Love, loss and pandemic puppies

My daughter picked Bella up at her father’s house shortly after the divorce. My ex even called the cute yellow Labrador “the divorce dog”. Visiting Dad also meant spending time with Bella, which was great when my daughter was 8 years old, but the teenage years brought work, band rehearsals, and a social life. Visits to Papa became more and more sporadic. Then my ex asked if we would do dog sitting. Bella was an older dog at the time and we were all delighted. We asked if we could just keep them. He said yes.

Bella and I bonded in ways I didn’t expect. I worked from home and she was my constant companion. My daughter grew up and moved to her own apartment, but Bella stayed with me.

COVID-19 brought with it a puppy boom as people sought comfort and company during quarantine and isolation – but Bella was there for me. We went for walks in the woods and played with my son in the yard. Our circle got smaller as the pandemic started to rage. Schools closed, my husband was on leave, and then when everything closed we had to say goodbye to Bella. This accumulation of hardships is known as collective – or cumulative – grief, and I wasn’t sure I could endure it.

I woke up one April day to find that Bella couldn’t even lift her head off her bed. Something was seriously wrong. I wondered if I should take her to an emergency vet, but knew that due to COVID, I had to watch her disappear into the building and not return. I knew this was her end. I made her comfortable and video call my daughter so she could say goodbye.

Every time we welcome a pet into our life, we also welcome the inevitable heartbreak. We know how it ends, and yet we open our homes and hearts to four-footed companions.

Bella died in her bed at home while I was singing her lullabies.

Foresighted grief is the price we pay for unconditional love. Pets have seen us at our worst and most embarrassing side. They testify to everything in our life without judgment. “This is an unprecedented emotional intimacy,” says Rachael Nolan Ph.D., MPH, CPH, public health educator and specialist in grief management. Sure, pets can be moody at times (I’m looking at you, George the cat), but for the most part their behavior is pretty predictable, which also gives us a source of stability. Stability is “one of the most important things in human life, especially when it comes to emotions,” says Nolan.

Isolation and quarantine during the pandemic deepened bonds and strengthened bonds with our pets. Then you have to say goodbye … it’s just devastating.

I started applying to adopt older dogs. I would fall in love with an online profile just to get annoyed if the dog found a home with someone else. The number of pet adoptions skyrocketed last summer, making the high demand and long wait heartbreaking. On a particularly hot day, I sobbed over another dog that I had never seen before. I really missed my Bella. Adopting another dog would not fill that void. I withdrew my application to the local stray adoption program and took my time.

Then one day in September my friend texted me about a litter of puppies in need of a home. “I could pick up two and bring you one,” she wrote.

I said yes. She wasn’t an old Labrador like Bella – she was a mutt pup who licked my face and chased my son while he squealed with delight. We called her Hamilton. I know I’ll have to say goodbye in a couple of years, but I’m grateful that she is here now, and I’m here for all the tummy rubs she can take.

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