Lessons in Love and Loss From My Dog

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on October 16, 2011.

His name was Sammy. Sammy Sosa Riess. It isn’t quite clear why, since he never hit a baseball in his life. I suppose it was because he was born near Chicago, in a year when Sammy Sosa was inspiring baseball fans everywhere. Sammy brought hope, laughter and renewed energy when he took up residence in a lukewarm Cubs fan household. Puppies are like that.

Sammy followed Willie the Second, in a long line of dachshunds to live in my childhood home on Bristol Lane. My parents were so heartbroken when Willie died that they said no more dogs. It was just too hard to say good-bye. That lasted until Sammy moved in.

Years passed and Sammy aged. So did my parents. One day I got a phone call from my brother, asking if we would adopt Sammy so that our parents could move into assisted living — without a dog. We were just a one-dog household then; our other dog had died just a few months before at age 17.

So on a spring weekend in April, my husband and I drove round trip to Chicago to get Sammy and bring him to his new home in Poughkeepsie. We had only met Sammy a few times in his life, but driving 800 miles with him was a good way to start getting to know each other.

Sammy died last Sunday. It seemed that he had lived with us, for better and for worse, for a long time. In fact, it was exactly2 1/2 years, less than 25 percent of his lifetime. How could such a short time together yield so many tears when parted?

In the last week, I have thought about the usual things that I coach parents on saying to children when a member of the family dies — human or otherwise.

Young children need to learn the biological facts of death, such as the heart stops beating and the person cannot feel anything anymore. They learn about tears, and the comfort of others, and the gradual process of healing. With time, they learn that life and death are intertwined cycles, magic rings that only the Magician can truly separate.

In this recent journey to cope with my sadness and loss, I’ve expanded my list of what might help a family with young children cope with times of grieving. Here are my thoughts, straight from my healing heart.

  • Empathy and love are powerful tools — and critical life skills. Grief and loss are teachable moments, whether we like it or not. Offering comfort to someone experiencing loss, or experiencing the comfort offered to you, creates a benchmark of empathy modeled for our children.
  • Perspectives can differ. It seems common at funerals or memorials to hear glowing things about the deceased, while wishing you could also see cartoon bubbles above their heads of the real thoughts. When our incredible vet called to tell us that Sammy didn’t make it following surgery, he described Sammy as a sweet, old boy. Even in my grief, I thought it likely that he was sweetest under anesthesia. Sammy’s fierce loyalty to me could be charming when he was curled up at my feet. But not so much when anyone else in the family came near me. My husband said it best: “As loyal a dog that ever lived, loving and true. Not easy to live with, but hard to part with.”

    Children can be magnets to picking up discrepancies such as this, yet are also just learning social discourse rules for their culture. Differences in perspective, or even your own mixed emotions, are teachable moments. Talking with your child about why people have different attitudes toward someone or something is a cornerstone of building lifelong perspective-taking skills.

  • Life happens in the moments of daily living. I can pinpoint the moment my sadness started to subside. I was getting dressed and instinctively looked to the door to see if Sammy had pushed it open, his regular morning greeting. Of course, the door was still shut. Yet instead of tears, it brought a smile. I started to think of all of the little ways that Sammy touched my life each day. I found myself humming the refrain of “no, you can’t take that away from me” and began rewriting the lyrics in my head about Sammy’s quirky habits that made him loving and true.

Sammy, your unconditional love will live in my heart and your legacy will be in the future moments when I, in turn, comfort another as you so often comforted me.

Godspeed, my loyal friend.