Grief, and the Loss of my First and Only Pet

I’ve never felt safe in my own body.

This can be true for a human for a variety of reasons. In my case, it is because I have always been highly allergic to everything and just chronically ill enough to be a low-key burden to anyone who ever had to vacuum before I came over. Or, in many cases, refused to vacuum. Or simply just not invite me to the party.

Severe pet allergies are a particular kind of illness that equates you to Cruella DeVille and makes you wholly unlikeable in a world that celebrates Golden Retrievers in the gym and cats in store windows. It’s a world that isn’t just unsafe – it’s wholly unwelcoming. And even with a combined 15 years of allergy shots and heavy doses of Claritin-D and Flonase and everything else they could throw at me, I still can’t be indoors with 99% of non-human animals.

And then I met Gizmo.

Gizmo was an American Hairless Terrier, a rare and hairless breed with so little dander it allowed for even the most allergic among us to cuddle up in bed. It was a dream come true for me, someone who never thought she could have a pet beyond a transient goldfish. I fell in love with him. And, when he was a puppy, I became one of those people I detest who smuggles a puppy into a restaurant and brings it to a business meeting. I was insufferable until I calmed down and settled into a normal dog-owner routine.

My husband fell in love with him as well, and soon took on most of the dog-care routine (I couldn’t exactly sit in a veterinarian’s office with a bunch of furballs). When my son was born, the dog lost the spotlight, as it happens, but still slept in our bed and kept me company when I was sick – which became more often. Especially after my daughter was born and my health really took a downturn. My baby girl was especially in love with Gizmo, and the two of them developed a special bond, even as my interest waned as my life became consumed with caring for the two human children.

As Gizmo aged, he slowly deteriorated, as animals do. But it was the first time I had ever experienced the slow, devastating loss of a pet. He could no longer sleep with us as he’d get startled in the night and bite our feet. Soon he could no longer climb stairs. He gradually became incontinent and moved with increasing difficulty as the years went on. We could see he was in pain, and after more than 14 years, we knew his time was coming to an end.

But you’re never really ready for it, are you? That kind of grief.

Especially in a time of universal grief that created a surge in the adoption of “pandemic puppies.” We need comfort more than ever.

I am 42 years old and I have never really lost a close loved one. At least, not to death. When my grandparents passed, I was either too young to be deeply impacted or they had been so far gone for so long it didn’t feel like loss. I’m lucky in that way. But I am familiar with grief.

I know what it feels like to grieve failed relationships, the loss of close friendships, the loss of physical ability, the loss of a home, the loss of accepting some people will never be who you need them to be, the loss of all the various lives I’ve lived for better or worse.

In recent years I’ve been hit hard with a somewhat-shared nationwide grief for what felt like the loss of a country, the loss of common sense and empathy and truth. I grieved everything my children lost when the pandemic shuttered school for over a year. And every day, especially as the COVID rates rise yet again, I grieve the needless deaths and debilitation of millions and live with the constant abject fear that, due to a compromised immune system, any day now I am next.

So, yes, this grief hits hard. I’ve already been cut wide open and desperately trying to band-aid the raw parts every day so I can be a good mother, wife, and partner. The old adage about salt on a wound. This too shall pass when it never really quite passes, does it? But we wake up and we go through the motions and try to hold it together. We find joy in small moments. Cry a lot. Consider jumping into a freezing river (stay tuned for more on that). Breathe. Remember to breathe.

I don’t know how to end this post. Here are some photos and videos from when Gizmo was a puppy. I was maybe 28? I took him with me to Florida in a travel bag and tried to hide his vomit from the cab driver on the way to the airport. His favorite thing was playing in a pile of laundry. He also used to go wild when I put him on a certain rug.

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