He’s Only A Dog: Love, Loss, and Continuing Bonds


Cousins Barbara, Sue, and Jack Ware with my brother Jim, Amigo, and me, 1954

“Where’s Amigo?” I asked Mom.

“Isn’t he in the backyard?” she replied.

“No. Someone left the gate open.”

“Oh, don’t worry, honey. He’ll come back, he always does.” True, he always did.

I walked through my neighborhood calling, “A-meee-go, A-meee-go.” I asked neighbors if they’d seen my little terrier.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Mom said. “He always comes back.”

The next day, I called the police and animal warden. I rode my bicycle around town for hours and looked in ditches. Maybe he was hit by a car. Maybe someone picked him up. I made signs and stapled them to telephone poles. But my white terrier mutt with wiry hair and a few brown spots was gone. No dog to sleep by my bed and snuggle next to me as I did my homework near the heating grate. No Amigo. No Friend.

Dad, 1957

Dad, 1957

In 1960, a year after Dad died, Mom and I had moved to this brick two-bedroom corner house in Dearborn Michigan with a fenced back yard. My brother was away at college. We saw him at Christmas and in the summer. Dad was rarely mentioned. No rituals, no remembrances, not one visit to the cemetery. Dad vanished after one last alarming look at a waxy body in a coffin. We did not cry.

My mother dealt with the death of the man she loved for half her life and nursed for twelve years by shutting down the past and moving on. She focused on her teaching career, night school classes, her investment club, and the John Robert Powers School of Modeling where she learned about make-up, navy suits, and the right spike pumps. She was 45 and gorgeous. I hardly knew her.

I ate TV dinners and chicken pot pies by myself many nights, although Mom came home by the time I went to bed. Our relationship was friendly and loving in a new distant way. She let me do what I wanted and, as a 16 year old, I loved freedom. After finishing homework, I spent evenings with my girlfriend Regi cruising for boys at White Castle Burgers and A&W Rootbeer. We were a hit in Regi’s red Mustang.

Amigo was my link to my old life. Dad brought home a mutt puppy when I was five. Mom was anxious because Dad was sick. She didn’t want a dog, but relented. My brother and I spoon fed Amigo when he was a pup and let him lick the dog food cans clean. He was my constant through loss, moves, and changes in schools and friends. When I opened the door, Amigo wagged, snuffled, and danced. I counted on him.

With Jim, Mom, and Amigo, 1957

With Jim, Mom, and Amigo, 1957

When it was clear Amigo would not return, anguish broke down my defensive walls. I wept and sobbed.

“It’s OK, honey. He’s only a dog,” Mom reassured me on her way out the door.

But Amigo was my friend, the one who leaned into me when I was lonely, the one I could hug without being turned away, the one who waited for me. He was my connection to Dad who loved Amigo, too. My grief for Amigo and Dad pooled into a flood I could not dam.

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset, honey,” Mom said with a worried look, “but I’m sure you’ll be all right.”

No, she couldn’t understand. I had surrendered to grief and she could not. She saw tears as my weakness. I now know they were my strength.


Have you grieved over or been healed by a pet? For more stories about dogs as healers, see Goodbye, My Miss Daisy and My Hector Home.

  1. Ah, yes, Elaine, I have been there, too ~ many times. And when an animal goes missing, I think it is especially painful because of the uncertainty involved. I remember one Christmas Eve many years ago, when my beloved cockapoo Muffin escaped from our yard. He went off hunting in the woods somewhere and was gone for four days. We searched for him over and over again, to no avail. That Christmas was the saddest and most painful holiday I had ever known. I was inconsolable. How does one resolve that kind of grief? Was he dead? Was he hurt and lying in some cold, dark ditch somewhere? Had someone picked him up and stolen him? Would I ever find out what had happened to him? How could I go on with celebrations when my heart was breaking? Shouldn’t we search for him one more time? How could I be so upset over a DOG? Eventually Muffin did come home, but I’ll never forget how I felt when he’d gone missing those four days. And when years later he was hit by a car and died in my arms, I held him in my arms for hours, until his body was stiff, crying for him and wailing for me ~ and re-visiting and feeling the pain of every loss I’d ever known. I too learned to surrender to my grief and welcome those tears as a sign of strength: priceless lessons our precious animal companions have given to both of us. ♥

    • Thank you for your heart-filled story, Marty. Muffin, where are you? Amigo, where are you? These dogs are our grief teachers, something you know so well in your work.

      In writing this piece, I felt a surge of empathy for my mother who did not grieve her losses until the early stages of Alzheimer’s when she was 80. It was the way death was handled in the 1950s and the way her parents handled sorrow. Try to smile and make everyone feel we’re all OK. My mom didn’t have a therapist, a bereavement group, good friends, hospice support, or on-line grief loss group. She was on her own and she froze. When I think of all the help I’ve had, I am sad about her struggle to handle a devastating loss. I’m grateful death and bereavement have come out of the closet–or at least they’re beginning to.

    • OMG Marty and Elaine. You two have me bawling, remembering my Salty, my Mike, Chuckie … And don’t let me get started with the cats because the list is endless. I needed a good cry tonight. These blessed friends were the only ones I talked to growing up. And the pain every time one went missing or died was horrendously beautiful. That I could love these creatures with all my heart was amazing as I did not witness love in my house. I’m sure my pets must have taught me about it.
      Thanks for bringing up the sad but sweet memories.

      • Robin, so many of us remember our pets as the love center of our childhood family. I didn’t live with cats until after I got married. I had some lovely cats, too, but when I wanted a hug, it was always the dog. My first dog after Amigo was Annie–more than 10 years after Amigo’s disappearance. Vic and I got Annie a black Lab when our first son was two years old, and he and/or I had dogs since. Many funny experiences, some very sad ones, but always love and learning about loss. Thanks for telling a few of your stories.

  2. Your losses started early in life Elaine, and the way your mom handled it reminds me of how my mother swept things under the carpet in an effort to not acknowledge. Perhaps your earlier loss was the beginning of your creativity and compassion. 🙂

    • My parents were very different emotionally. Even though my dad was sick, he was always affectionate and sweet. The desire to hide problems was so common in my parent’s generation. They’d been through the depression and World War II, and they wanted everything to be nice and look good. My parents hid the severity of my dad’s illness from everyone, including their kids. Since something in us knew anyway, the silence separated rather than united the family. And as I was growing up in the 60s, we all were trying different ways to do things. Our poor mothers. They tried to look like Katherine Hepburn, cook like Betty Crocker, and be sexy like Sophia Loren. It was not an easy time to express true feelings. Thanks for your kind and encouraging comment.

      • I grew up in the same hush, hush so I can empathize. Nothing was ever shared or discussed, I was the inquisitive child and my mother’s mission was to emulate Elizabeth Taylor with no interest in the Betty Crocker things. 🙂

        • Our souls must have needed other lessons, Debby. When my brother read this story, his comment was, “It’s a good thing children are resilient.” We humans learn to live life while carrying our wounds. This lesson was so strong after Vic died and remains strong. Sadness and loss are part of life, but we can still live with curiosity, creativity, and even joy. From where I stand now, I understand my mother’s desperation to find a new life and ignore the costs. She had so little emotional support while I’ve had so much.

          • You are truly a remarkable woman Elaine, I would be first in line for your book! 🙂

          • Thank you, Debby. I hope your project is moving forward and your treasure will be out soon. My mother-in-law took a bad fall (no broken bones, but lots of trauma) so I’ve spent the last couple of days getting her life sorted out with new aides and support. Always something in this life. I need to write my epilogue! I have deadlines! They will be met somehow or other.

  3. Hugs to you and Willow from robin and Suki

  4. Ah, Elaine, I love the history and pictures of you and your family and your dog Amigo. Heart-rending and heart-opening memories!! Thank you!!

    • Thanks for your sweet comment, Peggy. Now you understand Willow’s role in filling my longing for dog comfort. I love old family photos, too. My winter’s goal is to begin the process of digitalizing photos. (Notice I say “begin” to give myself an excuse to put this off.) I’ve done a little by taking photos out of old albums and scanning them for various blogs. Old photos have stories to tell.

  5. I love the way you weave in dialogue with the pictures, my style too.

    Yes, I have a “dog” story. We got a mutt for our children for companionship and, as many parents, to teach them the responsibility of caring for a pet. You can guess how that turned out.

    Well, as the children got older, their attention to “Me-too” became less and less, and the responsibility shifted to me. Mostly I regarded the dog as a burden, but when he died, I really missed him. In fact, I couldn’t walk down the “pet” aisle at the grocery store for months.

    Great story, Elaine.

    • Marian, my mom didn’t want another dog after Amigo and never had one again. I wanted a dog, but I was 16 and knew I would go off to college in less than two years. The dog would have been my responsibility, and in the 1960s, you couldn’t take your dog to college. Vic and I had cats after we were married. We got our first dog in the early 1970s after buying this land and home. Our oldest son was two. He and his wife have three dogs.

      Raising a dog is demanding. I understand why my mom wasn’t attached to dogs (she never had one as a child), but it sounds like you got attached despite yourself. Muddy paw prints, dog hair, need to go outside in snow storms, and a lust for disgusting smells. Dogs aren’t for everyone, but I melt when any dog looks me in the eye and wags its tail. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Thank you for sharing this poignant story, Elaine. I know the scenario well. I fell in love for the first time when I was 13..with a Persian cat I found in a ditch. I named him Precious, and oh, how I loved that cat. My mom and dad had divorced, but I was fortunate to have a grandma who lived with us and loved the cat, too.
    And though my Gam and I loved Precious, he didn’t seem to love anyone else. I can still see him stretched lengthwise along my Gam’s buffet, taking up every square inch. He was enormous, which made the fact that he hissed and growled at everyone except me and Gam all the worse.
    For some reason, Precious thought of everyone as an intruder. Many times, he backed my brother’s friends into a corner of the living room. Because he was so large and seemed so fierce, everyone feared him.
    He slept on my bed at night, followed me all around the house, and loved to lick my feet right before bedtime. As he did this, I would talk to him and tell him all my troubles, so he became my confidante, my secret sharer. Every day I rushed home from school and he’d be sitting on the buffet, his great tail swishing back and forth. Then, he bound down and make figure 8’s between my legs.
    We had a fish pond in our back yard with some large koi. Precious would stand at the edge of the pond and swat at the fish while I sat next to him and talked about my day. He’d purr as I talked and then curl up partially in my lap with most of his huge body draped on the border of the pond. We had great talks, he and I, for five joyous years. Best friends forever. Each year, he grew bigger and more protective, barely letting anyone get near me. My brother and his friends complained, wanted me to get rid of him. But, no! He was my Precious, and I loved him.
    I came home from school one afternoon, but Precious was not on the buffet. I searched the house with no luck. Then, I went to the back yard and found him in the fish pond. I’ll never understand how he drowned in that small pond.
    My grief over losing him overwhelmed me for weeks, and all the time I heard, “What’s the big deal? He was just a cat.”
    Just a cat. But, oh, so much more. My Precious.

    • What a poignant tale, Joy. Thanks for telling it. Crazy Precious. I’ve never heard of such a fierce cat. How horrifying to find him drowned in the pool. Oh I hear those words, “What’s the big deal? He was just a cat?” He was your companion and protector. He stuck with you through the hard times and was always there. As children and adults, we learn so much about love and loss from our pets. Again, thank you, Joy. I hope you’ve written elsewhere about the big guy Precious. It’s such a lovely story.

  7. Elaine, thank you for reminding us how one loss brings back others, and how healing our grieving is. I had a beloved dog I grew up with who I often thought was my only friend.

    When I was pregnant with my daughter, it was a cat I felt close to, and then the cat died. All these losses blend, and my eyes tear up.

    • They do blend, Lynne. These animals teach us so much about loss. My dog friend Willow is just 4 1/2. She’s in her prime, but likely surpass me in the aging process. She’s been my companion since a year after Vic’s death. I’ve never been this attached to a dog since Amigo, although I’ve loved many. Dogs remind me to enjoy and love what is at this very moment. Willow runs through the forest with great abandoned joy in her orange hunting season cape. Then she stops to roll in something disgusting. Happy, happy, happy. Another teacher. Thanks for reading my pieces and being so encouraging.

  8. You chronicle your life so well. I see much history and many stories in this one. Breaking with the way loss was role-modeled in your family was such a strong thing for such a young girl. I’m sure you weren’t feeling strong at the time!
    Telling our stories and sharing our life in pictures is such a wonderful way to share ourselves with others. It helps me “see” how the Elaine that I “know” grew into the person that I am so fond of:>)
    Like most of us, I have a book’s worth of pet stories, but am too teary to tell any at all yet.
    Thank you for sharing this.
    Warm hugs to you and Willow,

    • Thank you, Patti. We grow fond of each other through our meeting in cyberspace. I love your photos and stories and getting to know you.

      Since I wasn’t home in time for yesterday’s sunset at 4:30, I hoped for a beautiful sunset today because the afternoon was bright, but it’s gray with just a little streak of pink. Still beautiful, but not much to photograph. I’ll have to follow your “amazement guidelines” and just watch.

      I can’t hug Willow for you until I give her a bath. She joyously rolled in something nasty–dog perfume. But I’ll hug me and send one back to you.

  9. As the old saying goes, dog is God spelt backwards! My dogs have given me the unconditional love that is so hard for humans to give. They don’t greet you, when you come home from work with, “I had such a stinking day I don’t want to talk to anyone!” They are just so happy that you’re home! I’ve loved my dogs even when I’ve had to go out in the middle of the hurricane because CJ needed to go! What she gives back in love, affection and companionship makes up for the times when I’m exhausted and have to drag myself ourside for her. To be loved by a pet is wonderfully healing.

    • Jeanne, you know I agree. My 4-year-old Willow is always ready for a ride, a walk, or just to hang out. And she’s always happy to see me. “What’s next, Ma?” All my dogs have been good friends and all have supported me through hard times, but Amigo, Daisy (who was our dog when my husband died), and Willow stand out as the best therapy dogs ever. They didn’t get sick of my tears and put up with years of grieving without complaint. No matter how sad I was, they always made me happier.

      Thanks for reading my post and saying a little about your world. Watch out for those hurricanes!

  10. I had almost finished writing and it disappeared….I don’t know enough about technology o try to find it…..anyway when my first dog Chris died one day when I was in 4th or 5th grade, Mom picked us up at school that day which was an exceedingly rare occurrence since we walked the ten minutes to school every day no matter what the weather. If the weather was REALLY bad, school was cancelled. So that morning of the day Chris died I noticed him panting heavily….I learned later that he hobbled throughout the neighborhood visiting neighbors that had always been good to him (no leash laws back then). He was saying his goodbyes and his thankyous. My Mom was a very stoic personality, an amazing hostess (she would prepare food for 50 people all by herself and she was awesome at it and she looked like a movie star and she was very distant emotionally till she was very very old – near death in fact) But, she was hysterically sad when she lost her pet dogs — in my lifetime she had 3 Geman Shepherds all named Chris. Go figure. I loved all my pets including a cat that had 13 litters of cats before she died. Dad would gently carry all the kittens on a blanket in a box as he walked to work and neighbors would take them home….and we kept one now and then. Then we ran out of neighbors and Fluffy the mommy kitty, died. Wouldn’t you after 13 times? Now I am on my second very own doggie : MannyPearl. Some of you may remember my first wonderful doggie named Charlie. Tim and Devon invited me over to see their puppies one evening and that was it. Charlie lived till I got pregnant with Rommia. We have had MannyPearl for almost 7 years. And the never ending loving and grieving continues. There is no way to escape grief unless you ignore it and turn to stone on some level. Excuse me while I have a good cry for all the grief that is shoved down.

    • Lisa, you make me laugh and cry. It’s hard not to shove grief down sometimes, but we know a good cry lightens the load. Plenty to be sad about–always. But we have those patient family pets. Interesting that your mom was emotionally distant, except with pets, and interesting she would name all the dogs Chris. That name must have carried much meaning and comfort for her.

      The day my dog Leo died, he walked around the yard in a circular fashion, lying down on his slow journey of saying goodbye, resting in the doghouse he rarely used before continuing his journey. We finally convinced him to come inside where he died. Vic put Leo’s big body in a wheelbarrow and took him for a last ride around the yard before we buried him by the garden in a grave filled with old deer bones, dog toys, fetch balls, treats, and a few daffodils from me. How precious these animal are to us, and how they teach us about life and death.

      Thanks for your beautiful stories, Lisa. I commiserate about making a comment somewhere and losing it in the middle. Grateful you tried again.

      • Well when I excused myself to have a good cry for all the grief that was shoved down, what I was meaning to say was more about having a good cry on behalf of all the grief around us that gets shoved down…..I am sure I still have my own personal grief that hasn’t been processed yet but for the most part, I have cried buckets and hopefully worked through a lot of grief in my time so far…..oh I know there’s lots more to come because I deeply love the people and animals in my life and how can we not experience more grief if we choose to love deeply? The wayI see it is that when we choose to love our family, friends and animals with a deep heart, well we also sign up to deeply grieve their loss….time to go to sleep….zzzzzzzz

  11. I was so touched by Joy’s story today. Our daughter lost their beloved cat a couple of days ago. It had been a rescue cat from the Jamestown, California, Harley Davidson dealership where my son-in-law worked, so Sabrina was kind of “his” very special baby. They didn’t have children of their own, so he poured his love into Sabrina and Cabo, their other big house cat.
    A week or so ago they noticed that Sabrina was very thin. Then she got very, very thin….. and on December 3rd, while Kari was at work, Sabrina took a turn for the worse – having seizures, etc. However, Kari was home, she was at work until late, so she didn’t see all this. Later, around midnight, Sabrina got extremely ill, disoriented and fell off the TV, landing in a heap and not moving. Kari got her up and Brad told Kari it was time to “go” which meant time to put Sabrina down since she was so very ill and the Vet had not been able to diagnose her problem yet. Off they went to the emergency vet that night, but Kari was so distraught that the vet said they needed to “get on the same page” about what they planned to do about Sabrina. They took her home and she had another seizure or stroke only minutes after getting home, so back to the vet….. where they had her mercifully put down. She had lost 4 lbs in just a matter of days, so it wasn’t just a whim.
    A woman at Kari’s work, who is a dog lover made the mistake of almost saying one day, “it’s only a cat!”. How horrible. Never say that to anyone about anything they love. Thanks to Joy Ross Davis for her touching story. flo

    • Flo, I just found your comment in my spam file. I hope I didn’t miss other comments in there and erase them. But here is yours. Retrieved from the computer trash bin.

      I love Joy’s story and all these stories about our pet loss, even though they are sad. I’m sorry about your daughter and son-in-law’s Sabrina. I’ve also had animals become deathly sick almost overnight. They don’t complain and we don’t get the seriousness of the situation, but in trying to save them, it’s hard to find time or space for a peaceful goodbye. It sounds like everyone made all the right choices under pressure, but that sense of panic can be full of “what ifs” and “are we making the right decisions.” I hope your daughter and her husband know they loved this animal and treated her with care and mercy. And they’re lucky to have your understanding on their side.

      Thanks for sharing your cautionary tale. Never, ever, ever say, “It’s only a cat, dog, horse, rabbit, or hamster.” It was someone’s “soul animal,” and he or she was part of the family.

      • Of course you noticed that I said, Kari was at home (when the seizures were happening), but I meant she was at work.

        • Flo, in the next phrase you said she was at work until late, so I knew she wasn’t witnessing her cat’s distress. (Ah, these typos!) Your story was clear, and the grief and sense of “what ifs,” too. Thanks, Flo.

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