I was recently telling a story to my friend Andrew about a grieving client who was also feeling a lot of guilt because he was having a harder time adjusting to the loss of his 14-year-old black Lab than the loss of his Mother who died at 83 years old.
As I told the story, Andrew said he had just experienced the same thing himself. His mother had been very sick for some time. She was hospitalized and given a short time to live. At the same time, his 8-year old Lab took ill. A few hours later his dog was dead and his mother’s condition stabilized, but at a very low quality of life. Now, he had been able to prepare emotionally for his mother’s death. Her illness was not curable. At the quality of life she was able to sustain, truthfully he felt it was probably for the best. But what actually happened was that he was blindsided by the loss of his daily companion and had to cope that grief in addition to the sharp decline of his mother’s health.
Now, there’s no comparing a mother to a pet. They’re two unique kinds of relationships that have a nature all their own. They’re not in competition with each other for who will be missed the most.
But, I wondered, why it was so compelling for me to hear these stories where the two losses are placed side-by-side in someone’s life and dealt with together? Maybe it’s because it speaks to the very deep connection we have with our pets. Maybe, in particular, it’s the daily connection with have with them and how they fit into our daily routine.
Often times with family, loved ones, and friends, they’re not in our daily routines. They may live far away. We may only see them a few times a year. So, as tough as it sounds, we have already gone through the many adjustments of not having them in our daily lives. When we lose a loved one, we are losing someone precious, but they did not also play a role in the habits and structure of each and every day.
I’m no psychologist, but I can see that beyond their role in our daily habits and routines—the feeding, walks, and guarding our loved ones, the unconditional love, their need for us and dependence on us all also contribute to the place our pets have in our hearts and lives, and the often surprising weight of their loss. But I know that beyond these factors, sharing life with a pet can be powerfully instructive and enlightening.
As I was talking through this with my friend, it made me think of my childhood dog, Kelly. Kelly was a German shepherd that my mother bought for me when I was 7 years old—just about the time I stopped wetting the bed and started to pronounce my T as Ts. All my big childhood breakthroughs started after my dog Kelly came into my life. I was responsible for her; I had to feed her, train her, brush her, walk her. She came with me everywhere. She loved me and I loved her more than anything. It was unconditional love. She was extremely smart. If you were a friend of mine, she would be a friend of yours. I used to love to bring her to the park in the winter. She would watch me play hockey with the older kids. With her there, I never had any problems with any of them getting too rough with me. Maybe that’s why I made the varsity team as a ninth grader. I was always safe when she was with me.
You know what? I still love that dog. In some ways more now than ever before. I can link all the life lessons she taught me to many of my core beliefs. Thinking about her now makes me realize how smart my mother was. I’ve written in the past about my childhood so I won’t go into detail of it now. Suffice it to say that my mother's gift of my special companion, Kelly was brilliant. Mom, through Kelly, was my greatest childhood teacher.
I recently heard about a program for troubled children. The first thing that happens when the kids arrive at the ranch is that they are assigned an animal to care for. It may be the first time that they have ever experienced the responsibility of caring for and providing all the needs for survival for anything in their lives. Providing for those needs for these animals and caring for another life is a powerful experience for them. By experiencing and caring for the needs of the animals, they become more capable of understanding their own needs and the needs of others. They learn how caring for these needs for themselves and others is what drives stable, happy lives. They experience the growing lesson of unconditional love. I can see why this program is successful.
It was a blessing when my parents finally divorced because my dad wasn’t a nice human being. But my mother and I had to move into an apartment. It didn’t allow dogs. We had to give Kelly up. We chose to send her to live with my mom’s friend, who lived on a farm. I never got to see her again.
Years later I discovered my mother had been lying to me about why I couldn’t visit Kelly. It turned out that Kelly got very sick shortly after she arrived at the farm. The farmer decided to shoot her. I was in my twenties when my mother told me. It was her way of protecting me from losing my best friend and greatest teacher of unconditional love.
All the pain of that surprisingly hit me as Andrew and I shared our stories. I never connected the lessons I received from her that moment. How crazy is it that I’m 62 years old and having this breakthrough, finally dealing with losing Kelly, and smiling about love my mother gave me then that I only understand now?
I have been brought to some realizations this last year or so about my roots and the important characters who helped shape my life at an early age. I have written about Lucy and Jim, and now my childhood dog, Kelly. They all had a huge impact on the paths I choose with my life. How I love today, how I care about people, how I take responsibility to make things right, how I make sure there is food on the table.
We have two rescue dogs today, that would not be in this world without us. Lulu has one eye and is an absolute delight. Oscar is very challenging to care for. He certainly has supplied a wonderful experience of unconditional love, and he has taught us patience and a whole new understanding of what a pet can bring to your life.
I hope sharing this story brings to mind the lessons and love the animals in your life have brought to you. And I hope you will connect those lessons and that love to the choices you've made, the values you have, and the life you live.