One of my favourite blogs, Professional Dreamer, recently published a heartbreaking post about the loss of her beloved dog, Beth. It was so honest and filled with raw grief, it immediately took me back to 2005 when I lost my first pet, Zeus. There’s a sense of innocence that dies with your childhood pet that makes the grieving process that much harder. For me, I naively believed Zeus would live forever, and was filled with anger when I had to put her down.
When I was three years old, I fell down a neighbour’s stairs, hitting my head on a metal support beam in their basement and fractured my skull. In the hospital, my parents asked me what they could do to make me feel better. I know it sounds crazy because I was only a little tot, but I remember asking for a puppy. Weeks later, wearing my protective hockey helmet (part of the recovery process. I looked super cool!) we went to a local breeder to pick out the perfect addition to our family. The story goes (and it’s one of my favourite stories), a little white fluff ball left her mother and the rest of her litter and made her way over to me. When the breeder took the little runt back to her mother, she promptly crawled back to me. Everyone agreed: She chose us. It was meant to be.
For 15 years, Zeus (affectionately called Zeusie because she was female) was my best friend and the friendliest dog. Whenever we had visitors, she would howl to say hello, and then run into the kitchen, grab a tea-towel from the oven handle and greet you, leaving her gift at your feet. I wrote Zeusie valentines day cards, gave her Christmas presents, celebrated her birthday and fell asleep next to her on the living room floor. We were buds. A blood clot in her foot when she was 15 lead to the amputation of part of her paw. The vet said there was little chance she would recover and the best thing to do was put her down, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It cost thousands of dollars, but she miraculously recovered, wearing baby socks on her sore paw.
We had three more great years together before her aching hips, and inability to walk lead our family to make the tough decision to put her to sleep. It was and still is the worst day of my life. I refused to go home to our empty house for two weeks, crying day and night at my grandparent’s house for the loss of my pup. I asked questions like, “Where did she go? How does someone just stop being? What’s the point of all of this?” Existential and dramatic? Yes, but it was my first experience with death and I loved her so much.
I vowed to never have another pet, specifically another dog, but the emptiness in the house was too much to handle. It was too quiet and I missed having an animal to cuddle with. Months later, on what would have been Zeusie’s birthday, my mom took me to the SPCA to adopt a cat. We were standing in the lobby, looking at a little orange kitten when a woman walked up to us and said, “That kitten hissed and scratched my daughter. Don’t get her.”
Excuse you, lady. Don’t ever tell me what to do!
I put the kitten in my arms and she immediately purred and fell asleep. It was fate. We signed the papers and just like that, I had another pet. I won’t lie. At first I felt guilty. I cried all the way home from a mix of joy and sadness. From the minute we brought Honey home, the dynamic in the house changed. We would laugh at her exploring the house, trying to nurse my finger tips, and getting stuck in closets and under bed frames. I became an obsessive, crazy cat lady. It’s been 10 years and I’m loving every minute of it.
Years later, I adopted Penny, my little Shorkie terrier. This time there were no feelings of guilt, no sadness or hesitation. I knew I could love and take care of a pup in need, so I ate my words and became a dog owner again.
The death of a pet is devastating. No matter how many you’ve lost, it never gets easier. You can listen to ‘The Circle of Life’ on the Lion King soundtrack as many times as you want, but it still breaks your heart when they go. Sometimes I see Zeusie’s collar and I still get emotional that she’s no longer here. Sometimes I even look at Honey and Penny and think about the day they’ll be gone too. The thing that keeps me going is the thought that I’m so lucky to have their unconditional love in my life. The only thing I can do is make their time on earth the happiest it can possibly be, and when that time comes, I’ll do the same for another animal in need.
Everyone is different, and I don’t mean to suggest everyone go out and adopt another animal right away. This is simply my story of grief and opening my heart again to another pet (or pets).
My thoughts go out to Sian and her family on the loss of Beth. Take the time to mourn but be sure to remember the good times and how much she enriched your life. Big hugs your way.