“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~ Roger Caras
On the day my future husband and I moved into our first home together, we made one important stop before collecting the keys: we picked up an eight-week-old puppy from a farm in Driggs, Idaho. Twelve years later, in another new home 3,000 miles across the country, I lay with that puppy under a huge South Carolina oak tree as he took his last breath.
That pup was a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon we called Stanley. From his glory days when he was our “only child” through the rude introduction of a second puppy and the seismic shift heralded by the arrival of a human child (and then another!), Stanley has always been by my side, his stoic gaze filled with devotion and unconditional love.
The void created by the absence of that gaze is cavernous. Some days I feel it enveloping me. Others, it is just a small slit of darkness willing me to fall into it—but it is always there.
Dealing with the grief of losing a pet is a real and painful experience, in many ways like the loss of a human loved one. It is often one of the first truly traumatic experiences a young family will face, and as such it’s an incredible learning and growing experience.
My two children, ages five and eight, have only known life with Stanley in it. The process of helping them understand and deal with their emotions, while difficult and heart-wrenching, was incredibly cathartic and uplifting for myself and our whole family.
We knew Stanley was unwell for a few months. About two weeks before he died, the vet told us there wasn’t anything else to be done and that if he seemed to be in pain, the best option was to put him down. As any pet owner knows, this is an impossible decision to make. Stanley had more good days than bad, so we held out hope that he would rally. But we also started to prepare the children for the inevitable.
We were determined to make some lasting memories for them and took Stanley on a wonderful beach walk as a family. We encouraged them to spend time with him, just the two of them, explaining that this might be the last walk he would get to take. We watched as they led him slowly along the crashing waves and then stopped to lay down in the sand next to him, cuddling and talking to him while feeding him his favorite treat—an ice cream cone.
After he left us, we gathered our family around the oak tree where he had taken his final breath and encouraged each child to share a favorite memory of Stanley and to say a prayer for him. We then planted a small fruit tree in a corner of the garden, and told them that while they could no longer see or touch him, Stanley would always be a part of their hearts, and if they wanted to talk to him, they could come here to this tree.
Just as a gravestone in a cemetery helps the bereaved channel their grief and feel a connection to their loved one, we hope this tree will help our family remain connected to our beloved puppy. As it grows, blooms and bears fruit, we will be able to remember him as a living breathing element of our earth.
Finally, we spent many hours as a family pouring over hundreds of photographs we’d taken of Stanley over the past 12 years. I put together a slideshow we could all watch together. We smiled, cried and laughed through tears as we rediscovered memories. This was probably the most cathartic process for all of us, as it helped us celebrate the time we had with Stanley, rather than mourn the time we’d lost.
Most importantly, we each chose our favorite photo and selected special frames for each one to comprise a memory wall in our home. On the wall, we have the four pictures we chose in their frames arranged around a display box that contains his collar, tags and other joyful memorabilia. For the first few months, I would tear up every time I passed the wall. At one point I even thought about taking it down. But as time goes on and the edges of the pain dull ever so slightly, the happy memories these photographs evoke help us all move on, while always remembering and cherishing the very first member of our family.
Author: Jennifer Tuohy
Image: Courtesy of author.
Editor: Nicole Cameron