A pet in the family brings lessons, losses and blessings


Rev. Candace McKibben

Since I was a young child, I have a healthy fear of dogs. My mother was bitten by a rabid dog as a child in the 1930s and received about 20 injections in the stomach with a blunt needle that left scars. The needle scars weren’t the only ones she endured.

For the rest of her long life she was afraid of dogs and we taught children to be afraid too. As an elementary school student, I was chased down our street by the meanest boy German Shepherd in our neighborhood.

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I don’t know if I fell or knocked me down, but I remember looking at the dog’s face as he stood above me. He must have been nicer than his owner because he didn’t bite me. But I’ve never been very comfortable with most dogs since.

Overcome the fear of dogs

I was an adult and a parent before I owned a dog. And I was a grandparent before I was around a big dog. My daughter, Susanne, who lives in Tempe, Arizona, has a rescue dog that is part of Rottweiler.

On each visit, I make a point of making friends with Tesla during the day, hoping to make sure that if I get up to go to the bathroom in the dark of the night, the dog will remember me as granny, not an intruder. So far the plan has worked and maybe even better than I expected.

Tesla and his family two years ago.

Because when I learned this week that Tesla, who is 11 years old, has an inoperable tumor, my heart sped up. I’m sure this was in part due to the pain expressed in my daughter’s eyes which I could feel even on the video conference she and I were sharing with her two 3 year old children.

I wanted to wrap my arms around my daughter to comfort her in her sadness. In part, the acceleration was due to watching these precious grandchildren practicing tenderness with Tesla, as their mother encouraged them to be kind and gentle when petting the dog and to avoid touching his tummy.

But much of the pain in my heart was related to the friendship I developed with Tesla. As fierce as she may seem and appear, especially when a visitor approaches the house and especially someone who is afraid of dogs, Tesla is a sweet dog, and I am grateful for her to me. learned to overcome my canine fear.

Part of the family

I am also grateful to my daughter and her husband, Martin, and their intention to care for their children.

I’m sure they will teach their children not only to be gentle in the way they interact with Tesla, but also in how it is in the natural order of all living things to someday die. I know they will involve the children in Tesla’s care as she gets sicker, and that they will not isolate the children from this reality.

I hope they will give the children permission to feel sad or angry or any other emotion about what is happening to their dog. I’m sure they will tell stories to Tesla as part of their routine nighttime ritual that begins now and that long after her life is over they will remember what they loved most about her, the incorporating into the tapestry of their lives.

Loss is an inevitable part of life. Some of us know this more than others. Grief, the natural response to loss, is experienced in a unique way without any particular pattern or timeline.

Engage our grief when we can

What seems consistent in the literature and in my own experience is the importance of engaging our grief, when we are ready and however we can. Writing in a journal about our loss, talking with others about our grief, reading useful articles or books, remembering, feeling what we feel when we feel it, and sharing memories are all intentional ways to engage our grief.

Volunteering for a cause that honors the one we miss, or deliberately engaging in a hobby or other activity that was important to the person we mourn, generates positive memories that can be healing and lasting.

As those who love animals well know, grief is a natural response not only for the humans in our lives that we love and lose, but also for our animals.

The unconditional love of a pet has supported many of us through difficult times and it only deepens our affection for them. I know Tesla has been part of my daughter’s marriage from the start and that in addition to helping their children grieve, they will have to deal with their own grief over her loss. I am so happy that being honest and open about their own feelings will give their children permission to do the same.

Poet Mary Oliver once said, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I know how to be careful.

I am grateful that my daughter and her husband are mindful of their grief and parenting. I pray that we are all so sensitive to the loss and grief that we all experience in our lives.

Reverend Candace McKibben is an ordained minister and pastor of the Tallahassee Fellowship.

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