The first time I saw Barney, I immediately fell in love. He was white with soft brown patches, wet-nosed and delightfully shaggy. He was just as excited to meet me as I was to meet him. It was a hot September day when my sister and I cast eyes on him, sitting in the window of our Oma’s house looking down on us from his perch above. We both agreed that he was adorable, and we joked that he was so hairy that he resembled a small sheep. He sniffed us and greeted us happily, letting us know he was meant to be in our lives.
From that day on, Barney was an official member of the family and rarely spent time away from me and my sister, serving as a loyal confidant and consumer of treats (he had terrible breath, something we laughed about often.) My sister and I would spend hours outside with him in the summer, running through the fields near our house and exploring parks and chasing sunsets with him dutifully trotting along to sniff everything. Since I was in high school at the time, he was there for all the coming-of-age milestones: he accompanied me on car rides when I was learning how to drive, and he was there to cuddle when I came home from working my first part-time job. He was there for cake-filled birthdays and turkey Christmases and he even attended a party before prom.
The worst part of moving away from home to go to university was leaving him behind, but it was comforting to know he would always be there when I came back for the holidays, tail wagging and his love unwavering. In my absence, my sister would send photos and videos to keep me updated on his daily ongoings (one highlight was the time he got his head stuck in an empty cardboard treat box) and more than once I was brought to tears with the knowledge that he would go into my empty bedroom searching for me.
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Time passed. I grew up; Barney grew old. His bursts of energy and chasing us playfully around the house slowed to a stop. His days of long walks where he could spend hours exploring pivoted into me having to carry him home because tiredness crept into his muscles. His eyesight began to peter out and he developed cataracts — I could no longer see his sweet brown eyes without feeling a deep sense of guilt in the pit of my stomach. He grew shaky and wobbled around as he avoided going up or downstairs, and barked for me to pick him up because he could no longer leap onto my lap. Restlessness consumed him, as he would nervously wake up throughout the night, his anxiousness jerking me awake with worry.
Old age is an inevitability, but it’s one that’s a frustrating paradox — each year we gain is one less than we have with the ones we love. I knew that wrinkles and grey hair would come for my grandparents, and eventually my parents, but it’s not really something I envisioned for Barney. It’s unfair that our pets age faster than we do. Even as I could see him slipping away I tried to avoid imagining the day I would have to say goodbye. It created a persistent sense of panic that paralyzed me if I thought about it for too long.
Time never stops, but there is also never enough of it.
But that day eventually came, like a swift chill. After saying goodbye to him I sobbed for hours. I felt hollow inside, knowing I would never get to hold him again. Eventually my tears ran dry, but the sadness kept flowing. Even though he was gone, his presence was everywhere — his cushioned blue bed in the hallway, his faded leash hanging on the bannister, a ragged orange towel of his peeking out from a basket.
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The grief of losing a pet is a strange thing. We all know what it’s like to lose someone human, whether it be a family member or a friend. With people, there are always the conversations that don’t get to have a proper ending, like a song that stops abruptly before the final verse. Time never stops, but there is also never enough of it. I’ve hugged grandparents tight as they’ve withered away and visited sick friends with flowers in hand. The world spins on and on. With people, I know where I stand. We have memories that we’ve tucked away into mental vaults and a fundamental understanding of how we feel about one another.
A dog is different. We both care for each other, but they’ll never truly be able to grasp the impact that they’ve had on your life — the lessons you’ve learned from them and the hearts they’ve softened. They just pour all their love into you, always when you need it and even when you don’t deserve it. And they don’t really ask for anything in return.
Accompanying the grief of life without Barney is the unsettling knowledge that he won’t ever know how much he meant to me, regardless of how I tried to express it with every belly rub and game of tug-of-war. Missing him is like a single dark cloud in the sky blocking the sunlight. But when I think about how much I miss him, I reminisce about the time spent with my other family members who have passed away and how I’m thankful for simply knowing them and spending any amount of time in their presence.
Grieving is a process that never stops. Although we’re often told it gets easier, I don’t think it ever does. It’s an intangible, omnipresent type of sadness that, even when you suspect it’s gone, you realize it’s not. But I try to be thankful for it, as the only reason it’s so painful is because of all the goodness at the core.
So I’ll never stop grieving Barney, but I’m OK with that. It means I can appreciate all the affection he brought into my life and hold each moment with care.
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