Nora Morello-Shea was, quite simply, the world's greatest dog. Her fur was wonderfully soft, her manners impeccable, her temperament invariably sweet and mellow.
She shared her life with our neighbors Marsha Morello and Joe Shea, who found her in rescue when she was a young adult and who had enjoyed her company for the past seven years. In many ways, their lives revolved around Nora. Their walks through the community several times a day were a fun highlight not only for them, but also for neighbors who stopped to greet Nora and to talk with Joe and Marsha. And if the talk went on for more than a few minutes, Nora would calmly lie down on the sidewalk or the street and wait patiently. She was a lovely playmate, a wonderful companion. So much of the playfulness and fun in the Morello-Shea home centered on Nora.
When she became ill a few weeks ago, we were all concerned, but not alarmed. After all, Nora had survived a bout of Valley Fever last year, recovering fully. But this time, it was not to be. When I called to check on Nora's progress one day, Joe choked on "Hello" and handed the phone to Marsha who tearfully told me that Nora had died the day before. I sat on the other end of the phone, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I listened to Marsha's grieving. Nora was a much beloved member of their family. It was hard to imagine life without her. Joe, who is in his eighties and in frail health, was crushed by the loss. Their walks together had become the best part of each day for him. Snuggling with her was an incredible comfort. Her light brown eyes shone with kindness and caring and an intelligence that suggested that Nora understood far more than any of us imagined. She was truly one-of-a-kind.
In the sad days since, Marsha and Joe have received warm condolences from friends and neighbors who can understand, at least a little, the magnitude of their loss.
But among the warm words of consolation, there have been some toxic comments -- some unintentionally hurtful, some that simply take one's breath away.
At a time when companion animals have become family members for so many and when the loss of these beloved animals may be as painful as the loss of a human family member, it's important for others -- animal people and non-animal people -- to be mindful when they offer condolences.
When Bob and I lost Timmy, quite possibly our best cat ever, to melamine poisoning in 2007, we grieved for him and cried over his loss almost as much as we did when our parents died. The empty place he left in our home and our hearts was enormous, gapping, devastating. And it wasn't helpful to hear comments like "I can't believe you're so upset about a CAT!" or "Well, you still have Gus." We were -- and are -- indeed grateful to have Timmy's littermate Gus still with us. But that didn't make the loss of Timmy any less painful.
It's the same with Marsha and Joe. One neighbor, seeking to comfort them, said "Oh, it's terrible that you've lost Nora. She was a wonderful dog. So you'll grieve for a few weeks -- and then get another dog..." The neighbor meant well, but the mention of a future adoption was a bit premature.
No animal can ever be replaced. While Marsha and Joe fully intend to bring another rescue dog into their home at some point, they need time now to resolve the grief they feel over losing Nora. This will be quite a bit longer than a few weeks. They will know when it's time. And, in the meantime, they need to hear how others loved and miss Nora.
And it is definitely not the time to use their loss as an opportunity to register one's disapproval of their life choices or circumstances.
When another neighbor walking by saw Marsha crying as she picked up Nora's toys in the yard, she said she was sorry...but then added a smug zinger that gave voice to her obvious disapproval of the fact that Joe and Marsha are a long-married, childless couple.
"Now if you had children and grandchildren to love and be concerned with, the loss of a dog wouldn't matter so much," this neighbor told Marsha. "It's because you lack so much in your life that this is so painful for you."
No, it's because Nora meant so very much to Marsha and Joe that the grief runs so deep. And this has nothing to do with having children or not having children.
My friend Tim, who has four children whom he loves dearly, had another love in his life until a few years ago: a sweet Calico cat named Patches. Patches was very special to him -- greeting him at the door when he arrived home from work, cuddling with him in the evenings and giving comfort as he dealt with painful conflicts and decisions in his life. And when she became terminally ill at the age of 18 several years ago and was living with unbearable pain, he made the difficult decision for euthanasia. His son Steve took time off work to go with Tim, his wife Barbe and Patches to the vet's. Tim held Patches, whispering words of love, as her life ended. And Steve held Tim as he cried for the loss of this very special, irreplaceable little companion. And, several years later, Tim's eyes still fill with tears as he remembers her loss.
The death of a beloved animal companion is a major loss. It's important to understand this reality when seeking to console a bereaved friend.
So words of comfort need to be the familiar ones....
I'm so sorry...
My heart goes out to you...
You're in my thoughts and prayers...
What can I do for you?
I'll always remember her (him)...what a wonderful companion she (he) was....
Or maybe a hug. A hand clasped. A grieved silence and shared sadness....
Honoring the love for this beloved animal and the reality of so much missed....
There will never be another Nora.
She was a perfect dog, a lovely companion, a delightful friend.
She loved unconditionally and was so dearly loved by all who knew her.
She will not be forgotten.
Rest in peace, sweet Nora.