On that early spring day in 2021, Sunny was euthanized in my backyard, after cancer had consumed her. It was already a time of great transition for me. I was months away from turning 60, what many like to call the start of life’s third act. A year earlier, I had uprooted myself from Flagstaff, Arizona, my home for 26 years, and moved to Cortez, Colorado, where I knew no one but could live more cheaply. I believe Sunny held on as long as she could to usher me safely across the threshold. Except for those last few months, she had enjoyed a great life. Her days were filled with chasing Frisbees, swimming in rivers, romping in the mountains, sleeping on couches, and sneaking table food. She was my faithful hiking partner and supportive copilot as I navigated divorce, single parenting, financial strains, stressful jobs, PTSD, a mother with dementia, a dad with Alzheimer’s disease, and an empty nest after my son went to college. Given Sunny’s long, full life, I thought I would be relieved after she passed and was no longer in pain. But I fell apart.
The grievance was so intense that I sought counseling. I wrote about the overwhelming emotions I experienced and shared the advice I got from mental health experts. My essay attracted the attention of many readers who had suffered a similar loss, and they wrote to me: I received dozens of messages from people who were hurting. I wrote all of them back, and our communications developed into an informal pet-loss support group.
Grief counselors told me that copious crying over a pet was normal, and that working through the pain of loss rather than trying to avoid it was the best path forward.
“Last Sunday, our beloved six year old dog collapsed on her morning walk,” a woman from Iowa City, Iowa, named Amy Kahle wrote about Benny, who was euthanized after a surprise diagnosis of liver cancer. “I haven’t felt such crushing grief since my dad died, and maybe even more so.”
“[My husband, Perry, and I] lost our 12-year-old Lab Quinn,” wrote Cathy Condon, a business-systems analyst in Burlington, Vermont. “He was a very good boy and the center of our lives.”
Sharon Reiser, a pet groomer from Ohio, told me about a black Lab who was euthanized two weeks before Sunny. “Apart from me died with my Rudy,” she said. “He too had cancer. He was the essence of my being.”
Grief counselors told me that copious crying over a pet was normal, and that working through the pain of loss rather than trying to avoid it was the best path forward. They also advised trying to create a new relationship with Sunny by focusing on the many happy memories we shared. But how could I get through the coming months without her? What kind of life was possible for me and my fellow grievers without our soul mates?
Initially, I thought that being dogless might open a new chapter for me. I could engage in social activities that I’d previously avoided, either because Sunny was too sick or I preferred her company over other options. I joined friends for marathon day hikes in the mountains. I went on road trips to big cities. I dabbled in dating after a long hiatus.
None of it felt right. I was always fighting back tears, wishing I could be with Sunny or at least know she would be waiting when I got home. My friends were excited about the prospect of me finally dating, but I knew deep down that this was probably not what I needed. My sense of well-being had always depended on sharing my life with a dog. And especially wandering alone in the wild with one.
I grew up in a dysfunctional home in the rural East Texas town of Conroe, where my father flew into angry rages and my mother was chronically depressed. The evening routine for much of my childhood went like this: Dad would come home from work in a fairly good mood, but over the span of a few hours he became increasingly agitated. After dinner he was like a volcano ready to blow.
It’s always been a mystery to me and my two sisters why he had such a short fuse, but whatever was behind his anger, I was often blamed for “making” him lose his temper. I didn’t like being bullied, and I would talk back to him or, as he put it, “directly disobey” him. I was the middle sister, eight years old when he started becoming violent. Somehow I thought it was my role to be the target of his wrath, so he wouldn’t hurt the rest of the family.
On the worst nights, he would beat me with his belt in a delirious fury. My mother rarely intervened, and I refused to cry, convinced that this was the only way I could fight back. He would start sweating and breathing hard from the exertion, and he often stopped only when he was exhausted. I remember one time, during a particularly violent episode, when my mother came out from the bedroom and pleaded with him to stop. “You are going to kill her!” she shouted.
My salvation was a Lab mix named Lucky, who came into my life that same year. Lucky was a stray and had been taken in by neighbors of ours in Conroe. In 1969, my family moved to a house across the street from theirs. Lucky and I bonded immediately, and the neighbor agreed to let me keep him.
Lucky was the warm blanket in an otherwise chilling home life. While I believed my parents loved me, for obvious reasons they made me feel more scared, angry, and confused than comforted. Lucky stepped in as my emotional caregiver. I loved him completely. And he loved me back, no strings attached.
My mother said she was allergic to dogs, so Lucky was banned from the house. As a result, I spent most of my time outside, in a magical world of endless forest where Lucky and I roamed for hours, soaking in the smells, safety, and freedom. Sometimes, after being beaten, I would sneak outside and put my arms around Lucky’s chest, pressing my face into his fur. It was the only way I could cry. Lucky held all my tears.