Grief, Loss and Healing
We cannot go through life without loss; it’s inevitable, and can be excruciatingly painful. This topic brings to mind the 1990 Garth Brooks song, “The Dance,” written by Tony Arata. One line in particular--“I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance”--captures my sentiments and brings me to this question: Would you rather have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all? I don’t just mean romantic love, but the love of family, friends, and our wonderful pets. I know people that, following the loss of a beloved pet, vow to never get another, as the pain of the loss was so profound. I can understand, and at the same time, I believe there is always room for more love, and the joy a pet brings far outweighs the pain of the loss and our precious memories last forever. Here is the story about such a love . . .
Love, The Greatest Gift
“Rescue Mom” reads a refrigerator magnet given to me by a dear friend. I adopt pets in need of a safe and loving home. But who am I kidding? I am the one continually being rescued.
Angels right here on earth, that is what animals are, teaching humans valuable lessons and guiding us to be better. The animal kingdom exhibits incredible patience, and their capacity for forgiveness is unbelievable. This story is about one such angel, a soft-spoken and gentle teacher named Bella.
I met Bella one month following the death of my beloved Gypsy, which completely shattered my heart. Gypsy was my shadow and loyal companion; we were like peanut butter and jelly. Whiskey Joe, Gypsy’s best friend and doggie companion, was also broken-hearted. He adored her, and it’s understandable, as she rescued and invited him into our lives. He was a homeless, skinny, feral dog that we met while living on a ranch. They instantly became friends, but it was five weeks before he allowed me near him. Gypsy shared her food and heart, and he was forever grateful. When Gypsy passed, he searched endlessly for her, confused by the permanent absence sentenced to us by her death. We were inconsolable.
My compassionate veterinarian suggested that I provide a loving home to another dog in need and recommended the National Mill Dog Rescue, an organization that rescues dogs from puppy mills throughout the United States. The homebase for this organization was in our city. Puppy mills are horrific and exploitative businesses rife with cruelty, abuse and neglect. If you would like more information or want to help stop this horrendous practice, click this link, or check out www.nmdr.org. Successful activism is making a difference by educating the public and creating prohibitive laws aimed at protecting our precious animals.
Perusing their website, I found many beautiful dogs in need of a home, but one in particular caught my eye. Maybe it was because she looked as sad as I felt. She was as pretty as a movie star, resembling a miniature Lassie. She was a Sheltie, exploited for her capacity to create beautiful puppies. The description detailed her health issues, senior dog status, and restrictions for homes without children. Obviously, finding a forever home for this sweet dog would be a challenge. A few days later, a “doggie social worker” from the rescue organization arrived at my home for an interview and home visit. She tried to talk me out of Bella, concerned that I would be unhappy with her, explaining that Bella was severely emotionally damaged and might never fully recover. In fact, she could not be housed at the sanctuary with the other dogs and was in her fourth foster home due to behavioral challenges stemming from her terror of humans. Curious and somewhat stubborn, I was compelled to meet her, so Whiskey Joe and I traveled to her foster home.
Bella was sleeping when I arrived. I was informed that she spent most of her time asleep. I imagine it was self-preservation, as she had been locked up in a tiny cage 24/7 for most of her life. She would not allow anyone near her and was so frightened it broke my heart. The other dogs in the foster home were protective of her, growling when I tried to approach. . The doggie foster-mom was worried about Bella’s future because of the difficulty in finding her a forever home. I was nervous for Whiskey Joe to meet Bella: he was unpredictable around other dogs due to his feral nature. We put them together in the yard and it was instant magic! It was obvious that we were the ones for her.
Due to years of neglect, she had numerous medical issues. The rescue organization had her treated for heartworm and numerous infections, resulting in the loss of 23 teeth. During the four years of our life together she had ongoing health issues, but her journey to emotional recovery was a much slower and painstaking process.
While I provided Bella with a home and security, Whiskey Joe rescued her heart and soul. Where there was once gray clouds of terror and despair, there now shone bright rays of joy and hope. These two had a special friendship; they were like root beer and vanilla ice cream on a hot summer’s day!. He taught her how to be a dog, that sniffing random things on walks is ecstasy and that unhindered running and exploring is absolute bliss. Her once-timid and fearful walk transformed into a bouncy prance with a wagging tail. This emotionally wounded soul with minimal hope for recovery blossomed into a playful and happy dog. Every time Bella instigated a game of chase and did the adorable play-bow posture, my heart exploded with sheer joy and I could not hold back giggles of delight.
My love for Bella was without expectation. She had paid her dues to humans and all I wanted was for her to have a warm bed, food in her belly, and a gentle hand. Over the years, I do believe she came to love me. She didn’t follow me like a shadow, that she reserved for Whiskey Joe. She subtly and softly expressed her love like a whisper, in the adoring gaze of her watchful eyes, invitations for physical affection, and the welcome-home greetings that became a regular part of our days.
Whiskey Joe’s last day of life began with a sweet exchange between them. She seemed to whisper into his ear, “It’s okay sweet friend, jump across the rainbow bridge and play with Gypsy. I will soon join you.” After this loss, Bella chose to open her heart again and adored our newest addition, Charlie Baxter. He had been abandoned to fend for himself on the city streets. He arrived scared and hungry, but soon transformed into a playful and happy dog, sharing a special bond with Bella.
Bella took her leap across the Rainbow Bridge six months later. In the pieces of my broken heart, I found the reflection of many lessons. Did she know that her struggles and triumphs would be my greatest teachers? You see, a heart, broken OPEN, creates room for healing and so much more. There was pain, but also something deep and meaningful in the experience. Eight years of her life was spent in horrific conditions, and then she had four with me, not nearly enough, yet I treasure each and every day and am beyond grateful that she graced my life with her gentle presence.
What did I learn from Bella? Love’s incredible power to heal all wounds and the significance of forgiveness and second chances. That love transcends EVERYTHING including cruelty, betrayal, trauma, and tremendous grief. The importance of loving again after the pain of loss and the wisdom of knowing when to let go. That the purest love is without expectation or agenda. That even the most damaged of us can experience healing. We are all worthy of love, forgiveness, and second chances. Love truly is the greatest gift of all. How did one soft-spoken and gentle creature teach so many lessons? Maybe we need a soft whisper to hear what shouts are unable to convey.