Snuffy, Blackie, Bridie, Kirby

I don’t remember how my first dog, Snuffy, died but I’ll never forget how Blackie and Bridie died. Blackie attacked the rear tire of a moving car and it rolled over him. Many years later Bridie got sick and my parents had to “put her down” while I was away at school. I witnessed Blackie’s very painful death which didn’t happen immediately after the accident. The car and driver sped off totally unaware of what had happened. I saw Blackie attack the tire, heard him yelp, and ran to him as quickly as I could. I didn’t know what to do but I knew that my father would know, so I ran to find him.
I was seven and we were living in Bayport, Long Island. We had recently moved to a house after living in an apartment and I was thrilled to live in my new home. For one thing, it was new. It smelled new, it looked new and it was as bright and shiny as I was. I had a fort in the backyard and a tree house both of which my Dad had helped build. For Christmas the year Blackie died I had gotten a Roy Rogers western outfit set complete with a cowboy hat, a tooled leather belt with holster and a pearl handled six-shooter. Added to this I had a red Hook and Ladder pedal car. Dad had even made a push-pole that he would use to “power” my car and make it go like stink. I may have not been the coolest kid on the block but I thought I was. But what good are all these things without a
friend to share them with. That friend was my dog Blackie.
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Blackie helped me defend my fort from Indian attacks. He followed me every time I raced to put out three alarm fires. He helped me track down stray cattle lost in the arroyos. Wherever I went, Blackie was my sidekick. We had a big field behind our house that belonged to my grammar school and we used to play there every day. I would throw a stick and Blackie would bring it back. I would throw it again and he would bring it back again. I could throw it underhand, overhand, behind my back, anyway I could throw it he would bring it back. Neither of us tired of our roles: I would throw, he would fetch. It was a law of nature to a boy of seven. Life was so good for this lad and his dog, that is, until the day the car drove by and quickly sped off.
I found my Dad in the house and he wrapped Blackie in a blanket and we brought him closer to the house. Whimpering in pain, he died in our arms before we could get him to the veterinarian. When Blackie died I didn’t know how to deal with it. Being raised as a Catholic I knew that when you die, God welcomes you to heaven. I assumed that Blackie would be there waiting for me when I died. I asked my Mom about this and she said, “Only people go to heaven”. In response to my cries about where would Blackie go she said, “He’ll go to pet heaven”. Was this true or was she just trying to make me stop crying? Worse than losing Blackie was the shock that God didn’t want my pal to be in heaven with me.
“He doesn’t have a soul”, my Mother said as she tried to comfort me. To her, this was why we were chosen by God to go to heaven: we had souls. I didn’t want a soul at
that point, I wanted my dog. I felt that I had been betrayed by God and my religion. Why
would God not want my best friend to be with me in heaven? A web poster named Task
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quoted by Levin (2007) said, “Perhaps some day the souls of those who mean so much to each other will once again be united. Suffice it to say that I would rather be anywhere with those I love and care about than in heaven without them” (p. 130).
So, how do you answer your child’s question, “Will Blackie go to heaven when he dies, Mommy”? Is it ever a good idea to quickly find your child another pet? What do you tell children about loss? I suggest that children and people of all ages will accept loss better if they follow these guidelines: 1.) Cherish your loved ones, and, 2.) Replace grief and fear with hope and remembrance. These guidelines are the distilled essence of how the healing from loss may germinate, grow and mature.
According to the web site, http://dictionary.reference.com, the word cherish is defined as: 1.) to hold or treat, dear; feel love for, and 2.) to care for tenderly; nurture. We must teach our children, by explanation and example, that we treat dearly, feel love for, care tenderly and nurture all of God’s creation – human and animal. This is especially true for our immediate family and our animal friends; our beloved pets. We must be devoted to loving them to fully appreciate them. To cherish them completely we must belong to them as much as they belong to us. Children instinctively love animals. Parents should help their children develop this love as deeply as possible. Again, restating Kübler-Ross (1991), “To live well is basically to learn to love” (p. 23).
The second guideline is not so direct, nor as comfortable to do. The most immediate reactions to loss are anger, denial, hurt and pain. Absorbing these emotions all
at once is almost impossible for adults. It is even more difficult for children, even though they might not demonstrate it at the time. Gray (1999) says, “Most adults today
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understand that to cope with a great loss, feelings of anger, sadness, fear and sorrow are not only natural, but lead us to feeling better. When we don’t get what we want or we lose someone, or something special, sometimes we just need to have a good cry. Feeling and then releasing negative emotions help us to accept life’s limitations” (p. 266). Gray (1999) continues, “Feeling is the ability to know what is going on inside ourselves. Getting in touch with feelings makes us more aware of who we are, what we need, wish, and want” (p. 267). Children should be encouraged to express their feelings about loss.
Talking about children’s feelings Gray (1999) suggests that, “Parents can wound their children by diminishing their feelings of loss. By saying to your child, “Don’t worry, we’ll get another pet,” we may think we are helping but we are only compounding their grief”. DeSpelder and Strickler (1996) admonish that, “The death of a pet, for example, may be swiftly followed by its replacement with another animal. At best, such a course of action has limited usefulness. Death is a fact of life that eventually cannot be ignored. A more constructive approach is to help children explore their feelings about death and develop an appropriate understanding of it” (p. 355).
Pet loss, at any age, is a life-changing event. It shakes you to the core of your emotions and beliefs. DeSpelder and Strickland (1996) remind us that, “Although
children tend to be resilient in coping with tragedies in their lives, adults can play a crucial role in guiding a child through grief by listening to the child’s concerns and communicating support for the child’s well-being” (p. 355). Sanders (1998) concludes, “We begin life by being attached to one person, then two, and gradually a wide array of familiar and important people, animals, and things. Each creates a web of connections
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with friends and family members that grows steadily as one creates larger and more inclusive circles. Yet each connection must eventually be broken, separation suffered and dealt with. Grief, it seems, is no different at one level of life or another. Pain is still
felt” (p. 132).
As strong as the emotions connected with loss are, and as difficult as grief work is, the path to healing is by slowly and deliberately replacing anger, denial, hurt and pain with hope and remembrance. The ordeal undertaken to accomplish this goal is littered with thorns and strewn with tears, filling countless pages of present and future books with challenges lost and won along the way.
So, what is the current thinking on “pet heaven”? Theology, just like science, evolves as knowledge increases. Many religions still conclude that only the free will and salvation of man can gain him entrance to heaven. According to the Vatican, pets are not capable of accepting, or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. This is not to say that heaven has no room for a beloved pet. Hardon (1999) writes that, “Pets, as pets, do not go to Heaven, but animals and such like beings may be said to be brought to Heaven because, after the Last Day, they can serve as part of the joys of Heaven. In other words, animals and such like creatures may be said to be brought to Heaven [by God] to serve as part of our Heavenly joys” (para. 1).
How would I translate this for a child to understand? I would tell them that if we cherish our pets strong enough, love them deeply enough, and promise to keep them forever in our hearts, that God will let them be with us wherever we go, even, when the
time comes, we go to heaven ourselves. A love so strongly held creates a bond that can
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never be broken, and never taken away. My love for Bridie was that strong.
Bridie may have been my Dad’s dog but I was Bridie’s human. It used to drive him crazy that Bridie would shower so much affection on me. When I was home from college Bridie and I were pals. We had a connection and love for each other that is hard to explain. When I was driving home, Bridie would start barking for me many minutes before I turned the corner to our street. Dad could never figure out how she knew I was coming. Somehow, she just knew.
Down the street from our house was a triangular shaped park that had a two-rail cast iron and stone fence. My Dad had a chain rigged up that he used as a leash substitute when he took Bridie for a walk. Once on the chain Bridie would jump and pull to get away. Dad never let her off the chain because he was afraid she would get away. To make this father-son rivalry worse, Bridie responded well to me when I walked her. I used a regular nylon leash and we used to go down to the park and, to my Fathers’ horror, I would turn Bridie completely loose. To steal a line from Martin Luther King, Bridie was, “…Free at last!”. As expected, she really loved this and I loved watching her run. She always stayed within the boundaries of the park and came to me when I called. While I was away at college I missed Bridie more than I missed even my Mothers’ cooking. I would return home as much to see Bridie as I would to visit my parents.
One weekend I came home and Bridie didn’t meet me at the door. Bridie wasn’t on her bed in the cellar, or in the backyard either. I asked my Mother, who had her back to me washing dishes, “Where’s Bridie”? She coughed, clearing her throat, and said,
“We had to put her down”. I turned instantly cold and pale. I felt like I had been hit by a
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board. Bridie was sick, too sick to live, put to sleep, and I wasn’t involved in the decision.
Somehow my opinion didn’t count!
My parents said that they didn’t want to worry me. Well, it worked. I was saved from worry, but then I was totally overcome by loss. I cannot blame my parents too much. I know they didn’t want to see me hurt. Commenting on this subject Levin (2007) said, “[We] decided we wouldn’t tell [Lauren] about the dire state of Sprite’s condition. We didn’t want her to grieve for weeks before she came home” (p. 132). The Levin’s were trying to protect their daughter just like my parents were trying to protect me. Mom and Dad knew the love I had for Bridie. No doubt they knew that I would have also been reluctant to agree to have Bridie euthanatized. I would have tried to find the solution that they agonizingly had failed to find and in the end I would have only caused Bridie more pain by delaying the inevitable. Still, I don’t think you can protect someone from the pain of pet loss.
My parents meant well but their actions just made Bridie’s death seem sadder to me than it might have been. I had held Blackie when he died and I wanted to hold Bridie
the same way. At least say goodbye. At the time I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the tough decision my parents had to make. Facing this same decision Levin (2007) said, “Our poor dogs have no way to tell us what’s wrong with them, how they’re feeling, what they want us to do for them. Try as we may to figure out what they’re going through and whether we are making the right decisions for them, we can never know for sure. That is
part of the heartache that we humans must endure in our relationships with our dogs” (p. 116).
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Dad also may not have wanted to share his grief with me. I had never seen him cry before. He knew he would be emotional at the vets and he may have wanted to keep
this private. Thomas (2000) says, “…Stewarding grief is a tough task for parents who are actively grieving themselves. It is often a time when our parent: energy to teach, help, and engage our kid’s is at an all time low. We too are in need of healing. The saving grace, however, is that by stewarding our children’s grief we ourselves heal” (p. 153). In retrospect, I could have been more sympathetic to my Father’s pain. In reality, at the time, I couldn’t get over my own pain to offer solace to anyone else. Bridie just left us much too soon.
Speaking on end-of-life issues Allan (2007) suggests that, “Many think of bereavement as beginning after loss. For many, however, grief can begin much earlier. Often, it begins the day you realize that your pet is approaching the end of its life – even though the final loss of that pet may still be many months distant” (para. 1). This is a stage of grief that will never achieve closure. It can’t be “gotten over” because the loss hasn’t occurred yet. As agonizing as it is to make this decision it becomes easier if you decide in advance what the boundaries are that your suffering pet will have to endure. If your pet cannot walk, eat, drink, breath easily, or sleep with comfort euthanasia may be a humane consideration. It is a decision for you, your family, and your veterinarian to make. No one wants to have to make this decision, but no one wishes our pets to suffer unbearably either.
Realizing that this was a heart-wrenchingly difficult decision for my parents, I don’t blame them for ending Bridie’s pain and discomfort. At the time I was hurt that I
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wasn’t involved. We also didn’t memorialize Bridie which would have helped. No funeral was ever conducted and we didn’t have a grave to go think of it. A memorial service and a marker of her grave could have provided a space for healing. Making a scrapbook of her pictures, keeping a favorite toy, and spending some time talking about Bridie and the fun we had with her would have also provided some healing. Many people find healing through some form of action.
Golden (2000) teaches that, “…Action can serve as a healing container for grief if [it] forms a conscious link between the action and the loss” (p. 86). Levin (2007) shares with us the following, “Moments before Sprite passed away, I looked into his eyes and promised him that we’d never forget him. And I think about him many times every day.
Sprite will never know all the good he did during his short visit on earth and the events he set in motion: Because of him, I was moved to write this book” (p. 204).
Mr. Levin, a noted radio talk-show host, recently wrote a book about pet rescue, pet love, and pet loss, called, “Rescuing Sprite”. The action of writing this book, and commenting on the topic of pet loss on his show, has helped him, and his listeners grieve and heal collectively. His nationally heard voice proves on a daily basis the value of ritual, and communicating and sharing our feelings to help others heal from loss. Golden (2007) offers that, “The important aspects [to ritual] are that you do it consciously (do it intentionally, not let it happen to you), and that you in some way honor and acknowledge your grief in the process” (p. 86).
Today I have a beautiful 2 year old pure white Bichon Frise named Kirby. To say that Kirby has enhanced and rejuvenated the fabric of our family life is an
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understatement. He is the “spark” that kindles the love we share for each other. We cherish and love him deeply. When the day comes that Kirby is no longer with our family
in life, we will be comforted by the knowledge that through love, hope and remembrance Kirby will live with us forever. In the end it isn’t about how our pets, especially dogs, live short lives. It’s about how unbearably long our lives seem without them.

On Loss –
Cherish your loved ones’ dead and gone,
Hope and remembrance help you move on.
When darkness and sadness make you weep at night,
Look for the coming of joy with the morning light.
Give your pain to God and trust in his hand,
God doesn’t make an imperfect plan.

Kelsey from TX