My wife has always found it strange that I did not cry at either of my parents’ funerals. Their passing was certainly very unfortunate and sad, and at the time I believed I felt the loss. I just wasn’t moved to tears. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I brought this absence of deep feelings of grief to my therapy sessions to explore.

Several million dogs, cats, and other pets are abandoned yearly. Many never even make it to shelters, and of the ones that do, perhaps only half ever are adopted. The exact statistics are depressing and grim and I cannot dwell on them. In part because of the obvious sadness associated with the cruel treatment of innocent animals. That sadness transforms into anger approaching rage directed at the ‘humans’ who are too careless, lazy, stupid, and irresponsible to spay or neuter a pet. They then dump a litter of puppies off at the shelter, or worse. I feel that these people should be spending time locked in a cage in a shelter themselves.

It was my first day back at work in over a year. I had taken a self-imposed break from my career and now I was starting a new six-month contract job. I had barely settled into my desk when I called my wife. We had been home together for the entirety of my time off, and only about two hours into this new job, I already knew I did not like being away. I was surprised when I heard she had signed up to be a foster for a group that rescues dogs from shelters and helps them find permanent homes. We had talked about fostering dogs, it had been a few years since our last dog passed, but it had only been talk. I was already looking forward to getting our first foster pup.

I never raised a puppy. We had two dogs in our adult life. The first one was Therman. And although he was only four months old when we adopted him, he was an intelligent easily trained dog from the day we brought him home. Our second dog was a stray we found who was at least five years old. I was not sure what to expect when we got our first foster pup, Lulu. 

A quick sketch of one of the pups…

loss, grief
Alfalfa, one of our recent foster pups.

She was a mix of something or other, I don’t remember. Lulu only weighed about 8 pounds, but she had a lot of personality and little brown ears that stood up on either side of her head. She was adorable, they all are. At about 8 weeks old she was tiny, still a little unsure of herself on her feet. She liked to curl up on my lap and chew on my fingers. She needed constant attention, in part because she was playful but also because we were house-training her. The experience reminded me of having small children, and toddlers, and the constant vigilance they require.

She quickly became part of the family. However, we did not have her long before we got a text saying there was an application to adopt her. We arranged for the potential adopter to come to our house to meet Lulu. They took to each other immediately, and it was time to gather up Lulu’s things, her toys, and food. I carry her out to the driveway and put her in the crate in the back of her new owner’s SUV. She is staring at me. And that’s when I felt it. Immediate profound sadness, loss, and a stabbing physical feeling in my stomach. It came out of nowhere. The depth of sadness hit me with great force, leaving me shocked. I went back inside after Lulu and her new owner drove off. I felt nauseous. I had never experienced loss like that before. I did not understand it.

I have worked with my therapist to help me better process grief. I have spent most of my life joking that I should repress feelings, keeping them down with a heavy weight. I was brought up in this container. We didn’t show feelings of sadness, grief, and vulnerability. In therapy, we talked about previous times in my life when I experienced loss and never allowed myself to feel the grief. We explored those situations, and revisited them, to allow me to go back and feel for the first time the grief in my past, such as the loss of my parents. The exercise in this case included writing a letter to each of my deceased parents, then reading it back, and allowing myself to feel whatever came up. What came up was tremendous sadness, followed in time, by lightness. This preparation and work, this new understanding of grief, and allowing myself to feel it, this is what changed me. I could now feel sadness in the moment it occurred and process it.

Since then we have had several foster puppies that have entered and passed through our lives on their way to their forever homes. Although I am happy to see once abandoned and neglected dogs find new owners, I am still sad to see each one of them go. I am better prepared for it now, I know the grief is coming. Any day that we have an appointment for one to meet its prospective new owner still feels long and dark.

What is different about me now is that I feel things.I experience the depth of loss the moment it happens, and then it slowly improves. I am processing the grief, rather than avoiding it. I don’t remember what I was thinking in those painful moments earlier in my life, but I was not fully present and experiencing their sadness. It has taken considerable time and work with my therapist to arrive here. Even though it is still painful and difficult, I think it is good for me and the little puppies too.