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Mourning a Personal Loss in the Middle of a National Tragedy

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I know "it's just a dog..."

Woman petting dog
A dog is woman's best friend

It’s an old, old story. I swore I wouldn’t write it, but it keeps coming at me, nipping at me with sharp teeth and dragging my mind like a deer carcass to the edge of a field, exposed and needing to be picked clean.

It’s a sad story experienced by millions of people, but it’s a grief made worse because it happened during a global pandemic and racial unrest.

Three weeks ago today, I lost my dog.

Two and a half years ago, my husband and I adopted two dogs from the shelter, two in a long line of well-loved dogs over five decades of life.

After our last dog, a beautiful Boykin spaniel by the name of Willa died, we grieved for almost two years. When spring arrived, we decided the mourning was over. It was time to adopt again. My husband had his heart set on a new puppy he found at the shelter. Love at first sight, indeed. I had no intention of adopting a second dog, but fate intervened, and the shelter workers played matchmaker, introducing me to a two-and-a-half-year-old dog, a black-and-white spotted female named Zoey who needed a good home.

Turns out, I needed a good dog.

It wasn’t an immediate love affair. Zoey had recently birthed pups, been surrendered to the shelter, and was a little aloof. But you know how the best friendships develop over time? I was surprised by how quickly I succumbed to her charms. Her dark, wise eyes. Her head-cock. Her insistent high-pitched yelp when she needed to go out. I was already happy, but Zoey added an indescribable aura of joy to what was already a contented life.

Soon we were inseparable, constant companions in work and play. I loved how she needed me, how her nose would constantly flip at my hand to get more attention. How I was the one to calm her when it thundered. How she pranced and smiled at me every morning when I gave her treats in the kitchen. She laid quietly in my office every day as I worked, a muse, a confidante, a constant companion. I spent more time with Zoey than I did with my husband.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know what I mean.

Poet Mary Oliver expressed the feeling best in a poem called “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night.” Her dog sprawls on his back, all four paws up in the air, baring his belly:

“Tell me you love me, he says.
Tell me again. Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over he gets to ask it. I get to tell.”

The loss of a country dog

We live in the country, far away from a lightly trafficked road. We have one neighbor, lots of acreage, open fields, dense woods, and deep ravines with small creeks. It’s a perfect place for the dogs we’ve always had. We have training collars that vibrated when they got out of sight, and they’d return home to lay panting and exhausted on the patio after running the length of a meadow or chasing squirrels across the front yard and down the hill.

Only that day three weeks ago, Zoey did not return.

Miles and miles of hiking followed. We contacted PetFinder, the shelters, all nearby neighbors. We made posters with a picture of Zoey, offered a reward, and talked to dozens of people as we drove around for miles on the country roads surrounding our area. For five days we kept searching on foot, by car, on Facebook.

Zoey still has not returned. Even though it’s been three weeks, I can’t help but watch for her, expecting her to trot down the pasture or come running to me at any moment.

It’s hard not to know what happened to her. Coyotes? Did she tumble down a hillside, injured and hidden somewhere we can’t see her? Did she go out to the road and hop into someone’s car? (Unlikely because she had severe hip dysplasia and had to be lifted.)

A real, personal loss during a huge national tragedy

Not knowing what happened to her makes the grieving process more difficult. So, too, is the fact that I feel guilty grieving when such huge, earth-shattering events are happening around me.

  • More than a hundred thousand people have died from the Coronavirus, many of them passing without family members nearby to hold their hand and whisper good-bye. 100,000 HUMAN-BEINGS, not animals. That kind of tragedy is huge.

  • Millions of people across the nation have lost their jobs, are fighting to keep their homes, struggling to feed their families.

  • Small mom-and-pop businesses, hometown restaurants, and boutique shops are closed, killed by the Coronavirus’ impact.

  • Racial tension has escalated after George Floyd’s death. Cities are being looted, stores are ransacked, and fires are started. I consider it a huge national tragedy when the right of peaceful protests is overrun by groups with violent intents.

So many big sorrows right now. Do I have the right to cry over a dog?


If you or someone you love has lost a dog, especially right now, know that it’s okay to cry. A dog, after all, is part of your family. You’ve shared years of your life with them, not to mention long walks on the beach, wet kisses, play dates, and mutual admiration sessions. A real bond exists between pets and their owners, and broken bonds are extremely painful.

Don’t try to bury your grief by saying “it’s just a dog.” All living creatures are valuable, especially a faithful companion and friend. Ignore people like an acquaintance of ours who told us we had NO BUSINESS owning a dog without a fenced-in yard. (She obviously had no understanding of living in the country, no sensitivity training, and no awareness of our intense grief.)

I’m learning that what’s considered a “small loss” to the world is a huge loss to me, worthy of my tears. Mat Jobe, in an article titled “Dog Gone,” says,

Don’t ever apologize or feel silly about crying over a dog. When you lose your best friend, you have every right to be sad about it.

Melissa and Zoey
Zoey and me

I’m still struggling with sorrow, but also with how to acknowledge the loss. I can’t bury her because I don’t have her body. I don’t want a grave marker because maybe, just maybe, she’s out there somewhere trying to get back to me.

Maybe a flag or banner with her name flying at the end of the garden? Maybe a new-framed picture of us together on the end table? Does keeping her lead hanging in full-view constitute a memorial?

Maybe writing about the loss of my dog will memorialize Zoey and heal my grief. Maybe my coming to terms with a “small” personal loss in a time of a huge national tragedy will somehow help others with the same problem.

I hope.

“If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.” — Marjorie Garbe

Yes, I had the joy. Now I’ve got the profound sadness, and I’m trying to balance that grief with the guilt of feeling so sad when such big tragedies are happening around me.


If you understand "dog love," you'll appreciate these other "Heartfelt Stories."

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