Knowledge and experience about grief come in handy as we age. Serial pet owners have a rich history of dealing with the loss that is felt when a pet dies. Although my own story may have more tragedy than joy, I am simply glad to have shared my life with the pets who have loved me.
Most, but not all, of my pets have been dogs. As a teacher I had a pet rat—and after a visit with a student’s rat, a cage full of babies. In my teen years I took care of the family aquarium, which caused years of nightmares about dead fish in the tank and on the floor.
I’ve lived in households with cats, but dogs have always been my favorite. My childhood experience with dogs was heartbreaking and I remember each one with sadness. There was the miniature collie pup who ran out into traffic within a few days of coming to our home. I had a dark-haired mutt called Happy for a year of middle school. We left him in a kennel during a week-long family vacation. On our return we were told Happy was sick, probably from a rodent bite. He died the next day. I took a photo of his corpse, trying to hold onto him for a while longer.
A few years later, my dad brought home a beautiful auburn cocker spaniel from the pound. Within 24 hours, the dog was foaming at the mouth and insanely attacking anyone close to him—distemper. Dad returned him to the pound to meet his fate. All of these losses were devastating.
In my mid-20s, I started teaching and lived in San Francisco with two dear friends. One weekend, I went camping in the Sierras with another friend. When we stopped in town for groceries, we saw a box of squealing black and brown Beagle puppies in a pickup truck with a sign that said, “Take them or they die.” On some insane impulse, I selected one and took him camping. Beauregard slept in the bottom of my sleeping bag.
All was fine until I brought him home to my roommates in our “no pets allowed” apartment. What was I thinking? The friends had to care for him while I was teaching; after a while the landlord found out and issued an ultimatum.
We couldn’t find another place we could afford that would take pets and I wouldn’t give up the dog. So we all moved. The other two to a place by themselves, Beau and me to a one-bedroom apartment in the Haight, where he had to stay alone all day.
He entertained himself by tearing down the owner’s drapes. At night, every time the main door to the building opened, he barked. It lasted only three weeks.
I had no success finding a home for him by posting flyers at my school. No-kill shelters didn’t exist. So one day, I drove out into the countryside and knocked on farmers’ doors until someone agreed to take Beauregard. Hard to believe, but the two friends invited me to move back in with them in their new place and remained my dearest friends for many years. I still feel the guilt of abandoning my dog.
Almost 40 years went by until I dared to get another dog. I figured it only made sense if someone was at home to keep the pooch company. Since my husband was recovering from surgery and wouldn’t be returning to work, we adopted Foxy to be his companion.
A red-haired Sheltie mix, Foxy’s fearfulness required a lot of work. That was 13 years ago. Foxy saw me through my husband’s death, traveled with me, and lived to be 15. In July, I buried him at Bubbling Well Pet Cemetery on the top of Atlas Peak. My grief has been like the pain of losing humans I have loved. I miss him dearly, cry when I look at his picture and remember with a smile all of his antics. I still have Foxy’s website and his book, “My Leash on Life.”
After four months of being petless, some things became clear. Being able to stay out all day or overnight without the complications of a critter at home needing attention wasn’t as thrilling as I thought it might be. I missed my daily dog walks—two walks a day for 13 years. I missed the doggie greeting when returning home and the perky enthusiasm of a waiting mutt when I opened my eyes in the morning.
So a month ago, I visited the Napa shelter “just to have a look” and walked out the door with Chewy. A tiny Yorky mix, Chewy is active and playful and he’s very vocal—that is, he loves to bark. Settling in with and training a new dog is exhausting at this age, but it’s worth it.
I’m back to enjoying my daily dog walks, I talk to him all day long and he keeps me laughing. You see, there’s something my petless friends might not know—the best way to cure grief is with love.