Each month I receive dozens of emails and messages from followers who are worried about their senior babies. Some of those questions are way above my pay grade, and I simply refer them to their vet. Others are common questions that I have answered many times over the years. My experience with so many senior and special needs babies over the years often comes in handy. I can talk at great length about getting an ill dog to eat, or teaching a blind dog how to deal with their world. But one question that I struggle to answer concerns the grief process we all go thru when one of our babies takes their final trip over the bridge.
Since we first opened the sanctuary in the summer of 2001 we have lost several hundred babies to a multitude of maladies. Most conditions that affect our silver faced loved ones are familiar to me. I always try to make people understand that there is no substitute for an excellent vet, and we have certainly been blessed in that area. But I am willing and honored to share my experiences with anyone that is searching for answers.
One question that I am most commonly asked is, “How do I get over the loss of one of my precious babies?” The answer to that is most often the same. I tell everyone that for us, with as many little ones that depend on us each day, we don’t have time for an extended period of grief. Our babies need us to be on top of our game each and every day. Sometimes, however, that is harder than others.
The heartfelt answer to that question is personal. By personal I mean that each of us deals with grief in a variety of ways. Growing up my mother always believed that the best way to deal with that grief is to get another baby right away. She would say, “Have a place for your love to flow.” I lived most of my life with that as my standard. Rick, on the other hand, needed more time in our early years together to process his feelings before he could even consider getting another dog. Our situation now is very unique in that babies come to us on a regular basis and we can’t wait till our hearts have healed to bring another family member into our home.
We often fall in love with our new babies from a picture taken in a shelter or in a previous home. We love them before we ever hold them. What a blessing it is that each of our furry friends brings enough love with them to fill our hearts. There is never a break in the cycle of love when you care for as many babies as we do. Much of the time our grief is quickly quenched by the love of another dog that needs us. This is not the answer, however, for everyone who deals with the same loss.
I would never say that I love any of our babies more than another. But I am honest enough to say that some babies, for many reasons, fill a larger spot in our hearts. Part of that reality is that the baby that needs us the most is the one that gets the most. So when a younger healthy dog comes into our lives it is not difficult for us to let them go on to their forever home. We fulfill the mission to alter their lives rather quickly. But when a special baby like Trooper comes into our lives, we spend days, months and sometimes years watching every meal, every action, every sign of change, and every dose of medication.
At this point I can’t imagine another “Trooper” coming into our lives. Trooper needed us more than any other baby we have ever rescued. And immediately our entire world of friends and followers fell in love with him just like we did. The grief from that loss does not go away. It changes from day to day, but it never fully leaves our hearts. Some days it weighs us down, other days it holds us up. The morning our sweet little man took his last breath will never leave me. But neither will the first time I saw him bark at the top of his lungs for his dinner. His front feet bounced off the ground, and he got louder and louder with each burst of his gruff, old-man voice. The first time he stood between my feet with his nose resting on my shoes while I washed dishes produced a feeling in my heart that is still there. I feel the comfort he felt at knowing I was so close. I feel the satisfaction of doing everything in my power to meet his needs. I feel his gratitude for being safe and cared for. I still feel all of those things. So Trooper is not gone. He no longer needs insulin shots, or a special diet, or a watchful eye over his every move. What he does need is for me to continue to be the same person that held him that first day when he was so weak, the same person that held him and relished the soft whisper of his breath when he was at the top of his game healthwise, and the same person that held him that last day when the feeling of my arms holding him close was ALL he needed.
For anyone who loves and loses a special friend and family member I have a very important message that comes from my heart. Be the person after they are gone that you were when they were with you. You all know that is what they would want. They desperately needed for you to be happy and healthy while they were with you. The tables turn when they leave us though. Then it is about what we need. And that is certainly different for us all. I believe that we require a period of grief, whether that is long or short is not the point. But I strongly believe that we do our babys’ memories an injustice if we don’t eventually move forward with our lives. We don’t replace our lost friends, but we give ourselves a place for the love to flow. That, in my opinion, is Good Grief.