Unlike many families we know, our family, thankfully, has experienced very little death or illness. Our kids have been to less than five funerals in their whole lives, and as their parents, we aren’t too far off of that number either. We’ve lived relatively grief-free for decades.
Recently, however, we had to euthanize one of our beloved dogs upon the advice of our veterinarian. For many people, dogs truly are a member of the family. It takes all of 10 seconds for a puppy to be forever a part of your heart. If you know, you know. Grieving our dog is hard, and sometimes still painful, but it’s teaching me a lot about the power of family love.
Remembering Our Beloved Dog, Penny
Before I go further, you should know a few things about our dog, Penny. She was a rescue, and we were told she was found at the side of the road as a very small puppy; she was too young to be away from her mama, but she was. She is what we liked to call our “dumb blonde” (with the exception of my husband, we’re all blonde at our home, so this was truly saying a lot).
She had debilitating anxiety as well as severe hip dysplasia and arthritis; the hip dysplasia gave her a really sweet booty shake that could make Shakira jealous. She hoarded toys just because she could. She enjoyed a good nap and a good belly rub. Her favorite toy was a tennis ball. She lived for barking at the neighbor dogs through the fence and loved lunging at the chickens and chasing squirrels.
She was an excellent watchdog, especially if the UPS guy showed up—no packages were ever delivered without her letting us know. She reminded us of Snoopy with her stretches. She loved going for walks, even if she could only manage a short distance. She adored her dog sister, Stella, and often wanted to participate in whatever shenanigans Stella was. She was always excited to see us and would manipulate us with her silly and slightly contorted body language when she was naughty. If dogs can smile, and I think they can, she had the biggest, goofiest dog smile ever.
She was the goodest girl, an amazing secret-keeper, a phenomenal listener, and the bestest friend. She loved her people fiercely and, man, they loved her.
I Might Have Aced Parenting After All
Here’s the thing, in my 20-plus years of being a parent, I have never once completely trusted my parenting techniques. I think my husband and I are mostly winging it, flying by the seat of our pants, crossing our fingers, making lots of quick prayers, and generally just flitting about hoping something sticks and we don’t mess our kids up for life. But after watching our adult children grieving our dog, I have come to the conclusion where I can honestly say that I think we nailed this parenting thing.
Our daughter, 22, lives halfway across the country. Our decision came about a week before she had a planned visit for a wedding. She was able to say her necessary goodbyes in person.
Our son, 20, lives across town. He stopped at our house every day for over a week just to spend a few minutes with Penny (and eat all my food).
Our younger son, 18, approaching his first year of college, basically hid in his room, denying reality but sneaking moments of cuddles and snuggles, intimate sweet moments between he and Penny when he thought no one was looking.
However, this kid—all three kids—love deeply. They love their pets deeply, and they love each other deeply.
The day before Penny’s appointment, we had all three kids at our house for an afternoon of just hanging out, spending time with Penny and each other. There were lots of laughs, picture taking, and tears (giving them space and freedom to cry, to weep, when they feel something this deeply, it is healthy and necessary). When one kid started crying, another one would join in. I like to think it’s because they didn’t want someone to feel left out, but I know it’s because they all were feeling this to their core. They love. They love hard. They love their dogs and especially each other.
As I write this, we’re only a few weeks after Penny’s passing, and things remain weird, a little awkward. The space in our entryway where her crate was is now empty, as if it was supposed to be there permanently. There’s a void, a crevasse, not only in the physical space Penny inhabited, but in our hearts. Tears find their way to the surface, but no longer spill over.
The simple tasks of our daily rhythms and routines are different, interrupted. We receive an Amazon package, and there is no barking alert. There remains dog hair everywhere; we’re pretty sure no vacuum in the world can combat that. Our 9-year-old boxer, Stella, is also clearly grieving…often clingy and odd and definitely lacking enthusiasm for going outside to play. It’s difficult for her, and we’re trying to help her grieve, too. It’s hard, grief.
What the Unconditional Love of a Pet Taught Me and My Children
There is a silver lining to all of this. As we’ve tackled parenting and life over the past 20-plus years, we’ve learned there isn’t much we do as parents that we can take credit for—kids are gonna be who they’re gonna be, good or bad. But I do believe wholeheartedly that giving our children the opportunity to experience the unconditional love of a pet has allowed each of them a chance to be empathetic, caring, loving, and sensitive humans.
Watching your grown children cry is a whole different level of parenting no one tells you about or prepares you for. Your heart breaks with theirs, and you know they will never be quite the same, all because of the love for a dog.
Know this: The time will come when you have to make a decision that breaks your heart, that you know will break your kids’ hearts. Watch your kids. Watch their reaction; it will shift from anger to hurt to denial to fear to sadness, but the love will remain. I promise, the love will linger forever. You’ll simultaneously experience a family loss and gain during a moment no one wants to go through.
RIP Penny. We hope there are lots of squirrels and chickens for you to chase in heaven!
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” -Winnie the Pooh
Whether handling family grief or struggling with any other trial in motherhood, this video will give all mommas some much-needed encouragement…