In the year after our twin daughters were born, we got a golden retriever puppy we named Charlie. Everyone always says they have “the best dog ever,” but in my opinion, Charlie indeed was. When the girls were young, they could pull on his ears, his tail, his fur, just about any part of him, and he would never complain, growl or groan.
Charlie became a fixture of our lives. He was a part-time babysitter, part-time guard dog, part-time walking buddy, part-time entertainment, and part of the reason why we constantly had to clean the house.
Charlie crossed the rainbow bridge in 2012 at the ripe old age of 13. He had “good innings” as one of my best friends described it. But after having put him down, because he was in pain and was suffering from numerous ailments, I could not stop feeling guilty about it. For the longest time, I questioned whether it was the right thing to do if I had prematurely cut his time with us if I had somehow let him down.
While we had Charlie, we also gained a Monty and Murphy. Monty, an English Cocker Spaniel, was a Christmas present for the family in 2005, and Murphy was my 40th birthday present from Suzanne.
In the month before Suzanne died, we said goodbye to her little buddy, Monty. He was 13-years old and had been diagnosed with cancer and kidney failure. He was forever getting small growths on his body (so much so, over the years that I had taken to nickname and call him “wart dog”)… but he was her constant companion through the first two bouts with cancer, the surgeries, and the treatments.
Losing Monty was a big psychological blow to Suzi as she was entering her final battle. We also had a cat named Harry, an 8-year old grey tabby, who had to be put down less than a week after we lost Monty. It was a time of great grief and loss, along with the treatments Suzanne was undergoing, not a lot of time, energy, or head-space for grief.
But it wasn’t until long after Suzi died that I was able to grieve the loss of our precious fur kids as well as her. Yes, I see people post things about losing their pets, and for some, it’s like losing a child (especially for people who have never been able to have children). So their grief and the grief they feel about losing a fur-kid is no less than that of what we feel when losing a person.
The unconditional love and affection that our pets offer is a source of both comfort and joy in our lives. When we love a pet, we can learn to love ourselves and our people better. There is a mug that my daughter has with a quote that says, “I can only hope to be the person my dog believes I am.” And yet, we are. Our dogs see us that way, all we need to do is open our eyes, and we can see ourselves that way.
Since Suzanne died, I adopted a young pup. His name is Kohl, and he’s a bit of a handful. He’s a nearly two-year-old German shepherd/lab mix who was found wandering the “mean streets” of LA as a tiny pup, sent to a county shelter before making his way to a German shepherd rescue (where I found and adopted him).
His companionship and unconditional love and gratitude for having a forever home have been a huge part of my healing process. Maybe it was the fact he was abandoned when he was so young and needed so much care and attention. Perhaps it was because I was feeling abandoned and needed someone who could love me unconditionally, as Suzi did.
Whatever the reason, I found a kindred spirit in my new best friend. The problem is, my old best friend—my nearly 12-year old chocolate lab, Murphy—has suffered a little at the hands (paws?) of Kohl (far too much ear tugging, some serious roughhousing, and general tormenting). Still, we look at each other, knowing that there is so much love in our lives for each other. And that is what I sensed was needed in my life at that moment. Today, I have a new person in my life who loves and is loved by my fur-kids, my human kids and by me.
Getting the chance to love again, and being shown the way through the unconditional love of a pet, has helped me heal. It has helped me open my heart back to the possibility of loving and being loved by a new person, and to my fur kids, I am truly grateful.
Jeff Ziegler can be seen every two weeks here on WSN-MO. You can write Jeff at [email protected]