Learning to Grieve

Small dog on a lap

Back in 2004, Devin and I were living in Stafford, Virginia, and traveled back to our previous home in Lexington, Kentucky, to visit friends and gain some continuing education training. Because we were staying with friends who had property, we ended up taking our 2 dogs, Tucker and Ellie, along with us. At that time, my friend was a foster home for a small Jack Russell terrier who was looking for a new home. I fell in love with the tiny dog immediately and thought it would be fun to adopt her, but Devin drew the line at already having 2 dogs, so that was a no-go. The next few days went by, and we continued to hear Lola’s story unfold. She was apparently found wandering the streets and was picked up and sent through a Jack Russell terrier rescue. She was adopted out – twice – and was returned – twice. By this time, Lola was confused about housebreaking, trusting people, and knowing how to live under other’s expectations. However sad her story was, I saw something pretty amazing starting to take shape. Ellie, our own Jack Russell, was looking after Lola. She would allow Lola to follow right behind her and kept showing her how to be a dog. Then, as Devin and I packed up to return home, we didn’t see Ellie right away. As we looked around for her, we saw Ellie sitting right beside Lola, refusing to move until Devin and I agreed to adopt Lola and bring her into our little pack family.

The transition home was hard. Lola got car sick, was a nervous wreck, and struggled to understand all that we tried to teach her. She found comfort in Ellie, who continued to show her how to be a dog and find routine. We eventually sought help in the form of dog training classes and ended up with Lola having perfect attendance and being the most improved. J She was never the sharpest or the smartest in our little crew, but she was certainly the sweetest. In time, she figured her place and became more confident in living with humans and other dogs.

Over the next few years, we had children and said goodbye to Tucker and Ellie. While losing her best friend who showed her how to live and operate was a challenge, Lola was still kind, sweet, and patient, especially with a little Brynley who loved to carry her and dress her up.

Lola eventually helped us welcome a small smooth collie puppy named Paisley into our pack, and though she never wanted to play with Paisley, Lola never lost her happy, upbeat outlook on the world. She was also part of the move to start Bright Side, and though her eyesight and health were starting to decline, she loved all that living on a farm could offer.

Fast forward to recent months, Lola’s health was really starting to go downhill, although she still retained her Jack Russell terrier – nothing can stop me attitude. She was in renal failure, couldn’t see very well, was mostly deaf, and lost control of some bodily functions; but she kept welcoming us with the wag of her tail and was still eager to go outside to bark at whatever moved.

There were moments when caring for an aging animal was a chore and an effort. I distinctly remember Brynley asking me at one point, as we were cleaning up after Lola yet again, “Mom, can we trade her in for a younger dog?”  While I saw the humor in the casual statement of a young child, I also saw the opportunity for a teachable moment. I told her how we don’t just let go and pass off part of our family just because they’re old and can’t take care of themselves anymore. I reminded her of all the times Lola had patiently “played” dress up with her and recounted all the love Lola had given us through the years. Something must have stuck, because from that point on, Brynley was one of Lola’s primary caretakers as health issues continued to arise.

Although there were times when her obnoxious, neurotic behavior could be annoying, there was nothing that could bring a smile quicker to our faces than mentioning Lola’s name. She was just simply hilarious.

Until this week. I saw it coming. I tried to deny it and think she was just having a bad day. Or a bad couple of days. Or even a bad week. However, by Saturday, I knew the time to say goodbye to an old friend was quickly approaching. She went from happy-go-lucky to despondent, confused, unsteady, and weak. She was refusing food, even treats, and not even interested in water. The end was near. I knew I needed to call the vet on Monday and set up an appointment. However, even though I know euthanasia is a humane process, I really just wanted her to go rest peacefully at home.

And she did. I found her Sunday morning in her bed. There was no sign of struggle or difficulties. She had passed in her sleep at some point early in the morning.

And then came the task of sharing the news with the rest of the family. While we all grieve differently and were certainly sadden by the loss of Lola, Brynley took it the hardest. She wept and wept over her missing friend.

Because it was a Sunday morning, we had to gather ourselves for our responsibilities on the farm and at church, with the understanding we would come back and have a burial service after lunch. So we went on with heavy hearts. There were fits of tears throughout the morning, along with moments of explaining to others we had lost a part of our family.

After lunch, we gathered around the hole in the ground by a large tree in our backyard and placed Lola’s box down in. We shared good memories and how the silly little dog made us laugh, and then we covered her up. Many more tears were shed as we said our final goodbye to the 16-year-old Jack Russell named Lola.

As I continued to pick up and clean all the parts that were a part of Lola’s life in our household, I kept thinking how blessed we are. We are so blessed that we have animals in our lives who help teach us to love and give, even when it’s not convenient or easy. I’m so glad that we have pets to be a physical reminder to our children that they are not alone and that they are loved. We’re so blessed that our children get a chance to learn how to grieve in a healthy way through this process. Some say that an animal’s life is too short, so don’t even embark on handing out your heart to it. Some others don’t get pets because they leave hair everywhere and require too much work. There are even some who don’t want to walk through the hard parts of having an aging pet and so hand them off to others or have them put down way too early.

We’re all in different situations, and certainly, we have our own boundaries of what we can and cannot do for our animals financially. But, there’s not a moment when I regret having animals surround us. Not a moment goes by where I don’t appreciate how my daughter’s heart has learned how to love deeply and unconditionally through the presences of animals. There’s not a time where I wish my son wasn’t learning the hard work that comes from caring for things outside of ourselves.

It’s hard, this losing a four-legged family member. It’s not easy whether the time was short or long. But it’s good in its own way. We know there was love, both given and received. And we know we are better for it.

So, we are in the process of teaching our children it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to mourn the loss of a friend, even when that friend had four legs. It’s also okay to laugh at a funny memory that suddenly pops in your head as you recall the little JRT. It’s also okay to sing, “Lola, she was a showgirl,” and smile as the picture of Lola dressed in a crown and a tutu passes through a social media feed. And, it’s certainly okay to stop by her marker and say thank you for the memories and love.

Yep, we’re learning how to grieve.

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