For the love of a dog…
It’s now a little over three weeks, three weeks, three days and 18 hours to be exact, that our beautiful dog Harry went to heaven, and we are absolutely heartbroken. He was not just our dog, he was a member of our family and anybody who has a pet will know exactly what I mean. What really struck me after Harry passed away was the feeling of emptiness in our house, and if I had never believed in creatures having a soul before, I would certainly believe it now. Harry was the essence of all that is good, there wasn’t a bad hair on him and he touched so many people throughout his life. We originally got him as a puppy so I could bring him to school with me. I am a teacher for children with autism and since I was a teenager I have worked with animals in the context of children with disabilities. I know first hand the amazing ability of animals to connect with people who might have limited verbal communication skills, this ability is beyond that of any fellow human. So many times I was allowed to witness this unique bond and the incredible effect on people’s mental health, emotional and physical well-being and the bridge for accessing meaningful communication.
I say we got Harry, but in actual fact it was him, who chose us… I will never forget the beautiful spring day we went to pick him. His mum and 8 other brothers and sisters were lying all huddled up fast asleep in the corner of a cosy stable, just Harry got up and waddled unsteadily towards us for a cuddle, and that was that. I don’t think I’ve ever known another animal to be as loving, obedient, kind and beautiful, inside and out before…I appreciate that most dog owners would say the same about their dog 😉 but he truly was. We never trained him for anything other than doing his business outside in the garden and many people asked us where we had brought him to dog school. From about six months Harry came to school with me, at the time I was teaching 3-5 year old children with autism and all he ever did was lie under the table or sprawled out in the middle of the kids who just loved his company. At break time he would join us in the playground and he loved it as much as the children did.
When Harry was two years old my husband Michael had a devastating accident at work, which left him in excruciating chronic pain and subsequent depression resulting from multiple related issues, one of them being the inability to sleep. I can honestly say that Harry saved his life. He would not leave his side and the two of them would head off for walks even in the middle of the night. I do not even want to imagine what could have happened if Harry hadn’t been there as his trusted companion 24 hours a day. For obvious reasons Harry’s death has affected Michael particularly badly and he was feeling really odd and guilty when he realised that his passing had a much more severe effect on him than most deaths he has experienced in his lifetime. To me that wasn’t really very surprising particularly in his situation. When the world was falling apart for him it was Harry who held it together, who gave him a responsibility and purpose when I was at work or asleep. It was Harry who loved him no matter what… in all the ugly moments full of resentment, pain, fear, low self-esteem and anger at two, three and four o’clock in the morning. I describe the first time I really became aware of the significance of Harry’s unconditional love in this short passage from my book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a Revolution” in which I remember an exercise at a meditation retreat:
Many years ago, before I had children, I attended a lovingkindness
retreat in a beautiful Buddhist retreat centre in the south
of Ireland. One of the initial exercises consisted of us imagining the
“embodiment of unconditional love” and working with that vision.
I stayed in a cottage on-site with three other ladies whom I had
never met before. We had a lovely chat after dinner, discussing the
experience of the day and meditation practice, especially of what
we imagined was an “embodiment of unconditional love”. This
might sound odd to some, but the answer to this for me was very
easy: “It was my beloved dog.” I expected them to be surprised, but
it turned out that all three women, all happily married with stable
family backgrounds, had the same feelings towards their animals.
Now let me explain my sentiment a bit better. This by no means
meant that I loved my dog more than anybody or anything else,
but this was about “unconditional love”. Most loving human
relationships of any kind, even if we don’t think so initially, involve
conditional love: I love you because we have the same interests; I
love you because I find you attractive; I love you because you care
for me and cook me lovely dinners; I love you because you make
me feel good. Apart from a parent’s love for their children, only very
rarely if ever is our love towards others, and unfortunately even
towards ourselves, “unconditional”.
A couple of years after Michael’s accident, our first daughter was born and our second girl two years after that. Harry was their “big brother” from the start and he was part of everything they did, they didn’t know a life without him and we have so many beautiful memories. For both of them Harry’s passing was their first experience of death, which made it really important to make the experience as “positive” as we could. As mums, we want to try our very best to protect our children from heartache, at the same time it is so important to allow children to be an authentic part in the process and experience the sadness and the grief. The girls saw Harry after he had just died and they were obviously very upset and sad, but they stayed with him and gave him lots of hugs and cuddles. They decorated a wooden box for him in all the colours of the rainbow and decided they wanted him in our sitting room for his last night snuggled up in a fleece blanket with his favourite cuddly toy Sally (get it…”When Harry met Sally” ;-)), which was still like new from when he got it from our lovely friends as a puppy. Harry had a whole collection of cuddly friends and all of whom were “unharmed” throughout the years, he was so gentle with them. The girls had also written him letters and picked some photographs to put in with him along with some dog food for the journey. It was both heartbreaking and beautiful to see the girls saying their goodbyes in their own way. We had a proper wake and then the funeral the next morning, the girls insisting on saying the “prayer before meals” and blowing bubbles. Afterwards we went to the local garden centre where we chose some nice flowers to plant on his grave and then had some cake and juice back home, just like a “real” funeral.
Each day gets a little easier and we tell more and more funny stories and memories about Harry, like the many times he’d sneak into the bathroom while one of us was having a shower and steal dirty socks and knickers, eeeeeurgh. We greet him every morning when we get up and say good night to him at bedtime. Oftentimes we have chats with him throughout the day and the girls sometimes leave a treat in his bowl which is still in the same place as it always was. They’re just little things which help all of us in our grief and the huge sense of loss, and bit by bit it will get easier.
Will we ever get a dog again despite the sadness and heartbreak? Yes we will. Not now, not in the next couple of months but we will. Everybody is different but for us a dog completes a family. I read a beautiful quote recently, but am unsure of its origin:
Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love,
They depart to teach us about loss, A new dog never replaces an old dog,
It merely expands the heart.
Especially for young children I believe a dog (or other pet) can be such an important addition to their life. Apart from unconditional love they teach kindness, compassion and responsibility and especially in difficult times a dog is an invaluable confidante and best friend.
I believe a dog (and other animals) is a gift for us, a gift that will give us the opportunity to experience unconditional love. Love, for many of us, is a difficult emotion, one that can be tainted by previous experiences. We might have been hurt before, we might not have experienced love as a positive, careless, easy emotion. So many of us rather build up a protective wall around our hearts in order not to get hurt again, it’s easier this way. Loving an animal helps us to build a bridge, if not to loving other humans initially, then at least to opening our hearts for our pet and in turn letting it love us back. The only way a beloved pet will ever hurt us is by dying, and that is the price of love we will have to pay. In between all the sadness, the tears and the grief though, I also have a huge sense of gratitude… we were so lucky to have our Harry and as much as we miss him, he is here with us every day…