Writer James Thurber called it “this most inconsolable of sorrows,” the grief that comes with the loss of a beloved four-legged companion. In the months leading up to end for my 15-year-old Labrador Retriever, Maggie, I braced myself for a deep paralyzing misery.
I had pulled her from a shelter 14 years earlier. She was the first dog I trained and, in some way, Maggie has been connected to every good thing that happened since she came into my life. I was absolutely certain that nothing would help me bear the grief and that I would not be able to go on.
I was wrong.
Amazingly, my community of dog lovers—people I met because of Maggie—did the impossible. They found ways to soften the sadness. Most of my close friends are deeply involved with the dog world, from fanciers with top show champions to people who rescue the abandoned and abused. Maybe being through it so many times gave them an insight into what to do and say. Or maybe people who love dogs are just really great people. Whatever it was, they buoyed me through the worst of it. Here are some of the sweet, simple actions that helped tremendously:
- A Cartoon in a Sacred Place: While vacationing in New England, dog trainer Dorice Stancher took an unplanned detour to visit the Dog Chapel, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Artist Stephen Huneck established this unique place of worship some years ago and invited visitors to leave a photo or remembrance of dogs they had loved and lost. Today, these tributes cover its walls. Dorice, herself a talented artist, drew cartoons for her Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, Duffy, and then drew some for friends of recently-deceased dogs. The note for Maggie said, “CityGirl Big Heart.” Seeing Maggie's little memorial with all those memorials to thousands of other deeply-loved dogs had an odd effect. It first made me cry. Then I smiled.
- Honest Words: Brian Patrick Duggan, one of the world's foremost authorities on the Saluki, listened sympathetically as I described the agonizing process of deciding when to take that last trip to the vet and how guilty I felt about it. A day later, a message from Brian appeared in my email. It was a column this talented writer had penned in 2007 for the AKC Gazette, describing when he had to euthanize one of his favorite Salukis. “I suspect that most of us (myself included) secretly hope that our dogs will die peacefully of old age in their sleep—and relieve us of the responsibility of making the euthanasia decision. In our history with dogs, that has rarely happened.” Brian’s words were so real and true that I printed out the column to reread whenever I get a pang of guilt over having made this heartbreaking, but necessary, choice.
- A Good Deed: Another friend routinely gives to a charity that fixes cleft palates for poor children in the Third World. His most recent donation was made “In honor of Maggie.” Most charities have provisions for memorials and this is wonderful way to offer condolences and, at the same time, make the world a little better. I like the idea of Maggie as a guardian angel for some little child who will have a happier life because of this gift.
- Sharing Memories and Sympathy: Within a day after I posted the terse announcement of her passing on my Facebook page, there were more than 200 comments under it. Some were shared memories from those who had known her when she was young, including the woman who helped to spring her from the shelter. There were sympathetic posts from people I knew very well, others I met once or twice at some dog-related event or other, some I knew only through Facebook. A few took the effort to put their thoughts down on a card, stamp an envelope, and send it through the mail. A friend shared my status on a page devoted to elderly dogs—Buddy’s Senior Rescue & Senior Stories—where I had been posting updates about Maggie as she progressed through old age. One woman made the sweetest comment, “I am so sorry. I feel like I know Maggie through your FB posts. I can see she was truly special.”
- Bubbly: My work colleagues took up a little collection and put a bottle of sparkling wine and card on my desk. The card urged my husband and I to “raise a glass and toast Maggie—a dog who got very lucky when you came into her life. And vice versa.” That’s just what we did and, yes, it helped.
So much advice on dealing with the bereaved is about what not to do, or say, and how easy it is to make things worse. But these lovely, thoughtful gestures showed me that there are a lot of ways to do it right and lift the sadness, just a little.
The Dog Chapel in Vermont is covered floor-to-ceiling with memorials. One of them is for Maggie.