One of the sweetest, gentlest souls to have ever graced this earth. You know the way a dog loves you unconditionally with full abandon, loyalty, and forgiveness? This dog was pure embodiment of that kind of puppy love.
In 2005 my wife and I were done with college, had stable jobs, and had moved into a nice apartment. Wedding bells weren’t ringing and children were certainly not yet on the agenda, but we were ready for something a little more. Hurricane Katrina hit, displacing hundreds of animals, and suddenly we knew what that “something more” was. We first saw Lilly in a concrete pen at the back of the Humane Society. She had traveled hundreds of miles, was cowering and shaking in fear, and her eye was injured and in need of surgery. She was the one – I knew instantly.
She was a highly anxious dog and the next few years were spent training and calming her. She was our baby and we poured our whole hearts into her. She traveled with us, there were frequent trips to the dog park, a move into a house with a fenced backyard just for her, and I confess that there may have even been a dog sweater or two (I know, I know…). By 2009 we were mostly sure that she was ready to help us welcome children into our lives, but I admit that I had my concerns.
Ready?? As I quickly came to see, this dog was born for children. At least, for these children. I watched her come into her own with her new “puppies”. She calmed, had a purpose, and made an incredible family dog. Lilly was an integral part of helping our foster kiddos adjust to our home and healing heartbreak after heartbreak of their long court process. She was always there, always full of love. And when it came time to talk about adoption, she was there to help them understand – as we told the kids, “Lilly is just like you! She had a first mommy who made her in her belly, but then she needed new parents to adopt her and give her a safe home to live in forever and ever.” Lilly was so much more than a pet; she was one of them.
February 4, 2013, Lilly was hit by a car and passed away instantly. In a split second a hugely important member of our family was taken and we are deeply mourning this loss.
I don’t believe there is any one right or wrong way to help children deal with the loss of a pet, but in our house we do it fully and openly. We talk regularly about death in the matter-of-fact way children respond well to. We also cry – happy and sad tears as we share favorite memories with our beloved dog. We feel and accept the anger that sometimes overwhelms each of us at the injustice of a life taken too soon. My 3-year-old is especially processing her emotions through anger – angry at Lilly for running into the road (“dats against the rules! only cars in the street!”) and angry at the car for not being able to stop (she reminds me on our way to school, “drive slow mommy and watch for dogs!”).
Possibly the most healing exercise, a tradition we started last year when one of our cats passed away, are our letters to heaven.
The children draw pictures and we help them write stories to send to whomever has passed that is on our hearts. Lilly got beautiful pictures of sunny days at the beach, walks in the woods, and “I liked when you kissed me with just your nose, not your tongue.” And then? They got a message back…
They have been taking turns reading the card over and over again and rubbing their fingers over the paw print. Before we left for school this morning, my daughter gave the card a kiss and said, “Have a good day in heaven Lilly.”
Oh, sweet Lilly. Yes, I hope you are having a good day…as good as all the ones you gave us.