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How One Dog Changed My Life

This article was written by Pet Community Center Board of Directors member and Marketing Committee Volunteer, Maryglenn Warnock. You can learn more about the author at the end of the post.

My life changed radically on May 13, 2000. That was the day I realized a lifelong dream and brought home Garcia, a tiny, spirited Old English Sheepdog puppy. I was head-over-heels in love with Garcia almost immediately—a good thing, as Garcia was a mischievous, strong-willed, wild, energetic, incredibly dominant dog who grew and grew and grew—and then grew some more. Topping 130 pounds in his prime, Garcia was a force to be reckoned with.

And I loved him madly. I’m not sure I could’ve loved Garcia more had I given birth to him myself. My life revolved around Garcia. I talked about Garcia nonstop, showed pictures of Garcia to anyone who would stand still, marveled at the wonder of Garcia, missed him when we weren’t together, and relished my role as Garcia’s mom.

But being Garcia’s guardian was fraught with challenges. Garcia was strong and stubborn with a propensity towards aggression. Consequently, I sought the help of several trainers who thought they were up to the challenge of Garcia before they realized that the real problem was me. I was ineffective at setting boundaries, and that result was about what you would expect: Garcia walked all over me. The best way to describe my life with Garcia? An eleven-year power struggle.

Behavior—and owner—issues aside, Garcia was beset with a bevy of health challenges. He nearly died after ingesting an enormous hunk of a plastic toy at the age of 6. At 8, he developed a rare autoimmune disease, Immune-Mediated Retinopathy (IMR), which caused him to go blind. He suffered from debilitating arthritis, joint issues, and back problems. At the end of his life, he could barely stand.

As his health failed, my husband—bless him—and I went to great lengths to preserve, and later sustain, Garcia. We sought specialists, we made numerous visits to the emergency veterinary clinic, we did acupuncture, underwater treadmill therapy, cold laser therapy, special vitamins and supplements, chiropractic treatments, and kept the road hot to our regular veterinary clinic. I prayed for miracles daily.

From about the time he was 9 until the day Garcia made his transition from this earth, we rather foolishly waged a valiant effort to stop time or at least slow it down. Every day with Garcia was a gift. And every day I had with him only made me want one more day with him.

By late 2008, caring for Garcia dominated my life and consumed my days. On an average week, Garcia had 4-5 appointments, which my husband would refer to as Garcia’s “personal appearances.” During that time, it seemed like we were almost always on the run, and on the road, shuttling between the vet’s office in West Nashville, rehab in Goodlettsville, and sundry other places. And when we weren’t on the road, I was making sure Garcia had the medicines he needed, that he was fed on a regular schedule, and got as much exercise as his body could bear.

In my head, I knew that my time with Garcia was fleeting, but in my heart, I still wished for one more day, every day.

By early 2011, Garcia required assistance getting up and going outside. His mind was still with us (as was his appetite) but his body was giving out. People assured me I would know if and when the time came to make a decision to end Garcia’s suffering.

In early June 2011, one of my best friends, a fellow dog lover in similar circumstances, called and told me he knew it was time to say goodbye to his beloved elderly canine companion. My heart broke for him, but in that moment, I knew that I, too, would need to be strong enough to let Garcia go.

On June 6, 2011, I knew it was time. At just after 11 that Monday morning, I watched my beloved Garcia take his last breath in our vet’s office. I held his paw, wept, told him how much I loved him, and thanked him for the 11 years we had together.

I don’t remember leaving the vet’s office, driving home, or much about the rest of the day. I was numb, in shock, and not even capable of processing that my Garcia was gone.

The weeks that followed yielded much of the same. I felt largely disconnected and numb. I picked up Garcia’s ashes on a Friday, but couldn’t make sense of the fact that my large, buoyant Garcia was now nothing more than ashes in a wooden box. Conceptually, it made sense, but in my state of shock, I was unable, or unwilling, to grasp the reality.

When I started to come back to reality, I found it harsh, painful, and confusing. I missed Garcia terribly. I looked for signs that he was still present in spirit. I longed to dream about him every night and to receive some sign that he was okay, that I’d done the right thing, that the bond we shared wasn’t really broken.

Initially, I was at a loss for what to do with myself. All of the time I devoted to caring for Garcia was suddenly free—and I didn’t have the faintest clue how to spend my days. During the time of his declining health, I had become Garcia’s primary caretaker, and that was my identity. Guardian of Garcia/Caretaker of the Sheepdog was who I was. I was helping keep my magnificent Garcia alive, and once he was gone, it was as if I was no longer myself. I didn’t know who I was without Garcia.

By July, I was increasingly bereft and desperate to keep Garcia’s memory alive. I just couldn’t—wouldn’t—accept that Garcia’s life was over and that was it. So I planned a funeral for him. On August 8, 2011, nearly 50 people who knew and loved Garcia attended his memorial service/celebration of life. That simple ritual of memorializing, celebrating, and honoring Garcia gave me a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt for years. Garcia’s funeral, although unorthodox, was pivotal: it was the point at which I was able to say goodbye and begin the grieving process for real. That funeral changed my life.

In the months and years that followed, I grieved Garcia deeply. I sought the help of a professional therapist—also an Old English Sheepdog owner—who helped me navigate the various stages of grief (some of which I languished in and revisited time and again) and slowly but surely, find my way back.

If you had asked me in the time of BG (Before Garcia) if I thought pet grief was real, I would’ve said yes. But nothing—absolutely nothing—could’ve prepared me for the anguish, the heartbreak, the profound, almost all-consuming sorrow of losing my beloved Garcia, losing what had become my purpose, and my identity.

Even in the depths of my grief, and even when I felt terribly alone, I knew I wasn’t the only one who had, or would, struggle so mightily after the loss of a pet. An idea began to form and while it took nearly 8 long years, I finally decided to do something about it.

So I founded a new business, Paws to Remember. A pet aftercare business that serves grieving pet owners in their time of need, Paws to Remember provides such services as pet memorial services, celebrations of life, and funerals; pet bereavement counseling on both a group and individual basis; and assistance in creating meaningful memorials and tributes.

Working through the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement, I completed my certification to become a Pet Bereavement Counselor and, spent time interacting with grieving owners and learning more about the pet aftercare industry. I became an ordained minister and Pet Funeral Officiant. I’ve eulogized and celebrated companion animals from cats to Chihuahuas. I’ve counseled owners who’ve just lost pets and those whose pets have been gone for years. I’ve handed out hundreds of Kleenex and needed Kleenex for myself. I’ve talked to pet lovers, veterinarians, specialists, and business owners about loss, about grief, about grace. I’ve written prayers for devastated owners, I’ve talked about anticipatory grief, euthanasia remorse, the four primary levels of pet-owner bonding, and the concept of disenfranchised grief. And I even officiated the first annual Paws to Remember Day of Remembrance late last year with a tree planting—dedicated to all of those beloved companion animals we’ve loved and lost.

And through it all, I’ve discovered that grief over the loss of a pet is real, it’s normal, and it’s something so many people experience. The saying “when you love deeply, you grieve deeply” holds true. I know that first hand.

My advice for anyone struggling with the loss of a pet is this: know that you’re not alone, know that what you are experiencing is normal—but know there is help available. Pain is normal and inevitable—but misery is optional. Even in grief, we can make a choice to dwell on the sadness and sorrow and let it torture us and rule our lives—or we can take steps to heal from it. Help is available.

Garcia’s life, and his death, changed me in immeasurable ways. I still miss him every single day, but he’s alive in the work I do with Paws to Remember—and perhaps most importantly, Garcia lives on in my heart.

About the Author: Maryglenn Warnock

(Photo Credit: Lacey Maloch, Strays to Baes)

Maryglenn Warnock is the founder of Paws to Remember and is a certified pet bereavement counselor. She is also a pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain who is ordained through the Universalist church.

A lifelong animal advocate, Maryglenn serves on Pet Community Center's Board of Directors and volunteers for their Marketing Committee. Additionally, she has served on the executive board of the Nashville Humane Association and volunteered in animal rescue for 20 years. Maryglenn graduated from Vanderbilt University with a BA in English.

Maryglenn is a native of Munfordville, Kentucky who lives in Nashville with her husband Tim and their Old English Sheepdog, Major.

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