Love, loss and a very good boy

In the 20 years we’ve been together, my husband and I have been blessed to have had several amazing dogs. We can track the stages of our life together by the puppers we’ve loved—the one I adopted shortly before we got engaged, and the pet we got for our pet after we got married because she had become so desperate for attention. The dogs we had when our children were little, including one we rescued after Hurricane Ike swamped a shelter an hour from where we lived then in Texas. (We were forwarded an email of pictures of a hundred dogs who were going to be euthanized by the weekend if not quickly adopted, as they didn’t have a place to house them all due to flooding. Who can resist that kind of appeal? Apparently no one, as all of those dogs were rescued.) That hurricane dog, Rosie, was one of the most amazing companions to ever grace our home. 

When we made the hard decision to say goodbye to her at the age of 16-ish (you never really know the age of a rescue with certainty) due to severe arthritis depriving her of quality of life, we were reminded that “the depth of your love today is the depth of your wound tomorrow.”* Having a pet is a double-edged sword—while their love brings you immeasurable joy, their eventual, unavoidable loss will slice your heart and leave you emotionally bloodied.

Such was the case with Samwise, aka, Sam. 

Sam lived up to his name (which some may recognize from The Lord of the Rings; Samwise was the most loyal of hobbits and an unlikely hero), in that he loved to eat and take naps, but he was also a great one for long walks and adventures. He wasn’t naturally brave but would rise to the occasion if ever he felt his people were threatened. He was a simple dog, and devotion was his main attribute.

Sam was about a year old when we found him at York Adopt-a-Pet (ten years ago this July 2). I fell in love with his dopey-sad beagle/basset face instantly. We brought the youngest of our children, then a toddler, to meet him at the shelter so we could see how he would interact with little people. To our delight, he was ever gentle with our kids. Just in case he didn’t work out, we told our older kids (then aged 4 and 7) that he was “only visiting for a while” when we brought him home. After two weeks of probation, we decided we just couldn’t do without him. He fit our family so well. 

He was a quirky little guy. Sam hated to have his picture taken and would immediately run in the opposite direction if he saw you point a camera (or phone) at him. This is why we have so many pictures of Sam sleeping. It was the only time we could get a picture that wasn’t a blurry shot of him departing.

Sam was a great car dog. He loved to ride in the backseat with his face at the window, or curl up on the front passenger’s seat with his head in the driver’s lap. He was the best snuggler. His greatest joy was cuddling on the couch with any member of the family who would sit still and let him up on their lap. Sam was a fantastic dog during my husband’s grad school years, which involved a lot of sitting and reading. We have many pictures of Sam asleep in my husband’s lap while he studied. 

In recent years, we added a cat to our home, and then another. Sam loved the cats, especially our large, beige tom, Albus. They liked napping together in sunny spots, Sam on his tummy in a classic ‘sploot’ pose, his hind legs straight out behind and his head resting on his forepaws, and Albus stretched out beside him on his back, with his feet in the air like a dead bug.

Sam was endlessly patient with our three girls, watching over them as they grew from tinies to teens. He had a deep distrust of men, I assume because he thought they were a threat to his brood or perhaps due to trauma before he came to live with us. The girls had so much fun through the years dressing him up in hats and bandanas, sweaters and shoes, and posing him with all manner of toys. He was such a good-natured playmate, even if he did occasionally steal stinky diapers from the trash and shred them. 

Sam was a notorious bed-hog, and though he would have preferred to sleep with the youngest child, as she got bigger and needed more of the space in her twin bed, Sam reluctantly slept in the kennel in our room. Mostly he just wanted to be where the people were. He hated to be apart from us. We often left him at home when we would go on vacation to non-dog-friendly places, and I would miss him as much as he missed us during these absences. “If it weren’t for my dog, I might not go home!” I often quipped on vacation in picturesque locations.

Sam was my constant companion for cooking and never shirked his responsibility as chief floor cleaner of the kitchen and dining room. He could hear food hitting the floor from several rooms away. Sam was an all-in-one, multipurpose appliance. Not only was he a dopamine and oxytocin generator for his humans, he was also a personal space heater, house alarm, delivery notification system, Roomba for food crumbs, and pre-wash for the dishes on the lower rack of the dishwasher.

I know that COVID lockdown was a challenging time for many, but it was probably the best time of Sam’s life. All of his people were home all of the time! He got so many walks and cuddles during that period. He was a valuable mood enhancer for all of us during that stressful and anxious stage of life. 

My husband and I got serious about getting healthy during COVID times, and thanks to our new dedication to exercise, Sam got fit as well. He was in such great shape in 2020 and we would regularly walk him several miles a day. 

By 2021 however, we noticed him slowing down. No longer could we take him for miles-long excursions. His little legs were flagging after just a few blocks. We assumed he was just getting older. We adjusted our outings to take him for shorter walks, then drop him off at home before going longer distances ourselves.  

Sam rapidly deteriorated in the spring of 2023. He was only 11 (ish) years old. We assumed his gray muzzle would be giving us kisses for many years to come. Unfortunately, his heart just wouldn’t allow it. As his heart was giving up, mine was breaking in two. Letting him go was incredibly hard, but as he quit eating and became increasingly wasted and lethargic, we knew it was time. I will always be grateful to the staff at York Animal Clinic for the compassionate care they provided for him and for us during his final weeks of life. 

Sam was a Very Good Boy and we miss him terribly. Someday we’ll get another dog, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever find a better one. 

A note to those experiencing grief after pet loss: A study published in Scientific American suggests that the acute grief period after a pet’s loss is typically 1-3 months, but that the longer-term grief period can last a year or more. I recently read the book The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life, and Mortality, by Karen Fine, DVM. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it for all animal lovers, however if you have recently experienced pet loss, trigger warning! You will cry. In this book, Dr. Fine suggests that pet loss grief can be extra challenging emotionally, as she writes about the concept of ‘disenfranchised grief’, which is grief that is not recognized by your community. The fact that to others your grief may seem disproportionate because “it was just a dog/cat,” can make the grief you feel that much harder to bear. When someone you know has lost a pet, it is a real kindness to reach out to them with compassion and let them know that you recognize the depth of their loss. Additionally, when you are the one experiencing pet loss, Fine suggests how helpful it can be to write an obituary for your pet, which is what I’ve attempted to do in this article.

*Quote attributed to Nizar Qubbani


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