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    Connections | Magazine

    When my dog died, grief support came from an unexpected source

    Wordless sympathy from my other dog got me through that tough first night.

    Megan Piontkowski for the Boston Globe

    Stella has had no formal training as a grief counselor. Her credentials are spotty, at best. She didn’t go to college. Or high school. Or any school, for that matter.

    But I would put Stella’s qualifications as a grief counselor up against the most brilliant minds in the field. I know what I’m talking about. Stella got me through one of the roughest nights of my life, and she never had to say a word. Actually, she couldn’t, because English bulldogs, while highly opinionated, don’t actually speak English.

    Recently, we had to make the agonizing decision to euthanize Stella’s older brother, another English bulldog named Murray. (It’s always good to have two bulldogs in case the never-ending puddle of drool from one isn’t quite disgusting enough.) Murray defined the term “fighter,” having survived a deadly and rare form of encephalitis when he was 3, as well as myriad physical problems indigenous to the breed. (When you take an English bulldog to the vet’s, they don’t see an animal, they see a four-legged retirement fund.)

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    Following a torturous day of gut-wrenching emotion, my wife and I retreated to our respective beds for the night, hoping that unconsciousness would dull the pain we knew had only just begun. (A note: Years ago, soon after both dogs began sleeping in our bed, Murray’s snoring had forced me to take refuge in the spare bedroom. My wife found the sound soothing; I found it roughly equivalent to sleeping on the deck of an aircraft carrier.)

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    This night, I left my door open, as I no longer required protection from the thunderous exhalations of our just-departed friend. As I lay there reliving fond memories from Murray’s slobbery past, I began to weep for what felt like the millionth time. After a minute of blubbering, Stella, who sleeps nestled firmly against my wife and cannot be moved with anything less than an industrial crane, wandered into my room. I expected her to jump into my bed to comfort me. Instead, she just lay down at the foot of the bed, as if to say: “I don’t want to interrupt your grieving. Go ahead and cry as much as you want, and I’ll make sure nothing bothers you, like a squirrel or a gazelle.”

    Soon, sensing I was calming down, she lay down next to me in the bed. She’s always liked to lie close, but this time she was especially close. It reminded me of the old Groucho Marx line, “If I was any closer, I’d be behind you.”

    Around 1:30 I got up and went to the bathroom for a drink of water. Stella escorted me the full 17 feet, ensuring that no harm befell me along the way. As I drank straight from the faucet, Stella lapped noisily out of a bowl that had been set in the bathroom for Murray’s use. Honestly, I don’t remember her ever drinking out of that bowl before. But there she was, providing a much appreciated audible reminder of Murray’s presence.

    Around 3 a.m. I began another crying jag. As tears streamed down my cheeks, Stella stood up and licked my eyes. Most people will assume she wanted the salt from my tears. I prefer to believe she was trying to wipe my sadness away.

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    Stella normally rises at the crack of dawn, awakened by a gnawing hunger. This day was different. While I lay in bed, still emotionally raw and not quite ready to tackle the reality of Murray’s passing, she lay there with me. Apparently I had signed up for the deluxe grieving package — at no extra charge.

    I finally arose about 9 to feed Stella, who by now had undoubtedly reached a level of hunger worthy of a telethon. I was still weary from the emotional kick to the groin but somehow feeling a little better. Stella knew I needed her. She responded with the kind of instinctive compassion that dogs possess naturally but that many humans must strive to attain.

    Look, Stella has her flaws. She is frightened by any noise above 10 decibels. She watches way too much reality TV. Her bouts of gas have drawn complaints from the pig farm down the street.

    But she helped me through one of the toughest nights of my life. Without words. Without explanation. Without opposable thumbs.

    But, most remarkably, without any thought for herself.

    Arthur Sesnovich is a writer living in Marlborough. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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