I got the text message at 8:58 on Tuesday morning.
It was from the woman who cuts my hair, because, you know, when you sit in someone’s chair for an hour each month you talk, and we both talk a lot. One of the things she talks about is her two little dogs, and on Tuesday she texted to let me know that she’d had to put one of her little dogs “down.” She wrote:
“The last few weeks she had been in a lot of pain, not eating and very anxious. It was so difficult to say goodbye to her. I love her so very much…”
I can’t tell you how many times in my work as a pastor someone has told me about losing a pet. They make it clear that their pet was not an animal, but a member of the family. They are grieving, and their grief is as real as any grief there is. Tuesday’s text reminded me of the first time I experienced that kind of grief personally. I talked about it in my Thanksgiving sermon in 2012:
“[My parents must have felt a little guilty about taking me away from the only home I had ever known when we moved to West Virginia, so] on my seventh birthday they took me to a kennel and bought me a puppy. I wanted a Cocker Spaniel; I had seen one in a book. But the closest thing we could find was a Brittany Spaniel. Instead of golden curls it had brown and white curls, but it was still beautiful. ‘I want that one,’ I said, pointing, and my parents (who must have been feeling more than a little guilty) paid a small fortune so we could take that puppy home.
“I thought a Brittany Spaniel deserved a sophisticated name, so I named her “Constance,” but ended up calling her “Connie.” That first night we brought her home I wanted her to sleep with me, but since she wasn’t housebroken yet my mom thought it would be a good idea if we kept her shut up for the night in our big pantry. She put down newspapers all over the floor, and then I came down the stairs dragging my sleeping bag and put it down on top of the newspapers. I slept right there that night, in the pantry with my puppy, and when I woke up the next morning there were little puppy piles all around me and wet spots on the paper but that’s not what woke me: it was Connie, licking my face with her little pink tongue.
“I was the happiest seven-year-old in the world.”
She learned to follow me wherever I went around the house, out into the back yard, down the street. In fact, I couldn’t get her to stop following me. When she got a little older and a little bigger she would chase the family station wagon down the road as long as she could keep up, with me yelling at her out the window, telling her to go home. She did that for months, and even when I shut her up inside the back yard fence she seemed to find a way out. One day she chased us all the way down to the highway, swung wide when we turned right, and got hit by a car coming the other way.
She never felt a thing.
Dad scooped up her broken body, loaded it into the back of the station wagon where I was sitting, and as we turned around and headed back toward home to lay that dog to rest I ran my fingers through her soft fur and wiped my tears and my nose on my sleeve.
I was the saddest seven-year-old in the world.
You know how we sometimes say about a relationship that it’s “only puppy love,” because the children who are feeling it are not old enough to experience “real” love? My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t call it puppy love. It’s the most love they’ve ever known.” So, don’t call it “puppy grief” when someone loses a pet. It may not be the most grief they have ever known, but it is as real as it gets.
I’m saying prayers today for my friend who lost her dog, and for you if you have ever known that particular loss.
It’s as real as it gets.