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Getting Willow: How the Loss of One Dog Taught Me How to Grieve and Love Again

By Sonya Bevan

*This post is the Pet Professional Guild Australia winning entry in our Geek Week 2020 Writers’ Competition*

Zuri dog with cancer
Zuri: The heart dog © Studio Noah

I lost the love of my life on my birthday. I chose the day to sit by her side and say farewell. Although it felt like I had no choice. Zuri, my Rhodesian Ridgeback and keeper of my heart, was dying of cancer which had spread mercilessly to her lungs and abdomen.

Every decision I had made up to this point was meant to prevent this. I was shocked to view the x-ray which looked like a patchwork of leopard spots over every part of her lungs. There was silence in the consult room as I stared at the results with my hand over my mouth. How was she not gasping for breath?

The oncologist finally stepped forward and turned off the monitor light.  I remember her voice coming from a distance saying, “That’s enough. It’s a depressing picture. She’s a very sick dog.”

There was an urgency in choosing the time of her departure. An over-riding imperative to prevent the suffering that was imminent; A suffering that may be sudden.

I did not want the final days and hours of her journey to be tainted by distress. So the fact that it was my birthday was immaterial to the decision. Yet it was also poignant.

Zuri left peacefully in her favorite place, surrounded by her favorite people, head cradled in my hands. And by some miracle, my heart kept beating.

Living with Pet Loss

It wasn’t the same heart anymore. There was a huge Zuri-shaped hole which had once been an overflowing of joy, love, companionship, contentment and endless gratitude.

At times I was angry at this heart for continuing on as if everything were the same, for beating around a gaping chasm. How could it carry on when it was bleeding out from a mortal wound?

The task to continue some semblance of living with this defiant heart began.

Living in a Zuri-less house was excruciating. For a quiet, easy-to-live with dog, she was conspicuous in her absence. There was no cure for the lack of rhythmic breathing by my side at night. Nor for the loss of enthusiastic greetings upon my return to an empty house.

I was solo where once there had been a constant companion quietly by my side.

My grieving was purposeful and deliberate. It had to be.

If I was not choreographing rituals and routines to remember my best friend, the grief was overwhelming.

If I stopped and looked into the abyss that was my loss, it threatened to suck me into a dark vortex with scant chance of return.

Part of my grieving process included the strict proviso that such an amazing friend could not, would not, should not, must not be replaced until a suitable amount of time had elapsed. Out of respect to her memory.

And because she was irreplaceable.  I had no idea what the right amount of time was, but never didn’t seem too long to wait.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the inconsolable nature of the sadness.

Fostering a Puppy

I compromised and visited puppies. They crawled on me, and licked me and suffocated me with puppy breath and unbridled exploratory joy. I heard myself vocalizing in their presence and realized I was laughing.

There was no laughter in the empty house. Time stood still and heartache was held at bay during puppy therapy. So I took one home.

I was careful not to break the pact I’d made by fostering a puppy who needed some recuperation time after surgery. This was temporary and was not a replacement.

Gidget – puppy foster
Gidget: The face of solace © Sonya Bevan

For seven weeks I welcomed Gidget, this amazingly resilient puppy, into the home. Despite two surgeries, her crazy joy filled the house and she recovered well.

She disregarded the wall I had built to prevent emotional attachment and managed to creep in and create a little niche inside a part of my heart that wasn’t broken.

There were times through tears that I looked at her charming face and apologized for my melancholy state, explaining that it wasn’t her that was making me sad. That she was precious but my heart was struggling with guilt over feeling happy when my soul mate was gone.

On Zuri’s birthday, eyes red and brimming, heart conflicted, I made the decision to return her for a week, hoping the absence would help with making a decision whether it was right to keep her permanently.

I wasn’t prepared for the new grief that ensued. I suspected that it was just the return of a silent, dogless house that precipitated a renewal of sadness.

After a few days I realized my plan to wait a suitably respectful time before welcoming a dog into my life was not a good one. The hole Zuri left was too big.

I realized that Gidget was not replacing  Zuri; she  had been helping me cope with the loss of my friend by easing the whirlwind of destructive emotions with an eddy of joyful puppyness.

She was not taking away the grief or dishonoring Zuri’s memory but making her loss a little more bearable.

This little nutty little puppy that I wouldn’t have chosen had started a healing balm and I didn’t want her to leave. I realized all this too late and through an unexpected turn of events, she was gone and nothing could bring her back.

With a new urgency I needed to fill the painful void. That’s when I found more puppies.

Adopting a Puppy

Willow: Chosen while sleeping © Sonya Bevan

This time I resolved to welcome a permanent family member. I picked her while she was sleeping, not knowing if she was already promised to a home or not. She wasn’t.

But she was not being allocated a home until she had a final health check as she had a minor heart murmur. The vet did not appear overly worried as it did not sound serious through the stethoscope.

Many puppies have what’s known as innocent heart murmurs which resolve as they grow or never cause a problem. To be certain, she was having an echocardiogram at 10 weeks old before finding a home.

I looked at the remaining puppies. I played with them. I assessed them. Yet I was continually drawn to this little puppy who I pointed at while she slept at our first meeting, “This one!”

The puppy who wagged her tail at the sound of my voice. The puppy who was eager to approach, loved to be cuddled, ran away to investigate then turned to find me and run back for another cuddle.

Willow, wagging her tail at the sound of my voice

Her sister was delightful, bigger, adventurous and healthy.  My head said take the sister. My heart whispered Willow: the littlest puppy who was having an echocardiogram a few days after I had gone through the same procedure. My little heart buddy.

I did what I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do. I went with my heart. I took her home a few days before her echocardiogram.

Heart Murmur…Or Worse?

I was so excited to get started. I was pragmatic. I was fully informed. If I took her to the vet for the investigations and she was fine, then great, I have my puppy and I’ve made the right choice. If anything serious was found, then the breeder would keep her.

We spent four days together. Four amazing nights where she slept right through the night snuggled into my neck.

On the fifth day I took her to the vet and she had the echocardiogram. We played in the waiting room while waiting for the results.

When the results were ready, the breeder went in first to hear the outcome. I was then called into the consult room. The strained faces told me the results before a word was uttered. It wasn’t an innocent heart murmur. It was serious.

I was optimistic and asked about medication and prognosis and what to expect. My optimism began to fade. I knew it might be bad news, but still wasn’t prepared for the grim outcome I was hearing.

Her life was not predicted to be a long one. It was time to give her back to the breeder.

I couldn’t.

It didn’t feel right to drive there with her and go home without her. So I asked for a few days to enjoy her and say goodbye before returning her.

I planned to take her back after the weekend. Then I left it another week.  Then a second week.

I arranged to take her for a play date with her siblings.

I packed all her belongings in the car with the intent of returning her: toys, blankets and a file the breeder had supplied. I didn’t tell the breeder I was actually returning her that day.

We chatted. I watched her play. I heard myself acknowledge that I probably needed to return her. It was the right thing to do.

Then I gathered her up in my arms, placed her back in the car and took her home, telling the breeder I’d bring her back with all her things later.

The breeder noticed Willow’s belongings in the car and silently took note that this was an emotional decision.

I lied. Not deliberately. I just needed more time to consolidate my thoughts. So many thoughts.


Willow dog heart murmur
Willow: Healing a broken heart © Studio Noah

Willow was not well. She looked healthy. She acted like nothing was wrong. Yet her life was going to be cut short.

Asking a vet for a prognosis is fraught with “what ifs” and unknowns. At best, she might not show clinical signs for 12 months. At worst, her heart could start failing at six months.

The biggest question I had to ask was, “Do I really want to go down this road again so soon after caring for and finally losing Zuri?”

There was no simple answer.

I didn’t want a sick puppy. But that’s not what I saw when I looked at Willow.

I saw a puppy who I chose as she slept.

A puppy who loved to be cuddled and touched.

A puppy with a willingness to explore the world despite some hesitation with new environments, a brave scaredy cat.

A tail that wagged at the sound of my voice before she knew my voice.

A little friend at a time I knew I needed a helping paw.

A puppy with a dicky heart and big personality.

The eerie coincidence of our similar health investigations was not lost on me.  We could be dodgy heart buddies together. It didn’t feel right to abandon her after being so immeasurably drawn to her.

Despite sleeping on it, I couldn’t exchange her for her rambunctious and robust sister.

I made the call to the breeder with a plea to keep her. I was up for it. She was worth it. The breeder relented and that is the story of the getting of Willow.

What happens next?

We enjoy every precious day together. She gifts me the exuberance that is puppy joy, the rhythmic nighttime breathing, the welcome homes, daily lessons about behavior and learning and a reprieve from grief.

In return I hope to give her a safe place to grow and learn and to have fun.

And, when the time comes, a farewell that is not delayed and as stress free as possible. Whatever new grief it is that comes, and it will come, I have decided she is worth it.

Wish us luck.

Zurison. (2018, November 18). Choosing Willow the Rhodesian Ridgeback Puppy: First Tail Wag (Short) [Video File]

This post is the Pet Professional Guild Australia winning entry in our Geek Week 2020 Writers’ Competition. All winning and other selected entries are being published here on the BARKS Blog and in upcoming issues of BARKS from the Guild.

For a fully immersive educational experience in all things animal behavior and training, join us for Geek Week, a virtual educational event taking place 24/7 with over 85 presenters and 135 educational sessions, on November 11-15, 2020. Session recordings will be available for ONE YEAR after the event!

About the Author
Sonya Bevan is an avid dog lover with a BSc in physiotherapy. This combination led her to seek science-based information on how to teach dogs and she subsequently completed her diploma of canine behavior science and technology through the Companion Animals Science Institute. She works as a behavior consultant in her business, Dog Charming and has also been a university facilitator for vet students in animal behavior for the past five years.

Her special interests are fearful and reactive dogs, low stress handling/cooperative care, assistance dogs (she is a MindDog trainer for psychological support dogs), ethics in animal training, separation anxiety (she is a certified separation anxiety trainer), and providing freely available video training tutorials.

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