Love and Loss with A Soul Animal

“Want to go outside, Willow?” I asked in a gentle voice.

She struggled to her feet, stepped forward, and stretched her painful back legs. Her hind knees had ACL surgery when she was young and they stiffened as she aged.

Willow came to live with me in 2009 when she was eight weeks old. A snuggly brown puppy became my Soul Animal and brought new joy to my grieving heart after my husband Vic’s death. Over the years, she became an aging old lady with white paws and snout. She showed her age in a few ways but still rallied, eager to explore new deer trails or walk our usual paths.

Willow at eight weeks

Until recently, she loved to run, especially downhill. She loved rolling on her back with legs flailing in the air with joy. Suddenly, it became obvious it was too painful for her to keep going.

My young black pup Disco sensed her beloved friend had changed and stopped playing rough. Disco could read Willow’s cues. Willow was ten when I adopted Disco. I trusted sweet Willow would befriend a new dog, but I’d never had a Lab or any dog live past 12. Willow was almost 14 this spring. Until last week, she loved to eat and stroll around the yard by herself, but her favorite was a family hike. We took one or two short hikes a day and she was usually ahead of me. Until the last few days.

Disco & Willow

When she wasn’t sleeping, Willow watched me, lying  on one of many dog beds scattered around the house. When I moved, she followed. She’d never been a needy dog, but suddenly she needed to be near me.

Was her hearing poor like mine? It was hard to tell since she slept deeply with soft snores, but when a car pulled in the driveway she woke up and looked out the window.  She rarely barked unless she wanted in or out. Did she have vision problems? Probably, but she could spot a deer or rabbit across the field.

2014, photo by Chad Lieberman

Her wounded back legs began to spasm, but every pain killer prescribed by the vet gave her extreme digestive distress, so I gave her CBD oil and an herb called Boswellia for joint inflammation. My friend in Arizona sent flower essences. Whatever I did worked for a while. Until it didn’t.

“Want a cookie, Willow?” I asked quietly, testing her hearing. Her head popped up and she looked at me expectantly. Young Disco ran from the other room for her treat. Then a few days ago, Willow stopped eating.

I didn’t try to prolong Willow’s life. She took care of that without my help. Gentle Willow, my healing companion through times of deepest grief, was a comfort and a soul friend. Over just a few days, she lost her will to eat, her legs became unsteady, her breath was labored, and her mouth was ulcered. It hurt to say goodbye, but she was miserable and I could offer mercy. Our vet came to the house so Willow could die at home.

I wasn’t ready, but Willow was. Outside, lying in the grass, we said goodbye.



Do you have a healing relationship with a pet? I feel the Artemis archetype within in my love for the forest and my dogs. My kind vet Dr. Vivien Surman helped us through this transition with calm patience. We let Willow choose her spot and my old girl lay on her side on the grass in the sun. She was trusting, peaceful, and ready with me at her side. My friend Jill Swenson and her dog were here offering comfort to me and to Disco. May we all be so fortunate when it’s our time to die.

For a post about the Greek Goddess Artemis, see Inspired by Artemis, Lured by Joy. For a post about dogs as healing companions, see Soul Animals.

  1. Oh, oh, oh my dearest Elaine, I’m typing in tears! I’m deeply saddened to hear of Willow’s passing. I know we never met but I’ve followed her life with you for many years now and loved her dearly. It’s good to know that Jill was with you at the time and Daisy no doubt consoled you and Disco in different ways. Thank you for sharing your beloved Willow’s life and death with us for all these years. I miss her already.

    All your photos are wonderful! Oh, how cute was gentle Willow as a puppy! I love Chad’s photo the most as you both look so happy together, grinning away! I remember you sharing news of Willow indoors, looking out at birds at your feeders or spotting a deer at the edge of the forest. Thank you for documenting all these small details, maybe some will find a way into your new soul missive. Love and light and hugs, Deborah.

    • It hurts, Deborah, but Willow lived almost fourteen years and had a short time of suffering. I’m grateful for that and grateful she could die lying in the grass with me holding her back. I’m sad, of course, but she had the best life and she came to me when I needed joy and healing. She gave me both. She also had the best death we could wish for. Chad is my website designer and he asked me to bring my dog for photos because my dog would make me smile. It was a smart move on his part and it worked. I have a few good photos from that day. I’m also glad Disco had a familiar dog around. Since Jill and Daisy left, I have to put Disco on leash to get her on the trail because she doesn’t want to leave the house without Willow. That will change. Her brother is coming to hike tomorrow and that will change things at least temporarily. Love and gratitude to you.

  2. These beautiful, velvet-furred creatures give so much comfort just by being their uncomplicated, loving selves. All this in return for good care and companionable activities with the humans who need them in return. They seem to become mirrors – or amplifiers – of our souls.

    Elaine, I eagerly followed all the links you provided to other links…and look forward to your stories as chapters woven into a new book…

    • Thank you, Myra. Willow was a sweetie and came when I needed joy in life. She provided it, but so did Disco and Disco is still here going through loss with me. I’m still writing about Monarchs and that’s my priority. Much more is needed and it’s still evolving. Meanwhile, Disco and I will get through this rough spot together and then I’ll see what happens next. Today I’m grateful for warmth, sunshine, and a bluebird female building a nest. Love to you.

  3. I’m on a blogging break, but when I saw the title I had to offer my condolences. Pets are people too, and Willow was certainly that to you. Even at eight weeks, I can see the kindness in Willow’s eyes.

    Hugs to you and Disco, Elaine! (((( )))

    • Thank you, Marian. You deserve a blogging break. I’m sad, but I’m relieved Willow is no longer in pain. She was ready and wagged her tail when the vet arrived. We couldn’t have asked for a calmer death for a dog or a human. Disco is getting used to her new life, plus Willow didn’t interact with her much for the last month except on walks. Willow slept when she wasn’t eating or walking and the hikes got shorter in the last weeks. This is part of the natural sacred cycle of life and a teaching for me. I haven’t read your book which awaits me, but maybe I’ll have time now. With love.

  4. Oh my goodness, Elaine, my heart is breaking, yet holding all of you at the same time. Even though I don’t know you, out here in California. I wrote to you about 6 years ago when I lost one of my angel animals and I had come across your book and your TED talk, and it helped me. I would like to share a favorite quote of mine from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess’:
    “How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.”
    Much love to you and Disco.. and Willow. Fly free, sweet soul.
    Maggie B

    • Thank you, Maggie. I’m glad my book and TEDx talk were helpful. Willow was a big part of soothing grief then.

      What an insightful quote. Willow understood. Disco knew something strange was happening, but it will take her longer to understand how much her life has changed and that her mama-friend Willow won’t return. They don’t need words to understand, but Disco needs time. Words are my human ailment. With love.

  5. All I can say, or bear to say, is I’m sorry. My beloved Kelbi, spaniel, died in 2021. She lived to move with me into a new house and spared me the trauma of being alone here for a few months. I believe she saved my life after my beloved husband Pete died, in 2012, by being there, needing walks, providing me with the will to live. This is a hard loss for you.

    • What else can we say, Jan? I’m sorry is plenty and I know you understand and know the comfort of a dog after a husband’s death. Willow saved me from despair and was always ready to explore the forest which is my healing place. Willow’s death is painful, but I’m OK. Major concern now is to soften the blow for my young dog, but her brother will be here tomorrow. They were abandoned pups, but were fostered together, so it’s wonderful they completely trust each other and can still run and play together. I expect that to be a big help for Disco. Thank you for your kind message.

  6. It is heartbreaking, dear Elaine. I know it well; as a young man, I always used to bring a dog home from the street with me. Unfortunately, there was (and still is) no chance for the wandering animals to have a home in Iran, and I couldn’t leave them alone when they followed me. My mother wasn’t amused but said if I took responsibility, she would not complain. Those days I found out how much dogs are aware of their environments. I know how hard it is to lose such a friend, and I appreciate your grief.

    • Thanks, Aladin. Your experience was wrenching. There are so many struggling street animals in this world. I can only imagine how hard the situation is in Iran and also in Ukraine where they suffer without love or food or care. Willow lived a good and especially long life and came to my life when I needed her. When she needed knee surgery, I could pay for it and help her recover. Her death is sad, but not tragic as it would be if I were younger and more naive about the circle of life. Dogs are so in touch with the physical and feeling environment. With prayers for Iran.

  7. RIP Willow, true love never dies.

  8. Oh, Elaine. My heart breaks for your loss. I know how much Willow meant to you. You and Disco will lean on and support each other as you adjust to your new family configuration. I know that you anticipated all of this but it doesn’t make the pain any easier to bear. Hugs and much love to you.

    • Thank you, Cathy. This had been coming for a while and a month ago I wrote a piece about how Willow was hanging on. I never posted it as it became clear there was too much suffering for her to endure and she was asking for help. Thanks for your loving words and I’ll take that hug with gratitude.

  9. Elaine so very sad at news of Willows passing. I know the aches of the heart at these moments. I am remembering all the wonderful pictures you have posted of Willow romping with you in the fields and woods. Much love and big warm hugs.

    • Thank you, Carol. I’m sad but this is the nature of life as we age and human and animal friends get sick. I feel my dogs are teachers in how to accept mortality. Willow was the best. Love to you and a hug sent your way.

  10. I am so sorry that Willow has died I know she was a member of your family and she will be missed. Animals are so good at loving us it’s hard to remember when they were not part of our lives.

    • Thank you, Pam. My first dog Amigo helped me through my dad’s death when I was 14. Willow helped me after Vic’s death. Now Disco and I are helping each other. I’m glad I adopted Disco when she was 8 weeks old and she learned gentleness from Willow, because she’s a comfort now. May all be well in your world.

  11. Dear Elaine
    much ❤️ and deep gratitude for your compassionate accompanying of Willow’s passing.
    Your question has brought back memories of our cat, Samson, who was with us for 18 years. He was our son’s pet and I know they had a warm relationship which would have helped through times of turmoil in his teenage years.
    Our daughter with two sons brought a female pup, Maisie, into their lives about 7 years ago. Max, our grandson was about 12 then and he has been warm, consistent and constant towards Maisie’s needs.
    I am sure their relationship is a contributing factor towards Max’s more spontaneous expressions of warmth and understanding of reciprocity in relationships.
    On my visits to their house, I know how good it is to have unconditional friendliness expressed towards me. I am certain that when I am present for her welcome, Maisie and I both feel seen and heard.

    • What a lovely story of human and dog love and reciprocity, Patricia. My son who lives nearby came to my home on the morning Willow died and sat near her. Willow slowly rose from her bed to move close to him and pushed her head into his body while wagging her tail. I took photos of their last meeting. My other son lives too far away for a quick visit or he would have been here, too. He loves dogs and has two. I’ve never had a long close relationship with a cat, but I know many people do. For me, since I was a young child, it’s been dogs. Now I need to help Disco feel seen and heard and we’re doing well so far.

  12. Dearest Elaine. When I came upon this post I was terrified to read on. I’m so very sorry. I started to silently cry as I read on, and was blessed by the comfort of Finnegan who senses my emotions constantly. What can I say to help you throught this sadness? I know that Willow was blessed to have you, she enjoyed her life completely, lived her life to the fullest. Take what little comfort you can from knowing you were her blessing, and she yours. Run free Willow….

    • Thank you for trusting enough to read on. It’s a sad part of life, but her death wasn’t terrifying. My young dog Disco might not agree with that, but she didn’t witness the death. Now she’s unusually subdued. When I brought a Lab puppy home in 2009, I didn’t expect her to live 14 years, so I’m grateful for all that healing and joyful time together. She had a great life and I had a great life with her, plus she helped me civilize my rescue pup Disco. Willow and Disco loved to run free.

  13. Sooo sad for you Elaine. I’m glad though that she died at home with you with her. What a wonderful friend and companion she’s been. Disco will miss her too. As will we all – she brightened our days when you included photos of her in your posts. May she romp merrily among the dog places elsewhere –

    • Thank you, Susan. I’m sad but hold this with perspective since Willow lived the best life a dog could have and died gently. I miss her, but it was time. It’s a harder adjustment for Disco, but I trust that will work out after she has playdates with dog friends. The first one is tomorrow but I’ll take Disco for a hike in the forest soon. So far she wants to come back home and find Willow, so I have to walk her on leash which isn’t our usual way. Disco knows how to play and the playdate with her brother was arranged before I knew Willow was dying. We’ll adjust. I hope your journey was wonderful.

  14. It takes courage to let go. You know that so well from your loving journey with Vic. And now, you were able to offer Willow the same gift. It is an unselfish act. It is kind. You are all of those things Elaine. Strong . Unselfish. Kind. Willow helped you in your time of need and now you repaid the favor. All is right in the universe. May you and Disco and good friends like Jill provide you with the love to fill the void that you are faced with. I wish you well friend.

    • Thank you for your comforting message, Kim. Willow was a sweet inspiration, and her last days both broke and opened my heart. Even though she hurt, she rallied for slow walks until a few days before her death. It’s what we’d always done together for healing, but she was no longer able to do anything without spasms of pain. It was wonderful to have a kind vet who had known Willow all her life and could help me. It was also wonderful to have Jill here and her dog to reassure Disco and me. Now, five days later, Disco searches for her older sister, but her searching is less desperate. Today Disco’s sibling who was fostered with her as a young abandoned puppy will come to my place for a run in the woods. I look forward to their happiness and joy. May you have a gentle day.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. My 13 year old chocolate lab had to be put down yesterday and my experience was like yours. He went peacefully with me at his side. He was also there for me when I needed him most. I miss him dearly but would not want to have him suffer anymore. He told me also he was ready. I am sad but I know i did the right thing

    • Pat, I’m sure you did the right thing for your Lab. They’re stoic when they’re hurting, but after a while the suffering is too much for them to endure. Your experience sounds much like mine. If we weren’t sad, there would be something missing in our hearts. Thanks for commenting about our canine friends, the best teachers of love and loyalty.

  16. I wish my lovely Labrador Moss could have had an exit like that. Neither of us were ready. My happy boy was skipping around my feet at breakfast but it was his last dawn, and it was not foreseen, that he would fall critically ill and pass away that same day. I wish I could have that day back, just so I could give him the good death he truly deserved. It will forever haunt me, his last day. I do miss my lovely sweet boy so very much.

    • Oh, Meredith. I’m so sorry you had a hard experience and didn’t feel ready or that your dog was ready. It hasn’t always gone so well with my dogs over the years, because when it comes to death, we aren’t in charge. Sometimes death is hard and we don’t see it coming. I’m sure you miss him every waking minute, and I hope you can process the difficulties of his death. I’ve had young dogs die suddenly but this time I was lucky with an elder dog who left life gently. We give them all the love and help we have to give, but can’t always save them. I hope you can forgive yourself and cherish the gift of love you experienced together. Peace to you.

  17. Oh, Elaine. It’s late but I just now saw this and had to offer my condolences. I’m in tears from reading about Willow’s death. I feel as if I knew her after all these years of reading so many beautiful and touching stories about her. I love how you knew and and respected her needs. As if she talked to you with her behavior and you understand her completely through your acute observation and intuition.

    Bear and I had that kind of relationship. He let me know when he was ready and his death was as peaceful as Willow’s. For six months after that I often awoke in the morning to his loud bark lingering at the edge of my dreams. As if he was asking to be let out. I have no explanation but the unbreakable bonds of love.

    I’m so glad Jill was with you at the end. It must have been a comfort. My love goes out to you and Disco. How wise you were to add him to your family in preparation for this time. May you find comfort in his companionship.

    With love and sympathy, Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. Willow was the best friend and companion and her death was a teaching in surrender. It was easy to see in the last days that she was in acute pain–and she was still sweet and gentle. I remember a little about Bear. Was he the dog who spent summers with you in North Carolina? I haven’t had dreams about Willow since her death, but wake up in the night feeling her absence. This is hardest and most confusing for Disco, but today she has a play date with her brother, so there will be ecstasy in my forest as they run and chase each other up and down the trails.

      It was wonderful Jill was here with her dog who gave a little canine continuity for Disco while Jill comforted me. Willow’s death threw our work plans to the winds, but as Jill said, “This is just life.” We still got some work done and I know what needs to happen next with my ongoing butterfly project. I hope you get to the mountains this summer. Thanks for your kind note.

      • Now I remember your summer-winter pattern and having Bear and then Izzy with you in NC. Poor Izzy. That happened to Willow, too, along with surgery on both back legs and she couldn’t jump in the car anymore. It was another reason I was glad the vet came here. One nice thing about having a medium size mutt is Disco is less likely to have ACL problems. Yes, we love them and agree to their shorter life span when we invite them into our lives. It’s worth the grief, at least for me. With my help and visiting dog friends, Disco is adjusting faster than I am.

      • I remember Bear now and also Izzie. Willow couldn’t jump in the car anymore and she was too heavy for me to lift, so she and Disco stayed home. I’m now teaching Disco if I leave her alone a short time, I’ll return. Bit by bit, she’ll learn to be an only dog.

  18. Oh dear Elaine, this is such heartbreaking news, I could feel myself welling up with emotion as I read your post. I loved seeing your pictures of Willow out on her walks and can see from your photos and words over the years that she was deeply loved, a loyal, loving, constant companion and a great balm for your grief after losing Vic. You gave here a wonderful life and the kindest end of life that any of us could wish for – to be in a place we choose with those that we love. I hope that Disco gently adapts to her new life without her soul sister and that her companionship helps sooth your grief. Sending much love and light to you.

    • It is heart-breaking, Lin, but this is what happens with pets. Willow lived a long life and had a gentle death without long suffering. She wagged her tail when the vet arrived, sprawled on the grass and held her paw out to the vet in a deeply moving gesture of surrender. I loved her and she helped me find joy after Vic’s death, but it was time to let her go. She was good at giving and receiving love, the sweetest dog I’ve ever had. I never heard her growl, but if Disco got too rowdy or rough, Willow averted her gaze and Disco got the message. Disco is adapting and sticking close to me. We walked in the forest this morning with her littermate and his owner, so that’s the beginning of reconnecting with what Disco loves. Thank you for all the sweetness you share in images and words.

  19. My dear Elaine, I’m so sorry to learn this sad news. I know how much your beloved Willow means to you, and I know how much this hurts. If we are fortunate enough, our animal companions teach us some of life’s most valuable lessons: how to live a long and happy life, how to grow old gracefully, and how to meet death willingly and peacefully. I know you already know this. I am thinking of you, and sending thoughts of comfort and healing to your broken heart. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. Willow had a great life and was a loving companion. I liked taking her to Hospicare when I volunteered there, pre-pandemic. Willow taught me the art of surrender and graceful aging and she was a gentle influence on my young mother-less SPCA dog Disco. I’m sad, but this is what we take on with our pets and I’m glad we had so long together. Thank you for the healing balm of your love and kindness.

  20. I’m sorry, Elaine. May Willow rest well.

    You’re so correct about us taking this on when we adopt pets. We know, but deny it for a long time. In Boston today, it hit almost 90 degrees, and I noticed for the first time that our dog, Spencer, (who just turned 11) was really negatively affected by the heat. Panting after walking just 10 minutes. Made me think. But where would we be without these precious creatures?

    • Thank you, Mary. I know Willow is no longer suffering, my young dog Disco is adjusting, and so am I, but more slowly. Disco still watches out the window to see if Willow is coming home. I was concerned about summer heat because Willow panted hard in warm weather and walks became difficult for her in heat. I didn’t know how she’d make it through a hot summer even with lots of swimming in Seneca Lake, but she chose to skip another summer. May Spencer have a long life.

      • Sending lots of love to you and Disco, Elaine. The adjustment period is difficult. I’ll keep all of you in my thoughts.


  21. Sigh. So sorry to read this. I loved, loved, loved the pictures of you tramping the woods with your puppies. Sweet Willow. You will be in my thoughts.

    • Thank you, Larry. Willow lived a long good life filled with love, treats and walks until her last days. As you might guess, I’ll still be tramping in the woods with Disco and we’ll adjust to life without Willow. I’m sure you’ve noted how much easier it is for many of us to share grief about our pets rather than other kinds of grief. I saw this when I volunteered for hospice. Maybe it’s the closeness to body and feeling, but I was surprised by the large response to this piece. With blessings.

  22. Life is a gift but it seems even more precious as we watch and aid those we love. My cats and dogs have always been -art of the family so I know that Willow will be missed. May all the wonderful memories you shared through the years make you smile!

    • I know you know, Joni. I miss Willow, but I’ve had pets since I was a child, so I’ve experienced this before. Willow came at a time when I needed a gentle grief companion. She was a terrific friend and also a wonderful big sister to Disco who is still searching for Willow, but with less urgency than a few days ago. For now the memories bring a mix of tears and smiles, but I have hundreds of photos of Willow from our first meeting when she was six weeks old until her death. I love those images.

  23. I’m so sorry, Elaine, to hear of Willow’s passing. What a lucky dog to have you as her family. It was a huge adjustment when our dog Shaggy died last November. I miss him every day. They become such a part of our lives, and I’m grateful for the memories, as I’m sure Willow’s memories are giving you comfort. Sending lots of love and hugs your way, C

    • Thank you, Cheryl. Willow was a lucky and long-lived dog, but I saw her weakening the last six months or more. I miss her for many reasons, but especially her calm temperament. My younger dog Disco is more high strung and hasn’t known life without Willow. Willow searches and searchs, but she’ll adjust. We’ll both adjust. Thanks again for your loving hugs and kindness.

  24. Oh, dear Elaine, my heart is breaking as I read this. Yes, Willow had the best life a dog could have, and she has left huge, empty dog spaces behind for you and Disco.

    Those photos of all of you are so beautiful and I am sending love and light your way.

    • Thank you, Anne. Disco spends lots of time searching inside and out, but yesterday she went for a walk with me off leash. Without Willow, she’s wanted to head back home when she wasn’t leashed. I imagine she assumed Willow was waiting for us at home. Willow came into my life when I needed her gentle affection and healing sweetness to endure the first years of grief. She was the best, and I’m grateful she didn’t suffer for long. We took a slow walk in the forest two days before she died because she wanted to go. Sending love back your way.

  25. Oh, that warms my heart to know that Disco was able to be off leash on her walk yesterday. Somehow the ways animals express their grief puts me even more in touch with my own.

    And I also love knowing that Willow wanted to go for a walk in the forest two days before she died. Our beloved animals give us and teach us so much.

    I will place a special rock for Willow underneath our beautiful weeping willow.

    • Thanks for remembering Willow. The vet’s office just called to tell me I can pick up her ashes. I plan to bury them in the woods and a local friend etched a stone for her without me asking. It’s beautiful and such a kind gift. It’s hitting me hard this morning that Sweet Willow is dead, but it was obviously time for her since she was falling apart in so many ways all at once. I couldn’t believe she wanted to take that last walk, but walking together was our healing joy. That was her last hurrah and gift to me.

  26. Elaine, so sorry to read this news, yet I suspected I knew what was up from the opening phrases. It sounds like Willow had a dignified death, and I can only hope the same for my little girl cat who I have had since 2007. She has been with me through the long darkness of 2017 and beyond, and while she’s still playful and her usual self, I detect limping from arthritis every so often, but at 16, she’s bound to have some of it. And my folks are visibly worse this year which is another speeding train bearing down on me. I dread the times to come, but as we know, they will come nonetheless. I hope I am equal to it.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and the photos.

    • Thank you, Joe. Willow was old and failing, so this wasn’t unexpected. I’m still weepy and I miss her. She was calm to the end. A dignified Queen. I hope I do half as well when it’s my turn to say goodbye to my body. Cats can live so long, so I wish your girl continued health without severe arthritis. Our pets are such great companions when we’re grieving.

      My mom died when Vic was sick and then there was Vic’s mom who lived 10 years after he died. We don’t know how end of life will go until we get there. but I’m grateful one of my son’s now lives a 5 minute drive from me. I don’t need his help now, but it’s likely that I will sometime. I try not to dread the future because it never turns out the way I expect and I’m always dreading the wrong thing. Instead I focus on the beauty of nature and the small kindnesses I experience, often from neighbors I don’t know well. Take good care of yourself.

Leave a Reply