What Grieving Our Family Dog Taught Me About Unconditional Love

When you bring home an animal, you’re signing yourself up to be loved more than you’ve ever been loved before – and for guaranteed heartbreak.
The author, with Lola
Courtesy of the author
The author, with Lola

If I gave you £1 every time you’d pointed at a dog and said to the person next to you (or, you know, yourself) “Aah, look at that dog!”, I’m confident we could both eat a Greggs sausage roll (vegan or not) every day for a year. At least.

We’re a nation of dog lovers, and it goes without saying that dogs are one of life’s greatest joys. But here’s the thing: unless you adopt, rescue or buy your dog the day before you die, it’s highly probable you are going to outlive them. So the moment we decide to bring home an animal who will depend on us and love us more than anyone has ever loved us, we’re also signing up for guaranteed heartbreak.

A year ago, said guaranteed heartbreak came for me, when my mum called with the crushing news that our family dog, Lola, had fallen asleep for the last time.

Four years and nine months prior, Mum had decided to ‘pop down’ to visit me at university. Highly suspicious behaviour – was I in trouble or was it bad news? She said, “I’ve got something to tell you.” I remember saying: “Oh god, are you pregnant?”

Before I had the chance to implode at the thought of having to relate to a sibling from a different generation, she rolled her eyes: “No, I’m not pregnant, Emily. We’re getting another dog.”

“Lola arrived home a few weeks later. An hour after that, I did too. And one minute after that, I fell in love.”

First, relief. Then pure joy. Then a feeling this might be a secret scheme to get me visiting home more.

Lola arrived home a few weeks later. An hour after that, I did too. And one minute after that, I fell in love. Like our other family dog, Didi, Lola was a shar pei – a bundle of wrinkles with soft, dark brown fur, a black tongue and small ears folded in the shape of a samosa. At first glance, she looked like a velvet loaf of chocolate bread.

For the next four and a half years, Lola would follow Didi around the house, sleep on his bed, and nudge him with toys to get his attention. He showed her where the squirrels lived in the garden, and how to put her paws up on the windowsill so she could keep an eye on what the evil postman was up to. He chased her on the beach, where she loved digging holes, nuzzling her nose right into the sand, barking a ludicrously high-pitched non-dog bark and quickly moving on to dig a new hole – tail wagging the whole time.

But last February, Lola became less keen on her food, and lost so much weight her bones were showing. She had test after test at the vets, and even had the soft fur on her wiggly bottom shaved so they could test her bone marrow for a tumour. But Lola never stopped wagging her tail, which I’m sure was the dog version of putting on a brave face.

One July evening, Lola collapsed in the hallway after a seizure. And the next morning at the vets, she went to sleep for the last time and then she was gone. Just like that. It had been a tumour after all – just not where they’d been looking for one.

Courtesy of the author

I didn’t believe Mum when she called. I hadn’t consider that there was a chance we might lose Lola – I just assumed she’d get better. But I was so wrong. I sobbed inconsolably, in a way I’d never sobbed before, with Mum at the other end of the phone doing the same.

I didn’t go to work for three days. Friends sent flowers, cards, messages and even came round to make me lunch and let me sob into their laps. If even the non-dog owners in my life understood that the love I had for Lola was so boundless, then surely it proved that she, a small brown dog, had had a hand (or paw) in creating that love?

People will tell you that dogs know their owners are the ones who’ll feed them, so in return they behave in the way they think will increase their chances of getting food. But I don’t think that’s all it is.

We humans love parents, family, friends, partners, stories, jobs, outfits that make us look great, adventures and delicious food that’s so good we forget to take a photo of it for Instagram. But do you love someone so much that when they come through the door, you’re so excited that you don’t know whether to jump up, cry, or run up the stairs, squealing, to fetch your favourite toy to give to them for no reason other than you just wanted to give them something to show your affection, in the best way you could? Do you love someone so much that you lie at their feet in the evening, even though the TV’s loud and you’d snooze much better in your own soft bed than on the hard floor or scratchy carpet? Do you love someone so much that the minute they leave for work, the only thing you want is for them to come back home again, so you wait by the stairs or in the window until they do?

“We wouldn’t sign ourselves up to a guaranteed heartbreak without knowing that it’s in exchange for the most special, magical, guaranteed form of unconditional love.”

I know my answers. And I think the 26% of people in the UK who own a dog do too. Because surely, we wouldn’t sign ourselves up to a guaranteed heartbreak without knowing that it’s in exchange for the most special, magical, guaranteed form of unconditional love on the planet.

When Lola’s ashes came back, we took her to the beach for the last time. We scattered her into the sea and dug her last hole for her – a little hole for the little dog with the little life who gave nothing but love, and asked only for love back. The beach seemed to be too still, as if it was waiting for all the holes to be dug. Then back at Mum’s later, all her favourite hiding places seemed to be waiting for her there too.

And a whole year on, they still do. It’s a boiling hot day today, and the sun’s shining on every patch of the patio. Somewhere, Lola’s basking in the head of the sun on a patio of her own – tongue out, panging and wagging that tail.

Emily Ash Powell is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyashpowell

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