Monday, November 5, 2012

A Heartbreaking Loss...and Toxic Condolences

                                          Nora Morello-Shea    2004-2012

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.


  1. Only those who have recieved the unconditional love of a pet can understand the tremendous loss. The rest who find love for a pet bewildering, I feel a bit sorry for.
    That neighbor's comment was the most calloused I have heard of.
    My prayers and condolences to Nora's parents.

  2. Lovely reminder of how to be good neighbors and compassionate, empathetic people. Some folks just don't get it. That is why a lesson in social skills needs to be given at times.

    Please let Nora's mom and dad know that we care and are sending love and hugs to them as they deal with the loss of this sweet girl. I know how much their hearts will ache over the loss of this wonderful companion.

  3. People are so different, and some just don't pay attention to others feelings or desires. Its hard to learn to ignore the bad and find the good in people. I've missed reading your insights. You have a way of writing.

  4. I feel sorry for the pain that your neighbours are going through at the loss of their beloved Nora-Morello-Shea.

    When I lost Leo, my big beautiful long hair marmalade cat I was devastated and I cried like a baby for days, and the same with my two other cats who had to be anaesthetize few years later for terminal cancer.

    I was grieving and I still miss my furry kids.

    People told me to get another cat but I could not replace them and I still haven't replaced them. Love for each other is real for either people or pets.

    Hugs for your neighbours and caring thoughts.


  5. A wonderful reminder to be thoughtful and considerate. Thanks for this post, Kathy. You always know just how to help people deal with uncomfortable situations.

  6. This is an important post. I wish it could be available to the tons of people who have no idea of what it feels like to lose a pet. Admittedly, years ago, I was one of those people, although, I never would have made any of those remarks to someone whose pet had died.

    My condolences to Marsha and Joe, and I hope they don't have to endure any more insensitivity.

    (I've had a post on the backburner about pets and animals for a while; more broad subjectwise, but you've inspired me to dust it off for the near future.)

  7. Please give your neighbors my deepest sympathy.

  8. I am always amazed at how stupid people are, the stupid things they say.

    My condolences to your friends.


  9. True words of comfort, sincerely spoken from the heart never repetitive or meaningless to the recipient. When people become dismissive in their attempts to be comforting, I think it is just a sign that they haven't been through quite the same thing (but then again, I may be giving some folks too much credit).

    Another sage and wise post!

    My condolences to your friends in the loss of their sweet Nora, a member of the family with as much status as any human member.

  10. Some folks are just thoughtless - not mean, just without consideration for the feelings of others. In our house, pets are family. We just experienced a near loss of a beloved bulldog. Our family was already devastated at the thought we might have to euthanize him. He is recovering and we love him now more than ever. I have had 10 cats in married life. Each one was a family member and we were sincerely heart broken when they died. It doesn't get easier and it doesn't have anything to do with if you have children. It has to do with how well you can extend your heart to another being - person, dog, cat, ferret, bird ... if you can't extend your heart it doesn't make you a bad person, just different.

  11. A very thoughtful post. I am one of those people who doesn't get the extreme attachment some people have for their pets, but that does't mean that I am insensitive to the very real grief that they feel when the pet dies. One way of making a tribute in Nora's honor would be to make a donation to an animal shelter in an area that experienced the storm last week.

  12. Not everyone gets the love and special place pets can hold in our hearts and lives but everyone can be sensitive to loss! Thanks for sharing that message. The richness that my pets (and family/friend's pets too)have added to my life is not measurable and each one will always live in my memory.

  13. I can't tell you how many animals I cried over. You have them and they attach themselves to your heart. You argue with them love them feed them and they become your children just as your own children are. Your children love them as well.Today I am looking at my dog and thinking how will I bear it when she dies? She comes to you to give you her belly to scratch when you are busy, kisses you ,says lets play ball wagawag a wag when you feel blue or achy, looks at you with such expressive lively eyes. There is no replacement for this soul.She is my pal and when she goes I will grieve for her.
    Dogs are like people. They all have characters. Every one should have a dog.

  14. Please tell your friends that there are many of us who they will never know, out here in blogland, who understand so well, and grieve with them.

    Bless all pets, little and big, for their love and companionship.

  15. Dear Kathy, this posting speaks loud and clear to all who do not understand how an animal can become a beloved family member. When "A Cat's Life: Dulcy's Story" was published back in 1992, I received so many letters from readers who'd lost an animal they dearly loved. They thanked me for understanding and for telling just exactly what a cat--or dog--could mean to a human. And they related stories about how those in their workplaces did not understand.

    Your list of what can said is so helpful. Thank you. Peace.

  16. I have lost a lot of Fur Babies over the years and come to terms with the reality that they just don't live as long as we do and prepare myself when their lifespan seems near it's end or there's an unexpected loss. But I must say that when we recently lost our Beloved Cat Rat Boy after nearly 20 years together, it was more painful than I could have ever imagined or prepared for... even though 20 years for a Cat is obviously just about as Old Age as it's gonna get! I realized the Reason for my deep Grief... I had been her Favorite and she had stood by me daily with unconditional Love that was unmatched even when People hadn't been able to or wanted to. Wow, was that ever a Revelation... our Fur Babies do often provide that unconditional Agape Love that Humans don't or can't always match, no matter how Beloved the Relationship is. Even when our Loved Ones {Humans} aren't always there, a Beloved Fur Baby very often is and give us their full Attention and all of their Affection... that's HUGE... and that Void is tough to fill when a particularly Loyal Fur Baby passes. Your Sage Advice on what and how to offer Condolences is great... most people couldn't understand how the loss of our one Cat hit me so hard when they know we've been an Animal Sanctuary of sorts for so long and Grieved numerous losses. Like some People, some Pets really do have the Personality and Character we Connect to more deeply than we sometimes realize... until they're Gone. Loving your Posts BTW and delighted that I discovered your Wonderful Blog this Thanksgiving Afternoon while waiting for our Ham to cook! *LOL*

    Dawn... The Bohemian