Fortunately, my family and I have had the opportunity to care for and love a beautiful dog for the last ten years. Her name is Bear, and she is a Chow, German-Shepherd mix. My husband and I adopted her from a dog rescue organization. She was abused and neglected and had already been through so much in her short life of four months when we decided to take her in. Initially, we were going to “foster” her because we had already adopted a dog just six months earlier and didn’t know if we could handle another one so soon after. Of course, once Bear entered our life, I became emotionally attached and the idea of “fostering” her was a thing of the past.
Recently, we learned that Bear has a neurological disorder which has caused her difficulty in walking. Initially, I had assumed it was due to arthritis and/or aging, but her symptoms seemed to get worse in a relatively short amount of time. My husband and I were hesitant to take her to the vet at first, fearing that the news would be bad and the ailment untreatable. While the vet was talking to us about the possible diagnoses, I could feel my heart sink. I knew I could hold it together at least until we got home. It wasn’t until later that night that I started thinking about what the news meant that I broke down in tears.
Bear’s vet said that the average prognosis is about six months to maybe a year from the onset of symptoms. There were a number of strategies and some medications that would help her quality of life between now and when she would die. One of the hardest parts of Bear’s diagnosis is that cognitively, she will still be aware, but not be able to physically do what she wants to do. Slowly, she will lose more mobility and feeling in her legs, and it is supposed to move up to her front legs until she is unable to move at all without assistance. It is during this process of decline that we must make the difficult decision to euthanize her. We will be faced with the question of, “When is the right time?” Honestly, I do not want to make this decision, but will be forced to do so.
Our dogs are a part of our family, as I know is the case for many families. They are therapeutic. Regardless of what has happened or how long we have been gone, they greet us with wagging tails and are hungry for attention. Bear always seemed to know when I was upset or that something wasn’t quite right because she would find me and sit on my lap or lie down next to me. When I was pregnant with our son, she somehow knew not to sit on top of my lap anymore and would sit next to me or on my feet instead.
As with life, we cannot predict the future and how exactly we will react. I take it one day at a time when it comes to Bear and try to prepare myself for the inevitable. I am not quite sure if I am coping effectively or not. Regardless, I am afraid because I do not think I will be fully prepared. I do fear how I will acclimate to life without her. How will we explain this loss to our three-year-old son? Tears well up as I write this, and so I know it will be a bumpy road to find peace. It is a strange place to be in, knowing what will likely happen, figuring out how to cope.
I share this personal story to highlight how complex our support systems can be and how we can find connections in unconventional ways. Before Bear, I did not know if I could become attached to a pet. This also illustrates how vulnerable we can become and the benefits we can gain from letting our guard down. However, at the same time, it reminds me of how difficult it can be to let something so wonderful and beautiful go. Since I never expected to feel such deep emotions as a pet owner, this experience reminds me that I cannot judge the significance of another person’s loss. Therefore, when I am working with clients, supervisees, and/or students, I need to keep this in mind. A loss is a loss no matter whom or what it is.
Grace Hipona is a counselor in the state of Virginia. She currently serves as a Mental Health Therapist for a clinic, a counselor for a private practice and is a doctoral candidate. She operates from a strength-based perspective.