By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
My daughter got Bella at her dad’s house shortly after the divorce. My ex even called the sweet yellow lab “the divorce dog.” Visits with dad also meant time with Bella, which was great when my daughter was 8 years old, but the teen years brought work, band practice and a social life. Visitation with dad became more sporadic. Then, my ex asked if we would dog sit. Bella was a senior dog by then, and we were all smitten. We asked if we could just keep her. He said yes.
Bella and I bonded in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I worked from home, and she was my constant companion. My daughter grew up and moved to an apartment of her own, but Bella stayed with me.
COVID-19 brought with it a puppy boom as people sought comfort and companionship during quarantine and isolation — but for me, Bella was there. We took walks in the woods and played in the yard with my son. Our circle got smaller as the pandemic began to rage. Schools closed, my husband was furloughed, and then, just as everything shut down, we had to say goodbye to Bella. That stacking of hardships is known as collective — or cumulative — grief, and I wasn’t sure I could take it.
One day in April, I woke up to find that Bella couldn’t even raise her head from her bed. Something was seriously wrong. I debated on rushing her to an emergency veterinarian but knew, due to COVID, I would have to watch her disappear into the building and not return. I knew this was her end. I made her comfortable and placed a video call to my daughter so she could say her goodbyes.
Every time we welcome a pet into our lives, we also welcome the inevitable heartbreak. We know how it ends, and yet we still open our homes and our hearts to four-footed companions.
Bella died at home in her bed while I sang her lullabies.
Anticipatory grief is the price we pay for unconditional love. Pets have seen us at our worst and our most embarrassing. They bear witness to everything in our lives without judgment. “That’s unprecedented emotional intimacy,” says Rachael Nolan Ph.D., MPH, CPH, public health educator and grief recovery specialist. Sure, pets can be moody sometimes (I’m looking at you, George the cat) but for the most part, their behavior is pretty predictable, which also provides us a source of stability. Nolan says stability is “one of the most important things in life for humans, particularly in regards to emotions.”
Isolation and quarantine during the pandemic deepened bonds and strengthened connections to our pets. Then, to have to say goodbye … it’s just devastating.
I began applying to adopt senior dogs. I’d fall in love with an online profile, only to be upset when the dog found a home with someone else. Pet adoptions soared last summer, making the high demand and the long wait heart wrenching. On one particular hot mess of a day, I sobbed over another dog I’d never met. I really missed my Bella. Adopting another dog wouldn’t fill that void. I withdrew my application from the local stray adoption program and gave myself time.
Then, one September day, my friend texted me about a litter of puppies needing homes. “I could pick up two and bring you one,” she wrote.
I said yes. She wasn’t an old Labrador like Bella — she was a mutt puppy who licked my face and chased my son while he squealed with delight. We named her Hamilton. I know I’ll have to say goodbye in a few years, but I’m grateful she’s here now, and I’m here for all the belly rubs she can handle.
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