The loss of a pet and the ensuing grief is an old story. Having lost pets in the past, I expected the pain of such a loss when it became necessary to euthanize my beloved Rosey. What was unexpected was how silent and empty the world seems to have become in her absence. It is that abrupt and painfully evident change that emphasized just how extraordinary an animal she was and just how large a presence she was in my life.
The story of Rosey is all too familiar to many who have rescued pets before; a dog in need of love and comfort soon reversed the scenario and gave back exponentially more than she was given. Yet, I can’t claim the story began with love at first sight on my part or, I’m guessing, or Rosey’s either. Initially she was fearful and avoidant. Ours was a relationship that unfolded during the brief 10 months she had with me before her death. Rosey came to me through the MidAtlantic Chinese Shar-pei Rescue Operation. Her age was estimated to be about 2 years, and the only history available was that her owner had died.
Rosey and her deceased owner remained together until someone became aware of the situation and Rosey was taken from her home to a veterinary hospital for much needed medical care. She had never been microchipped, vaccinated or spayed. Neither had she received surgery for entropion (a condition common in her breed in which the eyelid turns inward, causing the lashes and skin to rub against the eye, resulting in pain and corneal damage) or a tumor around a dewclaw (the vestigial toe that sits higher up on the leg than the other toes). She had never before been treated for the severe infections in her ears or bouts of Shar-pei fever that left her with severely swollen hocks (the joints on the leg sometimes referred to as the equivalent of the human ankle). She was also quite underweight.
The Rosey I Knew
Rosey came to me after being treated for her assorted conditions, some of which were a result of overbreeding of Shar-peis. Shar-peis are generally known to be protective, aloof and can be very aggressive toward other dogs. Rosey, however, did not possess all of these traits. Rather she was described by her treatment team, and everyone else who came to know her, as the sweetest Shar-pei they had ever encountered. She was very placid, still, slow-moving and largely silent. She never played and rarely ran, although on certain occasions she could muster a trot. Her tail wagged perpetually. Her ears were tiny and flat, her eyes were nearly invisible, black and deeply set in a face covered by black fur. She had few eyelashes or whiskers on her brows or snout. Rosey communicated without facial expression, although on rare occasions she turned a longing gaze toward someone with soft, watery dark eyes. Rather, her needs, feelings and interests were expressed predominantly through her tail, her pace and her snorting sounds (and occasionally a paw extended toward my leg), and she was determined that they be honored.
People, dogs and all manner of scents captured Rosey’s interest, and that interest was only satisfied during her walks. That was her priority agenda item while her humans somewhat foolishly understood walks to be primarily focused on bodily functions, and secondarily socializing. Our needs were in conflict and hers prevailed. Rosey walked short distances at a time and at a snail’s pace, punctuated by even longer pauses during which she appeared to be doing nothing but gazing into the distance and, based on barely visible movements of her snout, probably sniffing the air. The pattern replayed over and over until something she smelled or saw, often blocks away, caught her attention and her pace increased; there was no stopping for further sniffing, nor could she be stopped on her mission to locate the source of the scent.
At times, the object of her search was another dog. At other times, she had to hasten to pursue strangers walking ahead, even some distance away. She was unrelenting, and when catching up to them, always made her presence known, capturing their attention. Rarely was anyone unresponsive. People were instantly attracted to her, several times describing her as “so stinkin’ cute.” They were universally delighted to return her attention. There were laughs when she tried to follow strangers up their front steps and into their homes. We joked that she just wanted to party.
It wasn’t necessary, however, for Rosey to pursue people to get attention. There were numerous instances in which drivers pulled over to the curb to exit their cars so they could pet Rosey. Passersby stopped and turned around to hurry back to inquire about her, pet her and marvel at her cuteness. Children seemed instinctively drawn to her and she patiently allowed them to touch, stroke or prod her. Rosey also turned the heads of local shopkeepers who, on seeing her walk by, interrupted their business to come outside, greet her and offer her treats. She enthusiastically accepted these and soon learned which businesses to stop into for her treat. Walking her at night when the businesses were closed led to her peering into their windows and refusing to budge in the hope that someone would step outside. She was persistent, which is a generous way of describing her stubbornness in certain situations. She also managed an impressive imitation of a fireplug when she wanted something that was not immediately forthcoming.
Rosey became a fixture in my office, present during therapy sessions with anyone who wanted her to remain there. For the most part she lay still on the floor beside my chair barely moving or making a sound. My patients looked forward to seeing her, inquired about her absence after her death and were saddened to learn she had died. One patient remarked that she had no fondness for dogs and that Rosey was the only dog she had ever been motivated to pet.
The Rosey I Lost
Reflecting on what makes people and pets appealing to others is not that they are interesting but interested. It is not that they merely engage but they engage with genuine kindness, gentleness or sweetness. Rosey’s behavior evidenced the best of those traits. She was sweet beyond words. Despite her avoidance of eye contact with others, she expressed her unmistakable intent to connect through her determined pursuit and her ever-wagging tail.
After her death, neighbors quickly became aware of her absence, commenting, “Someone’s missing,” or, “We haven’t seen Rosey lately.” On learning of her death, many who knew her from even the briefest encounters became tearful. Some appeared stricken. Such was the impact of her loss.
There exists a considerable body of work on the effect of the death of a pet on its owner and others who interacted with and became attached to it. Relationship is the foundation of the connection with our pet. At the loss of most relationships, the grief that follows is inevitable and normal. It may be experienced as sorrow, emptiness, loneliness, or preoccupation with thoughts and images of the deceased. There may also be physical effects including sleep and appetite disturbance, fatigue, difficulty focusing on other topics and even physical pain.
Additionally, if the often heart-rending decision to euthanize our beloved pet is made, there may also be doubt as to whether that was the right action, or guilt. Finding peace and equanimity after such a loss is a process that evolves over time. Often, when we think the pain is finally subsiding, we are overwhelmed with a new wave of grief. I view grief as a gift from and a tribute to the deceased pet and its importance in our life. There is no shame in acknowledging grief, speaking about it or in seeking support to manage our feelings.
What Rosey Taught Me
In Rosey I did not get the pet I wanted - a dog who would go for long jogs with me, do playful zoomies or tugs of war, sit beside me to snuggle while I read and engage in other typical dog activities. Rather, I got what I needed – a dog who taught me the value of quiet love, sweetness and serenity. In her passive stillness, she was yet an enormous and, in her own way, actively engaged figure. She was a constant and steadying presence in my life.
The relationship we developed in the brief 10 months we had together far exceeded my expectations and made an indelible impression. Her loss had a wide-ranging impact, affecting not just me but a community comprised of friends, neighbors, patients and even strangers. With great sorrow I also consider what Rosey lost – a chance to have a long life filled with delight and comfort that she so deserved.
Part of the gift of her companionship was a lesson in awareness: From Rosey I learned the value of having a quiet and loving presence in my life and being that in the lives of others. I hope I can live up to Rosey’s example and I strive to emulate her in my relationships as a way of honoring her and what she taught me. I have heard it said of the departed, “May their memory be a blessing.” Hers surely is.
Resources for Coping
For those grieving the loss of a pet, there are sources of support readily available. Around-the-clock grief support can be found through Pet Compassion Careline (855-245-8214). Alternatively, the Rainbow Bridge Grief Support Center offers online chat rooms and a forum for sharing experiences and support. It also provides suggestions for coping and related topics. Its website is www.rainbowsbridge.com/grief_support_center/grief_support_home.htm.
Dr. Sheri Bellow is a licensed psychologist in practice in Crofton, Maryland.
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