Grief Is Grief


By Joey Kennedy

This has been a year of grief for my wife, Veronica, and me. Since the first of the year, we have lost three of our dear dogs.

Elton, a jug (Jack Russell-Pug mix) left us in January. Onslow, a one-eyed Pug who was likely 13 years old, died 10 days later—on our 37th wedding anniversary.

And just last month, Casey, our Pug puppy, died in his sleep; most likely, he aspirated congestion, the veterinarian told us.

Like Casey’s namesake, Ron Casey, former editorial page editor at The Birmingham News, both died too soon. Ron was only 48 years old when he left the world in 2000; Pug Casey was only a bit older than 10 months.

Some people view the deep grief over losing a pet as “disenfranchised grief,” says Larry Michael, pastor for adult ministries at South Highland Presbyterian Church. Yes, there are those who say: “It’s just a dog. What’s all this crying about?”

It’s just a dog? No, our dogs are our family. They know us, and they love us. They depend on us for their care, sure, but we depend on them for our sanity.

“They don’t hold grudges,” says Michael, who has been a human and animal grief counselor for years.

People hold grudges, though, even sometimes, our close relatives.

It’s not unusual for Emily Tucker, a professional counselor in Birmingham (my counselor, in fact), to help people work through their grief, whether it be for a beloved human for a beloved animal.

Tucker has known deep grief for a pet, and she’s not embarrassed to admit it. “Animals feel. They love. They have emotions,” she says. People who don’t understand that “are missing the big picture,” Tucker says.

Dogs do love, and that has been scientifically proven. In his well-acclaimed book, How Dogs Love Us, Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns used FMRIs on his adopted dog to study how the canine would react to different stimuli. When the dog smelled his owner’s sweat, the “love” area of the dog’s brain lit up. That is a much oversimplified explanation, but it’s good enough for me.

Besides, I looked into Casey’s eyes. I could see the joy of the little pug as he scuttled toward us when Veronica or I entered a room. I felt it as he bathed me with kisses or settled down on my lap to take a nap.

I see love in my pug Peerey’s eyes, and the picture that accompanies this column each month, me with three of our pugs, shows Peerey looking up at me (yes, I believe with love) as the photograph is being taken.

Do we always know what our dogs (and other pets) are thinking? No, not always. But if you’re a loving pet owner, you know they ARE thinking. And science is now looking into these questions.

Berns’ remarkable work doesn’t stand alone. Auburn University is now doing FMRI’s on dogs. There is a Canine Cognition Center at Duke University that, according to Duke, “is dedicated to the study of dog psychology. Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition…to gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.”

In an interview I was doing once on pet grief, my source said, astutely: “Dogs live in our world; we don’t live in theirs.”

Maybe we should try harder.

The first time I realized pet grief was when our first animal, a cat named Odie Deaux-Deaux was ill with cancer and finally, we had to have her euthanized. The veterinarian came to our house for the event. Afterward, as I was digging a grave for Odie in our backyard, I could hardly see as I thrusted the shovel into the grass because I was crying so much. I still grieve for Odie.

And Turbo, our Yorkie; and Greta, our first pug; and Sadee, a fawn pug who walked out of our yard on Christmas night 2014, never to come home; and Maxine, a black cat who was more than 19 years old; and Pearl, our black pug who got around in a wheelchair; and Onslow, and Elton, and, now, Casey.

One of my friends, who knows grief, sent me a short excerpt from the book Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier: “There is a cycle of love and death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals….To those who have never lived through its turnings and walked its rocky path, our willingness to give our hearts with full knowledge that they will be broken seems incomprehensible. Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given.”

Michael, along with Randy Hays, leads Birmingham’s only established animal grief support group, Dixie’s Group. It was founded by the two men after Hays’ 15-year-old Labrador Retriever died in 2013. Hays, in his profound grief, searched far and wide for a support group that would allow him to attend. Alas, he found only support groups that allowed human grief sufferers admittance.

Dixie’s Group meets the last Tuesday of each month, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., at the Homewood Public Library. “People come in, and they’re torn up,” says Michael. “They’re traumatized. They’re feeling guilty because they didn’t have the money for a surgery, or they did this or didn’t do that.

“That’s why a group like Dixie’s Group is a place for people to come,” Michael says. “They can come to an environment where other people understand, where other people empathize.”

Do our beloved pets go to Heaven? Michael, a minister, gets this question often.

“I don’t know for sure, but I know that God has a place for all his creation.” Michael believes Heaven, “whatever it is, it will be perfect, and if that’s what it means, that’s what it will be.”

I simply can’t fathom a heaven without Casey and all those other wonderful pets who, because God decided it this way, we must outlive.

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