Grief Lessons From A Dog’s Life

Zoey Painting

A year ago this month I lost my heart dog, my soul mate with a fur coat, my four legged best friend. It’s been a challenging year of grief for me and with every passing day of her absence, I feel Zoey’s physical presence slipping away from me while memories of her continue to flow through my mind like water rolling down hill. In this past year the thought of Zoey is laced into most of my daily thoughts. There are reminders of her life all over my house. I see her sitting on the hill in the backyard and yet she’s not really there. I still step over her when I get out of the shower but she’s not there. At night when it’s time for sleep, I still listen for her snoring but I can’t hear it anymore. I can’t help but think of her when I spend time with my other dog, Abby. They were best friends. Abby misses her too. I miss them together.

Zoey was a beautiful animal. She had a long flowing fur coat and eyes that would melt the heart of even the iciest soul. She had a way about her that made you fall in love with her even if you’re not a dog person. There was a kindness in her that all humans could learn from. For over fourteen years, Zoey was a constant presence in my life and she was there for some pretty major life events…both good and bad. When I was happy, she shared in my joy and when I was sad, she comforted me. She knew me better than most people know me and I trusted her more than I trust a lot of people.

Throughout her life, Zoey had a way of teaching me things. She taught me patience when she was a puppy. Boy she was a biter…especially when she was teething. She taught me how to love unconditionally because there was never a time I got mad at her even when she did stupid things all dogs do. Zoey taught me about living in the moment. Even as she aged and mobility was more difficult, she still loved her walks and she stopped to sniff every mailbox. She never stopped playing. Even on her last day, I have pictures of her outside playing with Abby. She loved life to the very end and this is her legacy. This is perhaps the single greatest lesson she left for me. Cherish life because one day you won’t be here anymore. Love those around you as deeply and freely as you can and always be happy.

Zoey’s death and this past year without her have also taught me about the process of grieving. Grief allows us to say goodbye but more importantly, it allows us to honor those we have lost simply by remembering them. Grief is personal and while no two people do it exactly the same way, it is something we all must go through, if we are to experience love in our lives. If you don’t grieve, you haven’t loved.

I’ve also learned that grief is sneaky. You can feel it even when you don’t think you are! Something seemingly out of the blue reminds you of the loss and bam, suddenly you are filled with unexpected gut wrenching, soul crushing sorrow. I used to hate it when this would happen but now I have learned to accept it. I don’t like it but I know now that it simply means I was actually lucky. I was lucky to have had love so strong in my life that the absence of it cuts though me sometimes. I have learned that in order to have meaningful relationships, with humans or with dogs, you have to allow yourself be vulnerable enough to accept this kind of pain and if you don’t, it means you are holding a part of yourself back. You are missing out on the entirety of love’s purpose, of its gift and all that it has to offer.

Zoey’s physical absence is hard to cope with but the memory of her, the lessons she left me with, stay with me. When I act on these lessons, when I allow myself to love openly and without hesitation, when I seek the true beauty in every day joys otherwise taken for granted, when I put my faith in love and allow myself to experience all of its tender mercy and its inevitable heartache, then I am honoring Zoey’s memory because I become a living example of these lessons. This allows a part of her to stay alive in me. I can’t think there will ever be a day that I stop missing Zoey but, as time goes by, the pain of her loss slowly turns into gratitude for her life. I was lucky. I was blessed to have had the love of a creature as beautiful as my precious Zoey and for all the lessons her love taught me about how best to live my life. I will continue to honor Zoey’s memory and the life that she lived by trying to love and live well with joy and an open heart. It’s what she would want me to do.

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The Truth About Grief

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It is universal…

It is lonely…

It does not end…

It changes over time…

It makes other people uncomfortable…

It resurfaces with every new loss…

It is individual…

It cannot be avoided…

It has no timeframe…

It strikes without mercy…

It is as natural as breathing…

It is part of life…

It is inconvenient…

It both clouds and clarifies our thinking…

It should be felt without guilt…

It means we loved deeply…

The Irrevocable Bond Of A Guardian Angel

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I was chatting with a friend today, who is not only an animal lover, she also has a serious chronic health condition. She was asking me how I am doing with my grief over losing Zoey. For those who don’t know, Zoey was my fourteen year old Old English Sheepdog. She wasn’t sick when she died even though she was old. According the vet, she had a sudden and unexpected “neurological event.” I have been in shock and sorrow since it happened. If truth be told, I am reeling in grief. My friends have been very supportive since this happened and this particular friend said something that has stuck with me all day. She talked about how our pets, our fur children, as I like to call them, remain loyal to us despite our illness. People often fall away after illness hits us. Their lives move on because the illness didn’t happen them and we struggle to keep up. Our fur kids, they slow down with us. They are more than happy to be by our side, in sickness and in health. They watch over us. They protect us and this only strengthens our bond with them.

Anyone who has a fur kid, loves their animal, of this I am sure, but there is something to be said for the loyalty they do show those of us with chronic illness. There have been times I have been too weak, too fatigued to leave my house because of my sarcoidosis. At those times, I have always been able to count on my fur kids for unquestioning companionship. Zoey knew me in good health and in bad. I think once I got sick, she sensed something about me had changed because the depth of her connection to me, the way she would velcro herself to me became more magnified. She watched over me all the time.

After I got sick, Zoey became my dog. She made herself my dog, a self appointed guardian. She still loved her human daddy but she seemed to make a conscious decision to favor me. We certainly had the opportunity to spend more time together after I stopped working but, the change in her toward me was notable, much more protective. My presence in her life became more important to her too. Her drive to fortify me, to keep me safe, gave her a greater purpose. Her constant attention alleviated the loneliness that only those with chronic illness understand. This was when I think she and I become permanently woven into the core of each other.

Zoey was what another friend of mine called my “heart dog.” I think this describes our bond entirely. She had my heart wrapped up in hers as I did hers in mine. As she aged and needed me more, I was there for her. She had become my security blanket when I needed it because she understood more than any human seemed to know, the depth of my fear from getting sick. I was her protector when age began to steal her confidence. I made a promise to her when she turned twelve that when the day came she no longer had good quality of life, I would do the right thing for her. I had no idea that I would be blessed with two more full, happy and memorable years with her. Nor did I know I would be fortunate enough to have that moment made clear to me. Despite the pain that I feel in losing my security, my “heart dog”, I was able to keep my promise to her. She had fulfilled her purpose, as all dogs long to do. She made my world a better place and she made sure I was going to be okay.

I take a lot of medication for my sarcoidosis. I go to the doctor when I am supposed to. I eat a healthy diet. I exercise and I do all that I can to take care of my physical body since, getting this lousy disease. It was Zoey though, who helped to heal me. I am not in remission from my disease but I know it was Zoey who made me better than I would have been had she not been there during the darkest moments of my disease. She gave me purpose, priceless joy, unequivocal love and a reason to face even my most difficult days. I know now that no matter what happens to me, no matter what this disease does to me, I will always have her spirit to draw strength from. It won’t be the same as having her physically at my feet but she gave me what I needed to cope. She made me a stronger person because she taught me to look for happiness in simple everyday experiences. Zoey and I were side by side in all things. This is what I am most grateful for and also what I mourn the most in her passing. We have an irrevocable bond and I know she is with me always. She will forever be my guardian angel and I can face whatever challenges are ahead of me because I had a love like no other. I had Zoey.

Fourteen Years Of Love and Joy…Happy Birthday Zoey!

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We first met her on a snowy and cold winter’s day in December of 2002. I don’t remember the exact date but I do remember that she was an hour’s drive from us and that the entire ride was filled with the same anticipation as a kid on Christmas morning. It was all my husband could do to keep within the speed limit.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by nine little brown eyed, fuzzy haired black and white faces, all smelling of pee, heads tilted this way and that. One little white head stood up and nearly climbed out of their collective puppy pen to great us. I fell in love immediately but this was not Zoey and despite my heart being tugged, we were on a mission to meet Zoey.

A few weeks prior to our meet and greet with these new little lumps of fur, we had received a picture of all nine of them. My husband immediately spotted Zoey, even with her mousy not yet fully formed dog face and he fell in love. He cropped her face out of that picture, blew it up and sent it to me in an email at work with a caption that read…”This one looks like trouble.” He was doomed. He knew she was the one. So, on that wonderful day thirteen years ago, when we meet these little monsters for the first time, my husband had to find Zoey and hold her first.

No decisions had been made yet about who would get which pup. You see, serious Old English Sheepdog (OES) breeders get their pups temperament tested and evaluated for show and breeding purposes before selling them. Those of us who only want an OES for a pet are ranked pretty low in the pecking order for who gets a puppy and who doesn’t and we rarely get to choose as a result. We get the left over dogs. So, we weren’t yet sure if Zoey would be ours.

That day, the day we met Zoey and her siblings, the pups were still too young to leave their mother anyway. We stayed and visited the pups for a couple of hours. They were about five weeks old. They were a feisty bunch. They were nippers, quick to bite but also ready to play, their pen full of toys and balls. Their mother who’s name was Isabella, lay in the middle of it all, a look of pride and joy on her adoring face.

We completed our mission on that day. We met Zoey. The only problem was, now we were utterly and completely in love with her. She had to be ours but we were still a few weeks away from knowing if she would be. It was excruciating and time moved slower than a snail’s pace. So much so, that a few days later, my husband called the breeder and inquired quite seriously about Zoey. Did they know anything yet? When would they know it? Was there any chance she could be ours?

He received few answers of any comfort during that call and instead he learned that we had yet another hurdle. The breeder’s mother was also in love with Zoey. We were sure then that no matter what, she was ill-fated to be ours. We were crushed. But some time later, and I honestly don’t remember when because it was fourteen years ago, we heard back from the breeder. She decided that Zoey was going to be too much for her mother to handle. She also decided that despite the outcome of the temperament testing, Zoey would be ours. She realized that a loving home was more important for her dogs than anything else and she was entirely certain Zoey would receive that with us.

We were of course over the moon but Zoey had to be at least eight weeks old before leaving her mother and we still had a week and a half to go. To pass the time, we began readying the house. We got a crate. We got new beds, toys, a collar and a leash. We had already settled on her name. Her name would be Zoey which means “life”. A fitting name for an adorable puppy.

Time crept as our excitement grew.

Finally, the day arrived to bring our new baby home. We were beyond thrilled and our hearts swelled with delight at the thought of joy we knew she would bring. When we arrived to pick Zoey up, all nine pups were still there. She would be first to leave the only family she had ever known. There was something bittersweet about the experience. With Zoey in my arms, we walked outside toward the car and Zoey’s mother quietly followed us. We turned to say goodbye to her and to the breeder and Isabella lifted her nose to Zoey. I bent down because it appeared that she wanted to say goodbye. She sniffed Zoey and gently licked her face. She knew Zoey was going away. She knew she would never see her again. She let her daughter go with grace.

In the car, I placed Zoey in a box we had brought filled with blankets and a few toys. We had an hour’s journey home and we wanted her to be comfortable. About twenty minutes into the drive, I looked over at my husband, his face was covered in tears. He had been quietly sobbing for some time. He was full of joy but he was also sad. He was missing our departed boy Bailey. He knew Zoey would fill the hole that Bailey had left behind but he also knew that Bailey could never be replaced. No dog ever is. It was another bittersweet moment.

Today all these years later, it is Zoey’s fourteenth birthday. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed and fourteen is a big number for an Old English Sheepdog. So, today is an important day. It is a day worthy of great celebration. Zoey has lived a long and well loved life. She has offered us great joy and unyielding steadfast friendship. We have been blessed to call her ours.

Today is Zoey’s fourteenth year of life. We don’t know who much more time we have with her so we plan to honor this day and all that remain. Today is another bittersweet day.

Happy birthday to our beautiful, sweet, gentle and ever amazing dearest Zoey!

Finding Reasons To Celebrate

Yesterday was my baby dog’s 2nd birthday. I hung a happy birthday banner and I got her a birthday hat and presents and I took a TON of pictures. DSC_0045

I know that my husband thought I was crazy. And from the outside looking in, I can see where that might be the case…after all she is just a dog and wouldn’t understand the concept of a birthday, right?

But I have to say that I had an exceptional day. First of all, the weather was wonderful – 70 degrees and sunny and that certainly helped. Beyond that though, I was just in a good mood. I found myself smiling all day for no real reason. I had all my usual aches and pains from my sarcoidosis, but I was focused on being joyful. I was focused on the love I feel for my dog and I was full of gratitude for her life.

You see, she has a very serious heart condition called sub aortic stenosis. It is not operable and it puts her at risk for sudden death. There is also a chance that it could shorten her life but on her birthday I did not worry about that or even really think about it. I did not worry or even think about my own disease, instead I was engrossed in pure unadulterated happiness laced with carefree unconditional love.

This is when it hit me. It is important to find things to celebrate every day in an ordinary day. Life is too short to focus on what we cannot control. Celebrating life for what it is…what a blessing. Choosing to seek joy…what a gift. So I just want to thank my beautiful fur baby for giving me a gift on her special day.

 

Me And My Girls

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Today is a fragile gift for me and for my four legged friends.

I live with two Old English Sheepdogs, who are my joy and my strength. They give me purpose. They motivate me to keep going. One is 12 1/2 years old. Intellectually, I know she is living on borrowed time but I’ll never be ready to say good-bye.

My other pup who is only 15 months old, was diagnosed with a potentially life threatening heart condition and her life expectancy is unknown. Of course everyone’s life expectancy is unknown…it’s just with her…we know it’s unknown. Her condition is inoperable and all we can do is allow her to live the best life she can for as long as she can.

So when I look at my girls, it is with a bittersweet feeling of the deepest kind of love, coupled with a profound understanding that we don’t control time. When I look at them, I am reminded that we must cherish every gift. We must seize every moment. We must rejoice in today.

I try to focus on their love and how they have changed my life, instead of the uncertainties that await each of us. Life is full of uncertainties for everyone. My girls and I are not unique in that regard. I know this, still some days it is easier than others to remain focused on the joy instead of the unknown. But no matter what, I won’t let myself dwell where I shouldn’t.

If there is one thing I do know it is this, whenever I look at my girls, I know I will be flooded with love, I know I will experience overpowering gratitude and I understand what it means to be truly blessed.

These girls were meant to be mine and I theirs.

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