After a writing workshop I offered yesterday for adults grieving the loss of a loved one, a participant named Mal Barnes approached me. He lost Iris, his beloved wife of many decades, last year and has attended several workshops. He told me he had a new companion he’d like me to meet and wondered if I’d mind posing for a picture with his friend, a stuffed dog named Sox.
“I take Sox with me everywhere,” he said. We talked about what a comfort pets can be. “Sometimes he’s a bit quiet but that’s okay,” Mal said, with an impish grin. “But I can always talk to him. When we’re on the road, I like to prop him up so he can see out the window better.”
“He is the perfect dog,” I said. “No pit stops. Doesn’t even need water.”
“Or walks,” Mal added.
I thought about the little stuffed dog I gave my mother after she and my father had been moved to the dreaded nursing facility in their Philadelphia retirement community. My mother was falling and experiencing aphasia and that dog, whom she named “Henry,” after her deceased brother, sat on her lap for the rest of her life, Mother’s bony fingers fiddling with his collar and stroking his back. After Mother died we gave Henry to her great-granddaughter Lily.
Growing up, dogs were ever-present in my life; we always had at least one. My mother adored canines, often recounting stories of her favorite childhood dog, Inky, a Scottie, who famously threw up the peas she had just fed him as they swung together in the hammock. Before I was born, Mother bred a litter of tricolored border collies; the first family dog I remember was Bobo, the runt. Bobo was a wily and intrepid babysitter. One family tale has her standing staunchly between my older sister and the road, as Susan repeatedly bumps Bobo with a toy baby carriage in a vain attempt to wander into traffic.
When I was pregnant with my first child Malcolm, my husband and I answered an ad in the paper for a black-lab mix. Molly was to be the dog that raised our baby, but when our baby boy died, she became the dog that saved me.
In my memoir about that harrowing time, Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief, I wrote: “Molly dashed through the woods, tail wagging, nose to the ground. She trailed squirrels and chased the sticks I threw. Her joie de vivre lifted my spirits. Dogs had always been my soul mates. My childhood mutt, Rebel, used to run along beside me when I rode my bike.”
Rebel had been picked up on the streets of New York City, a stray to be used for experimental open heart surgery at the Animal Medical Center. One of the surgeons fell in love with Reb’s doleful dark eyes and couldn’t operate on her. (The dogs never survived the procedures.) But when he took the dog to his apartment, the doorman said, “Sorry, no pets,” so my dad, an administrator at the Center, brought her home.
How ironic, I thought. Rebel had been spared open-heart surgery, the very procedure that killed my son.
I came across a recent article in The New York Times by health writer, Jane Brody, about training her Havanese puppy to be a therapy dog. Brody, a widow, and Max visit hospitals and clinics and enjoy befriending people on the streets of Manhattan. Studies show that when patients spend time with therapy animals like Max, they noticeably relax and say things like, “Can the dog come back soon? He made my day.” When Brody had the flu, Max parked himself at the end of her bed, ever-vigilant and undemanding.
Therapy animals lower stress levels and increase endorphins, the feel-good hormones. So does Sox, Mal says.
And a dose of deep writing helps too.