It’s been the best and worst year of my life, starting when I got married to the most wonderful person I know. Then my husband and I packed up our respective dogs and moved from Wisconsin to Maryland; I returned to school after a 14-year hiatus, which led to the realization that many of my classmates were young enough to be my children.
Having no children of my own, nor friends or siblings with children, I seemed to have forgotten I was aging. There was no physical reminder growing up before my eyes. I have dogs, not children. Puppies become adult dogs, but they never tell you that you “aren’t cool anymore,” or have friends with parents who look ancient until you find out you share the same birth year.
While riding all of these challenging but mostly happy waves off the coast of my midlife crisis, I got a cancer diagnosis, and had to quit the now beloved program with the now beloved kids at school, and then, while recovering from cancer treatment, my dog was diagnosed with cancer, too. He died.
Loki was as much like a son to me as a dog could be. He was smart, inquisitive, and expressive; legendary for his comedic behavior with our Wisconsin friends. A Great Dane/Labrador mutt, he was human-sized and happy; he taught me a lot about love and how to get it by putting it out there. The loss of his presence is almost a presence itself, a phantom hole everywhere our tiny family goes.
It feels like a betrayal to consider the next dog, though I know there will be a next dog; I would have 50 dogs if there were enough hours in the day — if I had enough energy to give to that many relationships.
Eager, but ashamed, I was hoping to find some kind of timeline for adoption amongst my virtual and actual friends — a permission of sorts which would remove some burden of decision-making. It’s so much easier when someone else tells me what I ought to be thinking — my reaction of agreement or disgust is at least a place to start.
It crossed my mind, a few weeks after Loki died, that I could march down to the SPCA and stroll back home with a new love. My former psychologist wasn’t going to find out and frantically call me to suggest a meeting, and Loki was not going to appear, as if I am Macbeth, and go all Banquo’s ghost on me.
I was not ready yet. But I went to the SPCA anyway, just to see what would happen, and felt worse, now bearing the burden of all the dogs I couldn’t bring myself to take on.
I was surprised to learn that many people get a new dog immediately after the death of their old dog, sometimes on the same day their pet dies. Others are quickly given a new puppy by friends or family members who cannot stand by and idly wait for their beloved to get through their grief and return to normal. I understand the sentiment on the surface, the desire for a rapid recovery, the return of love, a warm, wiggly source of reassurance that life doesn’t suck.
But as anyone who has dated someone who is recently single will tell you, the rebound is awful for the one being rebounded upon. The same must be true for pets, and worse, the new dog cannot possibly know how dear departed Spot used to manage his affairs, nor mount much defense of himself as he falls short of unnamed, monumental expectations. At least we humans choose to put ourselves into the perilous rebound; and better yet, we can leave when we’ve had enough of being seen through the haunted fun-house mirror of loss.
As Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed. states in her article, How Soon Should You Get a New Pet?:
The time to obtain a new pet is when you have worked through your grief sufficiently to be confident that you can look forward to new relationships, rather than backward at your loss.
As much as part of me wanted to rise above it, my eyes were still trained on my rear-view mirror, or, as my Freudian typing skills insist, my tear-view mirror.
We need to grieve, and, according to Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D, the Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, our culture, and, I would add, ourselves, would rather we skip it.
Mourning in our culture isn’t always easy. Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful… I have learned that if we are to heal we cannot skirt the outside edges of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it… Part of your self-identity comes from the relationships you have with other people. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, your self-identity, or the way you see yourself, naturally changes.
Awareness of this change in my self-identity has settled in, and for me, the sorrow is not only about grieving the loss of my dog, but all of the losses of the past year: moving away from all that was familiar, my perception of my youth, my belief that I can beat any obstacle by just trying hard enough. Some battles cannot be won.
My dog, my big furry friend, was in many respects an avatar, an embodiment of everything I loved best about myself from a time when I was the happiest I had ever been. Moving onward in my life, even for its intended and still expected happy outcome, also means the loss of all that once was, including, it seems, my Loki.
And yet. A new dog! A new life to invest in, a new dialog to open, oh yes, a new vicarious living partner. Loki was abandoned and starved before I got him, frightened to death, cringing at every quick move or raised voice. We worked on his self-confidence, and he bloomed before my eyes, a transformation arc I traced right along with him, through divorce and new friends, new marriage, returning to school, through it all, having a happy life. What will New Dog’s story be, I wonder as I pore over the photos on Petfinder.com, what kind of adventure am I choosing? What kind of crazy fun are we going to find together?
When I am ready to meet New Dog, and I begrudgingly admit I will know when I’m ready, I will find him. He will come with his own particular bag of problems, because all pets do. Loki taught me his lessons by example and by needing my guidance. New Dog will provide a fresh emotional blueprint for me to understand and grow with. He will lead to me learning more about myself, the same person Loki loved, the same person who will be a New Person, too, shaped along with the New Dog, with everything we will live and learn together.