PAWS IN PARADISE: LOSS & THE LEGACY OF PET LOVE

Here in Key West, we celebrate Halloween with a creative gusto seldom seen in any other place. But come Nov. 1, the festivities turn to a more somber and reflective celebration, The Day of the Dead, when the veil between the world of the living and dead is at the closest.  

I always use this time to reflect on those I have loved and lost — parents, friends and loved ones, including my animals. It seems the world allows you human losses. But when you lose a beloved dog or cat, much of the world expects you to move on. “You can always get another.”

Nothing can be more untrue. When that special animal comes into your life, the soul-wrenching loss can be excruciating. I have grieved more deeply for the loss of a beloved animal companion than I have for most people. 

And I know I’m not the only one. 

There is a special relationship you can have with an animal that you just can’t have with the human kind. A soul connection that is all too brief. Our animals are in our lives for only a short time. When we lose them, we lose not only a beloved companion, but a piece of our history, of who we were with them. It’s not only painful, but also disorienting. Add this to the burden of having to decide when and if to end your best friend’s life, and you have a wild storm of grief.

It guts me every time.

I’ve been trying to avoid the word “pets” in this article, because it’s such a passive, incorrect word. My dogs have been a lot more than pets to me. They’ve been teachers, friends, guides, soul companions, each one helping me on this journey of becoming.

Sundance was the dog who accompanied me into adulthood. Half-wolf, half-husky, Sunny was never a “pet;” he was my guardian, devoted companion and inspiration. In his youth, he always found a way to escape, waiting quietly near the front door for hours until it opened. The moment it did, he took off like a rocket, returning hours or days later, sometimes dragging an unopened bag of Tender Chunks or a fully wrapped package of steak.

I relied on that wolf part of him to remind me of my own wildness. He was my strength and courage at a time I could not fully own it myself. When he went, it was as if a hole opened up and swallowed me. 

Fortunately, we had a back-up dog, my husband’s sweet pup, Sasha. That gave me the luxury of dog company while still grieving Sunny.

Two years later, I walked out of a Piggly Wiggly in Savannah and saw a big Lab pup running loose in the parking lot. I fell in love. He was a goofball, the complete opposite of Sundance, with huge paws that showed he would be a big boy. I still needed protection and Barney, all 95 pounds of him, was up to the task. He also had the biggest heart of any dog I know. He stayed at my side as I walked out of years of trauma. I write about it in my memoir, “Short Leash.” 

But Barney was one of those dogs shelters refer to as “needs to be the only dog in the home.” He was dog-aggressive, and it was clear there would be no back-up dog. He lived to 15. The last year or so of his life was tough. Those of you with sugar-faced oldsters know what I mean. He had neuropathy in one leg, a growing liver tumor and doggie incontinence. I cared for him throughout it. It was incredibly hard to go through and even harder to let him go. 

After he died, being dog-less was unbearable. This time, it only took six months to find another dog. Winston was a gorgeous boxer-pitbull who came from a kill shelter. He was adorable, but he chewed on anything he could find. 

When I was going out of my mind with him, an adoption counselor reminded me to remember how tough his first 10 months had been. Give him time, she advised. She was right. He grew into the most joyful lovebug I ever met, worth every minute of chewing hell. 

Eleven years later, when he succumbed unexpectedly to a quick-growing cancer, I was devastated once again.

There is a place called the rainbow bridge, it’s said, where the animals we have a special bond with are healed and happy and where we join them when we leave this earth. I know it’s sappy, but I love the idea of it. And yes, if there is a heaven, my dogs are there.

When people post online of losing a four-legged friend, I usually say I understand how hard it is. Because I do. But I’d like to tell them time really does help. That you have to let yourself grieve. Take as long as it takes. Put out the pictures. Talk to your animal. Cry. Spread their ashes when you’re ready.

And spread the love. Honor your friend by helping animals in need. You can donate to a rescue organization like the FKSPCA or volunteer at a shelter. For some, fostering is a great option. Helping others can often help mend your heart.

There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Our beloved animals break our heart when they leave, but they also leave it bigger. In time, a bridge is built, made of love and memories. Their spirit, their love, their time spent with us never leaves us. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, I will try to be grateful for the turkey-begging wise guy camping out under my table and remember all the other drooling pals who have spent time there. As the poet Mary Oliver reminds us of the joy our animals bring us, “It’s no small gift.” 

Janice Gary is an award-winning author, educator, writer of nonfiction and a passionate advocate for those whose stories need to be told – and heard. Author of the award-winning book Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, she is a Pushcart-nominated essayist whose work has been published in journals such as Brevity, Longreads, Potomac Review, River Teeth, Slag Glass City and is included in several anthologies. A resident of Key West, she marvels daily at her good fortune of living among the beauty and inspiration of this storied island and the people who call it home.