I could barely drag myself out of bed the morning after Willow died. For nearly four and a half years, she had been the main reason I got up early, dressed and went out to walk in all weather. A gray and white Siberian Husky with heaps of soft fur, deep brown eyes and a rebellious spirit, she was a challenge and a joy. That first morning, I kept thinking that just 24 hours before, she’d seemed perfectly well. Our last walk together was very much like hundreds of morning walks we’d shared before. How could I possibly walk without her?
Willow and I had our share of struggles. She was a strong-willed puppy who bit everyone for months and rebelled against me at every turn. We found our way together through hours of walking, training, playing and just being together. She came to accept the boundaries of our life, learned to comply with my expectations and even found joy in following a command. I learned how to respect her peculiarities without surrendering my role as the boss and not to take her obedience for granted. I adored her, and I miss her terribly, even now, months later.
Just a dog? Hardly. The animals that share our lives truly do become part of the family. They grow into beloved companions who share our days, shaping the routines and rhythms of life. Our animals rely on us to keep them safe and well, care for their needs and to make a place for them in our hearts. In return, we often get more than we bargained for. They bring companionship and uncomplicated love, activity and adventure, playfulness and opportunities to laugh, as well as challenges and difficulties. I have always found something powerful in my relationships with animals. It is difficult to put into words, and even more difficult to live without after a death.
That first morning without her, when sharing my life with dogs seemed like a terrible, painful mistake, I chose to post a few sentences about my loss and my pain on Facebook. My dogs are a frequent subject on my wall, and friends all across the country enjoyed Willow’s pictures and laughed at her antics. In that unguarded moment of grief, I wrote about my sorrow. And it helped.
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Sharing my pain didn’t make Willow’s death hurt less, but somehow, it made it more bearable. Boiling down the countless emotions I was struggling with and putting a few sentences out for the world to read helped me get out of bed for that first morning walk without her. Hearing from friends, family and colleagues who reached out with kind words of support helped me cry my way through that first day. I felt surrounded by their compassion as they joined in my grief. Reading stories friends shared about their own pets who had died helped me feel less isolated, and showed me the broad and deep connections humans and animals share.
Each morning for a week, I posted a few sentences about my sorrow. It was unusual for me to be so vulnerable in such a public forum, yet I followed the impulse to share my journey and grief, and it helped. The posts provided a way for me to notice the progress of my grief. They also gave me a place to honor and remember Willow, while also hearing from people who were sad for me.
After a week, I realized I was ready to stop posting daily. I am still grieving Willow but privately now. The shock and sadness have mostly passed. The pain is less sharp now, even when I inadvertently call my remaining dog by Willow’s name, which hurt terribly that first week. I can talk about her without tears, enjoying the memories. The memories are still bittersweet. When I brought her home, I did expect to outlive her, but I expected her to live at least 10 years longer.
Willow’s death reminded me that life is uncertain, and it is wise to treasure each day you have with the ones you love. Her death reminded me how precious I find sharing my life with dogs, and I am grateful that a red and white Siberian Husky still lives in my house. Using Facebook to share my grief over Willow’s death taught me how vulnerability can be a powerful source of strength and support, and that sharing a burden can sometimes make it easier to bear.
Alicia Anderson is the campus minister for the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Penn State and a member of Learning to Live: What’s Your Story? She lives in Lemont with her husband, younger daughter and 1-year-old Siberian Husky.