month to see how I was. As soon as she would ask, I would start crying and then tell stories about Elika and then cry. She would listen. And then she would call again the next night.
When my Nikos died, a friend suggested and then helped me plan a memorial service. We held it in the barn, about 30 of us and Elika, the horses right outside. It was a beautiful service, filled with love and remembrance. Afterwards, we went into the house and shared a gorgeous pot luck supper. The house was filled with love and laughter; my heart was filled with hope.
We Can Help
We—I and all of you animal lovers reading this—are the lucky ones. We know that love is love. We make the time to grieve the loss of a beloved, no matter the package she or he lived in: dog, cat, horse, rabbit, bird, pig, ferret . . .
So here are the asks:
- Are you brave enough to tell the people in your world that love is love, to share stories of your relationship with your beloved animal companions without feeling silly or apologetic?
- Are you strong enough to hug a person who has recently lost a beloved animal? To give a condolence card? To listen over a cup of coffee?
- Are you generous enough to help a friend plan a memorial service—nothing fancy, just a gathering of friends and stories and food?
When my Nikos died, I took a week off from the fiction workshop I was teaching on Saturday mornings. When I returned the following week, I was uncharacteristically fragile. One of my students, a young woman who had recently lost her husband, and whose stories had exhibited a marked lack of understanding of the human/animal connection, looked at me with sudden recognition. “It’s like losing a person,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry.”